CONVERSATION WITH ANNABETH GISH (May 2003)
Annabeth Gish recently starred in the romantic comedy Pursuit of Happiness and took time to talk with Film Monthly about her experience in the acting trade.
When people hear the name Annabeth Gish they tend to think of famed actress Lillian Gish, just by word association. But there is no direct relation between the contemporary and the legendary, other than a shared love for acting. Ms. Gish recently starred in the film Pursuit of Happiness, directed by John Putch and co-starring Frank Whaley, Jean Stapleton, and Amy Jo Johnson. Pursuit of Happiness, just released on DVD, is a charming film about lifelong friends and their pursuits of love and happiness, and knowing when to recognize them. Ms. Gish, who has also starred in the TV series The X-Files and the films Wyatt Earp, Buying The Cow, Double Jeopardy, SLC Punk!, Nixon, Scarlett, and Mystic Pizza, was a delightful conversationalist, as Film Monthly's Del Harvey confirms in the following interview.
Question: Ms. Gish, I read in your biography that you grew up in the Midwest...
Annabeth: Yes. I was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, but my parents moved to Iowa when I was 2 years old, and all of my formal education took place there. I sometimes yearn to go back to a place that is a bit more relaxed, but it's a trade-off.
Question: And you are not related to the famous actress Lillian Gish ?
Annabeth: No. That is one of the first questions I am asked, though it hasn't affected my career at all. It's not bothersome because she had such a good legacy. If I could have an association more direct with her that would be great. And I do think people get mixed up because I corresponded with her when I was a child. Just by the nature of the etymology of our names, there is some connection and cause for confusion.
Question: Your work as a young actress was well-noted by critic Roger Ebert for Desert Bloom. Was the transition from child star to adult actress a difficult one ?
Annabeth: I can tell you that, personally, while I do not regret any aspect of my career, if and when I have a child I don't want them to become involved in this business until they're 18 or an adult just because it's way too difficult to try to form a sense of self and a strong one, at that, when you're in the midst of a world that treats you as a commodity and not an individual. As an actor you have a tendency to try to please people and that is tripled by the nature of the business. It's so easy to get lost.
Question: What inspired you to become an actress ?
Annabeth: I try to track that myself, and it's very odd. It just seems that I've always wanted to do it, even before I knew what it meant. My third grade teacher still has a paper from when I was learning to write ... you remember that gray paper with the thick red lines? I wrote, "I want to be a movie star." But, certainly, when I was a child I did community theatre, and continued that all through my adolescence, and it's such a wonderful way to learn about art and express myself. I've just always loved performing.
Question: Then you took a break for college and an English degree. Looking at your filmography, there really does not appear to be much of a break in your work...
Annabeth: I know. It was pretty amazing. I did take one semester off during my sophomore year to do a project with Gena Rowlands. But I made that up in one summer and managed to graduate in four years. I think I made a project a year while I was at school. I was really lucky.
Question: Do you have any interest in writing ?
Annabeth: No. [Laughs.] I think most people who act and are intelligent tend to divert their talent into writing or directing or something else because it gets so frustrating when you have to be told when you can and cannot work. Creative writing was certainly a focus for me in school and I have continued that a bit since then.
Question: Do you ever see yourself becoming a writer, producer, or director ?
Annabeth: I think it's kind of an inevitable path just because it's frustrating not to be in charge of your own destiny and ... well, over my career I've paid attention to what's happening on a set, with those people who do all the behind the scenes work, and no matter what, eventually you become aware of how things work. It's all right there with you every time you go to work. Like a whole toolbox, it's just there. So it's a matter of me having the courage to do it.
Question: Are you thinking of working on anything of your own where you might produce ?
Annabeth: Yes, I am. As soon as I turned 32 this year I began thinking about how, once your life settles down a bit, and you get married, you start needing a more coherent structure to your life. My love and understanding of this art is coming to a point where I need to use it and not just "know" it. Film and television are my first loves, along with fiction. I read a lot of fiction, biographies, and poetry. I'm in a book club right now where every other book is one of the classics. We just read Anna Karenina which is so amazing to read again, especially at a different age where I find I'm more comprehensive. At the same time, all of the contemporary fiction available is mind blowing. There are so many good books out there.
Question: How did you like working on The X-Files ?
Annabeth: I worked on the show for about a year and a half and it was really... I wish I could come up with a word that described it, because it was so unique. It wasn't that it was just "boot camp"; I mean, it was -- you know, I've been in the business a long time but I've never done a TV series where I was so committed to the project in terms of time and to the extent that my character was involved in the cast. Nor have I ever been a part of something that was such a well-run machine. The X-Files had a life of its own and, week after week and episode after episode, it was a success. Due to so many talented people working their asses off. It just blows me away. I mean, a show like that, I don't think people understand how much goes into just one episode. And it really was a great experience, a great learning experience. As much as I worked, I also watched as much as I could to try to understand better what was going on. I learned a hell of a lot.
Question: I really enjoyed your character and how you introduced her into that series...
Annabeth: It was a really hard place to be. I say that I'm grateful for the experience and I am. It was difficult, though, because the show itself was David (Duchovny) and Gillian's (Anderson) show. So for Robert (Patrick) and I to come in, there was almost no room to try to make it into something else. The audience got lost without them. It was disappointing because I loved working with Robert on that show. I wish there had been an opportunity to allow our characters to be who they really were without being in the shadows of Mulder and Scully.
Question: Would you do another series ?
Annabeth: I would. You know, there's hardly any separation between television and film anymore. Great actors are going from films to television to theatre and back. Especially if you are an actor versus a celebrity. I think of myself as an actor. I'm pretty low on the celebrity radar. [Laughs.] I just really like to work. So, yes, I would absolutely like to do another television series.
Question: How did you like working on Pursuit of Happiness ?
Annabeth: It was just a charming experience working on that film. With John Putch, who is also an actor as well as the director. That does make a difference, I think, when you have a director who really knows the language of acting. It was just a pleasure. Frank (Whaley) was wonderful to work with, too. He's kind of an intelligent and perplexed guy, and a filmmaker of his own. And that project, I think, when we started out it was one thing, and when we ended it was a much better thing. It was that process of collaboration through the whole filming, and the fact that the actors were allowed to "nip and tuck" here and there, and express what we felt was realistic dialogue and what was not. John Putch was the helmsman of all of that.
But it was just a very charming experience. Which is the nice thing about doing independent films; there's no comfort or luxury when you work on one. Everybody is there for the right reasons. Nobody is there to get a big paycheck and throw attitudes around. It's all about the work.
Question: Pursuit of Happiness reminded me of some of the early screwball comedies by people like Frank Capra...
Annabeth: That's a nice category to put that film in. I certainly think that is what it was striving to be. It does have a good heart, and if people could watch it for that, and not have unreal expectations ... it's not a complex thriller or some overblown action picture, it's just a sweet little movie.
Question: Watching it, you want to shake Frank Waley's character and tell him to wake up to the woman who's standing right in front of him...
Annabeth: [Laughs.] That's funny. As I look back at my career, I think I've played that role several times. Kind of the beautiful girl that is the one people think they should end up with. I don't know if that's good or bad.
Question: Is that something that you can draw upon from personal experience ?
Annabeth: I think that, certainly in film, as much as we are actors, there's a bit more of the personal essence that comes through. I think actors are hired to be something that we are. So we take that part of ourselves and grow on that. Which can be good and bad. I crave a role that is something utterly different from who I am.
Question: What projects are in the works ?
Annabeth: Up next is Knots, a sex comedy. I play a woman in a marriage who discovers she actually is a lesbian. That is truly a departure for me, and a new character to add to my repertoire. But I had a really great time doing this little movie. And I think I've done so much drama in my life that I could use a little comedy. It's great to have some levity and be able to smile.
Question: What sort of character would you do, if you could do anything ?
Annabeth: I think of this past year, for example, which was such a great year for women in film. Nicole Kidman's choices as an actress as just such an example of risk taking and fearlessness. Certainly, I would love to do something of that quality. I love the classics and I love historical dramas, but a secret love of mine are Westerns... High Noon and all those old classics. And I've done a few myself, between Wyatt Earp and True Women. I think it's a time period that seems to suit me.
We think that whatever time period Ms. Gish finds herself acting in will be a favorite of ours. She is a very talented actress and we look forward to great things in her future.