Arcadia’s Margaret Colin on playing Lady Croom and her stage, film, and TV roles
I’m a big fan of Margaret Colin’s work and it was so much fun schmoozing with her about her role as Lady Croom in the revival of Arcadia now playing on Broadway. What a blast it was talking about her soap opera days and her film and theatre roles. She is juggling motherhood, a hit TV show, and a Tom Stoppard play all at the same time. And somewhere in there, finished up a new film. We started, of course, with Arcadia.
Joel: What is Arcadia about from Lady Croom’s point of view?
Margaret: It’s about the preservation of my beautiful home. It’s being ruined by this landscape gardener that my husband has hired. He wants to remove all the romantic and beautiful refinements of my beautiful yard and turn it into this gothic nightmare because it’s the next style. And I’m trying to figure out what’s going on with my daughter – Thomasina – who gets more and more precocious as the days go by. And since my husband is pre-occupied with whatever he does and the new poet who is walking around the garden – is looking quite fetching.
Why does she allow the gardener, to do this to her property?
It’s really quite clear that it’s the husband’s idea. It’s Lord Croom’s new pet project and I can’t do anything to stop him. She married into that title and this is one of the problems of having that title. She has to defer to her husband on these things.
Why did you want to play Lady Croom?
Because she’s sexy and strong and she’s really, really smart. She has an enormous facility with language and to twist words around to beautifully express herself. I think she’s romantic and very much holding on to life to all the romantic gorgeous things life has to offer – like love, sex, and romance. So, I wanted to play her.
It’s a really difficult, challenging play, which went right over my head 15 years ago. Having the opportunity to get my mind around these scenes by the brilliant Tom Stoppard seemed like a great opportunity and a real gift to give to myself.
How do you relate to this character?
You know, I surely like sex and beauty and gardens in my life. My landscape gardener quit and I’m in the midst of finding a landscaper for a reasonable amount of money to do my yard. I relate to her with my heart. She’s full of yearnings. Then Bel [Powley] is an awfully adorable actress to play my daughter, and she’s terribly sexy, and to try to figure out what’s going on in her mind and how as your children get older – you are more or less relevant to them, and how they see you. They never really see you as totally as you are. I’m a Mom so I understand that.
Lady Croom has two kids and she’s done her job. She’s married up and married well and her husband is pre-occupied with a shooting. I relate to it in that ‘Time marches on!” way. I have some of her concerns but I’m not having an affair with Lord Byron, but I am married to a brilliant artist [Justin Deas]. I can relate to another mother, but fortunately, I don’t relate to a lot of it, and that’s where my imagination can soar.
Do you run your own household with an iron fist like Lady Croom does?
Oh my God – No! There are some areas I do – but in modern day Tri-State area with two young adult sons, there is just a lot of negotiation. Mostly, I just feel like I am putting my finger in the dam trying to put a band-aid on everything as we all praise God and move forward. I don’t have the luxury of time and the staff that Lady Croom does. That’s certainly on the list of things to appreciate about Lady Croom.
Is Lady Croom jealous of Thomasina’s intelligence?
I think she is jealous of her opportunity to be educated. I don’t think she is jealous of her intelligence. Lady Croom was educated on how to run a house, She can speak French, she’s been taught to dance, she was taught to read and write but it stopped there, and it’s not certainly stopping there for her daughter.
How would you describe Bel Powley’s performance as Thomasina?
She’s enchanting. It was so wonderful to rehearse with her because as soon as we met her – and I’m speaking for me and several other actors – she was so charming and when she would answer a descriptive question with a descriptive answer – I would laugh. And director David Leveaux would ask me why I was laughing, and I said “As her mother, I would be used to her charms, but as Margaret I just met her yesterday and I am not accustomed to Bel Powley’s charms”. I find her charming and I love her look and she has an extraordinary amount of technique for someone her age. It’s just a delight. Watching her get used to the Ethel Barrymore Theatre and watching her work with different audiences – it’s been completely delicious. She’s very unique.
What is Lady Croom’s relationship with Septimus?
She takes him to bed! I don’t think she flirts with him except in that one scene when she finds out that Lord Byron is two-timing her. Because of the wonderful slights that Tom Stoppard gives us with this play – here’s Lady Croom ruling the estate with a really firm hand, but you see her daughter is blooming into a young woman and having this relationship with Septimus and Lady Croom has blocked these out. Septimus is a Smart-Aleck that has all the answers and has usurped Lady Croom in her daughter’s affections.
Thomasina is spending mornings with Septimus. I would imagine she was with the Nanny before and then with her mother before, but Thomasina is such a genius that her father wisely arranged for her to be mentally stimulated and to be educated. And Lady Croom is not educated. But she is Thomasina’s mother and has a very sharp mind in her own way, which is reflected in her use of words and her ideas.
I think she is starts off finding Septimus – who has been there I would think about six months – kind of an irritation. “Who is this upstart Smart Aleck who has taken over part of my house? But as long as he answers my questions and I think it’s going well – I’m fine with it”. The only time Lady Croom is flirtatious with Septimus is when in this madcap night running up and down the halls – me in my nightgown and Mrs. Chater in her nightgown who is trying to get into Lord Byron’s room after I have been sleeping with Lord Byron. And then I realize that he has been two-timing me and it’s just too humiliating and disgraceful, so I take the moral high ground and in the midst of that I find that Septimus has written me a love letter – which is very inappropriate because he is my daughter’s tutor and I hold him in no esteem.
I hold Lord Byron in esteem because he is romantic and charming, and seeks my attention. But not Septimus – he’s just another servant in the house, except for that one time when it’s very clear that Lord Byron has written a letter to Septimus describing the events of that night- which also will incriminate me as someone who was in her nighty trying to get in bed with Lord Byron – not very Croom-like and it’s not very good! And that’s where Lady Croom considers entertaining taking Septimus to bed as a sort of a ‘thank you’ – a ‘gift’ as Tom Stoppard put it – for burning the letter and for not ruining my reputation, nor making fun of me. And then she says to Septimus, “Come to my sitting room at 7:00 in the morning!” He’s either on my side or he’s useless. And then I’m off to the piano player – the Count. He’s the next one I fancy – with the advent of the waltz the new invention from Germany.
Lady Croom is very alive and mentally curious and what of course she has to bring to the party is that she’s the best looking woman around! And as she’s sophisticated as far as she can be and worldly in as far as she can be, she attracts a fair share of men. At that time it would have been overlooked she being married an older man and an occasional dalliance would be overlooked – according to our playwright!
When did you get involved in Arcadia?
I met with director David Leveaux and he started talking to me about the play and Lady Croom, and then he took his sweet time and then he offered me the role.
How long was that ‘sweet time’?
Over a month.
That’s not bad.
Oh, it is so! You know it’s supposed to go up in January and then you meet with them in early December – it’s a long time for me and they were going to start rehearsals. It all turned out well in the end.
How long will it play?
We are all under contracts until June.
How have the audiences been since I saw you last?
They have been terrific. Sometimes the top rows are empty but it’s a pretty full house with all the venues people have a chance to buy from. They are hearing it, they get it, and they are laughing. They are involved and the response is coming from all over the theatre, not just from the orchestra. You know they can hear you and the applause at the end is fantastic, and there’s always a crowd outside ready to say “hello”, which is very encouraging. All in all, it’s a pretty big success.
Arcadia switches between 19th century England and modern England. How crazy was it to try to learn how to switch back and forth in rehearsals?
I felt I was a little under-rehearsed when we got into the theatre. I felt under-prepared. I didn’t know where and how I was going to catch up. Fortunately, we had a very long preview period. I was doing “Gossip Girl” during the day and rehearsing the play at night, and it all came together and I found that I was ready. The freedom of being out of the rehearsal hall is exactly what I needed.
How would you describe Tom Stoppard’s writing in Arcadia?
Well, how would someone like you who writes about theatre describe it?
Beautiful, poetic, and intelligent.
Well, the play comes alive because of the relationships. This production is very accessible because audiences see relationships. They become invested in the characters, and then they can understand what is happening, and they can follow the story and empathize with the events. And that’s your ticket.
If you missed one theory of chaos vs. determinism, or a computer algorithm, and you don’t understand the conflict of the Romantic Period – you are not going to lose the play. I think Tom’s writing is lyrical, theatrical, very smart, and shows off that it’s very smart. The characters and plots are very accessible, although I don’t think the language always is. And so therefore, it is a very rewarding experience for theatergoers who want to – as we say – ‘lean forward’- participate fully in the experience.
I had friends who weren’t looking forward to the play – and they did some research before they came ahead of time online so they wouldn’t be lost – but that’s not completely unprecedented. When I go to see a Shakespeare play, I might refresh myself on the themes and the characters.
I did the exact same thing before I came to see the show tonight.
Yeah! You are still ‘leaning forward’ but you click the ‘refresh’ button in your own brain, and that’s fine because there is the challenge of the English dialect and I am speaking in a period kind of fancy dialect. You are being hit with lots of stuff and I think you just have to let it wash over you, and the language is gorgeous. I couldn’t be happier doing this role! It’s not easy but it’s a great challenge you hope to have. You really want to be invited to this waltz.
So let’s talk about the waltz at the end of the play. What does the audience learn from it?
They see it’s clearly a world of beauty and romance and relationships and not so much math and publishing, and that both worlds exist at the same time. And of course they are dancing to beautifully complicated rhythms. I think their spirits should be lifted. And as Thomasina giggles, “That with better dance, that’s what they should learn”.
You have worked in lots of television, film and theatre. Any of those roles Lady Croom-like?
That’s never opened me up to the fun of the character if I thought I was repeating yourself. I feel I’ve spent an awful amount of time in high heels and bossing people around in my career- whether it was lawyers, or doctors, or district attorneys, or real estate agents, so I suppose, even though there are no shoulder pads or high heels in this – there is a very elevated bustline and swooping skirts – she’s powerful and influential in her home and not overlooked. I do think there is a lot of overlap with women that I played who had that distinction. Her facility with language and her aristocracy – I haven’t done before and she truly has that.
You are now playing the evil Eleanor in the television series “Gossip Girl.” Tell us about Eleanor and about the show.
You know it’s easy now for people to compare Lady Croom to Eleanor in “Gossip Girl.” It’s great fun and they have worked around the play, and I’m really appreciative that they do that. It’s wonderful to reach that young audience. They come and see the play. They are two separate worlds of entertainment.
How many episodes will you be in this season?
You were born in Brooklyn. When did you first realize you wanted to become an actress?
When I realized that it was a profession I could really have. I come from a spectacular large family of 5 and I grew up on the South Shore of Long Island in Baldwin, but I was born in Brooklyn, and that’s where a lot of my extended family was. Of course over time everybody’s moved out.
I just had a very active imagination and I played in the backyard, so anything I was exposed to was my imaginative play in the backyard. There was this wonderful thing called ‘The 4:30 Movie’ when I was growing up. I did not see the full length versions of the movies but I saw a lot of Katherine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, and John Wayne and musicals. Everything came through at 4:30, and if I was through with my homework before dinner, my girlfriends and I watched it. It was fabulous to see these very strong women playing these great roles. It was a great era for women, and they were very inspiring.
And then I was very fortunate that I grew up in a town that had a very large school budget, and even then they spent a lot of money per capita for kids. So we did school plays every year. In elementary school every class did a play. Even if you didn’t get on stage you were involved in the production – you painted the sets – you did something. It was an incredible educational tool, a wonderful example of how the arts really do educate. I did a play every year in grade school and then Drama Clubs as I went through school and so once I wasn’t too embarrassed or shy, I told people that that’s what I wanted to be and I found places everywhere where I could act – like community theatre or high school.
You played Jacqueline Kennedy in your Broadway debut in 1997, Jackie. What did you learn about her that you didn’t know about her before you played that role?
Everything! I knew she was married to Jack Kennedy and I knew she was the First Lady, but I wasn’t that impressed by that soft voice and 1950’s style of talking. And then I started doing research and there is so much written about her about how educated she was, how many languages she could speak and read – everything you could possibly learn about her. What I knew about her what that she was ridiculously fashionable, was soft spoken, and was the First Lady.
You have two sons. Have they shown some interest in acting or the theatre?
They are very interested in watching it, and they like people who are in it. They haven’t shown any real interest in performing.
Does that make you feel good or bad?
It’s up to them. I’m really proud of them. One is studying at Catholic University in DC and has a couple more years left.
You know they have a great theatre department?
Of course! It was back in Father Hartke’s time [he ran the drama department at Catholic U. for 37 years]. When I was coming up everyone was talking about Father [Gilbert] Hartke, and people I knew were going to The Olney Theatre to do summer stock, and that was all part of Father Hartke’s doing.
Let’s talk about your soap opera days. You played Paige Madison on The Edge of Night in 1979-80, and a cop named Margot Montgomery Hughes, on As the World Turns from 1981-83.
Talk about Margot Montgomery Hughes because I remember watching you playing her.
She was a terrific character that I created and she was head-strong and full of opinions and went full-speed with that choice even if she crashed right into a wall. She’d get up and make another choice and commit passionately to that choice. I think she was a cop, and a jockey, and a nurse.
Your father was a cop?
Yes. He was an inspector for the NYC police department and went on to become Vice President of Chemical Bank.
And Paige Madison?
Oh God! I don’t know. This was a million years ago! She was vaguely based on Patty Hearst. [Big laughs]. I was kidnapped a lot. Kim Hunter was my stepmother. So that was a very intense gig to play opposite Kim Hunter. She was fabulous and told amazing stories! She was wonderful to work with and everyone was so happy to go to work and to have a job. My friends who are lucky enough to still have Soap jobs feel the same way.
You’ve appeared in several films including First Daughter, Unfaithful, Blue Car, The Devil’s Own, Independence Day, True Believer, Three Men And A Baby, and Adventures of Sebastian Cole. Which film roles were your favorites?
Which one was your favorite, Joel?
I loved you as Sally in Unfaithful.
Swinging my pearls in Unfaithful?
The roles I got to do on cable television and nighttime TV were usually the teacher character and I wasn’t the support person. I was the reporter trying to get the story and I was the woman trying to piece together clues about her life, or something like that and I usually carried those films.
In my feature work I have not carried those films, so I have had the luxury of working with some terrific leading men and young people co-stars because you seem to go from friend to the girlfriend and then the mother of the stars. And then there was Independence Day which we all carried and which was character driven. That’s was a lot of fun.
You played Constance Spano.
Yes. She affected a lot of change and she influenced the course of the film. I loved Something Wild, where I played Irene. The film was quirky and was a commentary of my generation at the time. That was a great character that I tried on for a while. Unfaithful was sassy and was easy-in and easy-out. I’ve done a lot of independent films like Blue Car [she played Diane] that gave me the opportunity to try on wives who were doing their best to make the best choices they could and suffering the consequences of not having enough money or education or opportunity or willpower. The Missing Person [she played Lana Cobb] was fun to do. I was a grifter so there were scenes in corsettes and stockings. I loved the message of the film which was post 9/11. There have been a lot and I have been really fortunate.
Have they finished filming Camilla Dickinson?
We finished in December.
When will it get released?
The last I heard was a lovely Christmas greeting and Cornelia Duryée Moore, who is the director and screenwriter, was going to take a break from it.
What’s the film about and who do you play?
It’s a coming-of-age of a young girl named Camilla Dickinson and her wrestling with how to get out from under the influence of her parents, and find her own way. I play her very dysfunctional mother Mona Rowan [Big laughs], who is an artist and a Bohemian but she drinks way too much, and her marriage is falling apart. I think she considered herself a happy lady, but at the time we meet her in the film it’s really ‘an eruption of dysfunction’.
It’s a shame because when the time comes when your kids become teenagers they can actually see their parents 20 years older than when they got married. The frost of middle age – your vices come back to haunt you – and it’s time for a real reassessment of your life. I always feel “You don’t remember what I was like when I was cool. You were 10. Now that you are 15, I am having a slightly more difficult time of it because I have aged these many years”. And my issues are coming up and all they see are their own teenage issues. Of course they should. So Camilla Dickinson is trying to figure out how much she has to help her parents and how she can answer her own calls to serve and to love and to be fully who she is. And it’s a very powerful and uplifting film. I just thought it was spectacular! I was really happy to be on that set because everyone had such a sense of community and sense of ‘other’ and a mission to use film to uplift.
Here’s the last question: Why should DC theatregoers come up to NYC to see Arcadia?
This play is not done too often, it’s a spectacular cast of English and American actors, and we have our breathlessly talented and creative director David Leveaux. And if you look up his credits – you can’t believe what he has done and has been able to do Arcadia . He has said that he has put together the best possible group of actors for the best possible theatre city in the world.
And we have had the opportunity of spending months with Tom Stoppard who was around so much. It’s a very character driven version of Arcadia. The language is thrilling and the ideas are thrilling and the acting level is thrilling, and it’s in the beautiful Ethel Barrymore Theatre. Give your brain a treat!
Arcadia is playing at The Ethel Barrymore Theatre – 243 West 47th Street, in New York City. Purchase tickets here.
Meet the stars of Arcadia here.
Watch a preview of Arcadia here.
Watch an opening night video with Tom Stoppard and the cast of Arcadia here.
Listen to an interview with Margaret Colin on Downstage Center here.