Actress Stephanie Zimbalist certainly needs no introduction. With her star turn on Remington Steele on TV in the 80s, her multiple MOWs and frequent stage appearances all over the country, she is an actor in demand. In this conversation she talks about the challenges of playing Katharine Hepburn in Matthew Lombardo's Tea at Five, which she recently completed for the Rubicon in Ventura and is about to open at the Falcon Theatre in Burbank on October 22.
Just how difficult and challenging is it to play Katharine Hepburn? How does one prepare for this?
A lot of luck! Reading her autobiography and combing through it for what’s between its lines was very helpful. I started the first rehearsal four years ago already basically off-book. I think frankly that was a great suggestion on both John Tillinger’s and Matthew Lombardo’s parts, for that first Ordway production I did.
Had someone suggested the part to you or did you yourself feel you were right for it?
Daryl Roth, one of the original NYC producers of TEA – who cut her producing teeth with Linda Purl and me on THE BABY DANCE, by the way – asked me to do Wednesday matinees for that first NYC Promenade production of TEA with Kate Mulgrew , back in….2005, was it? I declined, too much work for too little payoff. Then Matthew Lombardo himself was producing a production at the Ordway in St. Paul, MN in 2006 and asked me to do it, on his director John Tillinger’s “nudge.” Thank you, Joey. P.S. There was a scheduling snafu, Tillinger was in Italy, so Chris Catti the fab stage manager put me into the show at our MTC rehearsal space, and I basically directed myself the first time I did it! What a trip THAT was! I left out six pages in the first act one night, and the playwright, in the audience that night, didn’t even notice!
If the play has a purpose - like Hepburn writing a memoir or giving an interview - what do you think it is? She has always been so private!
I think what the audience walks away with is that marvelous dichotomy of the young, The Screen Icon morphing before your eyes into The Triumphant Old Lady Survivor – just like US.
Your association with Jenny Sullivan and with the Rubicon in Ventura has always been wonderful. Talk a little about that.
Thank you, Jenny, thank you Karyl Lynn and Jim! For TEN times at bat at the Rubicon. Wonderful place to work, actor-oriented, Ventura is charming, easy, COOL, and lovely, and close to home. Jenny and I go way back to Jane Anderson’s The Baby Dance, KLB and Jim saw it and first hired Jenny and Linda Purl for their inaugural Little Foxes production (I heard every detail from Minneapolis where I was having a GREAT time tackling ‘Terry’ in Side Man at the Guthrie). Then they asked me to play ‘Lizzie’ in The Rainmaker (with fellow Baby Dancer, the great John Bennett Perry), which we reprised the next season. Another Hepburn role. After I met KH (she ran up the backstage stairs of the Lortel in NYC to congratulate all of us Baby Dancers in 1991), I played Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story for Sheldon Epps at the Cleveland PlayHouse – another Hepburn role. I haven’t seen a lot of her movies, but I have many to look forward to! My favorite so far, acting-wise, is her ‘Mary Tyrone’ in A Long Day’s Journey Into Night.
What about roles you've played? Do you have a favorite? Why ?
Loved playing Sylvia, close to my dog-like heart. I’d do it again, if asked, at the right venue. A.R. Gurney’s beloved play About The Dog.
You were terrific in Sylvia. Is there a role you really want to tackle?
Would love to do The Rose Tattoo amd Margulies' The Loman Family Picnic, among others.
Maybe you should consider bringing back Coco, now that you've done Tea at Five. You are a terrific singer and could do your own thing with that. Any desires to do a musical?
Love musicals, never saw Coco, but if KH says it sucked, so be it, she's probably right.
So you are happy at present with Tea at Five?
This might be the best thing I’ve done to date, and this is my fifth time at bat with it, a really solid text that is a real crowd-pleaser, a beautiful set and delicious lighting, great music, lovely costumes if I can lose that last 10 pounds, and Jenny Sullivan’s wonderful touch at the helm. I’d say, all a bargain for the cost of the ticket!
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