Holland Taylor on How Playing Ann Richards Changed Her Life

Holland Taylor as Ann Richards. Photo: Walter McBride/Corbis via Getty Images

With Ann airing on PBS’s Great Performances on June 19, 2020 at 9pm ET, we’re sharing this interview from 2018.

“It was just wonderful to have that expansive spirit to try to inhabit,” Holland Taylor says, reflecting on her time spent playing former Texas governor Ann Richards in her one-woman show Ann. “That expansive, generous human spirit. It was the most marvelous experience of my life.” Taylor began to work on Ann soon after Richards’s death in 2006, absorbing reams of material — correspondence, speeches and TV appearances, anecdotes from family and friends — from the impeccably coiffed politician’s life into a play that wound its way from Texas, to Washington, and in 2013, Broadway, where Taylor earned a Tony Award nomination.

On June 14, Ann returns, this time online, as a taped performance on the streaming service BroadwayHD, recorded from the Zach Theatre in Austin, Texas. In advance of the play’s return, Vulture spoke with Taylor to discuss what about Richards caught her attention, and how working on the play changed her life.

What’s it like to bring the show to the internet?
I’ve warned [the people at BroadwayHD], not only will they have theater aficionados wanting to see this, but there’s a whole Ann Richards nation out there. We call it the Ann Nation, who are so avidly longing for her or her kind of power in the world today, her kind of voice and her kind of humanity. It’s very moving to me because I think I, myself, was compelled by whatever that surge, whatever that longing is. I think that’s what actually made me do this from day one. It was right after she died, and then early in ’07, I was researching this. I just couldn’t stand that she was gone.

I do a Twitter search on her because I’m curious about what people say, and you do the same thing with Clinton or Carter or any other leader that was much cared for, you don’t see anywhere near the kind of appearances that everyday people were saying, “If only we had an Ann Richards. Ann Richards should be president. What would Ann say?” You do it yourself, I’m not kidding. I became fascinated with it, how prevalent she is still in the American imagination. She’s fiery, she inspires people to do more, to be more, to be their authentic selves more. She’s also very, very, very comforting. It’s an odd combination.

What would you imagine Ann Richards would think of Trump and the current state of politics?
After years of immersive research and also being incredibly welcomed by her top staff people and her administration and her family, I really do feel I can get inside her head. However, I can’t get inside that sense of humor in the sense that … I wrote a lot of funny things for her to say in the play that I had a real feeling for her but when it comes to what she would say about our present situation, even I am just praying that she would send a voice down.

I knew one thing that would be true of her. She was not a negative person and as appalled as she might be and profoundly shocked as she might be by some of the things happening currently in our politics and in our culture, she would say, “This will turn. We will grow from this. We will emerge from this.” Ultimately she would be finding a way to speak positively about what we can do but she would be doing plenty. That’s for sure.

There’s a line where she jokes about her network of women arriving with their brooms to work with her, which reminded me of Trump talking about witch hunts. It feels like people are still grappling with what it means to have powerful women in politics. Did playing Ann give you insight into the prejudice against them?
Our country is the operative word. It is particular to us and I couldn’t begin to hazard an opinion about why but there’s no precedent. I heard a staffer of hers say once that she only saw Ann Richards cry once, and that was when the ERA did not pass. That really just broke her heart, because think of what it means! Now the ERA is getting ratified all over the place now, but who knows? There is something there, particularly in America, that I think is profoundly repressive for women.

Ann was a man’s woman. Ann was so attractive to men. I don’t mean that in the obvious sense. I mean she appealed to men. If guys, her colleagues, Democrat, Republican, whatever admired and loved her, their love was fierce. Incandescent because she inspired. People knew she was true. People knew she was authentic and true-blue and you can’t buy that. I think she had a way of being accepted by men in a way perhaps other women might find more difficult.

Did the act of doing so much research and performing as Ann for so long change how you perceived yourself as a political person?
My call to action came when she came to me as a force that I had to do something creative about her. That was a call to action because my whole quest to this has been full of purpose … This has been the joy and the meaning of my life.

I certainly have been profoundly affected by her influence on me. Absolutely no question about it. While I do occasionally make the political tweet, again it’s not politics. It’s really bigger than that, you know? It’s kind of an approach to life. It’s really her approach to life. It’s a very contagious quality, that kind of life.

One of the things people remember so much about Ann is her wit, and her insults specifically. What would she make of how politics now seems so especially vulgar and built on insults?
I really think that she would be appalled and disheartened by it. Something really bad has happened. Ann could be very profane and vulgar in her own language in certain circumstances. She was a good old girl in that sense. I do say “fucking” in the play.

But again it comes back to this, it comes back a little bit to this woman issue in a sense that she’s often cited for being insulting to George Bush Sr. in that keynote address. [Where Richards said George W. Bush was “born with a silver foot in his mouth.”] Google that. Watch that speech just up to when she tells that joke because you almost cannot believe the thunderclap reaction to it.

It was a great line. Jane Wagner had sent it to her. It was Jane Wagner’s idea. Various people said, “Oh, you can’t say that.” Kirk Adams, who is her son-in-law, Cecile’s husband, said, “Oh, I think it was great. Definitely use it.” So she did use it, but let me say something about it. Had a man said that exact line, he would have gotten a roar of applause and slapped on the back by the person he said it to because it actually isn’t sarcastic and it actually isn’t insulting. It’s the kind of remark a man would make at a roast and get the most generous laugh in the world because you think about it.

It often feels like women who make jokes — for instance, Michelle Wolf at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner or Samantha Bee making a joke about Ivanka Trump and calling her a “c” word — make men so much angrier than men making jokes, because there’s something about a woman having that comedic power that it’s frightening to people in power.
It’s really extraordinary. It’s absolutely key to the woman issue. This reveals an actual cancerous sort of a frame of mind. I’m not clever enough, I don’t know that I could tease it out into a real understanding any greater than that. It’s just something that I notice. I feel and I recognize it.

She was so very funny and so very comfortable with people and so accepted that she could get away with a lot that other women couldn’t. We really see in that particular line and the myth, I don’t even know that it’s true, but the myth that George Bush and people associated with him, George Jr., were avenging that remark. If that’s true, that is really appalling.

When he did win the governor’s mansion from Ann, and she did not get her second term, that was when Karl Rove cut his teeth, on that campaign. That was when Karl Rove picked up George Bush as the guy he was going to run to power with. And Karl Rove practiced extraordinary dirty politics in that campaign, did extraordinary things.

Not just in playing Ann, but on The Practice or Two and a Half Men or even Legally Blonde, you’ve played a lot of these women who are often in positions of power. Is there something about these women that interest you or that you find a reaction to?
In my position, I’m not the one who does the choosing all of the time. I get offered roles, not often, and I think that I have a kind of an ability to seem perhaps more self-possessed and more powerful than I actually am. I get hired for those roles and people attribute those qualities to me and I don’t necessarily possess them at all.

For some reason, I often play people who are rich which I am not. I’ve done lots of work for Pete Gurney and he used to say, “It’s because you wear good shoes.” The one thing I always make sure of, as I stumbled from audition to audition as a young actor, is that I always had a nice pair of high heels that I always took good care of. But I am, in some ways, fortunate to get these roles, and in other ways not, because it’s a kind of typecasting.

But Ann Richards could not be … in ways she is very powerful, of course … but socially she’s so different from what I usually play. And that was the greatest experience ever. To play this warm, connected person who was vital and connected to people and cared about people.

Do you find yourself missing that experience?
Oh terribly. I miss it very much. It was also physically just incredibly taxing. Out of pure ego, I insisted that I do eight shows a week.* No one person show does that. I was 70 when I opened that show. I don’t know what the hell I was thinking. I just said I’ll do it, you know? And I think I did it without ego, but after Lincoln Center, it was 151 performances I think, I was really physically not myself for a good year.

I say I miss it, but getting it back up again is a half a year. It takes two months to get the text up again and then really running so that I can do it. You want to have a run that’s at least two months so, it’s something that I just can’t make a snap decision to do.

You’re in Sebastian Lelio’s Julianne Moore remake of Gloria and filming a few other TV roles. Do you plan to come back to the stage soon?
Oh, yes. I did Front Page last year, and I did Ripcord the year before that and then I did Ann in between. I did three theater things in a row and it’s really good for me. I think it’s where I’m happiest. It’s my natural habitat. I came very late to working on film and television and I’m not that good at it.

I think the roles for me will be in theater much more than film and television. Obviously I could not be speaking more generally, but I would say in general in the Hollywood world, older women just sort of don’t exist much. If they do it’s in a very cartoony way that isn’t very much like real women who happen to be old. I think Europeans must shake their heads at us. They must wonder [why] a 70-year-old woman is not respected and not a figure of interest. Theaters are more likely to have a role that I’m going to want to play than the other. There will be more roles.

Have you thought much about what it’ll be like to have this performance preserved?
I wish we had the real deal forever, which is what moved me to do the thing in the first place, but I reasoned back then that if I could evoke her somewhat, then some of the inspirational qualities that she had would travel with it. That was what I hoped for. How amazing to have something that I could do that I could really give my all to, that had nothing to do with me. It’s a very light feeling.

How do you let it go? There is something parental about it. It requires great devotion, great commitment, great love, and then it takes wings. This is winging off into the air, and it will remain in the air. I’m very happy.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

*The original interview incorrectly stated Taylor did eight weeks of shows, not eight shows a week.

Holland Taylor on How Playing Ann Richards Changed Her Life