role call

Holland Taylor Answers Every Question We Have About Legally Blonde

The actress on her iconic line, the joy of playing professional women, and why she’s typecast as elegant, hilarious, and a little bitchy. Photo: Courtesy of MGM/YouTube

Holland Taylor knows the type of woman she’s been famous for playing for decades. An elegant, high-powered bitch with a delicious sense of irony. Usually rich, usually divorced, usually the smartest person in the room. Acidic and authoritative, but unbelievably charming. Playful but self-assured, a mischievous smile playing about her lips as she decimates some poor wretch who just happened to get in her way. Taylor also knows she’s long been the sort of actor who pops briefly into a scene, drops a few incredible one-liners, laughs richly to herself, then departs, completely reorganizing the molecules of a film or TV show in the process. “In most of the movies I’m in, it’s like dropping a pearl in a bottle,” Taylor says when I reach her over Zoom at her home in Los Angeles. “That’s what an acting teacher once said to me about character actors, particularly in movies. You might have one scene that took one day to shoot — although they usually take more — and be an indelible part of the movie.”

But Taylor tells me that, as of a few years ago, she’s done playing the archly hilarious and the devastatingly chic. Recently, she concluded what she describes as the project of her lifetime, playing former Texas governor Ann Richards in a one-woman show that she wrote and starred in after years of intensive research. She’s also just landed an Emmy nomination for her portrayal of studio exec Ellen Kincaid on Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood, and is about to star as the Great Leader in the upcoming Bill and Ted (which looks to be a sort of riff on Taylor’s previous typecasting). This phase of her career, she explains, came to pass after she told her agents, “In the last chapter, my third act, I’m going to play characters that are very different” from the roles she’s well-known for: the high-strung matriarchs (Two and a Half Men), the intimidating judges (The Practice), the billionaire divorcées (The L Word, among others).

There is at least one of those roles, however, that Taylor still loves to talk about: Professor Stromwell in the 2001 fish-out-of-water comedy Legally Blonde. As is often the case, Taylor only has a handful of scenes in the film, but they’re completely delectable and impossible to forget: Taylor manages to strike down and help raise up fledgling lawyer Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) with only a few sentences. I asked Taylor to recall some of her favorite memories from filming Legally Blonde, which turned into a much larger conversation about her career of characters, her relationship with longtime partner Sarah Paulson, why she never played the ingenue, and how her fierce independence once got in the way of lasting connections.

Hi! How are you and where are you?
I’m in Los Angeles at the moment. I don’t know when I’m going to see my property in New York again. It’s been five months.

So you’ve been there the whole time?
I mean, it’s probably much safer in New York now than here. It’s pretty scary.

It is. Where are you in L.A.? Where are you staying?
I have a house here in the low hills. I mean, I’m an elder, so I’m not supposed to be going out and about. And it feels very, very strange after only four months. I’m afraid we’ve got a while to go.

Are you quarantining by yourself or are you with Sarah?
Sarah has a house about five minutes from me. So we spend the long weekend up at her house, and I’m by myself here for two days, and we spend one day together here. So we go back and forth. That’s actually good to be moving around, to have change, because it’s like — life is really, really strange. And of course, I won’t be able to work until this is over. Except for very unusual circumstances. I don’t know what it will be like when actors can really be in a big film production, 150 people.

That sounds kind of like an ideal relationship scenario regardless. Having time together and apart.
I think it is. I mean, we’re mostly together, and we both have a little time where you just don’t have anybody to answer to, without any sort of accommodating someone else’s plans. So it’s good for me because I’m older, and I’ve been so independent all my life, so it works out well.

Let’s talk about Legally Blonde. Where were you in your life and in your career when this movie came your way?
I think I had just done The Powers That Be, which was sort of a satirical series that Norman Lear created that amazingly was not a success though it had a great cast. And that was a wonderful, wonderful experience. So I think I had come off a series of very good things and I was in a very good frame of mind. And I was actually sick when I did it, which was a great life lesson. I had a pretty serious bug, like a flu with the body aches and you just want to die.

Oh, wow. The whole time you filmed?
Well, the part was not that large. I had that big scene in the classroom, which is my favorite scene. One of my favorite scenes as an actor on film is that classroom scene. It was so well directed and also well shot. Tony Richmond was a great, great director of photography. And that scene was … Yeah, I was really under it that day. I remember thinking, “I can’t believe I have this wonderful role and I’m going to perform it under these circumstances. I’ll be terrible. It’ll show. It’ll ruin everything.” And when I saw the picture, I could maybe see a little bit of a dampening down thing, but otherwise, nothing.

You can’t tell at all. What did you love about that scene?
First of all, it was very well structured. Her whole demeanor at the beginning where she’s running the class — it’s wonderful to play as a woman, as an actress. I’ve been very lucky and for whatever reason, I get to play a lot of professional women. And professional women have their own world, their own identity, and their own character based on their profession. Because the whole issue of what roles women play and what roles men play — women get to play the wife, the mother, the sister, the daughter. It’s always in relationship to the man. And it’s unconscious. That’s our unconscious image of the world because those are women’s places. So I’ve had a couple of best friend roles. But to have a profession allows you to play a role that is governed, that is shaped, by the profession. And to be a professional person in the legal field gives you an enormous sense of power and sway, because you know better than anybody.

So to run that classroom and to have all of the things one does with the student to teach them, and also to scare them, and to give them an unsolvable problem. It was very, very exciting. And it was very well directed in that you saw her in her realm, and then you saw her notice this girl with her little pink computer, this blonde girl who was so innocent and was so guileless that she kind of treated her sweetly for a moment — like finding a little squirrel in your backyard. But then she had to bring down the iron fist of what she was trying to teach her. And if [Elle] wasn’t going to get on board with that, she had to leave the class. [Professor Stromwell] toys with them, in a way.

What do you remember about filming it?
Tony placed the camera so that I could really move as I would on stage. Which is the thing, of course. I’m a stage-trained actress, not a movie-trained actress. I didn’t do films and stuff until I was in my late 30s. I don’t have a natural feel for it. So I blocked that scene the way that the actions required me to do, and it was on several levels: it had the big blackboard in front of it and it had the steps up to desks that were higher up. So I moved all around as I would on stage. It was really a stage performance that was very well filmed.

When we were setting up this interview, I asked if there was a specific movie that you wanted to talk about and you picked this one. What about this movie is so fun for you to think back on or talk about?
It’s a very clever idea, and a really charming entry into the area of women’s rights and the perception of women in our society. And Reese is just remarkable. She’s one of our marvelous actresses who has brought a number of roles that will be indelible culturally, and this is one of them. And it was just a classic case of playing a professional person who had real resonance with the audience. And her saying that one line, now I don’t even remember what it was — “If you’re going to let one stupid son of a bitch ruin your life.”

One stupid prick, yeah.
I can’t tell you how I see this constantly in social media referred to, all the time. It’s that thing about the elder female wise person that will give you the bottom line about how to behave in your society, about how not to take any bullshit from anybody. And so that was an iconic moment for me. What is it? Twenty years? It’s more than 20 years.

Nineteen, I think! Is that the role that you’re the most recognized from?
That and The Practice. Yeah, I guess it is probably.

What do you remember about working with Reese?
You poor reporters. [Laughs.] You always have to ask us for fun stories. Unless you really work for a long time on a movie, you don’t really get to know anybody, because you’re working hard on the scene, and then you’re out. I’ve seen Reese a couple of times socially since. She’s just a great girl. And for that, the Johnny Cash movie, she is so versatile. And you wouldn’t think she necessarily would be. Because there’s a type that she can play so well, and you’d think she’d get locked into it, but not at all.

In most of the movies I’m in, it’s like dropping a pearl in a bottle. That’s what an acting teacher once said to me about character actors, particularly in movies. You might have one scene that took even one day to shoot, although they usually take more, and be an indelible part of the movie. And yet have very little sense of all the other people in the movie. Victor Garber and I are friends, but we never had anything to do together in that movie. But character actors often get very great roles that require just a few short days of work and bang, you’re in a big movie.

Do you consider yourself primarily a character actor?
Well, perforce I have become one. I never was an ingenue. So I could never be like the young leading lady. I was never a young leading lady on stage, and I never was an ingenue or a young woman whose stories would all — certainly back in the day when I was starting — have only been stories where it was about the relationship with the man or a family thing, the mother. There wouldn’t be stories about women just living. And there still aren’t a lot of that [type of role], but there are more [now].

I was in a Broadway play once called Butley, in 1960 or so, where Alan Bates played the antihero of this job about an English professor and what his life was. And it was an existential story. It was sort of the why of his life. And the subject of the play was just him, what it was to be alive as him. I played his wife. There was an article written about that play which said could something like, “Could there be a play about Mrs. Butley that was the same play, about what was life for her?” And the answer was no. You couldn’t just have a story about a woman and what it was for her to be alive. It could only be a man. Only a man could be a hero of such a story, or the protagonist of such a story.

So when you say you weren’t ever the ingenue, was that a by-product of the time period you came up in?
Yeah. I just wasn’t the kind of person you would see in a romantic comedy or in a story about a relationship. I just wasn’t. So I got to play, loosely, the professional. Or somebody who enters a story in some striking way, makes the plot change, and then is gone. So I think that turns out to be character roles. Not the mother or the wife or the girlfriend. Also, when I was younger, I seemed older. Much older than I was. And now I’m playing a lot of roles younger than I am. On Hollywood, Ellen was meant to be something in her 60s. And I remember Ryan Murphy said, “Oh, you can play 50.” I said, “You’ve lost your mind, Ryan. Won’t be the first time.” But, yeah, I don’t generally play 77, which is what I am. This character was marvelous to play.

Did that bother you at the time, that you were sort of put into these character roles, or these smaller cameo parts?
Well, I always wanted larger roles. You want a larger role. You want more ground. You want more territory, because the more territory you have, the more you can reveal and explore. And that’s what the phrase “dropping a pearl in the bottle” was, that you had to come with a perfect round thing, whole unto itself that looked gorgeous and that had a shine on it, and drop it in the bottle. And it had to go through a very narrow neck of the bottle. The analogy was perfect. You just come in: “Hello, everybody. Nice to meet you. How do you do? Let’s go.” You barely get to know the director, the director of photography, and your other actors before you’re playing sometimes extremely challenging scenes. Being a character actor means you get great parts. It doesn’t always mean the part is very big. But I made up for it by doing Ann, in which I had two hours of uninterrupted character revelations.

Some of your most iconic parts all fit into a similar box. They’re not the same — but they’re all elegant, a little bit bitchy, have a great sense of humor. There’s a deliciousness there. What do you think that’s about?
Most characters, once you start doing them, you will get known for doing them. So you get typecast. Typecasting on the one hand is great, if you get typecast in great roles. But it’s also a form of laziness. We just get used to seeing somebody a certain way, and that’s how we want to. I remember about 10, 12 years ago, saying to my agents, “Mark my words. We’ve got to think out of the box. I can’t go on playing all these roles forever like this.” And I don’t like that often they’re shallow characters or cold characters and it feels very constraining to always play them.

In recent years, I got Mr. Mercedes, which I don’t know whether you’ve seen it. It was on Audience TV. That was a very warm and interesting character. And then I remember saying to my agents, “The last chapter, my third act, I’m going to play characters that are very different from that.” I just had this feeling. I said, “I’m going to play a character of enormous warmth and depth that is not like this in my third act. Mark my words.” And what it turned out to be was Ann. I did Ann, and it was actually a mission. I really felt like that was a calling that maybe Ann Richards instigated from heaven. I don’t know. But that was a compulsion. I had to do that. As it turns out, it was the role of a lifetime.

How would you describe the way you were previously typecast? And do you see yourself at all in that sort of woman, or are you completely different?
The woman is usually verbally clever and literate, and I certainly am that somewhat. I’m educated. I’m East Coast. Those are the kinds of women that usually — although they are hardly limited to the East Coast — that’s the sort of type. There is some overlap [with me]. But I was certainly not rich. And I’m not a bitch in my life, at all. I’m not superior. I’m not explosive. Other than the deep assessments we have of our lives that we’re now getting educated about through the Black Lives Matter movement, as far as my conscious experience of life was concerned, I was certainly not a prejudiced person. In fact, I’ve been involved in civil-rights issues since I was in college. I am personally not that woman that I’m sometimes cast as. But I sure like playing them, because I usually play them with a satirical bent. I usually delight in revealing their unconscious foibles. I delight in revealing how they think everybody’s got to pay. Even the mother in Baby Mama, she’s just so blind to her point of view — although she would never think so.

Where does The L Word’s Peggy Peabody fit in there for you? Because I love her so much.
Peggy Peabody! Peggy Peabody is absolutely one of my all time favorites, right from the name on. Peggy Peabody is a great name. I actually know the Peabody branch in New York. And it’s a very elegant family. And Peggy, you think of the name Peggy Guggenheim, who was a great art collector and heiress. So the combination was too great. This is a very big-minded, fun personality who was quite self-aware of her own grandiosity. And she made fun of herself in some of her pronouncements and was quite satirical. Yeah, I loved that part. I loved that part.

Angela Robinson wrote the screenplay for that first episode where she appears, which was a really wonderful piece of writing. And then it allowed me to, in future episodes with Ilene Chaiken, add some ad-libs and stuff that I thought was very much in keeping with that.

Do you remember anything that you ad-libbed?
Oh, I remember visiting Helena at some point in jail, and I did this riff about how there was a Praxiteles fragment and that she was just like that — very rare and very expensive. And I just made up that stuff because I have an archeologist friend.

As a queer woman growing up, that show was so important to me, and that role was so important to me. But it’s interesting: When I was researching you, it seems like you weren’t publicly “out” until after The L Word, right?
Well, I never came out because I live publicly. I don’t hide. And I’m not political in that sense. I don’t join clubs. I think we all want the day when none of that will be necessary — for anybody to have clubs, to carry signs, to wear a uniform. You just are. And I always thought that our country seems like a young, teenage country in our prurience about some things and our ignorance and our lack of sophistication about the world. Certainly the homosexual issue is completely different in ancient countries like Italy or Europe. The idea that someone would be fired because they were gay is not something that would happen in Europe, and it [does] happen in America. We just all have to grow up. Our society is growing up, for sure.

So I never hid my life. I simply conducted my life and people could assume whatever they wanted to about who I was with or what I was doing. But I didn’t speak about it because I was offended by the idea that I should be expected to.

I guess my question is, were you drawn to that show and that role as a woman who dates women? Was that at all part of the appeal for you?
Well, no, it’s a wonderful role. And actually Peggy wasn’t gay.

She ends up with a woman at the end, though.
[Laughs.] Well, that’s Ilene. In that first episode where Peggy appears, she says, “I was a lesbian once in 1974.” And Bette says, “Just 1974?” And she says, “Yeah, that was enough.” So, she didn’t have any judgment about it. Yeah. And at that ski lodge [in her final episode] she goes [into a car with that same woman]. If that’s ending up with a woman, then that’s ending up with a woman.

I read an interview with you where you said, “In a way I think I kind of blew my middle years.” What did you mean by that?
Well, I’ve never been ambitious in the sense of thinking of things to do to advance yourself to be seen, or to just socially meet with the people that you would meet in show business — other writers and directors and other people in the field. Why wouldn’t they be your friends? You’re in the same world. And most of the people I know are in show business. But I was pretty much a loner, so I never built networks of friends, which some people do just by living because they’re gregarious and outgoing. Like Sarah Paulson. I don’t know anyone who has so many really good friends. And she is very committed to those friendships and talks to them regularly on the phone. Doesn’t let too much time go by before they see one another. And keeps up with what they’re doing and their children and their lives and their jobs.

I don’t have that network at all. I was very isolated. Somebody asked me what are my favorite things to do the other day, and I said “Walking in the city. Walking alone in the city. Walking the boulevards. Just strolling.”

So, basically, I traveled a lot in my middle years. I went to Paris probably ten times. I went to England probably that many times too. And I’m much more interested in the experience of life than doing those things that might have made my career more at the forefront of my mind. It never was. I had a lot of ambition when I get a part, and how hard I will work with it, because acting is what I do. I identify myself there. I suppose I would try to write if I couldn’t act, because I do like the creativity of writing. I like the task. I like the nature of the work. It’s problem-solving in a way. I guess the thing that’s hard about it is the sedentary nature of it. The obligation to do it is not a pleasant feeling. Am I making you feel terrible right now?

No, you’re right. I’m just like, “She’s right.”
Don’t you find the pandemic has its own business? It’s like, things you have to do and think about and plan, because for my case, I can’t just go anywhere. I haven’t read a book. I haven’t read a book since this pandemic. I can’t. In fact, I’ve been thinking it would really be wonderful if I could just pick a book that was not a gargantuan book, but pick a book and get back to the pleasures of reading. I read so much on the computer now because of the magazine articles. I read The New Yorker on the computer. And it’s for the birds.

Is there anything in your career that you regret, or you wish had gone differently?
Two and a Half Men sort of was a disappointment in that I had some wonderful stuff to do on that, but I really felt that they would have explored a real adult relationship with grown children more than they did, because it’s such a fertile field. But I certainly can’t regret it. I was on that for six years consistently, for the whole time that I was a regular on the show. But then when it came time to re-up six years later, I actually didn’t. I shifted to being a recurring character that would come on when they wanted me, when I was free to. People couldn’t believe that I did not re-up that show. Some things are more important than others.

I’m curious how you square your sense of independence and love of solitude with being in this relatively public relationship. I love how you and Sarah tweet at each other. You have this lovely dynamic, but it seems sort of in opposition to what you were saying about the way you like to live your life.
I never thought of that. As I say, I live my life in public. I do everything that I would do if I were an unknown person married to a man. I just live my life. And so if I happen to be seen in public, I’m not trying to be something that I’m not. But on the same token, I don’t talk with any depth about my private life because it’s not my personal style. But tweeting about Sarah’s show that she’s in and how wonderful she is, or even our personal tweets that we do back and forth, is not deeply personal. Or let’s say — it’s not private. I don’t have private communications with her in public. I don’t talk about the private aspect of our relationship in public. But I exist … I live in the public. And so I’m on Twitter. I love Twitter. Sarah doesn’t do Twitter so much.

I do love your Twitter.
Thank you. Well, I have a lot of opinions. I also have a lot of questions. I tweet some things to see what the response will be, because I wonder if the way I’m feeling about something, if I’m alone, or if a lot of people share the same point of view. I’m actually sort of tweeting less — I have less to say about everything. But I’m so gobsmacked by the activity of the president, where it’s just — every day it’s more and more unbelievable. So it’s not like I have a lot of fresh things to say. You can only say, “Oh my God,” so many times. “OMG.” Like just tweet, “OMG” every day.

I did notice that you retweeted a tweet from God himself, saying, “Once you die, that’s it.” What was that about?
Oh, I love God. I love him. I love him. He’s fabulous. I just … I love the sense of humor. God has a great sense of humor. And a clever sense of irony. And he often tweets things that are so heartbreaking and true about life in my view. No, he’s a tonic. I really, really think that’s a remarkably clever Twitter account.

Well, that’s all I have for you. Unless there’s anything else that you want to talk about?
I would say I think it is interesting to notice in my life that the free agency that I’ve had is not given to many women. And it’s a real privilege and it’s a real gift from good fortune to live an actor’s life, because it’s a highly privileged life. You have a lot of time off. You have a very changeable life. You have a life filled with not only the variety of your activity, but the variety of all the people that you’re thrown in the company of and the different places that you go. I think it’s a matchless life. And I’ve had a long, long, long career that has taken me far and wide and has brought so many remarkable people. Every job usually leaves you with a friend from that job who is a very valuable, savory taste of your life. So it’s a matchless life to have.

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Taylor played Judge Roberta Kittleson on the ’90s ABC drama. 2005’s Walk The Line, in which Witherspoon played June Carter Cash. Taylor also appears in similar roles in The Truman Show and One Fine Day. Taylor first spoke about her sexuality in 2015 to WNYC’s Anna Sale. “I haven’t come out because I am out,” she put it. “I live out.”
Holland Taylor Answers Every Question About Legally Blonde