WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Estelle Parsons questioned her sanity after landing the role of the ruthless matriarch of a crumbling Oklahoma family in the Tony Award winning play “August: Osage County”.
“I called my agent and said, ‘What am I, the lamb being led to the slaughter here, that this show is impossible?'” the 82-year-old Parsons told Reuters.
Her character Violet Weston is so demanding that Parsons’ predecessor on Broadway, Tony Award-winner Deanna Dunagan, cited exhaustion for stepping away from the role last year.
And Dunagan is 13 years younger than Parsons.
The portrayal of Weston, a mean-spirited, pill-popping addict, is a stretch for Parsons, a “health nut” who maintains a clean lifestyle despite the rigors of life on the road.
“August,” the 2008 Tony Award winner for best play. is on a U.S. national tour after closing on Broadway in June. It will run through May, and for each performance Parsons repeatedly barrels up and down a set of steps in the family house that forms the stage set.
That’s 352 steps per show. “And that’s 700-something on matinees,” quips Parsons, an Oscar-winning actress best known for her work in the 1990s TV sitcom “Roseanne”.
We’re talking nine shows a week for some of the stops on the tour. Yet life on the road hasn’t slowed the Massachusetts native.
”I’ve been active all my life,“ Parsons said, sipping a bottle of water backstage at Washington D.C.’s Kennedy Center. ”And I haven’t smoked in a long time.
”The reason and I can get through this show is that I eat right. I don’t eat red meat. I eat chicken and fish. And salad. And steamed vegetables, occasionally roasted.
“I don’t eat desserts. And I don’t drink, well, maybe a glass of wine now and then. This sounds like a laughable way to live. But it’s me. It’s a good, healthy life.”
Parsons, who won an Academy Award for her role as Blanche Barrow in the 1967 film “Bonnie and Clyde” and received a 1968 nomination for “Rachel, Rachel”, is also a cardio fanatic.
”I do the bicycle because I had a knee injury. I‘m back to running, which is one of my favorite things in the world. I won’t use a treadmill. I look for a track. If I‘m not running, I swim.
“That’s my life. I‘m not doing it for the play.”
It’s a good thing that Parsons has stamina. She was on Broadway with the emotionally-charged “August” for a year and will have been on tour for 11 months by the time it closes.
After the tour ends, Parsons plans to produce a festival of Eugene O‘Neill plays and teach at the Actors Studio. She’s also traveling to India for a wedding.
“I‘m not good at doing nothing,” she said. “I love to travel and there are a lot of places I just haven’t been going to. I don’t know what retirement means.”
Parsons does admit to having the normal aches and pains associated with being an octogenarian.
“The play is really abrasive emotionally. Physically too,” she said. “When I get up it takes me a long time to get the kinks out. So I have a sauna and a steam every day.”
Despite her clean lifestyle, Parsons credits much of her zest to genetics.
”My mother is pure Swedish,“ she said. ”When they’re working on cadavers, they always guess the Swedish bodies as 10 years younger than they were. Isn’t that interesting?
“What am I doing? I lived a normal life. I’ve drunk, I’ve doped. Not much, marijuana, nothing more than that. Who knows why I keep going on?”
Editing by Jill Serjeant and Bob Tourtellotte