California Literary Review

Interview with Priscilla Lopez and Matthew Lopez, Star and Writer of Somewhere

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January 29th, 2013 at 9:31 am

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Priscilla Lopez in Somewhere

Tony Winner Priscilla Lopez stars as Inez Candelaria the determined matriarch holding her family together in Somewhere.
Photo: Christos Kalohoridis/USA Network)

Toba Singer: It might be tempting to say that Somewhere is derivative of Tennessee Williams’s Glass Menagerie. Could you both speak about what distinguishes one from the other?

Priscilla Lopez: It’s a combination of what is written that comes out of Inez’s mouth, which is Matthew and the way the words come out of her mouth, which is me. I keep saying I’m playing my mother, but my daughter insists–no you’re playing yourself. You can’t fault Amanda because she’s a WASP. Their emotional world is not as accessible. But for Inez, a Puerto Rican woman, emotions are constantly up and down. I would say to my parents, “Why are you always fighting?” They would say, “We’re not fighting, were just talking.” Latins show everything like we are open books, and I remembered when I felt so happy to be Latin because of that. You can immediately feel the difference between people who are so closed, and those like us who are being physical.

Matthew Lopez: Well, first of all, thank you. I feel icky taking that compliment but I appreciate it. Somewhere was definitely inspired by Glass Menagerie and Death of a Salesman and, in some ways, Long Day’s Journey Into Night. I wanted to create a new play that felt like an old one, but with a contemporary sensibility as to social class and the immigrant experience. I think what separates Inez from Amanda and from Mary (aside from the fact that they were both created by geniuses) is that she uses the past to fuel her into the present. She isn’t mired in it. It’s the fuel that stokes her fire. Everything she does is forward-looking. She has a line in the first scene that basically sums up her philosophy on life: “What did you do today to make sure that tomorrow will be better than yesterday?”

In many ways, Inez is a romantic because she’s a pragmatist. It’s the tool she uses to fight against a cruel and indifferent world. She says to her son Alejandro after he admits to her that he “can’t imagine” and that she lives in a world of daydreams, rather than plans:

“You think I don’t know how hard it is? You see me and you see your stupid mother, who doesn’t even have enough sense to know she’s supposed to be miserable. But I know. Trust me, niño, I know much better than you. Look at yourself and then look at me and tell me who has the better idea.”

Inez understands the world much better than her son. She survives so long and so happily because she refuses to let the world destroy her dreams. Alejandro doesn’t possess that ability, to his great detriment. She tells him “We are a family of dreamers. We force the world to look like our dreams. We do not force our dreams to look like the world.” Inez is a stronger woman than Amanda or Mary. Not a better-written one, not a more interesting one, just a stronger one. Which of the three would you want to get through a crisis with?

Of the many things that inspired me to write this play and invest in the combustible relationship between Inez and Alejandro is this quote from James Baldwin’s Another Country:

“The aim of the dreamer, after all, is merely to go on dreaming and not to be molested by the world. His dreams are his protection against the world. But the aims of life are antithetical to those of the dreamer, and the teeth of the world are sharp.”

TS: Matthew, you have chosen subtle infusions of sound to capture the period, more powerful for that quality. Inez has her plans, but what happens to a humble family’s plans when the real sharks of this world randomly wrench your son out of your plan and insert him into theirs? IF, unlike his father, Alejandro returns from Vietnam, who will he be when he comes home?

PL: At the end of the play everyone has his or her own fantasy. I would think that he comes home and when he does, after having experienced what, thank God, a lot of us don’t have to experience and who knows? He would be 23, and so he could still dance. Maybe the war pushed him further to dance or it hardened him in order to deal with that reality and so he could unconsciously protect himself from feeling certain things. Matthew’s father went to Vietnam and was a wreck afterwards. He was in Danang as an electrician, fixing helicopters, where at any second they could lose their lives. He was very touchy, but eventually softened and returned to himself, but it took a few years.

ML: I don’t know the answer to that question and I’m hesitant to answer. I feel that answering the question “what happens after the play?” robs the audience of the chance to come up with their own answer. I get that a lot from Whipping Man audiences. If I told you definitively what happens, I promise you’ll stop thinking about the play at home.

Having said that, I can answer it in historical terms.

First, on sound: I wanted to give the audience an idea of the world outside the Candelaria’s home in the way they would have received it: through the radio (because they don’t have a television). The idea is to root the family drama in the American experience rather than just have it be isolated from the events of the era: The fighting in Cuba, the dawn of the Cold War and the Civil Rights movement, and, of course, the slow, steady march toward Vietnam.

What happened to young men of Alejandro’s socioeconomic class when Vietnam started to loom was that they went to Vietnam. Or Iraq. Or Afghanistan. We haven’t fought a purely egalitarian war since WWII. Now it is a poor man’s fight. There are people who don’t like the ending to this play, who believe it should end with Alejandro’s dance. I respectfully disagree. But I understand why they want that. If we have done our jobs correctly, we should have fallen in love with Alejandro. We should want to protect him. We should dream a great future for him, just as his family does. But a young man cannot make the sacrifices that Alejandro makes and be whole afterwards. Not immediately, at least. A young man like him cannot twist his soul into a pretzel like Alejandro does and then instantly find the path to happiness. I believe that after Alejandro leaves our story, he wanders for a very long time. He must take Jamie’s advice and go find some happiness. But the world—especially the world at that time—was not a place for young men like Alejandro to find happiness easily.

It grieves me to send this young man to war. Alejandro is closer to me than any other character I have ever written. He is a part of me. I feel very protective of him. I want him to be happy, I want him to be fulfilled. But the truth of America—especially in the 1960’s—is that young men like Alejandro don’t always get to be happy and fulfilled.

I hope Alejandro comes home from the war unscathed. I hope he finds a place in the world that makes him happy and fulfilled. Nothing would make me happier.

TS: Priscilla, in what way is Rebecca a reflection of who you were, and in what ways does she differ? And your father, he was very much around, was he not?

PL: Well yes and no. No, because he worked at the New York Hilton and would work very long hours. When I got older I’d go there a lot and be with him, but he was definitely in the picture.

Rebecca is number three in the lineup but there were four of us. I started as a dancer and took ballet lessons, but really wanted to be an actress. I always wanted that. I’d never answer when people asked what do you want to be when you grow up because I wanted to be a movie star, and everyone says that. So I was given dance lessons and we lived in New York, and the theater was there. I was an extra in West Side Story, so I learned about the School of Performing Arts. Practically the whole cast had gone there for dance. They told us that if I studied with Gertrude Shurr [a member of the Modern Dance faculty] that I’d have a better chance of being accepted, and it’s ridiculous: I ended up in a class in her studio near Union Square in which none of the people are going to dance, and she was hammering me: “If you don’t improve, don’t come back.” So I didn’t go back, but I still wanted to go to the school for drama. My mother sewed to pay for my ballet lessons, and typed for a woman named Dora Weissman, a manager of child actors, and through her, I learned of a singing teacher, and Doris convinced her to help me out and that’s how I got into West Side Story in first place. She had given me monologues that I could use and I auditioned with The Bad Seed and A Date with Judy. I got in as an actress, but when I graduated, I didn’t know if I was an actress, but I knew I was a dancer because I had danced since I was seven.

TS: I have the impression that your careers occurred completely separately. Have you ever worked together before? Tell me how your axes crossed on this project.

We are sitting in Priscilla’s dressing room, and she hands me a note from Matthew to her. It says: “I love you so much, I wrote you a play! Love, Matthew.”

PL: I have photos of myself holding him in my arms when he was three. I was still in my costume from A day in Hollywood; A Night in the Ukraine. He is holding my rubber chicken prop. His parents took him to see me in that, and he also saw Peter Pan. Then he did community theater in Panama City, Florida, and studied at FSU. So he comes to NY and deals with a city full of thousands of actors, and he sends me something he wrote. I told him, “WRITE! You create it, you’re the boss and you have equity.” Then I’d get something every week this thick (spreading her thumb and forefinger two inches) from him. The Whipping Man, I don’t know where it came from! Matthew’s father was a Civil War buff, and they’d do reenactments, so his father gave him a book about Jews during the Civil War and that’s where that story came from. He got blowback from some people: “How dare you! This is so anti-Semitic!” But these things really did take place.

ML: Well, first of all, she started out a little before I did. Our artistic paths first crossed when my parents took me to see her in Hollywood/Ukraine. I was bitten by the theatrical bug by that visit. It’s what made me want to be a theatre artist. I thought at first it meant being an actor. I thought that for a while. (I still think about it.) And throughout my life, Priscilla was always there as a source of inspiration and encouragement.

When I grew up, moved to New York and started writing, she was one of the first people I had the courage to show my work to. Then I decided I wanted to write a role for her and that was part of the genesis of this play. I don’t think she’s ever been given the kind of role she deserves post-Harpo. She’s done great work but she’s never had a role that fully utilizes her comic and dramatic talents. I wanted to write a role that she could knock out of the park. I have and she did!

TS: Priscilla, your role as Diana Morales was built around your disaffection with the atmosphere at the High School of Performing Arts, as it existed in the years 1962-1965, especially The Method having been held sacrosanct. I’m wondering about what may have changed for you as time went on?

PL: I felt that the most information I got about acting, the who-what-where-why-how, the whole Method training—came from P.A. Experience taught me that while the Method is a wonderful tool, you have to use whatever works because it’s about the audience, so I felt that the actual training was good; the problem was just in that moment with Mr. Karp, who didn’t get me. It is also true that I was very sensitive. When I was a kid, I was sensitive and shy, and that’s why my mother put me into dance classes. So my sensitivity was violated when the class was allowed to participate in the criticism. One after another they shouted, “Nothing, nothing!” after a sense memory exercise where I mimed threading a needle. Everyone wanted to be well thought of by the teacher, and by then, the class had gotten the signal from his having criticized my work before, and thought, “We’ll fall into line.” As it turned out, he thought they were wrong in this instance and said so. I guess my point was, “How the hell can kids be allowed to criticize?” Apart from that, I really liked my training at P.A. and have used it forever.

TS: Priscilla, in two roles I’ve seen you play onstage, Frida Kahlo, and Inez Candelaria, it has struck me that your portrayals take on an intensity that would point to an inner life, or subtext, where distinct “beats” differentiate the temperaments and stirrings of the character, to put it in the lexicon of Stanislavski. What is it like to look back on the P.A. experience with an eye to what you valued specifically that you learned there, and what you found you had to discard as you entered the actual world of the theater. I’m thinking of the legendary story of how you auditioned in your father’s raincoat for the role of Harpo. In P.A. they taught that an actor must go to an audition as a blank canvas.

PL: Well, I went to the first audition as me, Priscilla. It was the callback where I grabbed my father’s coat and wore it, and I did something similar when I did the callback for Pippin—I got a wig from a friend who knew a properties manager, and it was really something because after I auditioned, Bob Fosse walked to the front of the house, put his hands on the rail, and said, “Now that’s what I call a well prepared audition.” Then he jumped up on stage with me and started giving me his signature bumps and grind moves to try out. I waited three days to hear if I got it. After three days I was a very happy girl. So, the only thing I had to discard was that there was only one way: The Method. What works is what affects the audience because sometimes it’s the reality of eight shows a week, and sometimes it is harder to act than it is to just be, when you are dealing with every day problems. In those instances, you have to call on other things and sometimes, just listen, because the best acting is reacting, and letting the audience know how you feel by reacting.

TS: Priscilla, your children are both actors. Once you’ve moved past the part of the discussion with a young actor or writer about how rewarding but also how uncertain, difficult and at times, thankless, a career in the performing arts can be, and you see that they are determined to pursue one, what wisdom do you share?

PL: No matter what you’re doing, whether you’re an actor or in some other profession or job, it’s all about finding peace within, and looking for the things in life that make you happy. There’s so much in the media, and it is easy to believe what you see, and feel bad that you’re not part of it, but if you love what you do, hopefully that will lead to making a living the way you want to, and still have the things you need. I think probably having two successful parents (Lopez’s husband is the Broadway musical conductor Vincent Fanuele), my kids may have gotten the impression that it was easier for us than it actually was. It was hard work, but in the days when we were getting our start, the process was easier. Being in music made it easier for us. Actors have less work today. New York is all about musicals. I started on the musical end, and then went to straight plays. I was a good dancer and singer, but, if you roll it together, my dancing has always informed my acting. I was very lucky because you have to know how to use your body onstage.

TS: What remains a temptation for each of you for future work?

PL: I like to work. It’s hard and I love theater but it’s so hard. It consumes you. Your time is sucked from you, but if you’re in something wonderful and have fun doing it, it all becomes worthwhile. It feels good, and centers you, especially if people are responding. People say “When I saw A Chorus Line, that’s when I decided I wanted to act. You’re a hired hand who makes a difference in people’s lives. Someone like Mandy Gonzalez, who played my daughter in In the Heights, has an unbelievable voice, did Wicked, and she said that when she saw my name and it had a z at the end, she thought, “Then I can do it, because she did it and she has a z at the end.” John Leguizamo does a routine where says that his uncle and he would sneak into this show, (A Chorus Line), and seeing a Latina who wasn’t a maid, prostitute, or drug addict, made him think, “This is going to change my life.” While dealing with problems with his parents and an abusive father, he would ask himself, “What would Diana Morales do?” That’s a gift. Those are the real, unexpected, but real gifts.

Do what you love and that will inform your life.

ML: Currently, I’m working on a few new play commissions. I’m writing an epic play for Roundabout about a man who builds a church in West Virginia and brings the coal mining community into direct conflict with the mine owners. I’m also working on a commission for Hartford Stage, which is a contemporary adaptation of Howards End, but telling the story of three generations of gay men in New York rather than three families from three social classes. It explores the experiences of the AIDS generation, then my generation, who came of age just after the epidemic and the younger generation, who seem to be forgetting the lessons of the last 30 years in gay history. Howards End answers the question “Who will inherit England?” Hopefully this play will deal with the question “What is the inheritance between the three living generations of gay men in America?”

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