With five Tony Award Nominations and an Oscar – as well as a nomination for a second – Estelle Parsons can afford to be choosy about the roles she takes on. Currently, she is preparing to walk onto the stage at Palm Beach Dramaworks as Mathilde in Israel Horovitz’s My Old Lady, which opens in West Palm Beach on Dec. 5.
“I thought it would be really fun to see if I could play a French woman,” she says, by way of explaining her decision to do the show. “I love the character. She’s everything you hope a French woman will be.”
Parsons rolls up her sleeves and gets to work long before the formal rehearsal process begins. “I read a script a few times and then it just kind of takes me over,” she says. After gently slipping the skin of a new persona on for size, she gradually begins to flesh the character out. “I kind of watch myself and see what’s going to happen.”
As she has gotten to know Mathilde, Parsons says she has felt a growing sense of serenity in her own life. “It’s interesting to me that I feel that way. I feel very accepting of a lot of things, which is I think the way she is. She seems to be this really serene person. She listens carefully and is very intellectually alert.”
At times, Parsons sounds like she is referring to a flesh-and-blood woman she has had the good fortune to meet rather than a character in a play. She laughs often and expresses her admiration for Mathilde’s accomplishments. “I think she’s quite a person actually, which doesn’t show up in the play but will show up in the characterization,” she says.
The playwright may have given birth to the character but it is up to Parsons to bring her to life on the stage.
In order to do that, she has been brushing up on all things French; reading, listening to tapes, thinking trés deep thoughts. “She [Mathilde] has already made me feel like a much more interesting person than I am – just from working on the play a little bit.”
Most would agree that Parsons is plenty interesting without having to utter a single word of French or raise a single eyebrow in that quintessential way French women have. She has intrigued, intimidated and inspired movie, TV and theater audiences for more than five decades. She herself has been inspired by director Arthur Penn (“My work just blossomed with him,” she says.) and Lee Strasberg, the legendary artistic director of the Actors Studio (“Twenty years of the Studio working for him or just sitting there in the sessions listening to him changed my ideas about theater and the depth and beauty of acting as an art form.”). Parsons eventually followed in Strasberg’s footsteps, serving as artistic director of the Actors Studio from 1998 to 2003. In 2004, she was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame.
To say she is still going strong is an understatement. She works out six days a week (“On the seventh day I rest,” she says. “I thought the Lord had a good idea there.”). She doesn’t consider the physical conditioning part of her preparation process for taking the stage, though.
“I’ve never done much in preparation for a performance specifically but lie down and take a nap,” she says. “When I was younger, I was so nervous before I worked, I’d have to lie down. Otherwise I thought my heart would just break in my body; it was pounding so hard. It’s not stage fright exactly; it’s just the anticipation of trying to achieve something.”