For the bulk of her later career, Hollywood icon Talia Shire has dabbled around the independent circuit. But when you stop and consider the two crowning achievements of her career – as Rocky Balboa’s timid other half, Adrian, and Don Corleone’s prized daughter, Connie – the indie scene, with commanding young voices and distinct ideas, is exactly where she belongs.
Her most recent film, Working Man, shares that spirit. Set in a Rust Belt town in the midst of collapse, she plays Iola, the wife of factory worker Allery (Peter Gerety). Even before the facility where Allery has worked his whole life shuts down, there’s a secure, almost obsessive sense of repetition in his being. But when hardship overtakes the company and forces the factory to close, Allery’s wheels keep turning, much to the small town’s confusion.
Film Inquiry recently had the honor of speaking with Talia Shire about her treasured career, as well as her extensive knowledge and participation in the independent film scene. During the interview, she also touched on her collaborations with her brother, Francis Ford Coppola, as well as Burgess Meredith, Marlon Brando, and Roger Corman.
Luke Parker for Film Inquiry: Watching the film, I was surprised how quickly I developed an affection for Allery. Of course, that may be because his story and the whole town’s struggles, in fact, have taken on an entirely different meaning in this new world that we’re living in. Obviously, the coronavirus wasn’t a situation that you had to consider when you were first introduced to the story. What attracted you to it?
Talia Shire: Clark Peterson, the producer, sent me the script. I’ve worked with Clark before and he is a man of great tastes. And he loves what I love. We have a similar love of the more small budget variety of movies because it’s an opportunity to enjoy new talent. And Robert Jury, who wrote and directed this piece, was a wonderful new talent.
And I became very attracted to the piece on the 10th page, reading it – the reading experience – because it was unique. You could see that the character of Allery was having some sort of ritual penance. He was doing something which was a great mystery to me, the reader, and then certainly, the character. So the piece was mysterious to me, and so well-written, putting together aspects of the American experience, factories, and the experience of intimacy between an older couple, and exploring their losses. It’s just so wonderful.
What I appreciate about your character is that what Iola ultimately is to Allery is a partner. You see a lot of husbands and wives on the big screen, but not a whole lot of partners. That is not an easy bond to establish – or at least, to pull off well. And yet, a great deal of your career and your most famous roles have been defined by these characters and these relationships. When portraying these roles, trying to get into the mindset of a partner, what helps you most: the script, or the shoot?
Talia Shire: Well, you know, it’s all those things. But whether it’s Shakespeare or a movie script, you go to the text and you find the spine. The spine for people, as it was defined to me in drama school, is asking what everybody is doing, and what everyone is after. So, I go through that process – the old theater arts process that I still go to – and once I understand the [spine] then I can begin to design what my role will be; how I will play that and also, how I will partner the other characters.
Because I don’t just look at my part, I look at the whole piece. My job is to partner and to drop into the piece what the director and the writer are trying to create. So I look at all of those pieces.
Right, and like I said, a great deal of your most famous characters are partners and obviously, that definitely comes through.
Talia Shire: You know, you’re right. Because I think Adrian really is Rocky’s partner.
You mentioned earlier that you think low budget, indie filmmaking is where we get a lot of new talent. And I always like talking with actors about their experiences on location with indie productions because that’s where I feel the heart of filmmaking really is. Especially now that the factory you guys shot in has been shut down – that was just told to me yesterday, and I was really sorry to hear that – did any stories come out of your time in Norridge that you’d like to share?
Talia Shire: You heard about the factory closing yesterday?
Yes, that’s when I heard.
Talia Shire: Yes, and they were lovely to us, by the way. It was a wonderful experience so we were all shocked. We also shared that yesterday, all of us made a big group chat and we went, “oh no! Oh no!” I just want you to know – and I’m moving a little sideways here – but making movies in Hollywood…Hollywood is a factory place. Paramount, Warner Brothers, Disney, they were all factories. So I have a great sadness because those factories shut down as well.
Yes, absolutely. I would be remiss if I didn’t translate this conversation over to your earlier career as well because, like we were just saying with the factory idea, a lot of your most iconic pictures, while they were backed by studios, they were headed by young filmmakers who felt strongly about doing things their own way. All these years later, when you’re working on an independent set, do you find that there are any commonalities in the experience?
Talia Shire: Well you know about the great Roger Corman, right? Roger Corman, if somebody doesn’t know, actually gave my brother his first opportunity to make a movie. And Ron Howard to make a movie. And Scorsese to make a movie. And I made a movie for him. So he was that great person who did low budget movies. Because movies really are expensive, and I don’t think people realize just how expensive even low budget movies are. And Roger Corman was that first place where you could have a community. But the low budget community is very exciting because people come together in the most inventive ways – and share, and do, and work 18 hour days because they love making movies.
So suddenly, a pillow, which is a prop, can be ten other things. That’s the wonderful thing. And people might not understand what I just said. But there are certain solutions to making movies when you don’t have a lot of money. Suddenly plates, cups, and things have to perform as well as people in many different ways. And Roger Corman still is that person who gives young people those opportunities to make movies.
Did that get a little weird when I started talking about cups and pillows? [laughs]
No! Because I understood exactly what you were saying. I know people who’ve used library carts to make dolly shots.
Talia Shire: Well actually, it’s because I was looking at a pillow and then I saw a cup. But you have to understand that these are props, and what if someone said to you, “make a movie about a pillow?” That’d be sort of strange, right? But if you’re creative and inventive, you’d come up with a story. And the person who would ask that question was Roger Corman.
It’s great to have someone who backs up the “safe” idea, but fresh and experimental ones as well.
Talia Shire: Yes, exactly! And I was really excited when I read, once again, that Roger Corman was asking young people to send him two-minute movies. Whether they’re made on your phone or on a camera, he wants you to send him your quarantine movies. So that’s pretty damn exciting.
It is. Any interview that I’ve had, I’ve been speaking to people about the experiences that are being lost with this pandemic. I feel like the conversation is always about loss so I am happy to hear about this.
Talia Shire: Yeah, he just announced it yesterday and I thought that was fascinating because this is the old master saying, “tell me your stories. Use your telephones. Send them to me.” And that’s very exciting because you got young filmmakers who are quarantined who, I suspect, have unique things to say.
Time and time again, I’ve heard you praise your experience working with Brando, then a living legend. And since then, you’ve certainly earned your spot up there with him. So you’re like Roger Corman in the sense that you’re not only helping add validity to stories, but you’re helping to get them off the ground. When working on a set, or an independent set, what feels different from when you first started? When you first working with Brando?
Talia Shire: I just have to tell you, because it’s fascinating what you’re saying. Jack Schwartzman, my husband, who did the last Sean Connery Bond movie, he and I worked together on several movies. So I began to see how complicated it is and how hard it is to make a movie. How hard it is to distribute a movie. It’s a very tough thing – I’ve put my house up many times at the bank to get these movies made – and I just wanted to bring that up.
And then you spoke about Marlon Brando. Marlon Brando – sorry, I digressed – was a great. And his teacher was Stella Adler, and she prepared him for Streetcar Named Desire. She was also my acting teacher, and Marlon Brando is an extraordinary actor. And I’m also going to use the word “generous.” He was a generous actor. And that’s what we all want to be, all of us, when we grow older, when we do a low-budget movie, even when I’m here with you. I want to be generous and teach. That’s the beauty behind a low-budget movie.
Burgess Meredith – the great Burgess Meredith – was the greatest teacher I had on low-budget movies. We didn’t have any money when we did Rocky. We were in some truck in Philadelphia, freezing cold. We were putting our costumes on, and there was the legend, Burgess Meredith, and he said to me, “isn’t this great?” And my jaw dropped. I never forgot his kindness. His goodness and his kindness, and I don’t think anybody on that first Rocky forgot that.
But that is what my job is going into low-budget movies today, to bring a kind of wisdom, to teach, and to say to that young set designer or that other actor, “isn’t this great?” The circumstances could be difficult, but isn’t it wonderful that we’re able to make this movie?
I was shocked to learn that you had terrible stage fright early on in your career.
Talia Shire: Yeah, terrible.
Looking back, did that stage fright help inform your performances of similarly shy and timid women?
Talia Shire: My stage fright used to happen during auditions. You know that “fight or flight” mechanism we all talk about. What happened to me was my “flight” manifested as falling asleep. So if you had me up in an audition, I started to fall asleep in the middle of the audition. And that was horrid to me.
Auditions are very different than actually having the role. An audition is terrifying, and I would fall asleep because I was so afraid. It was terrible.
Well, I guess that didn’t help with your performances [laughs].
Talia Shire: No, that’s actually different than the performance. Obviously, I had a certain amount of vanity and insecurity [during auditions], and when those came together, it was stage fright and I fell asleep. Now, when I did that first Godfather, I was so terrified that I walked into a camera and knocked it down. And it was Marlon Brando who was kind to me. I think he understood.
Film Inquiry thanks Talia Shire for taking the time to talk with us.
Watch Working Man
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