Frances Fisher: Actor's Actor

Fisher spoke with us recently about daughter Francesca’s career, as well as her tenacious own.

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Frances Fisher: Actor's Actor

The longevity of Frances Fisher’s career is not only a testament to her talent, but to her training and, perhaps as much as anything else, her tenacity. Even if she had never ventured into film and television, she’d be remembered as a fixture in theater, originating roles early in her career in plays by Elia Kazan and Arthur Miller, among others.

But the Stella Adler and Lee Strasburg-trained actress did move onto both the big and small screens, beginning with the classic soap opera The Edge of Night and moving on to a long string of roles, her career reaching the so-called next level in then-husband Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. That relationship produced several film collaborations, as well as daughter Francesca Eastwood, who has caught the family acting bug: She stars with Fisher in this month’s feminist Western Outlaws and Angels. Fisher spoke with us recently about Francesca’s career, and her own.

Paste Magazine: Tell me about what first attracted you to this project—did you already know the director’s work?
Frances Fisher: I got involved through my daughter Francesca. I read the script and I loved it. I thought it touched on things that had never been dealt with before onscreen in a Western. I really liked the sensibility, and I thought the humor was terrific. At the premiere, the audience really got the humor, which was great, because there’s a lot of it in there, as dark as it is. But [Outlaws and Angels director J.T. Mollner] called me up a couple of weeks before they started and told me that the actress who as going to play Esther couldn’t get out of [another] contract, and asked if I would do it. He said, “I know it’s a small part, but we’d love to have your energy in it.” And I said yes! And it was great. I felt like I was part of the family.

Paste: And had you worked with Francesca before?
Fisher: I did work with her when she was eight months old, in Stars Fell on Henrietta, with Robert Duvall. That was 22 years ago. So she was a baby in my arms.
Paste: I assume that was her first role then?
Fisher: Yes, that was her first role! I did a movie called Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman, and I was six months pregnant, so she was onscreen, but you couldn’t see her because they hid the pregnancy.
Paste: It’s been exciting to see her screen life take off these last couple of years.
Fisher: I’m really proud of her. I think she did a terrific job with this character, making that rough transition from a little prairie girl to a gunslinger, you know? I thought she did as good a job as anyone could have.

Paste: You’ve had a long career in acting, and have done tons of projects. Did you try to dissuade her from going on this path, or did you encourage her?
Fisher: She’s seen my up-and-down career path, so she understands that. So when she said she wanted to do this, I said, “Good—follow your passion.” I think it’s really important for kids to have a wide range of opportunities to see what they’re interested in. That’s why going to college is so good, or even taking a gap year just to live in the world. For her to go into the family business is great, because she understands the mechanics of it.
Paste: She’s had a firsthand look her whole life, really.
Fisher: She’s been to a lot of my sets and watched me work. She gets it.

Paste: You’re really an actor’s actor. Your career is a testament to the value of showing up and doing the work. In an era when good roles for women over 50 are not being produced in great numbers by Hollywood, you seem to find interesting projects to be a part of. How do you go about seeking out those projects?
Fisher: I have every good agents. After all the movie stars pass on a project, I get the sloppy seconds (laughs). Or sometimes I get a straight offer. But I’ve been lucky, and I’ve been very lucky that since I started working in—God, my early twenties—I’ve never had to go back to bartending or anything. Somehow I’ve always been able to find enough work. You’re right, as a woman gets older, the roles are not as available. Hopefully that’s changing given the outcry that’s going on about the lack of roles for women over 50, or how about over 60? (Laughs.) But I just keep looking! My next project is a play at the Geffen Theater in Los Angeles, and I just love the fact that the script has four sisters who are in their 40s, 50s and 60s. I hadn’t even read the play yet, and I said, “I love this playwright!”
Paste: This is a conversation I’ve also had with our mutual friend Beth Grant.
Fisher: Oh God, Beth. Love love love her. She’s exactly the actor’s actor. What a great character actor she is. She is working constantly, just going from one job to another. She’s fabulous.

Paste: I love that you brought up the theater, because I think that’s another of the secrets to your longevity. Not to disparage anyone who didn’t come up that way, but for people like you that not only have roots in the theater but have shown a long term commitment to the theater, you do have a real grounding for a career.
Fisher: A lot of young people don’t study, and if they do they don’t work on plays, they work on scenes from TV shows or something. Which I think is so disappointing. You know, the great thing about working in the theater is that you get to work on the classic plays. Plays that are tried and true. Plays that have a beginning, a middle and an end. Characters that are clear and just work. When you work with material like that, you are able to recognize other material that’s not as good, and you can imbue it with your own understanding to make it better. That’s what a lot of us have to do with certain scripts, especially in television. Although now, some of the greatest writers around are working in television. That’s why we have so many great television series.
Paste: True.
Fisher: But the thing about theater is, it’s more about character than anything. Eleanora Duse played Juliet when she was 50 years old, on the stage. There were no close-ups to show that she had lines on her face. She was able to create that character, and from a distance you just feel the vibration of the character. I think theater gives you an opportunity to create much more magic.

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