Beth Grant: From Stage to Screen

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The way that elite film critics are used to stories being told is different from the way rural audiences are used to hearing them, and vice versa. Maybe that’s part of the reason some critics haven’t warmed yet to Blues for Willadean, the new Del Shores film starring Octavia Spencer, Dale Dickey, and Beth Grant. But the misunderstanding is mutual, says Grant. “I love that term ‘blind spot’ because I think that a lot of film critics have them. But I guarantee you that half of my Georgia relatives, if you took them in to see a mumblecore movie, they would say, ‘What the hell is that?’ Even a brilliant thing like Tiny Furniture—‘What? That’s the worse movie I’ve ever seen.’”

The subject matter of Blues is challenging enough; the film deals with a battered wife struggling to stand up for herself. But the setting itself—a Texas trailer park—is equally difficult for many. Certain filmgoers tend to like their Southerners either buffoonish or evilly racist. “People do not like rednecks,” says Grant. “My experience is they like them really to be down and out and rough and dirty. They don’t see us as multi-dimensional. They don’t see us as complex as we are. It’s a generalization, and I’m embarrassed to make generalizations. But I think it’s kind of true.”

Not that the critics frowning on the film makes much of a dent in Grant’s optimism. She’s been here before with the same director. “Sordid Lives [her first Shores film] didn’t get good reviews either, and it ran for two years in theaters all across the country. I mean, that’s got to be a record. Del is very theatrical. He’s a playwright. I mean, he’s directed a few films, but he’s a playwright. Film critics are geared towards more cinematic approaches. Film is generally supposed to be a story told in pictures. I mean, Hitchcock said, ‘After a screenplay is written, the dialogue is added.’ And so, when you have a unique voice like Del Shores… there’s just nobody like him. He’s going to do it his way. And anything he does is going to be theatrical, it’s going to have music in it. It’s going to have dark humor, it’s going to be a little big vulgar, it’s going to be a little off color and shocking. It’s just the way he is. And so when you go see a Del Shores film, then that’s what you’ve come to expect.”

When Shores approached her about playing a battered wife in the stage play version of Blues for Willadean that preceded the film, she was taken aback: “Anyone who knows me knows that the last thing in the world I am is a victim,” she says with a laugh. But he eventually convinced her to find the strength in Willadean’s character. That was a difficult process. “In this journey of doing the play, I just about had a nervous breakdown developing this part because I try to be very truthful and honest in my work and I try to make it personal, you know. I’m Stanislavski-trained and I believe in making it personal. So I had to find the victim in me. And it was painful. I had to remember—well gosh Beth, what if you’d been in high school and a quarterback or whoever had fallen in love with you and picked you out, the cutest boy in school that everybody wanted. Think you could have been strong? So it became real for me. I got it. I understood it.”

That work didn’t get any easier on Opening Night. “We opened,” she remembers, “and I really wasn’t—I didn’t feel ready to open. In a Del Shores piece, you’ve got this damned dark laughter. So here I am navigating these waters on stage, with these huge laughs. Yet as soon as the laugh’s over, I’ve got to bring them back to the reality of this woman’s situation, that she’s dying. That she’s fighting for breath, for life. I was terrified. I was thinking, I made a mistake, I made a mistake, I shouldn’t have done this. And I remember that first big laugh coming in and you know, they’re applauding our entrances. It was such a relief!”

The play went on to a much-celebrated run. “Somehow I got through that first night,” she says, “and they stood and they cheered, and I went ‘Oh My God, what have we created? What is this crazy man doing?’ And they did it for seven months. Every. Single. Show. Standing ovations. Sold out. When award seasons came we won every award that Los Angeles gives. Drama Critics Circle, Ovation, LA Weekly, Backstage West and then to top it off, Del won the NAACP award for play of the year—beating out August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean. I mean, here’s this little white boy from Texas, at the NAACP awards, shocked that we were even nominated and we won best production.”

Part of the success of the production was surely due to the deep character work Grant did preparing Willadean. But of course, that’s something she’s been doing her whole career. “Sissy Hickey in Sordid Lives could have been done so one dimensional,” Grant says. “But she was my grandmother, in my mind. And I loved my grandmother. And you couldn’t put her in a box, I can tell you. She was extremely complex. And she might roll her eyes and be sarcastic but she also had a tremendous amount of heart. And even though she was in West Point, Georgia, little bitty West Point, Georgia, she was not provincial. She really did love people. So yes, my personal goal has been to bring complexity to these characters, to not have them written off as a joke or a bigoted bad guy.”

In Blues for Willadean, she’s joined by another marvelously accomplished character actor, her friend and newly minted Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer. “We wanted Octavia, naturally,” Grant says. “For every reason. We knew she’d done The Help and I knew she was going to get an Academy Award before I even know who got the part. I read that book and knew she was going to get it. Because it was her role. Sometimes it is divine intervention. But with this film, there’s no way I could do it with anyone other than Octavia, that’s for sure.”

That combination of Grant and Spencer’s star power, plus the other cast (Dickey is well known from Winter’s Bone, My Name is Earl, and True Blood, and costar David Steen is featured in Django Unchained), plus those rabid Shores fans, all have Grant feeling sanguine about the film’s long-term prospects. It’s juts been released on iTunes, and as Grant says, “Now we know people can find it. And then we’ll see. I think our sales rep is still hopeful that he’s got some sales brewing for television. We’re keeping up good thought. I’m a cock-eyed optimist, I think. I do feel really feel whole-heartedly that it will reach the people it’s supposed to reach and help them wake up.”

That process already seems to have begun. “With this screening here in LA,” says Grant, “sold out audience. And it’s a fairly sophisticated Hollywood crowd. I don’t know what the reaction is going to be. I said, ‘Well, it’s one thing to have a reaction in Birmingham where they’re Southerners and they get this. What’s it going to be like in L.A.? At a Laemmle Theatre? At an art house? Not sure, at all. So afterwards, a standing ovation. And I go, whoah.”

But that was just the beginning. “Then,” she continues, “people start standing up and telling their stories. When it’s question time. And they all have people that they know—wives, sisters, friends, who had been in this kind of thing. One woman, she stood up and said ‘I got to tell you. I thought I was coming to see a Del Shores comedy. I had no idea what this was going to be. And then Octavia tells the story of my sister. Verbatim. This is what happened to me.’ And this is somebody I know who‘s done a lot of work in the business world, very active. Another woman wrote me later, and she did not stand up because she was sobbing, she was crying. Her sister had been killed by her husband years ago, 20 years ago and she had never grieved and she started crying and couldn’t stop and had the catharsis of her life that she needed.”

No matter what the critics think, Blues for Willadean tells its story. Grant and Spencer and the other actors tell their characters’ stories. And the audiences are beginning to respond with stories of their own.