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Interview with Carolyn McCormick

By Beth Herstein

Carolyn McCormick
Though she is best known for her recurring role as Dr. Olivet in all three of television's "Law & Order" series, Carolyn McCormick has performed regularly on the stage since her graduation from San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater [ACT] in the early 1980s. In addition to her extensive regional work, she has appeared in New York in productions at the Atlantic Theatre and Second Stage, among others. She also is a frequent collaborator with her husband, actor Byron Jennings.

Currently, McCormick is on the New York stage again, in the West End transfer of a revival of Peter Shaffer's 1973 hit, Equus. Equus is a thought-provoking, disturbing tale centering on the relationship between a disturbed young man, Alan Strang (Daniel Radcliffe), recently convicted of blinding six horses, and psychiatrist Martin Dysart (Richard Griffiths) who tries to help him. McCormick plays Dora Strang, Alan's mother, whose religious fervor blinds her to her son's emotional and sexual confusion. The production has received a great deal of attention, both here and in London, because it marks the professional stage debut of film star Daniel Radcliffe, internationally beloved as the star of the Harry Potter series. Radcliffe has won over dubious critics with his performance, receiving glowing reviews on both sides of the Atlantic. The show, as a whole, has been a success in both London and New York—and, as McCormick notes, has introduced countless young people to serious theater.

One recent Wednesday, McCormick met with me between performances before rushing off for dinner with her sons. She spoke about her career, the importance of her family, and her thoughts on Equus.

Beth Herstein:  You are from Texas. When did you come to New York?

Carolyn McCormick:  I was born in Midland Texas but I grew up in Houston. My dad was a New Yorker, so I came to New York a lot growing up. Then I went to Williams College in Massachusetts. So, I left Texas when I went to college. Then I went to ACT in San Francisco for graduate school. I was out in California for four or five years, then came to New York around '87, '88.

BH:  You also have ongoing relationship with theaters like Williamstown Theatre Festival.

CM:  Yeah, I do. Williamstown, because I went to college there. When I graduated I stayed that summer and worked for Nikos [Psacharopoulos, co-founder of the Williamstown Theatre Festival and its artistic director from 1956-1989], back when Nikos ran Williamstown.

BH:  You were in Dinner with Friends during its New York run. What was that experience like?

CM:  It was great. I love Daniel Sullivan, who directed it, and Donald Margulies, who wrote it. I liked it too because I did it for a long time, about a year—maybe over a year. It was nice to live in a part for that long, the discipline of doing that part for that long. I had four different people play my husband, and three different people play the friend. So, that too was fun, because it constantly was changing when there would be a different actor in the part. I did it right after I had my second child.

BH:  How old are your children?

CM:  My children are 9 and 12. They're good ages. But all the ages are good.

BH:  I read an interview you gave in 2007, when you were in Dayton filming the movie True Nature, and you said it was the first time you'd been away from your children.

CM:  I have chosen not to take a lot of work because I didn't want to be away from them. It certainly redirected my career, but in a way that I can't imagine doing anything else. For example, I used to spend a lot more time in Los Angeles, and I don't spend as much time there now because my kids are in a school that I love. So, if something came along that was worth it, I would do it, but I can't imagine uprooting them. When I went to Dayton that was for two weeks, and I came home the weekend in between. Even when I was doing an episode of "Cold Case," I came home in between.

BH:  You are married to the wonderful stage actor Byron Jennings. How did you meet?

CM:  We met originally in San Francisco doing Arms and the Man in 1983, and then we actually got together in 1987 in San Diego during another show.

BH:  You've collaborated a lot over the years.

CM:  We've done 15 or 16 plays together.

BH:  What is it like working together? Obviously you enjoy it.

CM:  We work really well together; we help each other. We're very specific, if we want to work on something. We observe a mutual respect. It's fun, especially when we get to do comedy, which we do a lot of. He and I have a great time doing comedy.

BH:  Have your children gone to see you all on the stage?

CM:  They've seen me in some plays. They won't see this one. They saw my husband in Is He Dead?, because that was a farce. They saw me in a play called Biography. My plays tend to be more grown up, so they've seen more of Byron's—Noises Off and a play called The Underpants that Steve Martin wrote.

They certainly know about the theater and our work. They hear me on the radio—I do a lot of stuff on the New York Times radio station voiceovers. So they'll hear me on that. I did an Obama ad recently. You know how at the end he says, "I'm Barack Obama and I approved this message." So, they heard the ad and said, "Barack Obama approves you!"

BH:  In Private Lives with Lindsay Duncan and Alan Rickman, you were the standby for two of the female roles.

CM:  I don't usually stand by. I did for that because I really love that play. My husband was working and I had to be in town anyway. So, I thought, oh, ok. I really liked watching [Duncan and Rickman perform], though I don't like understudying generally. I got to go on for about a week as the French maid, which was a lot of fun.

BH:  Before we talk about Equus, I wanted to mention some of your current and upcoming movie roles, including one in Woody Allen's next movie.

CM:  It's called Whatever Works. I have one scene, in which I play Larry David's wife. It's a very funny scene.

BH:  What was it like working with the two of them?

CM:  Larry was great, very funny. So was Woody Allen. They're very similar, Larry David and Woody Allen. They both have that dry, self deprecating humor.

BH:  What are some of your other projects?

CM:  I have a tiny, tiny scene as Richard Gere's soon-to-be ex-wife—I guess I'm getting a lot of parts as the ex-wife—in Nights in Rodanthe that just came out recently, and I did a movie with Campbell Scott called Company Retreat that has not come out yet. And another one, a short film called Proud Iza that Anna Condo directed. Also True Nature—the movie I filmed in Dayton—is coming out in the spring. And then another movie I did with Toni Dove, an experimental computer director, called Spectropia.

BH:  It sounds like you've been very busy.

CM:  Yes, I have a lot of stuff floating around out there. Sometimes movies take so long to come out, though. Spectropia I did ages ago, maybe two years ago.

In Equus
BH:  How did you get involved in Equus?

CM:  Originally I was up for Hesther, because that's much more what I would normally play. But, it felt too much like Dr. Olivet [in "Law & Order"]. So, it didn't appeal to me tremendously because I thought, "Oh this is just what I always do." Then the director asked me in the callback to read for Hesther and for Dora. I thought, "Oh, I'd love to do Dora. No one ever casts me in that sort of part." I don't know why they picked me, but they did. [Laughs]

BH:  Had you been familiar with the play?

CM:  I had seen it back in the '70s when I was in high school. My parents took me to everything. We came to New York a few times a year and when we were here we saw nonstop plays.

BH:  Is that what got you interested in theater?

CM:  No, I was in plays in high school. I also did speech tournaments, which I really loved. Dramatic interp, duet acting. That kind of started me off.

BH:  Critics have commented both about the ways in which Equus transcends time and the ways in which it is a product of its time. What is your take on that?

CM:  I know that a lot of people refer to the show as having closeted homosexual overtones. I guess they're there, and that's less of an issue now. Although I think people having secrets is always an issue. Also, I don't think it's a play about homosexuality. It's more a play about sexuality, coming to terms with what your sexuality is. If you have parents who are repressed or who don't talk about things, the possibility for dysfunction increases exponentially. I think that is a way in which the play is timeless. People always have secrets and think that they are having some deviant thought or idea. If they're not able to express it, especially to people they are most intimate with, like Alan with his parents, there's no way to help guide them out of whatever confusion they are in. Not to say that it's the parents' fault. Thea [Sharrock], the director, did a very good job of making sure that we didn't equate the parents with the bad guys. But, certainly, there were elements to his upbringing that led him astray, and once he started getting confused, there was a lack of noticing it. I am always confused by parents of, like, the Columbine kids, the Virginia Tech kids. How can you not know your kid is going off the beam in a big way? ...

BH:  I was very impressed with the physicality of all the actors. Because to me, the play doesn't have as much to do with homosexuality as with repression and shame. That shows in the bodies of the characters and their movements, that tension, that weight.

CM:  Yes, I think so. And I think there are people who are very closed off from a lot of experience. So in that way I think the play is timeless. The other way is the optical experience. Whether you can quibble with a performance or with the play, it doesn't matter. The event is the evening. That's something that doesn't happen that much in the theater ... In that way, the play is very powerful, as well as the thoughts behind it. What ricochets for one person doesn't necessarily for another but there are all kinds of resonances. A lot of the stuff that Richard says is like that. Some of it you may think you've heard before, some people may have never heard it before. I find it resonates more than not ...

There's humor in it too. Richard's character has a lot of humor. My character also has humor. She's probably laughed at more than laughed with, but I do feel there's some humor in observing a woman like my character, who has such strong beliefs and really doesn't see her own behavior as causing any of this because she's so rigid about what she thinks is right and wrong. This way of orienting herself to the world that didn't let in any other option. I don't judge the woman, that's really how she is. But, I do feel that she's missing the point in a few areas.

BH:  In your big speech a lot of that comes out, as well as a lot of the pain she feels.

CM:  It's a terrible dilemma. Nobody sets out to be a bad parent. You may end up not being as good a parent as you hope but you never intend to be a bad one. You want nothing but the best and you love your children always. I think that it is very sad for her. Plus, it's sad for her marriage. I think she loses both.

BH:  It's also interesting to see the juxtaposition of the two parents, the different ways that they repress or refuse to acknowledge the world.

CM:  Yes, and they don't really communicate with each other. He certainly knows that she's a bible beater, but I don't think she has any idea about his life. But because she's so rigid about what she thinks is right and wrong, she doesn't allow him in. He would never tell her about his fantasies because he knows she wouldn't accept them. It's a dangerous pattern to get into.

BH:  I wonder if they would tell it to themselves necessarily.

CM:  That's the problem with their secrets. The more you start living this double secret life, the more you can't find your true self, in a way. That's something the play exposes really beautifully.

BH:  At the start of the play, Hesther (Kate Mulgrew) tells Martin (Richard Griffiths) about Alan's horrible crime, and describes it as the most horrific thing she can imagine a teenager doing. It is horrific that he has blinded six horses—but contemporary audiences, familiar with the events at Columbine and Virginia Tech, have seen and heard about so much worse. It's a sad comment on our time.

CM:  You're right. But, if he was a Columbine kid, it would be harder to redeem him. It would be harder for Richard to feel that kind of compassion. His relating to Alan, too—it wouldn't work. It would be almost impossible.

BH:  So, what is it like working with this cast?

CM:  They're all great. I love working with Richard [Griffiths] and Daniel [Radcliffe]. Richard is a fabulous storyteller and just a good guy. And, Dan is very sweet, hardworking kid.

BH:  In the Daniel Radcliffe interview in The New York Times, those qualities came across. He doesn't seem so struck with his own fame.

CM:  Not at all. It's all about his doing the best job he can. Very appreciative of having been cast as Harry Potter, but never making much of it. It's just part of who he is, like being tall or not tall. You know what I mean? It isn't something that he wears. He's not a slick movie star. He's just a playful, funny person.

BH:  You are wonderful in "Law & Order." What has that experience been like for you?

CM:  It's great. First of all, it's here, and I can do other things. They've always been very accommodating of my schedule, which is often complicated. I've also gotten very fond of Dr. Olivet. I feel in a way that people see me only as that character, so that's another reason it's nice to do this. People say, "Oh, she's not always this sort of sane wise one." You get labeled in television, and I've done "Law & Order" now for 18 years. Even though I've left to do other series, while I was still doing "Law & Order," it's very hard to break free from that image.

BH:  I was wondering what that is like for you, especially because you have done so much other work.

CM:  Well, I do so much theater and people think of me as a TV actress. Someone once said to me, "Oh, you do theater." I said, "Yes," and she said, "I'd love to see you do something where you change your expressions." I laughed so hard. I think it's so funny, because I might work on "Law & Order" four days out of the year.

BH:  Really?

CM:  Sometimes a little more than that, but it's a minimal amount of time compared to what I do with most of my time. I guess when you add them up, over all the years, it seems like more. Also, that's the power of television. And it's nice. I think Dick Wolf has done a great job with the whole franchise.

BH:  In an interview you did about the role of Dr. Olivet several years ago, you said you were happy to be in a show that deals with psychiatry in a more natural way, as sometimes the therapist's role is sensationalized. I wonder how interesting it is for you to watch how psychiatry is treated here.

CM:  I think Richard is doing a great job with it. The thing I've learned with Dr. Olivet over the years is that listening is 90% of what you're doing. You're just listening and trying to put the pieces together. What's the truth, what's not the truth? What buttons do I need to push? How do I get the information I need? Richard is really good at that, at taking the time, maybe making a pause to get someone to speak a little more. It's the whole gauging as you try to get people to reveal more. I have never been in therapy but I imagine that is what a good therapist needs. There's no judgment. That's what makes Olivet sort of boring, because she never emotes. I don't think she would reveal anything. The point of a good therapist is not to get subjective. Anyway, it's that thing, because you're job is to gather information, not judge—to draw conclusions but not to be a critic.

BH:  As you're saying this, I'm wondering if that doesn't sometimes apply to actors as well. I've seen people on stage in situations where all they are doing for a while is listening and watching and reacting. When it's done effectively it's very powerful.

CM:  The best thing to remind yourself as an actor is to listen. It's very easy to forget that and just be waiting to talk. You have to remember, "Why am I actually talking?" It sounds so obvious but it's actually not.

BH:  How do you feel about the positive reception to the show? It was packed the night I was there, and the crowd was very enthusiastic.

CM:  It's been great. Daniel Radcliffe has an enormous fan base. The thing I notice the most is how young much of the audience is because of that, and how nice that is. We need to get younger people into the audiences so those people realize that the theaters are worth keeping alive. A lot of the theaters I've worked in have an old subscription base. I look up there and I think "Who's going to replace you guys in 20 or 30 years?" If this show ignites 10 new future theater goers every night, that would be great. I think that's the best thing, and that's Dan bringing those people in. But they come in to see a movie star and they leave having seen an actor.

BH:  The reviews have been really respectful and positive. Sometimes, when a movie star is in a show, there's a backlash.

CM:  They're super nice, and he deserves that, because he's really good.

BH:  One of my sisters and her husband saw the show recently. They have seen all the Harry Potter movies with their children. They were so impressed with his work in Equus. Within five minutes, he made them forget all about Harry Potter.

CM:  It would be a hard part to do if there were not any preconceived notions, let alone having to overcome the image of Harry Potter. And he does it so well.

Carolyn McCormick is currently appearing in Equus at the Broadhurst Theatre, 235 West 44th Street (Between Broadway and 8th Avenue). For ticket and schedule, please visit

Photos: Carol Rosegg

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