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Beth Grant

#253
From "Little Miss Sunshine" and "Donnie Darko" to "No County for Old Men" and "Rain Man," this remarkable character actress has been in pretty much everything. The inspiration? Bringing her mother joy. POSTED April 12, 2016

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If you love movies, you have to love Beth Grant—because she’s pretty much been in all of them.

This is not a joke, or even an exaggeration. The native Alabaman is a Who’s Who and What’s What of modern cinema. Her credits range from “Rain Man” and “Little Miss Sunshine” to “Donnie Darko” and “No Country for Old Men”; from “Valley of the Sun” to “Crazy Heart” to “Matchstick Men” to “Rock Star.” And that’s not even the 854,322 television appearances.

Is Grant a superstar? That probably depends on your definition. But is she a brilliant, diverse actress with a long and splendid resume? Indeed.

Today, Beth speaks on the highs and lows of a career in front of the camera; of being pegged for a certain type; of portraying a wacky pageant organizer in “Little Miss Sunshine” and making her cinematic debut alongside Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman.

One can follow Beth on Twitter here, visit her IMDB page here and see her regularly on “The Mindy Project.”

Beth Grant, who needs a star in Hollywood? You’re the 253rd Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: OK Beth, so I’m happy you’re doing this, because there’s a question I can ask you that I’ve always wondered about. Namely, you go to a movie and you see, let’s say, a really overweight character. Just as an example. And clearly there was a casting call for someone overweight. And I think, “Hmm, wouldn’t that be sort of insulting, to land the part of the fat guy?” You’re not overweight. But, as it says on your Wikipedia bio, you’re known for playing “conservatives, religious zealots or sticklers for the rules.” So, I guess—A. Have you figured out what about you says “conservative religious stickler”? B. Are you 100 percent comfortable and cool with that?

BETH GRANT: I’m 100 percent cool with all my characters and my career is just beyond a dream come true. But whoever put that on Wikipedia was just one person who I don’t think has seen all of my work. I’m guessing maybe it was submitted by a Donnie Darko, Kitty Farmer fan, or maybe a Little Miss Sunshine, Judge Nancy Jenkins fan—two films and two characters I love so much. My goodness, I’ve played every kind of character in the world—I do not feel pigeon holed or type cast in that description. I guess they didn’t see my Criminal Minds episode when I was a kidnapping murderer married to Bud Cort! But I have been killed a lot, so I do know that my angular face is apparently threatening enough to be killed! Ha! But I love each and every character.

I’m especially attached to Beverly on The Mindy Project … I’ve been playing her for four years! I wouldn’t say she fits that description but she does have a conservative bent and I enjoy using my face to say whatever comes to Beverly’s mind which is usually something quite outlandish and politically incorrect. There is a fun aspect to it as well, because when I get dolled up as myself and go to a premiere or whatever, people are so surprised that I am attractive. That’s a great compliment to me because it means I did my job. You can’t have light without dark. And I always like my characters. Always. I always understand why they are the way they are and I’m on their side. On The Mindy Project Beverly knows she has a rotten personality, she even said so. She took at personality test in the Village Voice, and they can’t be wrong.

J.P.: You’re a character actor—and you seem proud to be a character actor. And I wonder, did you need to accept that at some point? What I mean is, was the original goal to be a Streep or Sally Field? Or did you never think that way? And what does it mean, to you, to be a character actor? 

B.G.: Oh, I wanted to be Joan Crawford or Marilyn Monroe. I was shocked to find out that I wasn’t a leading lady. I couldn’t stand it! And it thwarted my career. I would start and stop every time the reality hit. I always blamed it on my weight, so my weight was up and down and I was always struggling to work out, jogging, some new diet plan. After one makeover period, when I was maybe 28 and looking pretty good, I called a friend of mine who was producing a show about a bunch of babes, women sailors on a Navy boat and he said, “Well, we’re looking for a different kind of girl.” I told him I had lost lost weight and was looking really good ad he said, “No, you aren’t the type.” I remember being so crushed that he wouldn’t even see me. Many, many, many, many rejections like that.

But then when I was 33 I started studying with a loud, strong intimidating Greek director, Milton Katselas. After a few scenes casting myself in inappropriate roles, he said, loudly, “Why do you keep trying to be a Rolex watch when you’re the salt of the earth?” He taught me to study Colleen Dewhurst, Maureen Stapleton, Anna Magnani—wonderful character actors who became leading ladies in their own ways. Over time, I surrendered to it and I love and honor the characters I play.

J.P.: I love Little Miss Sunshine. Like, love love love. And you’re insanely good in it. So I’d love to ask—what stands out to you from the project? And did you know, while working, that it’d be a great film?

B.G.: I knew I loved it and that everyone was sharp and really, really good. But I don’t think I could have predicted its enormous success. It pleases me so much because I think it is a glorious movie and completely original. The directors, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, are the best! They are never defensive with each other, it’s always, “Yes, and …” And they’ve worked together for years, raised three children. Amazing. And of course the cast! I saw Steve Carrell recently, who I had hoped would be nominated for The Big Short, I thought he was perfect in that film … nuanced, complex, human. They are all working together again soon and I can’t wait to see what wondrous thing they do together. Also, Abigail Breslin and Paul Dano, Toni Collette, Alan Arkin! Good grief! Heaven …

J.P.: What’s it like for you, watching yourself in a movie? Satisfying? Nightmarish? Do you always watch the stuff you’re in? Do you watch yourself critically? 

B.G.: I’m usually fine with it. It’s like visiting old friends. I love my characters.

J.P.: So I know you’re from Gadsden, Alabama, know you attended East Carolina (go Pirates!). But why acting? When did the bug first bite? When did you realize, “Yup, this is it for me! This is what I want to do with my life!”?

B.G.: I was born in Gadsden, but we lived in an even smaller town, Ft. Payne. We moved when I was little so I don’t remember it. I’ve always hoped to go back there. I mostly wanted my mother’s approval, to make her smile, to hear that beautiful laugh. She had wanted to be an actress so naturally so did I from the time I can remember. She taught me a song to sing to my uncle when he came home form the Korean War. “Oh, where have you been, Billy Boy, Billy Boy? Oh where have you been charming Billy?” My uncle was as gorgeous a man as my mother was a woman. He was a football hero and in that Navy uniform … wow! When I was done he clapped and laughed and the whole family clapped an laughed and that was it! I was hooked. I’m guessing I was about 3-years old.

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J.P.: Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?

B.G.: Playing Edwina Williams, Tennessee Williams’s mother, for James Franco in a movie, Tenn, about Tennessee and his family. Vincent D’Onofrio played my husband. James is such a fun and great director, he sees what you are doing and covers it!. He gives you a little nudge now and then, so gentle and encouraging but also very demanding. He expects a lot and I love working with him more than I can express. Also Edwina was very much like my own mother so I really went to town.

J.P.: Your daughter, Mary Chieffo, is also an actress (as well as 6-feet tall, which is super cool). I’m wondering how you felt/feel about this career choice. You’ve surely had your ups and downs, highs and lows—as has your husband. So when you kid says, “Mommy, I want to act …” what do you think?

B.G.: I was surprised, but then not at all. She had always loved to sing and make up plays with her friends. But she was well rounded—an athlete, a very good student, valedictorian in high school, etc. By the time she said it out loud she was already on course.

I had seen how really gifted she is, so I knew the talent was there. I had seen what a hard worker she was, how she loved to rehearse, was always prepared, so I felt great about it. The highs far exceed the lows and I figure we’ve had a pretty great life, there are worse professions. Once shed decided that Juilliard was her first choice, I was nervous. But again, she worked so hard to prepare that when she was accepted it was yet another affirmation that she is headed in the right direction. But if she ever changes her mind that’s OK, too. Acting isn’t really the goal—living life in the moment, staying awake for the journey is the point. At least for me. Acting helps us get there, that’s for sure, but it doesn’t really matter what you do for a living. You can be a channel of love, peace and truth in any job you do. That’s my goal and I hope it’s hers. But man, is she good! Wow! At age 23, she’s already done seven Shakespeare plays—lead roles, too! Plus a bit of everything else. With her height and super strong features, it will be very interesting to see the trajectory of her career. Obviously, she is everything to me. I believe in her and hope that I can always be there for her to share my experience and love.

In Little Miss Sunshine ...

In Little Miss Sunshine …

J.P.: I’ve covered a fair number of actors, and one thing I struggle with are those in your profession who takes themselves far too seriously. They’re not actors, they’re ac-tohrs. They need silence. And peeled grapes in their private trailer. And two assistants. I’m not asking you to name names—but I know you’ve met plenty of these folks. My question is, what about acting lends itself to the egomaniacal behavior of some? Is it the resulting fame, or the craft itself?

B.G.: I’ve never met that person! Stars have such a huge job. They carry the movie or the play or the TV show. They call them “leading actors” because they lead. Some are more personable, some are more fearful, all are human. When a star needs quiet I totally get it. I do too. I usually take a nap at lunch, it’s very important to me to keep my energy going, to re-center myself. For me, acting is more channeling another person. My instrument has to be rested. I have to eat well, take walks, meditate, treat others like I wish to be treated. I have to do my research, be thorough in my process, leave no stone unturned. It’s a lot of work before I ever say a word. So I have a great deal of patience with our leads. And of course, that gives me more patience with myself.

J.P.: You’ve been in everything. Seriously, everything. But how does it work? What I mean is, how do you decide what to do? Is it character-based? Show/movie-based? Paycheck-based? Do you turn a lot down?

B.G.: I’ve always tried to say yes a lot. I think I got that from a Liza Minelli album! The character first, the story (what the character brings to the story, how I can shine a light), the people involved, the dates, the time to prepare and hpw hard it will be to coordinate with my schedule. I’ve never taken a job solely on the paycheck—not out of virtue, money just doesn’t motivate me. Sometimes I wish it did. I’ve turned down things I felt were overly sexual or violent but I’m no prude. I’ve never had a problem doing a sex scene or nudity if it’s necessary to tell the story properly. And I’ve played wicked characters who do terrible things. Without dark there is no light. My dear friend, the director Todd Holland, once advised me on a project I was having a hard time deciding on. He said that I should ask myself what I’d be putting inro the universe. Since then that’s an important question for me.

In The Mindy Project with Zoe Jarman and Mindy Kaling.

In The Mindy Project with Zoe Jarman and Mindy Kaling.

J.P.: Your first movie appearance was in a big one—you played “mother at farm house” in Rain Man. A. How did you land the part? B. What did it mean to you? C. What memories do you have?

B.G.: My agent got me the audition. I had just been to Big Sur and I saw the cabin where the founders raised their large family. I thought about what a strong woman that mother must have been. I was determined to give them a strong “Mama Bear” pioneer woman with no make-up, in a house dress. And happily, that’s what they wanted. I found out later they had seen around 700 women all over the Midwest. What a thrill to launch my career with Dustin Hoffman, Tom Cruise, and Barry Levinson, then for it to win Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Screenplay! Wow. I still can’t believe how lucky I was.

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QUAZ EXPRESS WITH BETH GRANT:

• Rank in order (favorite to least): .99 Cent Store, “City Slickers II,” “Abbey Road,” Universal Studios, Marilyn Monroe, Canola Oil, Milwaukee Brewers, Honey Bunches of Oats, kettle corn, Bruce Wayne: Marilyn Monroe, Universal Studios, City Slickers II, Abbey Road, 99 Cent Store, Bruce Wayne, Canola Oil, Milwaukee Brewers, Honey Bunches of Oats and kettle corn.

• You’re offered $5 million to play Celine Dion in the upcoming film, “Celine: I Am Amazing.” However, to research the role you have to spend a full year sleeping on Celine’s kitchen floor and fighting for scraps with her dog. You in?: I’m not right for that role. Also, I don’t choose roles based on money, never have. It would be tempting to take whatever fool offered me that much money with that bizarre offer but I would pass.

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall? : No. When I fly I am very surrendered, but I’ve been fortunate and never had a life-or-death situation.

• What are we supposed to do about the drought?: Conserve water! The LADWP is very helpful. We can replace leaking fixtures, rebates are often available. It’s easier than people think. We converted our grass lawn to drought resistant and native plants. It’s beautiful. Short showers. My friend Ed Begley has an underground rainwater tank for watering his plants. So much is possible and more affordable than people think. Again, the LADWP was very helpful to us.

• The world needs to know—what was it like working with Ilene Graff on Mr. Belvedere?: My first comedy! She was great, friendly and kind. I ran into her with George and Erin Pennacchio and she is still great and still kind.

• Five greatest actresses of your lifetime: There are so many truly amazing actresses, but these women have have deeply inspired me: Annette Bening, Bette Davis, Kathy Bates, Lois Smith, Juliette Binoche, Frances Fisher, Alice Ripley and Marilyn Monroe. But there are many more.

• In exactly 12 words, make a case for Erik Estrada: I doubt if he needs me to make a case for him! (That was exactly 12 words.)

• Five all-time favorite movies: Godfather I, II, Five Easy Pieces, Donnie Darko, No Country For Old Men, Saturday Night Fever, All About Eve

• One question you would ask Paul Stanley were he here right now?: Do you mean Paul Stanley from KISS? I would ask him if he remembers me from the early years when I worked for Howard Marks and Bill Aucoin. I was just a lowly office worker but I remember well the day the leather arrived! The bulletins form the first tour. We all went to the first concert in New York after their tour. It was at The Beacon Theater on Broadway on the Upper West Side. They were fabulous, we threw chocolate kisses to the stage. The encore pyrotechnical display was unlike anything I’d ever seen. We knew they were going all the way.

• In 1989 you were in I Know My First Name is Steven. I was 16, and that movie shook me to the core. Was it just another appearance to you, or was there weight?: Of course there was weight. It’s horrifying to think of that happening to anyone. I had also known the parents of a boy named Adam Walsh who was kidnapped from a mall and never found. The parents became activists and we did a story on them for a show I worked on called Real People. I also did a Criminal Minds episode and played the bad guy, the kidnapper. It was directed by Matthew Gray Gubler, who suggested I think of it as a Grimm’s Fairy Tale—a cautionary tale for parents and children to stay close, particularly in crowds. I hope that it scared parents enough to watch their kids. There are so many kidnappings every year … kids need to be educated about dealing with strangers and parents need to pay attention.

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life