I interviewed Linda Gray! It was an amazing experience — Gray was fun, insightful and extremely generous with her time. I’m so excited to share our conversation as part of Dallas Decoder’s Sue Ellen Week.
I’d like to begin with something that I’ve waited my whole life to say to you, which is this: “Hello, darlin’.”
[Laughs] I love that. Yes, I’ve heard that a couple of times before.
Well, when I was a kid, I wanted to grow up to be J.R., so to be able to say that to you now is a dream come true.
Oh, that’s so sweet. Thank you so very much.
OK, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, you’re about to do something you’ve never done before, which is to start production on a new season of “Dallas” without Larry Hagman. How are you feeling about that?
It’s tricky because I know he’s not on the planet, but on the set, he’s very much there. He’s kind of like this big presence, looming over us and smiling. And I think what the writers may do — and underline “may” — is have something where J.R. Ewing made some oil deal 20 years ago that will come back and have reverberations on the characters today. So I think Larry will always be there — and he doesn’t even have to get into makeup.
So you’re not starting the season with a heavy heart?
No, not at all. Everybody is light about it because Larry was light about it. He always said he wasn’t afraid to die. And I think every single person who’s honest will say, “I’d like to go doing what I love to do.” Larry certainly achieved that. He passed playing the character he was meant to play. It was a life well lived. He charmed so many people and touched so many lives. He’s missed, but we just continue his memory.
And what about Sue Ellen? Any idea what she’s going to be up to next year?
I always smile when I get that question. People stop me on the street and say, “Please don’t drink anymore” or please don’t do this or please don’t do that. Honestly, until about a week before we start filming, we don’t know what’s going on.
The producers don’t sit down with you and explain Sue Ellen’s arc for the season?
No. But I prefer not knowing because sometimes, you could give something away without realizing it. Like when Sue Ellen started drinking again, I didn’t know that was coming up until days before we shot it.
I’m so glad you brought that up. The scene in “J.R.s Masterpiece” where she takes her first drink in 20 years is beautifully done.
When I opened the script for that episode and I saw, “She picks up that drink,” I thought, “Oh, no!” [Laughs] So I was just as surprised as anybody. But I spoke to some people who are in the program, and they said that if anything would make her take a drink, it would be J.R.’s death. So I said, “OK. Deep breath. Here we go.”
Was that scene hard to film?
I think we shot it at 10:30 at night or something. And the drinking scene wasn’t even planned for that day — another scene was, but it was a long scene and there was dialogue. And so the director, Mike Robin, who’s one of our executive producers, gave me a choice between shooting the scene with dialogue and the drinking scene. And I said, “It’s late, the crew’s tired, I’m tired. Everyone wants to go home. Let’s just do the drinking scene.” So it was kind of spur of the moment.
And I think I’ve heard you say you did it in only two takes.
Well, I asked Mike how long we had film-wise, and he said, “You’ve got 12 minutes.” And I said, “I’m not drinking for 12 minutes!” [Laughs] It may have been two takes. It felt like one.
I’ve got to tell you: Every time I watch it, I get a little emotional. How do you feel when you see it?
Cynthia Cidre, who’s our executive producer/writer, sent me the cut of the episode. And I was out, so I watched it on my phone. And I just started crying, crying, crying. So when I got home, I played it on my computer, and I just started crying again. I still tear up every time I see it because … I don’t know, it just goes to my heart. It’s hard for me to watch it.
Getting back to Season 3: I know you have a lot of respect for the writers, but do you have your own wish list for what you’d like to see Sue Ellen do?
The interesting thing is, I never had a wish list on the original show. I remember going in to the producers that one time and telling them that all I’m doing is drinking and having affairs and drinking some more and having more affairs. And they were patronizing to me, in a nice way. They said, “Yes, darling, but you do it so well.” [Laughs] So then in Year 9, they called me and said, “OK, we’re going to take you off the bottle, but we’re going to take you down.” And I said, “How far down?” [Laughs] And they said, “You’re going down.” So we went down, and I ended up in the alley drinking with the bag lady. And I loved that. As an actor, it’s like, “Bring it on!” And this was at a time when alcoholism wasn’t being dealt with a lot on film.
I’m so glad you mentioned that, because when I think about the people who’ve contributed to society’s understanding of alcoholism as a disease, I think about you. Given the popularity of “Dallas,” I think you played an enormous role in that.
Well, that’s very kind. I’m just doing my job.
Well, you do it so well — and I’m not being patronizing!
[Laughs] No, that’s perfect. Thank you.
So let’s talk about Sue Ellen. My readers and I spend a lot of time debating this character, who is still so fascinating. How do you see her?
I have often said I found her to be the most interesting woman on television in the ’80s because she was so complex and complicated. And she’s still very interesting, but she’s different. When they brought the show back after 20 years, I told [the producers]: She’s got be strong. She has to be a changed woman. That’s the one comment I gave them. I know Dallas women. I have a lot of friends there. They’re extraordinarily talented, smart, gracious, generous women. And I wanted Sue Ellen to reflect that. She’s a former Miss Texas. She was married to that crazy J.R. Ewing. But she’s smarter now. She knows where all the bodies are buried. So who better to step in and start wheeling and dealing than Sue Ellen?
So you’re satisfied with where the character is today?
Oh, I love it. I feel like she’s a challenge for the writers. Bobby was always the good guy, J.R. was always the guy you loved to hate, but Sue Ellen is in this sort of gray area. This is supposition on my part, but my sense is that she keeps [the writers] on their toes.
Does it make a difference having Cynthia Cidre, a woman, as “Dallas’s” head writer?
As a woman, yes. I thought the original series was very sexist and chauvinistic.
Oh, good. The thing I love about Cynthia is that she pulled together these amazing, amazing writers. We never had a writers’ room on the original show. Now, if somebody gets stuck and they don’t know what to do with a character or a scene, she has eight or nine other people who can interject their thoughts and their ideas. It’s so creative and collaborative.
And what about Sue Ellen and J.R.? Why do you think they loved each other?
Oh, the most fabulous question. J.R. loved women, obviously. And he was brought up to have that trophy-wife syndrome. He wanted to marry the prettiest woman in Texas. And Sue Ellen’s mother taught her to go after the money. So with these two, it wasn’t a match made anywhere but hell. [Laughs] But — but! — through the years, I think a great, great love developed between J.R. and Sue Ellen. It was a Virginia Woolf kind of a love, kind of a dysfunctional love, but you know, marriage isn’t always wonderful and seamless and positive. I always found that idea interesting, that they didn’t begin on a high note. He was a philanderer, and she drank to anesthetize herself to the pain. But deep down — and they picked it up early on the new series — there really was love there.
I’m so glad the new show played that up. It was so sweet to see how their relationship had matured.
Cynthia told me that if Larry hadn’t passed, she had planned to end the season with a scene where J.R. and Sue Ellen go into the bedroom and shut the door. And so you would have been left with the impression that they were getting back together.
Oh, that’s so heartbreaking! That would have been wonderful.
Yeah, I just got chills when she told me that. I thought, “Oh, wouldn’t that have been just lovely?” We could’ve started all over again.
Do you think Sue Ellen loved any of the other men in her life?
I don’t think so.
Not Dusty Farlow?
He may have been the closest one, followed by Jack Scalia’s character [Nicholas Pearce]. Those are the only two that I can think of. There were so many! [Laughs]
Would you like to see Sue Ellen find someone new next season?
I don’t know. I think it could be kind of fun for her to be flirtatious with somebody, but she may not be ready for a relationship. But that’s just my take. The writers may have something else in mind. I think she’s got her hands full with that boy of hers.
He’s a chip off the old block, isn’t he?
When we all read the final scene [of Season 2] where he goes to Emma, I thought, “You rat!” And when he had [J.R.’s] watch on, I thought, “Oh, boy. We’re in deep trouble now.” Mama has to step in.
I wonder if he’ll wear the watch next season?
I’m going to take it away from him. I’m going to ground him. He’s going to have to go to his room. No television. Nothing. [Laughs]
So how are you and Sue Ellen alike and how are you different?
Oh, boy. Let’s see. I have much more humor. My life is totally different. I’m much more … how do I even say this? It’s hard to describe yourself.
Maybe you’re not alike.
You know, I’m sitting here in my office in my home and I’m looking outside. I have an organic vegetable garden. I live on a ranch, but I don’t tell that to Texans because they would laugh. It’s only three acres. But in my mind, it’s a ranch. I’m very casual. And I have a great circle of wonderful friends and family. I have two grandsons. So my life is more … I don’t want to say normal. My life is easier than Sue Ellen’s. I do love her clothes, though. We have that in common.
But I bet your styles are different.
Our styles are different, yes. But I love putting on her clothes. On the set, I cannot do a scene without my high heel shoes. And even though my feet are under the desk or under the table and you don’t see them on camera, those heels make my character whole. I couldn’t wear fluffy slippers because that would not be Sue Ellen. And at the end of day, like at 10 o’clock at night, the girls will say to me, “Linda, you don’t have to wear these shoes.” And I’ll say, “I cannot do that scene without those shoes. I’m sorry.” And my feet are very sorry. But that’s how it is when I play Sue Ellen. I have to layer her. You know, when you step into the makeup chair, that’s layer number one. And then you go and have the hair done. And then you slip into the outfit. There’s a process, and for me, that’s hugely important.
I think I know the answer to this question, but I’ll ask it anyway. You’re one of the stars of “Dallas.” Are you also a fan?
I am a huge fan! I have always loved it. The original show still entertains me. I still get excited and I giggle and I laugh and I think, “Oh, I remember that scene! That was such a good scene.”
Do you watch the new show?
Oh, I watch it live!
Oh, wow. You should get on Twitter and tweet with us when we’re watching.
Somebody else told me that and I said, “What? Live tweeting?” I’m a little behind, and I know my fans get kind of upset. They’re like, “Come on, tweet more.” I don’t do it unless there’s something I can tweet about.
So what else are you a fan of? What shows and movies and actors do you like?
Well, my two favorite actors are Maggie Smith and Judi Dench. I mean, to watch them is to attend an acting class. I watch “Downton Abbey.” I watch “Homeland.” I love anything with great characters, great writing, great acting. It’s like this new Woody Allen film [“Blue Jasmine”]. I applaud him as a director so much because he keeps the camera on Cate Blanchett. And I was jealous. I was like, “Oh, man. He’s letting her go.” And she’s brilliant anyway.
That’s one of the things I loved about the old “Dallas” — those long, slow-burn reaction shots.
They’d let you play out your emotions. The new show jumps around a little more. They edit quickly. So that was new for me. Shooting in HD was new for me. But then you realize: OK, all these years have gone by. Things change. You have to change with the times.
Well, I think you and Sue Ellen are both doing a pretty terrific job changing with the times.
Oh, you sweetheart! Thank you.
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