Brenda Strong delivered one amazing performance after another as Ann Ewing during “Dallas’s” second season. I spoke to her recently about what the future might hold for her character and the rest of the Ewings, as well as Ann’s other “family:” those wacky Rylands.
You’re about to start production on the third season of “Dallas.” Do you know what Ann’s going to be up to this year?
I’ve been given inklings of what’s to come for Ann. I actually like the idea of not knowing exactly what’s coming because it allows me to shape my performance as I go. At the same time, I think there are going to be some opportunities for other colors that we haven’t explored yet to come to the surface. You know, Ann is a very multi-dimensional woman, and we’re getting to see all sides of her.
You ain’t kidding. I’ve been thinking: What can the writers do next to this woman? She’s already been through so much.
I have a feeling they have a few good tricks up their sleeve. I don’t think they’ll ever run out of storyline. There are just so many twists and turns. Certainly with a new daughter in her life who is not necessarily predictable, I think there’s a lot that Ann’s going to have to deal with this year.
Well, if I was Emma, I wouldn’t want to mess with Ann. She’s turned out to be one tough mama.
I have been so delightfully surprised with the direction that the writers have taken my character from the very beginning. I had an anticipation that this character was going to be a particular kind of woman, and then in Season 2, we discovered Ann had some deep, dark secrets. And I was so happy that I got to explore that depth. I really attribute a lot of my joy last season to [executive producer and head writer] Cynthia Cidre. She really took me on the ride of my life.
That’s interesting that your perception of Ann changed. What was your initial impression of her?
I really saw her as a mutual counterpart to Bobby. She was independent and strong and loyal and kind and really the matriarch to his patriarch of the Ewing family, now that Miss Ellie and Jock are gone. I saw her as one of those women who speaks only when she needs to but who sees everything. She’s extremely wise and measured. And so in Season 2, all of those qualities are still there, but there’s a whole backstory that I had no idea was working. I still think Ann and Bobby share very similar core values of family and honor and integrity. But it was hard-won for Ann. And I think she’s going to continue to be challenged.
I can hear the enthusiasm in your voice. You really enjoy playing her, don’t you?
I’m having the time of my life. I love this character. I feel like I tailor made her. I combined a bunch of people that I admire — from Ann Richards, the governor of Texas, to my own matriarchal lineage — and it was really fun to kind of pick and choose the qualities that I respect in each of those women.
I bet Ann Richards would’ve liked Ann Ewing.
They would’ve been friends. [Laughs]
So can you talk about how “Dallas” is made from an actor’s perspective? What’s the process, from the time you receive a script to the time you begin filming?
We get what’s called a “production draft,” usually anywhere between three to seven days before we start filming. And we’re in the middle of filming the previous episode when those drafts arrive, so you’re shooting one episode and starting to memorize the next episode as you go. That’s why you usually see a lot of actors sitting in their chairs doing a lot of reading and memorizing prior to their next scene.
That must be hard.
I have to be honest: I used to have a great memory. As a young actor, I could read a script three times and it would be memorized. I used to think, “Oh, isn’t that what everybody does?” [Laughs] And then I realized, it’s a muscle. And as we get more data in our brains, the muscle weakens a little bit because you have to have space for all those lines. [Laughs] Now I write down my lines, and I record them so I can hear them back and give myself cues. I also work with a coach. We sit down and talk about the underpinnings of what’s happening emotionally with my character. And I just love doing that work because it helps me to be reflective on where I am personally, and how I can interject that emotional dynamic into Ann.
How what about rehearsal time?
We usually have an artist’s rehearsal first with the director. That’s where the actors get to feel out the scene from an emotional dynamic, shaping the scene. And then we do what’s called “blocking,” where we figured out our movement as actors. And then the cameras come in, and they look at where we are, and what they need to do to capture what we’re doing, and how to light it. And once all that is set up, we all go away for a little bit, and then we all come back and rehearse again.
And so the whole process takes how long?
We’re on an eight-day production schedule right now.
So let’s talk about one of my favorite scenes from last season, when Ann testifies at her trial for shooting Harris. What was it like to prepare for that?
Equal parts exciting and … I don’t want to say “trepidatious” because I wasn’t trepidatious. Exciting and scary, I guess, because the writers gave me a real gift. They gave me a tremendous responsibility with that monologue, and I always interpret that as a sign of respect and trust. And I wanted to do it justice. So I immediately started to work on it. I didn’t wait. I didn’t care if the lines were going to change. I wanted to have it so much a part of my DNA that when I walked into that room that day I didn’t want to be searching for lines, I didn’t want to be thinking about anything but what was actually happening in the room.
And what was it like, in the room, when you were filming it?
You know, courtroom scenes are not easy to shoot. They’re dull. It’s like watching paint dry. But the entire day was electric from everyone’s investment. And I think it’s really a tribute to A) the quality of actors we have, and B) the quality of writing. We also have an amazing assistant director, Phil Hardage, who made sure that the crew and the background [extras] all stayed very much with us. You know, sometimes things can get raucous between takes, but Phil held everyone together and that allowed me to do my work. And I had so much fun. Crying is not necessarily my favorite thing to do on-camera, but when it’s in the context of an emotional purging of a soul, it’s really freeing.
Did it require a lot of takes?
I think I only did three. And each take was actually letter perfect, which is rare when you have that much material. But I didn’t want to have to be looking for the words. I originally came from stage, and you can’t call for a line when you’re in the middle of a performance.
The monologue opens with Ann talking about how she was tall and a little awkward growing up. Did you draw on any of your own experiences?
Oh, I was called “Too-Tall Jones.” I was called “Stretch.” I was 5-foot 11 by eighth grade, so I definitely was conscious of being tall. I was also conscious of the fact that I was not only the tallest girl, but I was taller than most of the boys. So that definitely made me self-conscious as a young woman, but I never did that thing where you hunch over to hide or pretend that you’re not tall.
Good for you.
Well, the truth is I was a dancer, so if I would have done that, I would have been hit with a stick by Madam Schumacher. [Laughs] So I carried myself as if I were proud. I guess it was fake-it-till-you-make-it. Somehow by carrying myself that way, I eventually grew into loving being tall.
And tell me about one of my other favorite “Dallas” scenes, which is the one where Ann reveals she’s secretly recorded Harris’s confession.
Well, first of all, Mitch Pileggi is one of my favorite actors to work with. He’s so incredibly present. And I love what he does to me. Literally, during that scene, the hair on the back of my neck was standing up. I could feel it. There was such a kinetic, palpable energy between us. And I loved how the writers have given Ann such backbone. You’ll notice in that scene, she says, “If you do anything to Sue Ellen or any member of my family….” She’s protecting her family. She’s not a blood Ewing, but she was telling Harris: They’re off limits to you.
So was punching Mitch as much fun as it looked?
He can take a punch. He can take a bullet, he can take a punch. [Laughs] And because we love each other and trust each other so much, we got really close and at one point, I actually did punch him in the nose. And I was so embarrassed because I made contact. I said, “Oh! I’m so sorry.” He was like, “It’s OK.” It was just enough that I touched his nose and then backed off. But it was definitely real. [Laughs]
I spend a lot of time talking to my fellow fans, and many of us love you two together. We often say, wouldn’t it be cool to see Ann and Harris together again?
Wow, that’s interesting! I didn’t know the fans felt that way.
I think we see the chemistry between you two and it reminds us of the old J.R./Sue Ellen dynamic, when they were at war with each other and so much fun to watch.
Interesting. Yeah, I totally agree with you. Well, I think there’s a lot more for Ann and Harris to explore in their relationship. I don’t know what the writers have in mind, but Mitch and I love working together.
The fans also want to see a rematch between you and Judith Light.
She’s just an absolute pro. Whenever you’re in a scene with her, you have to bring your “A” game, which I love. And she and I really get along. We both have similar philosophies about life off-camera, so to be able to play adversaries on camera is such fun. In our first scene, our characters almost get into a fistfight in the police station, and Ann gets in the last word. Well, right before we left, I jokingly said to Judith, “Yeah, well who’s the boss now, bitch?” And she laughed and laughed. From that moment on, I knew she was going to be fun to play with.
Well, I hope she comes back.
Oh, I hope so too. I know the writers really enjoy writing for her.
Let me ask you about one more scene, which is the one you did on the original “Dallas” in ’87, when you played one of Cliff’s one-night stands. Do you remember filming that one?
You know, it’s so funny, I didn’t remember all of it until somebody posted it on YouTube. I pulled it up and I laughed so hard. Because once I saw it, I remembered every single beat.
Have you and Ken Kercheval talked about it?
Yeah, we did. We laughed about it. The first time he came to set, I looked at him and said, “Hi, Ken. Do you remember me?” And he said, “Oh, yeah.”
Getting back to the new show: I always say you have the hardest job because you’re not just Bobby’s new wife, you’re also the new mistress of Southfork. You’ve had to step into two iconic roles. Did you have any trepidation about that?
Oh, I had tremendous trepidation. There’s a whole legacy that came before me. At the same time, I couldn’t make any choices for my character based on that. Bobby’s in a totally different place in his life than he was when he was a younger man. He needs a different kind of woman. I think Ann is perfect for him. But I also pay great homage to what’s come before. I think it was fabulous and done extremely well and it obviously lives to this day, which is a testament to the work that Victoria Principal and Patrick [Duffy] did together. I think it’s amazing that there’s so much passion for those two characters. So I think that’s only something to be celebrated.
I admire you for taking on the challenge.
I like a challenge. Like Ann, I like to think I have a bit of a backbone. I’m not afraid of things that are difficult. And I feel like the audience has embraced Ann and celebrated her for what she’s brought to the Ewing family. And I really appreciate that. That makes me so happy to feel that I’m not only loving what I do, but other people are receiving it well too.
Oh, Ann Ewing has a lot of fans. Just go on Facebook and Twitter!
Yeah, they’re very generous. I love following those feeds. It’s been fun to watch that kind of evolve and grow.
Speaking of fans, I know you’re a “Dallas” fan too.
I am a big fan of the show. If I weren’t in it, I’d be watching it.
What else do you like?
Oh, my gosh, it runs the gamut. I love everything from “Downton Abbey” to “Game of Thrones” to “Breaking Bad” to “Modern Family.” “House of Cards” is my new favorite now. It’s so nice to be able to see Robin Wright do something really wonderful. I really enjoy watching her work.
And what other performers do you admire?
I love Clive Owen. I love Kate Winslet and Cate Blanchett. Jennifer Lawrence is exceptional. Shailene Woodley from “The Descendants” is one of the most exceptional talents I’ve seen in decades. She is effortless. She’s deep. She’s so incredibly connected to herself and the work. I don’t see any acting. I’m blown away by her presence. I can’t wait to see her career blossom.
Besides acting, you also have an incredible yoga business. So tell me: Which “Dallas” character could benefit most from a little yoga?
Oh, you’re going to get me in trouble. The first person who benefitted from yoga was Patrick, because in the opening credits, he has to ride that horse. He’s such a phenomenal horseback rider, but he hurt his lower back a little bit doing that riding sequence. And so I gave him some exercises and he came back after filming the pilot and said, “I’ve been doing the exercises and I’m so much better!” I think as far as characters go, Christopher has had such a loss with Elena leaving and with the loss of his babies, so I think he could use some de-stressing. A little stillness, a little introspection, a little healing of his heart would be a good thing.
Spoken like a good stepmom.
Well, you gotta take care of your own, right?
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