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A Jill Clayburgh Acting Lesson

Published: 11/5/2011

Actress Jill Clayburgh died of leukemia one year ago on November 5, 2010. But she lives on through her work in television and film (such as this year's smash hit "Bridesmaids" in which Clayburgh played Kristen Wiig's mother), and in the memories of her family, friends, fans – and colleagues, like Pete Mattaliano. Originally published November 2010 on Obit-Mag.com.

 

 

Jill Clayburgh (studio publicity still)“An actor friend of mine will be getting in touch with you.”

The caller was Matthew Morrison, now a star on Glee. I am his acting coach.

“No problem ... just give them my number.”

“Yeah, but I thought you might want to be ready when Jill Clayburgh calls you.”

I was silent so long Matt laughed. “That’s why I wanted to give you the heads-up.”

At the time, Matt was starring in Richard Greenberg’s A Naked Girl on the Appian Way on Broadway with Ms. Clayburgh. And during our sessions working on the script, I had mentioned how much I admired her work. Somewhere between seeing her live in Pippin and on the screen in An Unmarried Woman, I had developed a big artist’s crush on her.

“What the hell does Jill Clayburgh need to be coached on? I should be getting coaching from her!”

“She’s just been cast in Barefoot in the Park and is nervous about it.”

When she did call, I was able to keep breathing, and we made arrangements for a coaching session.

I arrived at her apartment, and opening the door was Jill Clayburgh: elegant in flared silk trousers, casual in a fleece sweatshirt, and in her over-sized eyeglasses adorable.

“Peter?” she asked in that wonderfully melodic, slightly lispy voice.

“Pete,” I managed to squeak.
 

 

 

 

 

Over tea, we talked about Naked Girl, the state of the theater and acting in general. I told her that as a young actor in Philadelphia, I had created roles in two workshop productions written by her husband, the American playwright David Rabe. She took that as a good sign for our session.

“Shall we get to work?” she said. And in an instant, she transformed herself from eclectic hostess to focused artist, concentrating her energy on her heavily annotated script.

We went through every line, tossing ideas back and forth, motivations for her character’s actions, working out bits of stage business. I was struck by her intelligence and thoroughness. Barefoot in the Park, a wonderful boulevard comedy, does not depend on the complexity of its characters, but Jill wanted to give Mrs. Banks, the ditzy mother, a firm core of honesty and reality. She worked without ego or pretension; her comic timing spot on. She was smart, quick, imaginative, and a pleasure to work with ... a true professional.

At one moment in the play Mrs. Banks explains to her daughter that, while being carried down the steps outside her apartment by a neighbor, he slipped and she lost her shoes down the sewer. It’s just a simple joke line, but Jill ran through ways it might be possible: Maybe her character was carrying them in her hand as the neighbor slipped, causing her to drop them as she fell. Or maybe she kicked them into the air because she was enjoying being carried by a man after many years of divorce. All the choices plausible, all delightful.

When it was time to leave, she mentioned that in one scene her character enters from a rainstorm, and since the play is set in the ’50s, she had been searching for one of those plastic fold-up rain hats banks gave their customers back then. “Not a very flattering costume choice,” I said. “But a perfectly real one,” she said.

At home, I went through my “stuff” drawers, crammed with memorabilia and junk. There I found a two-inch leather sleeve with “Bank of Bryn Mawr” glossed on it, and inside was a piece of plastic, folded maybe 14 times. When opened, it became an incredibly silly bonnet.

I saw Jill at the next day’s rehearsal, and when I gave her my gift, she broke out into one of the warmest and most delightful smiles I have ever seen. Then she hugged me, gave me a peck on the cheek and, showering me with gratitude, returned to rehearsal.

I went to see Barefoot once it opened and Jill was radiant. On stage she led Mrs. Banks through her paces, anchoring the play’s froth with plausibility, and making the audience roar with laughter. And when she entered in her plastic bonnet, she actually looked schlubby. We knew at a glance that Mrs. Banks was suburban, and sensible, accustomed to a predictable world. And soon, of course, that world would be upended. Jill Clayburgh made the moment perfectly funny and the character perfectly real, just as she’d promised.
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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