How does one introduce an icon like Angela Lansbury? Do you recount her career chronologically, beginning with her breakthrough role in 1944's Gaslight, which landed her an Academy Award nomination, and continue to the present day with her upcoming June release of Mr. Popper's Penguins with Jim Carrey? Do you discuss her craft in three distinct categories: the big screen, the small screen, and the stage? If that's the case, you would certainly have to spend some time detailing her lifelong friendship with Stephen Sondheim, who first cast the British actress in Anyone Can Whistle, then secured her a Tony with his Sweeney Todd and ultimately helped her grab another nomination for the 2009 revival of A Little Night Music. Or you could simply introduce Angela Lansbury by talking about her beloved voice.
Regardless of how you choose to do it, it's clear that the 85-year-old actress continues to thrill audiences and shows no signs of retiring from her passion. A guest speaker at this year's TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood, California, she sat down with Out before her pre-Gaslight Q&A at Grauman's Chinese Theater in Los Angeles. Lansbury discussed her love of live theater, her thankfulness for being able to continue acting, and the highlights of her long, illustrious career.
Out: What is a typical day for Angela Lansbury?
Angela Lansbury: It depends on what I am doing. When I am working in the theater, I do not practice all day. I just do the show at night. As an actress, you only act when you have a script to learn and a character to portray.
Where does your heart live: onstage or onscreen?
At the moment, it's very much onstage, which it has been for the past six years. I have been working almost continuously on Broadway playing wonderfully diverse roles, which has been exciting and wonderful. It has given my career a whole new boost.
Do you go continually grow with each role you undertake?
At my age I wouldn't say you grow. When you say you grow, you do in the sense of growing over a length of time. Actors and I find new little bits of pieces every performance. There is some little bit that I bring to it that is new, but not so much as to upset the other members of the cast! Once a performance is set, you rely on each other to play it the way you did the last performance. I could upset an actor terribly if I suddenly did a cartwheel in a scene where I normally didn't. You see what I mean?
Definitely. Is there a role you have always wanted to play but have yet to?
Not really. No. I can't say that. I could say that I would love to play Lady M. Do you know who that is? We never discuss her real name. That is a role that would have entranced me at one stage in my career. Really, I have gotten to play some unique and unusual roles. I am comfortable with what I have done so far. I am always looking for a new challenge and a new possibility of bringing a new quality I haven't to some role. I am at an age that I am very happy to work. That is the important thing -- to keep working.
I want to talk a bit about your involvement in the TCM Classic Film Festival. Do you believe the festival is for an older generation to reminisce or for a younger generation to be educated?
I think it's for a younger generation to discover what we were doing in the early days of movies. I certainly started in 1943 and that is way back, but it was during a period when great classic movies were made. I think that young people are discovering how interesting those movies were and how fascinating stars of that period were. A lot of youngsters today are getting transfixed on it. I think it is terrific thing that we are having the Turner Classic Film Festival. It is alerting people that some of us are still around and working -- not everybody -- but nonetheless, these movies are great entertainment.
Do you think that your audience for your screening of Gaslight will be wide-ranging in age? I grew up with Murder She Wrote and can imagine that your audience is very diverse.
Yes I do. You know why? Because of Sweeney Todd. A very young group saw [a televised broadcast of] Sweeney Todd. Kids of college age saw it and were blown away by it. Most of them love music and Stephen Sondheim. For them to see that show meant they saw this woman that they didn't really know -- maybe they knew her from Murder She Wrote. Murder She Wrote came right after I finished Sweeney Todd. I went into television and left the theater. They learned who this strange looking woman was with red hair tied upside of her head and they realized it was Angela Lansbury who they knew from Murder She Wrote. These people come flocking to the theater in New York and were wonderful! They were a marvelous audience! I knew they wouldn't know who in the heck I was if it wasn't for Sweeney Todd! Isn't that something?
Because of your work with Stephen Sondheim, you have in a sense become a gay icon!
That's very true and I am proud to be! I realize that has a lot to do with it but straight kids are also loving some of the old movies and the musicals as well. They certainly loved Stephen's musicals.
Do you have a favorite song to sing?
I love singing "Nothing's Gonna Harm You Not While I'm Around," which is a lovely song by Stephen from Sweeney Todd. I love that song. [singing] Nothing's gonna harm you, no sir, not while I'm around. I have sung it on several occasions apart from the show. I feel it is something that I can sing with sincerity and not have to be in the show. I always feel self-conscious just standing up and singing a song. If I can find something that I have done onstage in a role, than I can sing it much better.
What has been the highlight of your career?
I think I have had many, truthfully. I have always felt that my career was infectious starting off as a very young character movie actress at MGM. Then, I went to Broadway with Stephen in Anyone Can Whistle, and then I made a huge breakthrough with Mame [the Jerry Herman musical], and subsequently some very hot musicals in that period of the 1960's and '70s. Finally, there was Sweeney Todd. That finished that section of theater work. After Sweeney Todd, my husband and I agreed that I had worked so hard in theater and movies up until that point, that this was the time to get into television. I tried to stay away from it. I was always afraid of burning myself out and burning myself out with the audience. I did Murder She Wrote, which came along and seemed like the perfect thing for me to do. I did it for 12 years! That is a long time to stay away from movies. I did do a couple of movies, actually, during the lay-off period, but nothing that remained important in my career. When Murder She Wrote stopped, I laid back for a while. In the meantime, my husband died and that really stopped me in my tracks. I didn't know how to carry on. Finally, I decided it was time to get off my ass and be an actress. I needed to go back to the theater or movies or whatever I can get a job doing. I did Nanny McPhee with Emma Thompson. It turned out to be a good way back into motion pictures. From there, oddly enough, I had the opportunity to return to theater, which was my first love. Terrence McNally offered me the role of Leona in Deuce -- this lovely two-character play for Marian Seldes and me. The play didn't receive the reception we had hoped. The audience enjoyed it, which was great. From there I went to Blithe Spirit and then A Little Night Music. That is the last thing I have done on Broadway. Looking forward to possibly doing a play next year on Broadway starting in January. Things are still trucking along.
And you have a film in the works?
I have a film coming out in June called Mr. Popper's Penguins with Jim Carrey. It's a very famous children's book.
What is your hope for the future of the entertainment industry?
Simply that it can survive economically. That people will get away from their television sets and DVRs, and get out and go to the theater. There is no better education than the theater. I went to the theater the other night to see God of Carnage with the original Broadway cast, which is playing in Los Angeles right now, and what an evening! What a wonderful getaway and breakaway it was! To leave all the electronic nonsense we are tied to these days and see live theater. Live theater is so exhilarating and wonderful. My hope is that people will not lose sight of what is out there in the way of live theater and great performances.
For more information on the TCM Classic Film Festival click here.