Channeling the Grey Ghosts

Photo: Joan Marcus/Courtesy of the Publicity Office

Christine Ebersole began her career on Broadway, in the likes of Oklahoma! and Camelot. Then she went to Hollywood—and eventually learned the hard truth about aging in the movie business. So she moved back, finding tons of work and winning a Tony for 42nd Street in 2001. Now she’ll star in the transfer of Grey Gardens, playing both Big and Little Edie Beale, the mother and daughter whose life of secluded ruin is the subject of a beloved 1975 documentary by the Maysles brothers.

You’ve said that you believe the dead communicate with us, and your portrayal of Little Edie is eerie …
Yeah, I’m channeling it. I inhabit her and she inhabits me. I feel a partnership there.

And Big Edie, too?
Not so much. I don’t know that I take on the physicality in the same way Little Edie’s does. That was just out of my imagination, based on the homework. There’s a lot we have in common: her love of music, her love of performing, and her love of beauty. I wouldn’t say I’m a frustrated artist, but there are things about aging that are frustrating, because so much of our success and self-worth are measured by [our looks]. But it’s had an opposite effect on me, because I’m 53 and it’s only gotten better.

Moving back seems to have helped.
Well, they say that the older you get, the farther east you should move. I think I got my life back.

You’ve done mostly period shows since coming back to theater. Do you feel like you were born too late?
Sometimes I think my past life was unrealized. I met a tragic end—it might have been a car over a cliff. But it’s true, I came from another time and place, and landed in Paris Hilton’s backyard.

Well, you do live in New Jersey. Would you rather be closer to your work?
My secret desire is to move back to New York in the next ten years. But how do I let go of Maplewood? It’s like Shangri-la. It’s so culturally diverse, and all my children are adopted—a transracial family. And we’re not the freaks. Everybody flies their freak flag high in Maplewood!

Once Grey Gardens goes to Broadway, you’re eligible for another Tony. Is that important?
That’s just the cherry on top. I wouldn’t turn it down. It would be nice to have bookends.

Grey Gardens, By Doug Wright, Scott Frankel, and Michael Korie; Walter Kerr Theatre; opens November 2. Next: John Doyle Directs Company

Channeling the Grey Ghosts