SXSW Interview: Tony Winner Mary Louise Wilson and Director Ron Nyswaner Talk ‘She’s The Best Thing In It’

"In my life, there’s always been these periods, where, 'Oh my God, I’m never going to work again.' And then things come out of nowhere. Especially if you’ve already arranged to leave the business and take a trip" - Mary Louise Wilson

Mary Louise WIlson

I saw a lot of movies at this years SXSW Film Festival but none of them had more of an impact on me than Ron Nyswaner‘s documentary about Tony Winning actress Mary Louise Wilson, She’s The Best Thing In It.

The doc follows Wilson, now 79, as she heads back to her hometown of New Orleans to teach her first acting class to a bunch of skeptical college students. Interspersed throughout the classes are stories about her life and incredible career. She also dispenses tons of incredible acting advice, saying things like, “You can only get good by risking being bad” and “Acting is behaving truthfully in imaginary circumstances” and many, many others.

Nyswaner, who’s an Oscar-nominated screenwriter, clearly has a love of Wilson. And honestly, after meeting her at SXSW, I can understand why. She’s funny and smart and incredibly warm. Wilson, who studied under Meisner and who won a 2007 Tony Award for her work in Grey Gardens, is currently appearing on Broadway in On the Twentieth Century.

For more info on She’s The Best Thing In It, click here.

How did you come up with the idea to make a film about Mary Louise?

Ron Nyswaner: Mary Louise and I live – both have houses, I shouldn’t say live because I’ve moved. We have houses in upstate New York. We’ve known each other for 25 years.

Mary Louise Wilson: For a long time. Long, long time. You were always like a groupie for me.

Ron Nyswaner: I have been a groupie. And, I’ve never been to New Orleans where Mary Louise is from and I used to say, “When you go back sometime I’d like to go with you.” And then when this class came up, I thought there’s something interesting about somebody going back to where they had been raised and teaching a class.

So when he came to you with the idea was your initial reaction and thoughts?

Mary Louise Wilson: I didn’t know what I was doing. I think that’s in the film. I was like, “Oh my God what am I doing?” I never taught before and I don’t see myself… There are two types of people the aggressive and the regressive and I’m sort of that way. How am I going to be authoritative, you know? And what can you say about acting, really? You can’t really teach it. You can’t. But you can teach technique and so that’s what I thought. And I really needed to wake them up.

Ron Nyswaner: But I think going with the film crew, I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but I think it kind of made it fun because there was a whole group of us. There were about four of us who went down and we all settled into New Orleans at the same time so we were having this adventure together.

How did the opportunity for you to teach a class come up?

Mary Louise Wilson: Carl Walker, who I know. He’s an assistant professor in the theater department, that’s how it happened. So I said, “Yeah I’ll do it.” I wasn’t working, it was winter and I thought New Orleans would be warm. Or warmer.

From the time you started teaching the class to the end, did the kids develop?

Mary Louise Wilson: Yeah I think they did. Some did, not all. They were completely confounded by me.

I told this before but I picked up this little book called Six Lessons in Acting? [Acting: The First Six Lessons]. Boleslavsky, Russian. And the first lesson is observation so I said, “Now, your first assignment…” Oh, forget homework. They didn’t know from homework. I didn’t know that. So I said, your first assignment is to go to a restaurant or coffee shop, off-campus. Don’t take your iPhone. Don’t take your music. Just go and sit and have a coffee and look around you and see what you see. And they just looked at me. So that was just dead the water. So for a while I was like, “Oh my gosh, what am I gonna to do?” Their zombies, you know?

And then I remember one day, I said to them, “You’re old enough to have had your heart broken. You’ve lost animals or people possibly but you been through stuff. Where are those feelings, come on. Let’s use it. You got your material there, you know?”

And I have this exercise which you see in the film, the repeat exercise. I still think of ways better ways to explain it, you know? Like, you never just say, “Hi.” What’s behind that “Hi?” What is it you want with that “Hi”? What’s going on behind the words is what you’re trying to get them to. I don’t know that I ever said well enough. But I think they enjoyed the class.

How many hours of footage did you shoot?

Ron Nyswaner: Ultimately about 110.

Did you know the story that you’re going to mold beforehand?

Ron Nyswaner: I’m a writer, obviously and I think a lot of story and that’s what I live to do. Somebody gave me good advice before I was going down there. A friend who works with the history channel, so he’s in the world of reality TV. And he said, “Ron, create a story that you want to tell before you start shooting a documentary. It may change. But just don’t go down to New Orleans and shoot whatever you want and think somehow you’re going to make a film out of it. Because you’ll shoot too much and you’ll be confused and you won’t get the stuff that you should.” And that really stuck with me.

I knew that I wanted to do Mary Louise’s class and I knew that I wanted to do Mary Louise’s life because it’s a life that I really respect. And I thought somehow I’m going to have to put those together in a way that is not a traditional biopic. I didn’t want traditional chronology. So those two are things that I knew that I wanted to do.

And I think what started to happen is that the theme of the film came up because as soon as Mary Louise in the first class said that, “We are going to work on behaving truthfully in imaginary circumstances,” I thought truth, truth. This is a theme, you know truth. So you look at your life, were you truthful? Did you live a truthful life? Can you give a truthful performance? So that’s what I aimed for.

And then, as we all know in documentaries, I think we all know by now, you make things happen. You just wait for everything to happen. I think you said, “Oh I think my old friends live here” and I might have said that, “Oh, we should all get together. Let’s get five of your old friends together and let’s have a lunch.” So, you kind of push truth a little bit. You create events that you hope will give you something.

Mary Louise Wilson: He was very pushy. [laughs]

You have some wonderful actresses in the film as well if you know all of them prior to filming?

Ron Nywsaner: I was partners with a guy, I mean life partners, for about 10 years with a wonderful guy named James. When I met James, I said, “I live in upstate New York and there is an actress there” – because he was in the theater – I said, “Maybe you’ve heard of her Mary Louise Wilson.” He said, “Oh we worked we were together 25 years ago.” And so he had been in an acting class with Charlotte Rae. An acting class with Valerie Harper.

Mary Louise Wilson: I knew Valerie too.

Ron Nyswaner: Valerie and Mary Louise had been in a show together. So that was very easy to get to them. And Francis McDormand and I went to church camp together. We’ve known each other since we were 12 or 13.

In the film, you say that after you won a Tony, there was a while where you didn’t work.

Mary Louise Wilson: It’s typical. I don’t know what happens.

Ron Nyswaner: It’s the curse.

Mary Louise Wilson: It’s the curse. I think it has to do with money. They think you’ll want more money. [laughs]

That had to be difficult.

Mary Louise Wilson: In my life, there’s always been these periods, where, “Oh my God, I’m never going to work again.” Well, you know this right? And then things come out of nowhere. Especially if you’ve already arranged to leave the business and take a trip.

Oh my God, yeah.

Mary Louise Wilson: Buy the ticket, and then they’ll call.

I’ve also been working on a book, it’s coming out in May, called My First Hundred Years in Show Business which took up some of the slack when I wasn’t working. It’s been a long time the process putting it together. Some I’m pretty proud of that.

When did you actually start filming this?

Ron Nyswaner: 2010.

So it has been a while.

Mary Louise Wilson: it’s only five years. That’s nothing in my book.

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