Stockard Channing wasn’t supposed to be an actress. Born into a prosperous family in New York’s well-heeled Upper East Side, she was barely out of boarding school when, aged 19, she married her first husband, the venture capitalist Walter Channing.
‘I thought I’d be a well educated wife and mother,’ says the former Susan Stockard, who kept Channing’s name when they divorced after four years in 1967. But a production of The Threepenny Opera at Harvard, where she majored in history and literature, gave her other ideas, opening ‘a Pandora’s box’ that set her on a path from Park Avenue socialite to struggling, bohemian actor. Her mother was horrified.
‘Looking back, I don’t blame her,’ says Channing. ‘I don’t blame her a bit. It was very far away from how I was raised. I was earning 35 dollars a week. I didn’t get my big break until I was almost 30, which was probably pretty terrifying for her. It was pretty terrifying for me!’
Of course, things worked out okay in the end – if you can call winning or being nominated for 13 Emmy Awards, seven Tony Awards and an Oscar doing ‘okay’. And now the 71-year-old is returning to the London stage for the first time in a decade to star in Apologia, Alexi Kaye Campbell’s acclaimed 2009 play about the emotional tug-of-war between work and family.
Channing plays Kristin Miller, an eminent art historian and firebrand left-wing activist whose evangelical commitment to career and causes have often been pursued at the expense of her children. With the publication of her memoir, Apologia (‘It means a formal, written defence of one's opinions or conduct ... Not to be confused with an apology’ explains Kristin) the simmering family resentments threaten to boil over during the birthday dinner from hell.
‘It’s one of those plays where the audience is going to take sides,’ says Channing, whose co-stars in Jamie Lloyd’s revival include Downton's Laura Carmichael and Doctor Who's Freema Agyeman. ‘They’re going to engage with it on a very personal level, because it’s about family, it’s about expectations – of parents, of women. And that’s something that’s pretty primal.’
The question of conflicting loyalties, she says, is one that’s consistently asked more of women than of men – ‘and women ask it more of themselves’. Channing herself – who was married four times, and has been in a relationship with cinematographer Daniel Gillham for more than 20 years – has no children. ‘That was a conscious choice, with my various partners I’ve had, and also just based on myself,’ she reveals. ‘I would not have been able to handle both [a family and a career]. I just don’t think it was in me.
As a child, she was ‘a very well-behaved little girl. And then puberty struck and I went off to college, and all hell broke loose. It’s kind of a typical story, I suppose. It was the 60s, and the world was changing,’ she says. ‘I was raised to believe that I had a certain path to follow, and I didn’t do it.’
As a young actress, she ‘never wanted to be a star. I just wanted to do my work. I’m not very good at the red carpet and all that business. As I get older, I probably get less good at it.’
She made her Broadway debut in 1971, and four years later was being talked up as cinema’s next big thing after landing a leading role alongside Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson in Mike Nichols’ The Fortune. But the film belly-flopped.
‘I did three in a row that didn’t work out as they were expected to,’ she says. ‘It was a real lesson in the ways of showbusiness. It taught me not to take myself too seriously.’
She eventually found screen immortality in 1977 as Betty Rizzo, the tough-but-vulnerable girl with a ‘reputation’ (and a hickey from Kenickie) in the all-conquering 50s high school musical Grease. Channing instantly owned the character, despite being 33 – a full decade older than her classmate John Travolta – when she was cast as the 16-year-old bobbysoxer. ‘I was really pushing it,’ she laughs. ‘I find it fascinating I got away with it. I guess I just pretended I was 16, and there you go.’
In the decades since, Channing has had a complicated relationship with Grease, at times giving the impression it was a bit of a millstone around her neck. But not any more.
‘I think I’ve more than made my peace with it,’ she says. ‘Now I’m rather proud of it. I gave it my all when I did it, because I had to. I didn’t look down on it, or think, “what am I doing, I’m way too old for this?” I treated it like it was very serious.’
She had to fight hard, she reveals, to keep her big musical number, There Are Worse Things I Could Do, in the movie. ‘Allan [Carr, producer] wanted to get rid of it. I begged and pleaded. It must have tested well, I don’t know why they kept it in, but I’m so glad they did. I really loved it. I loved what it said about her: she wasn’t just someone who made wise remarks and wanted to have sex; she was insecure.’
Grease was a phenomenon, overtaking The Sound of Music as the highest-grossing screen musical ever. But while it made her a huge star (her husband at the time said it was ‘like walking down the street with R2-D2’), Channing ‘couldn’t get arrested’ as an actress afterwards. ‘It was looked at as a teen movie, a kids’ movie,’ she recalls. ‘These days, if it made that much money, I’d be up for everything. But they were different times.’
When two short-lived sitcoms (one simply called The Stockard Channing Show) crashed and burned, she returned to her theatre roots, winning a Tony Award for the 1985 Broadway production of Peter Nichols’ A Day in the Death of Joe Egg. She was also widely acclaimed for her performance as a Fifth Avenue socialite in both the Broadway and film versions of John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation, for which she received Tony, Golden Globe and Oscar nominations.
Since then, she’s continued to juggle stage and screen work, including a recurring role in The Good Wife, and recently played Elizabeth Taylor opposite Joseph Fiennes’ Michael Jackson in the controversial Sky Arts film Urban Myths, which was pulled before broadcast after objections from Jackson’s daughter Paris. (‘I have no idea why that happened,’ says Channing. ‘It was a very loving tribute to Michael. There was nothing malicious about it. It was just sweet and a little bit silly.’)
But if any other role has come close to the iconic status of Rizzo, it’s Dr Abbey Bartlet, First Lady to Martin Sheen’s US President, which Channing played to Emmy-winning effect in 70 episodes of The West Wing between 1999 and 2006.
‘I loved the show,’ she says. ‘It had the most incredible, high-calibre people working on it. It was so smart.’
Sheen’s is not the only POTUS she’s met, either – at one fundraiser, she found herself swapping stories with both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
‘Bill said to me, “Oh Stockard, Six Degress of Separation!”’ she recalls. ‘And Barack said, “No, Grease!” And then he burst into song and sang Greased Lightning. He knew every word! I just lost it, I was laughing so hard. Oddly enough, neither one of them mentioned The West Wing at all.’
For many, the liberal – albeit fictional – Bartlet White House now feels as much an object of yearning, nostalgic fantasy as Grease did to 70s cinemagoers.
‘It’s Camelot, isn’t it?’ muses Channing, a lifelong Democrat, wistfully. ‘It would kind of be nice if life would imitate art, just a little bit. Wouldn’t it just…’
Published in Waitrose Weekend, August 3, 2017
(c) Waitrose Weekend