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Broadway Q&A: Tony Nominee Mary Beth Peil of ‘The Song of Sway Lake’ and ‘Anastasia’

Category Broadway

|by Amy Sapp |

After completing her Tony-nominated turn as the Dowager Empress in Broadway’s ‘Anastasia,’ Peil returns to the silver screen in ‘The Song of Sway Lake’

In The Orchard’s newest film The Song of Sway Lake, co-written and directed by Ari Gold, stage and screen legend Mary Beth Peil (AnastasiaThe Stepford WivesDawson's Creek) tackles the role of a single woman dealing with her life’s great losses while also struggling to reconnect with her grandson, played by Rory Culkin (Jack Goes Home, Scream 4). In the midst of grief in a small town rifled with its own past, Peil’s character, Charlie Sway, must navigate her grandson’s sudden appearance to her lake home and his hidden scheme to steal her late son’s cherished vinyl record.

Tony nominee Mary Beth Peil (Photo: Ben Gabbe/Getty Images)

Tony nominee Mary Beth Peil (Photo: Ben Gabbe/Getty Images)

What drew you to tackle the role of Charlie Sway in The Song of Sway Lake?
Mary Beth Peil: Often, the older character is a caricature of the older woman. Anytime I read a script that has anything more than, I get excited about it. This one has so many many layers, not just about being an old woman, but so many layers of character and situation. It was like candy (laughs).

Did you have a personal connection with the type of music featured in the film?
Mary Beth Peil: I spent the first 20 years of my life as an opera singer, and am classically trained. Above and beyond that, I am a great music lover. My taste is eclectic – I am just beginning to get into hip-hop. I would say that music is a great, great, major part of my life. But, when we were filming, I had a different kind of music in my head (than the jazz).

What kind of music played in your mind?
Mary Beth Peil: I had some opera, very mysterious music. Haunting, like Maria Callas. I had that in my head, that kind of singing. It’s one of those things. One could say that this (music) was the actor’s secret.

A big part of the film is that the main characters are searching for a vinyl record, “The Song of Sway Lake.” You recently told The New York Times that you also value collecting things and displaying them in your home. Can you pinpoint a single item you’d consider of highest value like “The Song of Sway Lake” record?
Mary Beth Peil: If you were here (in my home), you’d say, “Oh my God, where would she start?” My daughter says, “Mom, there is no wall or surface that is safe from you.” I don’t think it’s cluttered, exactly (laughs). Every single thing has its story behind it. Either a person, or a place, or a situation that I can say, “Oh, that’s why that is there.” I’d have to think really hard to say what is my “vinyl.” I think my “vinyl” is my apartment. Everything feels like a touchstone. Other people may come in and say, “This is ridiculous.” But I always have a story.

In Anastasia, you played a powerful and poised character, the Dowager Empress. In The Song of Sway Lake, your character of Charlie Sway is an equally strong woman. Do you find yourself consciously choosing these types of roles?
Mary Beth Peil: One is always actively seeking those kinds of roles, and I have been fortunate enough to get some of them. Compared to the number of roles that are the normal older woman roles, there are much fewer. When a role comes along like Charlie, like the Dowager, there’s an appetite for it. You just have to have it. And if you’re lucky, you get it… and the universe has been very kind to me.

It seemed that Charlie Sway holds onto her youth while her younger suitor seeks a sense of maturity. Does Charlie come into her own circumstances by the end of the film?
Mary Beth Peil: There’s a line that Charlie has that says: “I don’t cry.” Which, to me, is one of the hardest lines in the script and in the filming to find where that lands, what is that about, and what does that mean. To me, it means that she has not dealt with and does not to deal with her grief in losing her husband, her son, her youth and her life before. She does not want to deal with her grief, so she won’t cry over it. There’s a kind of denial in not grieving. Something happens in the scene in the barn with the young man that awakens that part of her that she has been keeping a lid on, that I think allows her to live in a brief moment of confirmation of (the fact that) that’s who she was, but that it doesn’t mean that just because it’s over that she doesn’t have it inside her. It allows her to grieve. I know she is changed after that and can move on — and forgive. It’s life. She can get on in her life in a richer and better way.

After such a rich career, what is your secret to maintaining your passion for performing?
Mary Beth Peil: There is a sense of joy and, “What’s it all about, Alfie?” A sense of life that I get from performing that, even if it’s a bad day and I say, “I can’t do this today,” it gets you up and out. Then, once you’re doing it, you feel young. You feel alive. There’s something about the discipline of finding joy. There’s a discipline to it, because you have to do it. You can’t say, “I don’t feel like it today.” The discipline of going after joy which then brings you the life and the joy — I think that’s where you find the balance.

The Song of Sway Lake’ is now available for digital download and on demand, and in select cinemas across the country.

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