A Good Mother
"I always wanted to play the mother of somebody who turned out wonderfully," says Mimi Kennedy, who plays Dharma Finkelstein's bohemian mom Abby on ABC's comedy Dharma and Greg. Herself a mother of two teenagers, the actress took several years off from her career while they were young, and had pretty much written off acting when the hit series came along.
"I'm almost 50, and I really thought it wasn't happening, but I didn't much care because it had been such an interesting journey. Then Dharma and Greg came along like a reincarnation."
Kennedy, who describes herself as "a little bit of a hippie" like the character she plays, was ironically auditioning to play Greg's mother Kitty when she connected with Abby. "On both Aaron Spelling's Savannah and Homefront, I played a WASP-y bitch, which is something I saw a lot of in my childhood," she laughs. "But that was acting, and Abby is a little bit closer to the path I've chosen. So it is really fun to play her on this show. What I knew about Abby from reading the pilot script was that Dharma was a great daughter, and I really wanted to play the mother of somebody who turned out wonderfully, because I think that's so important."
In the original draft of the pilot, Abby had only a couple of lines: "All I knew was that she was a sort of health-oriented naturalistic wife and mother." In fact, Abby and Larry never got married - "they didn't want to live out those Establishment roles" - but while they strive for the ideal of equality in their relationship, the roles they play in their own family fit traditionally recognizable patterns. "The roles are there anyway from biology," Kennedy notes. "They're acculturated. Most of the TV moms over the years have lying, cheating kids that we're supposed to laugh at, but I'm not laughing, because where was this mother when that was all happening? I wanted to play a great mom."
Kennedy read for uptight, prim Kitty to a lukewarm response from the producers, but they called her back within a day and asked her to read for Abby instead. "So I went back another day dressed slightly differently. There were only two lines, and I said them the way I would say them. There was nothing except whether I was Abby or not." She was brought back to audition for the producers along with Jenna Elfman, who plays Dharma.
"It was just like doing an improvisation in acting class," Kennedy recalls. "When the other actor is giving you reality and you give it back, suddenly you're creating something." The chemistry impressed the producers, and Kennedy now praises her co-star lavishly: "Jenna's just great, so generous. We're a close group, we're interested in one another's lives and interests."
Kennedy already shared some of Abby's interests, particularly her knowledge of holistic creation spirituality. Having been brought up Catholic, the Rochester-born actress "was given plenty of what I call mystical bubble gum to chew on as a kid, so I'm very open to mystical ideas from almost all traditions because I think there's truth in all of them." While she doesn't read palms or draw horoscopes as Abby does, "I have a feeling for that stuff and I like most of it. I especially like the Native American creation spirituality, where their idea of god totally includes the Earth and the weather, all the things that we're working with as human beings. Abby really believes that."
The character also partakes in what have almost become New Age cliches like herbal teas, holistic remedies, and vegetarianism, though Kennedy resists the idea that people like Abby are being caricatured by the show. "I'd met the writers, and they're wonderful - I knew that they were interested in exploring this stuff without making fun of it. They're not cruel, mean, or stupid." A practitioner of holistic health married to a former vegetarian, Kennedy says that she does not ascribe to hard-and-fast codes for living even in books like Diet For a Small Planet, which she describes herself as slowly evolving towards. "I had enough orthodoxy in my childhood. Any ideas that I embrace now, it doesn't have to be a letter of the law."
One of her role models for Abby, she says without irony, is Marge Simpson: "I used to say The Simpsons was the truest evocation of American marriage on TV, and I've always thought Marge Simpson was the best mom ever! Why can't they do live action moms this real?" The sarcasm, she notes, helped blow apart the conventions "to clear the pathway for something new." In the case of The Simpsons, "Homer's working at the nuclear power plant with the green glowing stuff and they're not paying any attention, that's the joke, we're not paying enough attention in our culture. We're not paying enough attention to some serious stuff." Kennedy stresses that Dharma was raised to be neither afraid of the world nor inattentive - without bitterness and without blinders.
"What Dharma and Greg seems to posit is, what if you really took that 'make love not war' ethic and raised somebody, home-schooled them on it, how would it turn out? We're getting plenty of mileage out of the excesses of political correctness," she explains, adding that they are in the midst of working on an episode playing with the idea that "It Takes a Village to Raise a Child," as Hillary Rodham Clinton's recent book touted as though it were a new concept. The show pokes fun at the Finkelsteins without either ridiculing or idealizing their choices. "You can see their foibles, but you love them anyway, like Dickens and the great 19th-century sociology writers - they always had affection for even their evil characters, who usually had a backstory that explained why they were evil."
Kennedy describes the writing on Dharma and Greg as "really organic," written to be realistic with the emphasis on the nuances of character interaction rather than an attempt to get big laughs. Like many half-hour sitcoms, most of the week is spent rehearsing, with the show then produced live in front of an audience. "I've been on a lot of sitcoms where you felt like you were standing around in your costume in a pretend living room, doing stand-up comedy with other people - you weren't talking to them, you weren't responding to what they said, you were all trying to get the big laugh," the actress comments. "This is written much more like dramatic acting scenes. Everybody's on the same idea, bouncing off each other with a certain comic build."
The writers watch a run-through during the week to get some sense of which jokes are working and which need to be rewritten, and to get a sense for how the actors develop the characters. "They're paying so much attention to us and they are so perceptive that they will catch any nuance of what we're doing with a line, whether we're good with it or bad with it, and the next script will feed into our strengths. It's the smoothest process I've ever been in. We get laughing pretty hard."
Kennedy reports that the producers are talking as if the series could run another five years, and jokes that she tells people she has won the lottery. Not long ago, she wasn't sure she would continue to work as a performer. "I was auditioning to play one line. I'll never forget the audition, I got up to say 'We, the ladies and gentlemen of the jury, find the defendant guilty,' and the director said, 'Could you try it another way?' I wanted to go, 'Do I have to?'" Despite years of training and character work, she was discouraged at being "absolutely reduced to a type," and had written a book which both chronicled her own successes and failings and offered advice for actors.
The actress began that book, Take It To The Stage: The Education of An Actress, as a personal farewell of sorts to her performing career. "I thought, it's something I tried that almost every young person I know wants to try - I'm going to be a star - and I thought that I had tried it and failed," she says, adding that an earthquake spurred her determination to take stock and move on. "I thought that my process of acceptance was important to write down at that point in my life. I wrote it for me, and I rediscovered my joy for acting in writing it." A drama publisher enthusiastically insisted that other performers could benefit from her story, so it was published.
Her principal advice is, "Get a good education. You have to be literate." Though she is herself a Smith College graduate ("1970, it was the year of the student moratorium because Nixon invaded Cambodia, Julie Nixon was on our campus, there were a lot of us very active in the anti-war movement"), Kennedy doesn't insist on formal stage training: "I mean education in a kind of Eastern sense, which is that most people who orbit into your life are your teachers, and you should honor the lessons they teach you." She thinks it most important for actors to learn to express themselves while they're young. "Don't be afraid of making mistakes, but when you make them you have to be humble about acknowledging them and learning from them."
Her skills were honed after college during several years in New York, which is where she jokes that she became a real hippie: "Living on a shoestring, sharing our money and living communally, people drifted in and drifted out." One of her friends was in the cast of Hair, and Kennedy maintained the discipline of going to her temporary secretarial job between auditions. "I should have gone to graduate school, that's what the really smart people did," she laments. "You get better roles and you're taken more seriously, but I was from the provinces, what did I know? I thought you were supposed to get an agent and be wonderful! I stayed in New York doing theater until 1979, when I got my second television show," playing Stockard Channing's sister in Just Friends. At that point she had gotten married and the couple decided to move out to Los Angeles.
At that point, producers knew Kennedy as a comic actress, so she had quite a successful career in television which peaked in 1981, when she starred opposite Peter Cook in The Two of Us. "It was on the cover of TV Guide and all that. Then it was cancelled, and I was pregnant by the time, which sent me into a whole new realm, motherhood, and I didn't care about my career as much." Kennedy worked steadily but increasingly sporadically while her children were young; she cites the 1991 series Homefront as her favorite part from those years.
"Mrs. Sloane is like the shadow side of Abby," she notes of the bitter, tight-laced character she played on that series. Though she's known for comedy, Kennedy would like to play a number of darker theatrical roles, especially Mary Tyrone in Long Day's Journey Into Night. "I wanted to do much more Shakespeare, I wanted to do much more regional theater, but it just didn't happen." Though her training was formal, she operates largely on intuition when performing on television: "I have to grasp intuitively who I'm supposed to be. In my head I have to look like I'm that doctor or that wife or that alien, I suppose, although I've never played an alien. Especially on television, where there's so much going on technically, it has to be immediate. I just have to click in in time for the camera to get it."
At this point, says Kennedy, "I've had such a long career in acting that what I bring to it is a certain protean sense, I know how to hit my mark, I know how to intuitively grasp what they want me to do. It's like learning different kinds of dances." She readily acknowledges that there are ten roles for men for every one for a woman, on the working actor level as well as the star level, but adds that at this stage she's "totally open to anything" in terms of what kinds of projects she'd want to work on. "I feel like a baby again at this point, I know people I don't want to work with again, but not necessarily who I do want to work with. I no longer have that young person's thing of 'Oh, I wish I could work with...' I really love Jane Campion's films, I'd work with Jane Campion in two seconds flat. But some of the people that I like the best, they barely use actors. To work almost anonymously, not as a star, but to do something about the culture like Satyajit Ray did about India, that would be fabulous."
The actress has high praise for the Dharma and Greg producers, particularly Gail Mancuso, whom Kennedy says "watches attentively and really lets us figure out how to work in our group. I had so many directors when I first came to Hollywood as a young woman who never treated the actors as a group - they did this odd divide and conquer thing where they would kind of pander to the star, compliment or put in place the featured players, then get everybody in a one on one relationship with the director. It really cut up the playing of the scenes because we were only playing for the director, not really listening to each other, nothing was really dynamic for the group."
Kennedy sounds as though she's greatly enjoying this rebirth in the profession. "To be beamed globally around the world with a show that's good vibes, showing that Americans are inclusive and joyful...that is a big reward," she stresses, adding that the career has had side benefits like introducing her to wonderful people and giving her time at home with her children - "even when I've been unemployed and bitching about it, I was able to tell myself, this is a gift in disguise. How many career women have to trade away that deep bond with their children to pursue what they want to do? That was a choice I never wanted to have to make, and my profession allowed me to do both. There's a nice balance right now."
She basks in the recognition with Abby, "because she's such a loving character that people open their arms to me and are very sweet," notes Kennedy, who says she's ready to go to medical school with her son when this series goes off the air. In short, she concludes, "I feel very lucky. I'm older, you're not going to talk to many women my age who have great roles. I'm a big rarity at this point. So part of my joy is that I look around me and I've survived. I don't know why, but I hope it's for a good reason!"