Actress Brenda Currin isn’t a New Orleans resident or native, but she’s been here enough to recommend a tiny neighborhood restaurant for our meeting. She has gotten to know the city well through trips here since 2002, and in ’03 she co-founded What Girls Know, a theater program for adolescent girls that was headquartered at the Contemporary Arts Center. Currin began her career as an actor: her film debut was in the 1967 film adaptation of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood as the teenage Nancy Clutter, part of the family who was murdered in their Kansas home; later she played “Pooh,” a mute, murderous teen in the comedy-drama The World According to Garp. She quit acting in her 40s to pursue a master’s degree in anthropology, which helped her develop her interest in social justice issues. She is back in New Orleans to play the character Violet Venable in Suddenly Last Summer, which will be performed as part of the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival (March 25-29). I met with Currin the afternoon after her first rehearsal for the show.
Q: How is it when you’re preparing for a role with such strong source material – or a popular movie based on it – to make it your own? [laughs] That’s the challenge, that’s the anxiety and the fun of the role like this. So many people identify it with Katharine Hepburn and have their own idea of who (the character) is. So the only thing I can do is to just to do my work. Even learning the lines, despite the fact that she’s a villain in some ways, I fell in love with her. That falling in love – I fall in love with someone because I identify, I understand them or I’m attracted to them. It’s about trust: I just have to say, I know I have something unique to offer and I’m going to give it all I have.
Q: What was going in your life when you decided to stop acting? I was in my late 40s, and I felt my world getting smaller because of what’s available for actresses as they get older. At the time, and it was in I’d say the late (19)80s, that I started to have this crisis. At that particular time, there was a lot going on in NYC in terms of race relations. I grew up in North Carolina, and I … grew up during Jim Crow. I began to try to write a play based on the subjective relationship to race and I found that anything I did just was racist. I thought, I really need an education. So I was thinking of going into political science, but sort of at the last minute an anthropologist appeared in my life and said, “You need to go into anthropology.” So that’s kind of the answer to your question: It was a crisis of getting older as an actress, and a desire to learn more about the world in an organized way.
Q: What did you leave with after grad school? Did you come out of the program with a better consciousness or understanding of the world? Yeah, I did. Grad school was very, very difficult for me. But I was in a study group with seven other women and they were all younger and smarter than I was, and I was the only one of the seven to finish and graduate just because it was like, one foot in front of the other. It truly made me more sophisticated. When I started my girls’ program, I wrote every single grant proposal. It just gave me vocabulary; it just felt like I could play with the big boys a little.
Q: Was that a really intense experience to have In Cold Blood be your first film role (since the film was shot in the house where the murders actually happened)? It was this intense contrast of the excitement of being in a movie and then the reality that this happened to real people. I had nightmares for years after that – very, very powerful ones, usually the same one.
There was a feeling of guilt, that I had an opportunity out of this tragedy. In my dreams, I was always somehow complicit in it.
[The murders on which the movie was based] were a particular thing to have happen in 1959, where it was just natural for people not to lock their doors. Also, in terms of movies, there was a lot of attention on the movie of In Cold Blood being made, all the press – It was in Newsweek and The New York Times. When it finally opened, it opened the same two weeks as Bonnie & Clyde and The Graduate. So it was a non-event, especially because Bonnie & Clyde introduced a whole other experience in terms of violence because it really was overkill. In In Cold Blood, there only two seconds of actual screen violence – everything else is implied – and it’s so much more intense.
Age: 69 Profession: Actor Born/raised/resides: Oxford, North Carolina; New York City, New York Family: Two sisters, one brother-in-law, one niece and one nephew Education: B.A. University of Kansas, M.A. Hunter College Favorite Band: Bobby Weinbecker Favorite Musician: Philip Fortenberry Favorite Restaurant: Marti’s Favorite Food: Grilled shrimp, garlic and polenta Favorite Book: Moby Dick Favorite Vacation Spot: Bonaire
I watch those cute dog/puppy and cat/kitten videos people post on Facebook.