Mary Beth Peil laughed when informed of her effortless ability to make Dawson’s Creek fans cry. In the hit show, her character Grams’ instinct was to judge, but her bigger instinct was to love and embrace her grand-daughter Jen (Michelle Williams).
As ‘Grams,’ Peil (pronounced ‘Peel’) made fans blub in the many charged interactions she had with Jen. Grams was straight-living, Christian, and rigid; Jen, a free spirit and wild. There was conflict, there were resolutions, and there were many tears thanks to the chemistry between Peil and Williams—a close relationship mirrored in real life too.
“I’m so glad to hear you mention that and those scenes,” Peil said. “That’s one of the most fun things and the miracle of that show when it happened, and it’s also the gift that keeps on giving. People like you grow up and you’re still talking about it. People who were too young, or weren’t even born then, can now see it on re-runs.”
In the show's predominant soup of teenage hormones and relentless blathering about their feelings, Peil laughed again when addressing Grams' popularity. “It still doesn't register to me. What registers for me is that she is a little part of me, a character that stays right there.” She motioned to her heart.
Peil also saw the seeds of Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise’s relationship, long before they became a couple in 2005. One day on set, just after the release of movie Cold Mountain (2003), Peil, Holmes (who played Joey Potter), Williams, and “a woman hired to play Grams’ daughter,” were having their make-up and hair done.
“Something came up about Cold Mountain,” Peil said. “I said, ‘The thing is, Renée Zellweger is a wonderful actress. What has she done to her face?’ When that first movie she did came out about the sports guy she was a normal person and so disarming. Somebody said, ‘Jerry Maguire.’ ‘Yeah, yeah,’ I said. Looking in the mirror, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Katie make the motion for me to ‘zip it.’
“So I stopped talking. Nobody said anything. When the woman who was the guest actor was finished with her make-up, she left the trailer. The minute she did, all the others attacked me for talking about Tom Cruise.
“The woman had been Mimi Rogers, Cruise's first wife (who played Helen Lindley in the sixth and final season of Dawson’s; Mel Harris had played her in season 3). Then Katie launched into a big spiel about Tom Cruise being married to Mimi Rogers, Scientology, Nicole Kidman… She knew everything about him. She said, ‘I have had a crush on him since I was 15, and his posters were on the walls of my bedroom.’ She could not stop talking about Tom Cruise. This was way before they got together, but she was certainly ready for him.”
Peil and Williams were close from the very beginning. “She was so hard on herself. She’s such a truth-sniffer. She would just beat herself up if she felt a scene was not good enough. I would have to take her into the corner and give her a pep talk. I would say, ‘You’ve got to trust yourself. You’re beautiful and honest. Don't worry about it.’ I built trust with her. She eventually started trusting me, and believing me that she was really good.”
So, in real life was Peil a version of Grams to Williams?
“Yes, though part of Grams was the opposite of what I was. I told Michelle to believe in herself. She is still hard on herself. It’s in her nature. She’s a perfectionist.”
More recently, Peil, who is 78 and a two-time Tony nominee and Obie Award winner, played the formidable Jackie Florrick in The Good Wife. The show brought Peil a second burst of prime-time fame when it premiered in 2009. It was the second time she had worked with Chris Noth, Sex and The City’s Mr. Big; the first time had been in her TV debut in Law & Order.
“I was nervous doing Law & Order,” recalled Peil. “It was my first TV job, in 1994. When I got there, Jerry Orbach (who played Lennie Briscoe) was so nice, and Chris Noth (who played Mike Logan) was so rude to me. I had a very uncomfortable first meeting with him. He was all but rolling his eyes at me, as if to say, ‘This is how you’re going to do this.’ It was kind of ‘good cop, bad cop.’ Later, when we were in The Good Wife, I told him, ‘You were a real bastard to me.’ He laughed that that was the way he was back then. He said Jerry had been the good guy, and he the bad guy.”
Had Noth's manner towards her improved by the time of The Good Wife? Peil paused, smiled, and said slowly and diplomatically, “Working with him later, I was no longer a novice and he had become a grown-up, so it was a different relationship.” Working alongside Julianna Margulies, she said, was “heaven.”
Peil will also reveal in our conversation that she had to have her heart “rebooted” this summer, after being diagnosed with atrial fibrillation while appearing in Anastasia on Broadway.
Peil and I were speaking on a recent sunny afternoon in her Upper West Side top floor apartment, where—for someone at war with the freezer drawers of her imposing refrigerator— she was an extremely welcoming and charming host. A repair man was due any moment. The amazing thing, she said, was that the contraption was electronically “hooked up” to its manufacturer in Germany. A modern-sounding transatlantic solution would hopefully present itself.
While Peil, dressed in a purple hoodie, dealt with her domestic crisis, she generously invited me to look around her apartment. It has a double-facing southern and western aspect, with views over the Hudson River and downtown Manhattan, the latter view dotted with a picturesque battalion of water towers.
Izzy, one of her cats, dozed happily in a patch of sunlight on her bed. A box on the living room floor held mementos from Anastasia, the Broadway musical Peil left on September 23. On her bedroom walls and shelves were cards and photographs and award citations, and a model boat made by a fan inscribed “Dawson’s Creek” in front of a picture of Peil and her castmates.
Preceding her screen life, and which she later maintained alongside it, is Peil's long musical and non-musical stage career. Peil was first an opera singer, then entered musical theatre, acting opposite Yul Brynner as his last “Anna” in The King and I, for which she won her first Featured Actress in a Musical Tony nomination in 1985.
On Broadway in recent years she has appeared in Nine (2002, alongside Antonio Banderas), Sunday In The Park With George (2008), Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (2010), Follies (2011), Les Liaisons Dangereuses (2016, opposite Liev Schreiber and Janet McTeer) and last year and this, Anastasia which garnered Peil her second Featured Actress in a Musical Tony nomination in 2017 as well as Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle award nominations.
The posters of multiple stage shows on the walls of her apartment’s entry-way show the number and variety of curtain calls Peil has taken: a life fully lived in the arts.
The apartment is a cornucopia of fascinating possessions. There are old family photos on the walls, cloth-bound books, colorful glass bottles, picture frames with penciled notes on a Sweeney Todd score (she played the Beggar Woman in a 2002 Kennedy Center production of Stephen Sondheim's musical), ceramics, cups and saucers, and surfaces and shelves dotted with books and objects. This merry circus of intimate clutter includes the Obie Award Peil won in 1995 for the non-musical plays, The Naked Truth, Missing Persons, and A Cheever Evening.
“I collect stuff,” said Peil. “If I have kept something, it’s because somebody has given it to me or I got somewhere from some fabulous place.”
The freezer would not be fixed today, which is a shame as Peil loves to cook. Her daughter Gwyneth, 45, lived with her for seven years, so there was always a lot of food around, she said. Long divorced from her ex-husband, the eminent clarinetist and teacher Jerry Kirkbride, she also has a son, Michael, 50, and two grandchildren, Olivia, 15, and Sydney, 11.
Peil’s performing genes were not passed on: Michael is a financial adviser and Gwyneth a researcher in social work; as a little girl, Peil said, Gwyneth didn’t like the idea of anybody listening to her practice the piano. Peil raised her family in New Jersey, she added, nodding toward the land on the opposite shores of the Hudson outside the window.
As she spoke, Peil amassed dishes of tasty things, including a delicious home-made apple cake. Peil loves entertaining at home. Doing Anastasia, she felt she had little time to do anything. She would try to have dinner parties on Monday nights, her day off, “but then you’re exhausted.”
As she made a pot of (excellently strong) tea, Peil said her mother had been born in Doncaster, England, and her grandmother was from Nottingham. “I’m a Yorkshire girl,” Peil announced proudly.
Her Welsh grandfather came to America in 1920, one of a number of Welshmen who left their mining communities to take advantage of the mining resurgence in Southern Illinois. He came for six months, saved enough money for the passage across the Atlantic for his wife and then enough money for his daughter, Peil’s mother.
Peil’s mother had stayed in Wales with her grandparents, and then came to America by boat all by herself, aged 8 in 1921. “She was terrified. She spent the whole time in her cabin reading.” Peil’s mother remembered a woman “with flaming red hair” behaving as her de facto nanny on the crossing, paid by her parents to make sure Peil ate her meals.
Today, Peil still has a photograph of her mother, the so-young solo passenger freshly landed in America holding a suitcase and a little doll. She also has a newspaper article marking the event, published in November 1921, “about a young English girl traveling without proxy.”
Peil’s grandmother picked her daughter up, and took her home to Southern Illinois to be reunited with her father, whom she hadn’t seen in a year.
“That was November. In early December there was a fire in the mine and he died,” said Peil, as we ate the gorgeous apple cake. “Can you imagine? “I just… it’s like… it seems so unfair.”
Peil’s grandmother remarried several times. “My grandmother was not one to sit around when there were games to be played and things to do,” Peil said, with a hearty laugh, pouring our tea from the pot into two cups.
Her mother was bought up in Illinois, losing her English accent as quickly as possible because the other kids made fun of her. She got a job as a secretary in Davenport, Iowa, and met Peil’s father, who worked as an army engineer. It was a happy household and good marriage, Peil said. “It was very 1950s, no conflict really, boring.” She had a younger sister and brother.
The cake is so good we fall into a brief reverie. It’s Norwegian, Peil said. She saw the recipe in the New York Times, “and it just spoke to me.” Bird, her other cat, appeared, and wrapped itself around Peil’s legs.
Peil confessed to feeling “liberated.” She left the eight-show-a-week demand of Anastasia two months ago, and feels like she’s “cheating and someone’s going to find me out.” She wanted to leave the show “while everyone still loved me and while I was still in love with the whole thing. I also felt I needed a kick in the butt, to do whatever.”
She had never been in such a long-running show in one theater. When she starred in The King and I opposite Brynner it was part of a national tour. “I’m also aware at my age there’s not a lot of time to still do things. I don't know what’s out there, but I want to go looking for it whatever it is.”
Peil loves to work, and work hard. Since leaving Anastasia, she has already done workshops for two musicals, one an adaptation of Harold and Maude (“The music’s beautiful and they’re not trying to make it like the movie”) and also—with the Atlantic Theatre Company—Simon Stephens’ and Mark Eitzel’s new musical, Cornelia Street, about the eponymous Greenwich Village block, focusing on the owners of a bar and restaurant and their neighbors and how the city—via the pressures of real estate—impinges upon them.
“It’s very lovely and Chekhovian, and has the feeling of The Cherry Orchard about it,” Peil said. “I play one of the old broads who’s been coming there for 30 years to talk to the regulars and meet new people and cause a little trouble.”
Peil hopes that both projects reach fruition and that she stars in them; she is fascinated watching writers like Stephens work as the process is one of “miracle and mystery” to her.
A voracious reader, her apartment is full of books, including first editions inherited from the fashion designer Charles James. Peil’s aunt Kate had been a draper for James, and had taken storage of various of James’ possessions—the books, plus a piano, glassware, furniture and “trunks and trunks of things”—when he declared bankruptcy. Later, Kate passed on these treasures to Peil.
Kate herself was inspirational, said Peil. Her apartment, which Peil visited when she herself arrived in New York City in 1962, was full of James’ vividly colored fabrics rescued by Kate from his workshop floor. Kate had gone to “every museum, opera, ballet, and theater, and was a self-educated person and very sophisticated compared to the rest of the family.”
Growing up in Iowa, Peil first wanted to be an archaeologist. In fourth grade, she recalled a class project where Egypt had been configured on the back wall of the classroom using brown paper bags and colored chalk. Peil was in charge of drawing the Nile, and was aware of what all her classmates (sketching the lives of merchants and farmers) were doing, ordering them around and telling them what they had wrong and needed to correct.
She laughed. “My teacher called my parents and said, ‘Is everything alright at home? Mary Beth has become quite the bossy pants in school.’ I was way overweight, very shy, and wore glasses. I hardly ever said a word, but I got good grades, and on this project I was making the kids cry because I was so stern.” Peil’s interest was fierce: she thought she was Egyptian in a previous life.
Many years later, in her mid- to late twenties, Russian history became her obsession. Her ex-husband was in the Buffalo Philharmonic at the time, playing the score of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, summoning up pictures in her head that seemed familiar to her even if they had nothing to do with Romeo and Juliet.
She “devoured” War and Peace, and then immersed herself in all things Russian. Playing the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna in Anastasia, whom she knew nothing about, was like “so many worlds coming together.” And yes, she thinks she may have had a Russian past life too, although, she added with a smile, “As I get older the idea of a past life becomes less and less appealing. I had such a great ‘this life,’ it has been so rich and wonderful, the chances of having this good a one again, when one sees what goes in the world, don’t seem too high.”
In her real world, a lot happened to Peil when she was 10, she said. “My mother put me on a diet. The doctor advised it. The other kids called me ‘Fatso.’ She didn't want me to be embarrassed and awkward. She wanted me to have a happy life, if that meant losing weight so be it.” Peil laughed. “I don’t think it was so much about health.”
As a teenager she started getting taller. Showering after gym class, she recalled the other girls suddenly looking at her and saying, impressed, “Mary Beth, look, you have a waist.” She still felt down about her body. “All through my life I have patrolled my weight: dieting, “trading off,” losing 10 to 15 pounds, “and thinking, ‘Now you can eat.’”
Peil liked to sing as a young girl. She sang in the school choir, and at around 10 years of age her father took her to see a production of Handel’s Messiah at a local college. “It was the first time I heard a live orchestra,” she recalled. “My main emotion was being struck. I was just vibrating. I heard violins for the first time, and then the singing. It was beautiful.”
The notion singing could be a pursuit for her didn’t really occur to her until she was asked to sing ‘In The Still of The Night’ in front of the entire school when she was 15.
Peil’s mother insisted she had voice lessons. Fortuitously there were three voice teachers within three blocks of the family’s house. Her mother picked the one she thought the best, and so it was that every Saturday morning Peil was taught by her near-neighbor, Ethel Waterman.
“She said, ‘Oh you could be an opera singer.’ She decided it. I learned all the repertoire: Schubert, Schumann, Puccini, and Mozart. I started listening to records: Renata Tebaldi, Jussi Björling, and Maria Callas, whose voice I didn’t like. I didn’t understand what it was about her until I got much older.”
Peil had four lessons before having to take to the stage in front of the whole school. “I took my glasses off, and walked out there. I couldn’t see. I was as blind as a bat. But I was fine. I realized immediately that everyone looked at me differently, not as if I was a queen or something but just with a kind of respect.”
Waterman continued to be her teacher, helping Peil feel “very free and happy” in using her voice. For years afterwards, Peil tried to find teachers to replicate the experience. “I would go back to her as long as she was still alive. I still have dreams about going back to her.”
When Waterman died, Peil was doing well as a young opera singer. But she did not find another Waterman. Peil eventually realized that she had been “an early bloomer who had never developed beyond that foundation because I never found a person to help me.”
Peil is being characteristically modest. She trained as an opera singer at Northwestern University, and won both the Young Concert Artists International Auditions and the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, later touring with the Met’s national company, performing in operas including The Marriage of Figaro.
Her final opera role came in 1982 as Alma in Lee Hoiby’s operatic adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke (earlier this year beautifully remounted in play form at the Classic Stage Company). Peil had originated the role in 1971.
By her late thirties and early forties, Peil thought she couldn’t sing opera any more. By then she had separated from Kirkbride and had young children. “I thought, ‘I just need to be a civilian.’” She worked with classical music publicist Mary Lou Falcone. (“She put Renée Fleming on the map, and Renée would be the first person to say, ‘Yes she did.’”)
Peil missed singing, though not at first. It was a “relief not to be obligated to my talent and my voice. It was kind of a relief not to have the monkey on my back. I was a single parent. To know I could support my kids and not to have to go to Europe to sing opera was wonderful for a while.” She juggled the PR work with occasional concerts.
She said she had recently been in Stockholm to host an evening in honor of the Swedish soprano Birgit Nilsson. Today, she likes certain operas, “although it's not my drug of choice.”
When she attends events like the one in Stockholm, there is no sense of residue of a life left behind because she was happy to leave it behind when she did. “Backstage, offstage, there was always that search for the perfect high C. I was always trying. That was hard.”
Her favorite operas are Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier, Poulenc’s Dialogue des Carmélites, and Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. “It’s the music,” she said of why these were her choices. “It’s so rich it thrills me, sometimes in spite of the singing.”
Kirkbride, Peil’s ex-husband, was a member of the Dorian Wind Quartet and has just retired from his post as Professor of Clarinet at the University of Arizona. She wed him at 27, and the couple was married for 22 years. “We separated after 10 years for a year and a half, and during that period I thought I would reinvent myself.”
The pivotal call came from Minnesota Opera in 1983, an offer for Peil to perform in Kiss Me Kate, “which was the perfect transition to musical theater,” Peil said. “I didn’t know I was migrating across forms. It never occurred to me to do music theater because I was always told, ‘You’ll ruin your voice if you do it, it’s not good for you. You can’t do 8 shows a week. It’s a terrible idea.’ But I thought it would be a one-time thing, and said, ‘What the heck?’”
She loved the company, the conductor and director. At her first rehearsal she spent “the whole day, shouting, screaming and singing, and thought I’d lose my voice. But I didn’t, and every day that went by I, and my voice, got stronger. I wasn’t trying to be perfect.
“Music theater gave me latitude, freedom, and physicality. It was totally freeing. I realized, ‘I am a performer. I’m an actor who sings, instead of a singer who acts.’ It took me a long time to figure it out. I was such a good actor as an opera singer that people thought I sang better than I actually did.”
While other colleagues come off stage and say, “Did you see what that lady in the third row was doing?” Peil is “very blessed” not having any comprehension of the stage audiences she has performed in front of.
Her most intimidating stage partner was Brynner, whom she met in 1983 when she joined The King and I.
“Talk about a learning experience. Talk about being on stage with the master of presence. There was no temptation in any way to imitate him or be like him, but to watch that kind of stillness and how little it took from him to have an audience go ‘Ohhh’… yeah, it was lovely.”
Peil had been cautioned about working with Brynner. “His reputation with fellow actors was pretty rough. It was not my experience at all. I was told ‘He’ll have you for dinner,’ be critical, not nice.”
The day before the first rehearsal, the stage managers told Peil, “Don’t look him in the eye, and don’t touch him.”
The next day, Peil hung back as Brynner welcomed others in the room. “Then he makes a beeline for me, looked me right in the eye, kissed me on both cheeks and said (and she gently mimics his Russian-accented voice), ‘Welcome darling, welcome.’”
He was never rude to her, but she did witness his “being rough” around others, especially the crew if he felt they were not paying attention or doing their job well enough.
Often, said Peil, those judgments were correct; he had been a director so had “a macro- and micro- vision” of everything around him. While that production of The King and I had a “producer/director, nobody directed except Brynner,” Peil recalled.
He would come into her dressing room, him in his costume, she in her character’s hooped skirt, and would talk about life and his Buddhism. As her stage confidence grew and she would experiment in his performance, Brynner would say to her, “Oh pussycaaaat, I know what you are trying to do here. We have tried that before. In the end it does not work as well as what we do now.”
Peil smiled. “He would never say, ‘Don’t do that.’ It was about why his idea was better, and that they had tried what I was doing however many productions ago. And yeah, he was right for his production. It was right for him, and he was saying that. He had been doing the role for 30 years off and on. He was just taking shortcuts, and helping me get the shortcuts, which”—she laughed—“I then did with the two actors who took on his role after he had left.” (Brynner died, aged 65, in October 1985 of lung cancer.)
“Then I was the one in charge,” Peil recalled. “I was the one who had done it for so many years and knew it backwards and forwards.”
She has worked with other significant figures like Edward Albee and Sondheim. In her apartment is a jar of sand Albee gave her, his autograph on its glass now smudged. She appeared in Albee’s Finding the Sun at New York City’s Signature Theatre, opposite James Van Der Beek playing her son, a few years before Dawson’s Creek began in which he played the title character.
“I found Albee mysterious. He directed through his ear. He once stopped me and asked, ‘Is that a semicolon or colon there?’ And I said, ‘I don't know.’ He said, ‘Well, you’re saying it like it’s a period and I know it’s not a period. So it’s either a semicolon or colon.’ And so we looked at the script. It was a colon. I had said it like it was a period. You would also ask him what something meant, and he would say, ‘What do you mean, what does it mean? It's a teapot.’”
With Sondheim, “you wanted his approval, whatever you do to live up to what he’s created. I think I love him. I’m shy of him. And I admire my friends who are not shy of him, but who keep in touch with him and call him and email him. Why would he want to speak to me? What would I have to say?”
This innate reticence sits alongside an equally innate adventurousness. Now, aged nearly 80, Peil is still searching eagerly for roles and resisting settling into easy security.
“My mom used to say, ‘You’re like a pioneer woman.’ That definitely did not come from my parents. We were a very shy, conservative, loving sheltered family. But I was always the youngest one in what I did, like becoming an opera singer at 22 [or] 23. That gave me confidence and curiosity. After I was divorced it was like, ‘Wow, party time,’ as in being free, feeling like a gypsy. Whatever wrong choices I’ve made, I learn never to do again. I don’t see any point in calling them mistakes or regretting it.”
Despite her two Tony nominations, Peil said, “I am always surprised when people know or remember what I’ve done. I have no sense of being famous, absolutely not.”
She recalled one early review of her in The King and I which said of her singing, ‘Well, this isn’t La Traviata.’ ‘Oh no, I thought, I’m singing too well, too la-di-dah or something.’ I didn’t want anyone to know I had come from the opera world, I just wanted the music theater world to think I had just shown up.”
When Peil first started performing in ‘straight’ dramatic theater, it took “forever” for her to get an audition, “because producers said, ‘She’s a singer from music theater.’ In the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, people were still being pigeonholed. It’s so much better now. The biggest, ultimate compliment was when people would say to me, ‘I had no idea you sang.’ Or when people see that I worked in music theater, then see me on TV and go, ‘Oh my goodness, what?’
“Awards and nominations are lovely, but it’s about the work. Part of the reason why I love working so much is that I feel everything I do everything is informing and formative in some way. Every role changes me in some way, usually positively, or I learn something new about making a performance work.”
Peil smiled mischievously, and polished off some apple cake. “And once in while, it can just be learning, ‘Don't work with that person again,’ but that’s informative too.”
Peil laughed when asked if she was like Grams at all.
She recalled her audition for the life-changing Dawson's Creek role in Los Angeles. “The producers had been auditioning people for months and had not found the right person. My agents kept saying I should go for it. There was this character called Grams, and there was her husband, Gramps. And I remember asking: ‘What or where is this Dawson’s Creek? Tennessee? Alaska? Are they gold miners?’ Is it from the 18th century? No-one could tell answer my questions.”
So she went to the last audition, and saw a poster for the show with James Van Der Beek’s (Dawson himself) face on it. She recalled playing opposite him in the Albee play. “Oh my goodness, James is in this show, that’s interesting,” she thought.
The poster revealed that this was no 18th century mining saga. The producers told her it was set “outside Boston, Cape Cod, now. So I quickly got a bastardized Boston accent, and got the part.” Peil joined Van Der Beek, Katie Holmes, Michelle Williams, and Joshua Jackson for filming in Wilmington, North Carolina. The show premiered in 1998, and ran for six seasons.
“My takeaway for Grams having only one episode to read was that she was a tight-ass, tough old broad who was very set in her ways, dealing with Gramps who was dying and now she has this young whippersnapper, sexually adolescent kid on her hands and she’s not happy. I went into it like that.”
Peil laughed. “I started doing my scenes like that. The director came over to me. He said, ‘This isn’t Psycho you know.’ ‘Is it too much,’ I asked. ‘Yah,’ he said. I said, ‘Well, I like to think if we start out like this we have somewhere to go,’ so I kept her hard.”
The cast knew that an initial 13 episodes had been commissioned, but none had any idea the show would become the six-season, globe-conquering juggernaut it eventually became.
Were the young stars precocious or a nightmare?
“They were lovely. They were scared like everybody was scared. Josh was the only one who had done film work. Katie had never done anything. Michelle had done things but was so young. James was very sweet and naïve. We were all naïve. The producers said to me, ‘You can help these kids.’ But I had only done one Law & Order! I thought, ‘Josh and Michelle have done more than me!'”
While Peil was closest to Williams on set, the young people didn’t all hang out together. “Everyone found their way. They all had the chance to be grown-ups for the first time, and we were in the middle of nowhere. We weren’t shooting in New York City or L.A. Had we been those kids would have had a much more different personal journey. We were in this little town.
“They did hang out together, but they also found their own people. It was not really like how it was on screen, it was not how you may think. Fame changed them a little. There were probably times they would get impatient. For all of us, there was a danger of taking it for granted when the show took off.”
When it came to the young cast, “I don’t think any of them were really close,” said Peil. “They worked so hard, five days a week, dawn to dusk. Josh was a party boy, but not the rest of them. In the last season when Busy (Philipps) joined the show, she and Michelle became such close friends. It was like love at first sight for both of them. It was quite beautiful for Michelle to have somebody.”
Peil has stayed in touch with Van Der Beek and Williams. The two women are not “in daily contact,” she said, but whenever they speak their close connection is immediately reactivated.
For Peil, the show’s duration was the first time she was able “to take vacations and see the world,” knowing she had the financial security of Dawson’s to come back to. She was recognized more in Britain and Italy than New York, she said. While she liked Grams—who could learn, as well as dole out, life lessons—there were times when she’d speak to the writers and ask if Grams could evolve a bit, and not do and say the same things over and over again.
“It’s the problem with any long-running thing,” Peil said. “I had the same thing with Jackie in The Good Wife. ‘What else can she do?’ I would ask. ‘What other situations are there that could make her act differently?’” Both shows’ writers were excellent, she emphasized. Grams and Jackie never felt a burden.
Earlier this year, the Dawson’s cast shot a 20th anniversary reunion for Entertainment Weekly. “Everyone was looking at each other with such curiosity. ‘Wow, look at you.’ So, there’s a lot of grapevine texting and emails.” The cast also reunited to shoot a public appeal in the wake of Hurricane Florence, which wrought devastation in the area where the show was shot.
Would she be up for starring in a reboot of the show? Peil laughed. “Of course. Grams would probably be in a nursing home.”
At stage doors, she is struck by the number of people who tell her how much they loved Grams, or how she had helped them, especially young gay men moved by how Grams ultimately accepted Jack (Kerr Smith) when he came out. “That was such good writing, and a turning point for Grams,” said Peil. “She wasn’t just going to give lip service to the Bible.”
Would she like to do another TV show with the reach of Dawson’s Creek or The Good Wife? “I’m up for whatever. If the writing is good, whether on stage or film or TV, I’m up for it.”
I asked Peil how she had observed the unfolding of the #MeToo movement, and if she had experienced any abuse or harassment in her career.
“I have, and I don’t think there’s any woman who hasn't. I have had experiences both within my extended family, and in my professional world but I never really thought of it as criminal. They were not assaults. They were come-ons.
“They were flirtations and there were assumptions that I was in on it, that this was where this was going to lead, but I never believed anything was an obligation or that I was under threat because every time I said no and that was the end of it. I always thought it was personal, between that person and me, not as way to get a part or a bribe.”
Peil never felt threatened. “I was scared a couple of times when I was really much younger because I was cornered by someone who should have known better: a director who was much older. But it wasn't a problem.”
As for the family incident, it occurred when she was around 7 years old and was “an uncle two or three times really quite removed. He said, ‘Sit on my lap,’ and my mother said, ‘No way.’”
With the adult incidents, she wonders now, if she were a younger version of herself going through it today, would she feel the same way as she did then.
“I don't know. I really don't. I somehow find myself taking myself out of the equation because in the few times when it did happen to me, they were people, men, I respected and worked with and I was—actually, if I look back on it—flattered by their attention.
“The fact that I was flattered and that was it and that they accepted what I had said confirmed my feeling that they were gentlemen. If I had said yes, then that would have been consent. They tried it, I said no, they withdrew. That confirmed my belief that they were perfect gentlemen. They didn’t hold it against me, I was never punished.”
In the opera world, Peil was aware “of women who said ‘yes,’ and who maybe, who’s to say, [had] done it to get work. And sometimes the women really did pursue it.” Peil thinks it’s important that parents raise their sons and daughters to be aware of the subject and their behaviors as fully and honestly as possible. “Education is for everybody.”
“I feel two things,” Peil said of watching the mass reckoning of male behavior. “I knew about or was aware of some of it. Certain people had reputations or predilections for certain kinds of behavior. It’s great to see justice happening. They had to stop and be punished.
“The unfortunate thing is like with anything when the pendulum goes so far that you have some people who are extremely gifted and talented—whether they’re scientists or performers or whatever—and I don't like to see them lose everything after years of establishing a body of work that has changed people’s lives. To have that trashed makes me sad.”
Peil’s marriage to Kirkbride died “a natural end,” Peil said. After reuniting after their initial split of a year and a half, 10 years into their marriage, she did not put her wedding ring back on again.
“I said, ‘We’ll take it a day at a time.’ Then another 10 years went by, and a lot happened in those years for me. In the year and a half we had separated I realized I could raise a family on my own. I didn’t need to be married. So when we got back together again, I paid more attention to what I needed. He paid more attention to what the family and what he needed.
“As we both got older, we became who we really were and by the end realized there was no need to be married any more. When we told the children, they just looked at us and said, ‘Hello, what took you both so long?’”
Peil and Kirkbride remain friends. He has remarried, which she sees as a good marriage; indeed she is “grateful” to Kirkbride’s second wife.
Peil has not remarried. “First of all, nobody showed up and second of all, at this point my life is so full. Yeah, I’ve missed love, but I have had a lot of good times.” She laughed. “But the marriage thing; no, I’m certainly not looking for it. I always said that if someone shows up and gets my interest fine, but I don't know where he is. He hasn’t made himself known.”
Peil hasn’t seen anyone romantically for a while, and is perfectly content.
“I’m not saying there haven’t been suitors,” she said, smiling, “but it’s got to be something and someone really interesting. I always sort of thought that I would meet someone who was doing something different from what I do; something that would be so much fun to learn about, like a scientist.”
Or an Egyptologist?
“Exactly!” She laughed. “That would be fun. But he hasn't showed up, so maybe in the next life I guess.”
Peil contemplates both her ageing and mortality “because it would be kind of silly not to at this point.” She laughed softly. “I went through a phase six to seven years ago where I was aware of so many of my friends, people around me—colleagues, friends, teachers, and generations above me—dying and getting sick and dealing with illness.
“For a couple of years I could not deal with it. It made me not just sad, but anxious and angry at myself. I wasn't paying enough attention to friends who were ill and dying. I was aware of how fast everything was going, and I was anxious about making the best use of it and not taking people for granted. I wasn’t feeling any of this about myself but other people.
“It was so extreme I turned down two or three projects that had to do with dying, ageing, illness and death. I just thought, ‘I can’t do that right now.’ Then one day, all of a sudden, I was out of it. Now I am OK with it.”
She feels the proximity of turning 80. “I have stopped thinking about what I want, and I’m just being grateful for what I have, and grateful for still being OK.”
She was “nerve-wracked” watching Elaine May’s performance in The Waverly Gallery on Broadway recently, and to hear the audience’s reaction to her character’s painful descent into the misty depths of Alzheimer’s disease.
While Peil is in good health, she has told her children she wants to stay in her own apartment for as long as possible. She has said before that she feels too old now for roles like Mary Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night. She would still love to play Madame Armfeldt in Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, and Madame Arcati in Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit.
She worries about mental and physical decline. “But there’s no point wasting time on it, because if it’s going to happen it’s going to happen and I’d just as soon be in the moment. I am grateful for the moment I am in, I don’t think ‘what if.’ I deal with what happens now.”
A “little incident” in July, while performing in Anastasia, reminded Peil sharply of the fragility of one’s health. She came down with a “bad bronchial fever sinus thing which happens in theaters and within theater companies,” she said. In response to taking her meds, Peil’s resting heartbeat went from “60-61 to 122.” She went home from a Friday night performance feeling rotten, and spent the weekend “flat on my back.”
Peil was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation. She was prescribed a course of beta blockers, which lowered her blood pressure and removed her adrenaline. Peil was out of the show for 10 performances. She also had a procedure called an electrical cardioversion, “which was like going into an electric chair. It reboots the heart, via electrical currents in your body.”
Peil relates the story, smiling, in her stout, matter-of-fact way.
You're just like your tech-y freezer, I said.
“I’ve become my freezer!” she repeated, laughing. “Oh lord, what a terrifying thought.”
The procedure has so far been successful. Peil may have to have it again.
“I would say it did affect me,” Peil said. “All of a sudden, overnight, I felt like, ‘I am an old person. I am one of those older people that stuff happens to.’ One day, you’re fine, the next day you’re not. I don't like the thought of that, but that’s the way it is. At the same time, I take one day at time, and do what needs to be done.”
The beauty of doing eight performances of Anastasia a week was that it took Peil’s mind off it, and gave her a way to measure how well or not she was feeling.
She is in visibly blooming health today. She has an exercise bike in her bedroom overlooking the Hudson far below, does yoga, and she also practices the physically-focused meditation practice of Qi Gong, but needs to find a good teacher for it in New York City.
“I’m probably in better shape now more than I have ever been, given”—Peil laughed heartily—“some bad knees, a couple of months of AFib, a little arthritis in this thumb…”
In the last year, besides Anastasia, she has also made or appeared in family mystery The Song of Sway Lake, and romantic drama Here and Now, starring Sarah Jessica Parker, which means she has appeared in projects starring both Carrie and Mr. Big from Sex and The City.
“That’s something for my tombstone,” Peil said drily.
In her latest project, a short film called The 8th Year of The Emergency (based on Elinor Fuchs’ memoir, Making an Exit: A Mother-Daughter Drama With Machine Tools, Alzheimer’s, and Laughter, and written by Fuchs with director Maureen Towey), Peil plays Lil, Fuchs’ mother.
The film, co-starring Linda Emond and Phillipa Soo, is about a day in the life of Lil, who is a patient in a medical facility for Alzheimer’s patients, a special day in that it is a doctor’s evaluation day in which we see, and her immediate family become aware of, how serious Lil’s decline is.
“It’s definitely the most challenging thing I have ever done,” said Peil. “In the script, Lil is gone, untethered, you think, ‘What the hell is she talking about?’ She’s trying to communicate, she’s talking about this cake, then this lampshade, then nothing. I had to make a map of boxes of where she ‘goes’ to help me. You are playing someone who is lost in it, but you can’t get lost in it.”
A few years ago, as she said earlier, Peil had been scared of taking on such roles about ageing and frailty.
“And here I am doing that. When that period of worry shifted I was fine,” Peil said.
Are there better roles now for older actresses? “I’ve seen both, the good and the caricature kind of thing, and then real characters like Lil,” said Peil.
She suddenly got up from the sofa and pointed at a poster for a 1967 event at the annual music and arts festival held in Spoleto, Italy. It has Peil’s name on it, from when she was an opera singer, and the name of Joseph Fuchs, Elinor Fuchs’ father, who was a violinist.
In the film Peil noted, she was playing Fuchs’ wife, Elinor’s mother. We marveled at this dovetailing of events across time. But then there is so much life and story are in every part of Peil’s apartment, and in its owner. It’s not so surprising. This is a life being lived, relishingly, to its fullest.