Scene Stealer

‘Smash’: Anjelica Huston on Her Husband’s Death, Eileen, and Whether She’ll Sing

Jace Lacob talks to Anjelica Huston about her husband’s death, NBC’s Smash, and the cult of murder on TV.

Mark Seliger / NBC

It is impossible to miss Anjelica Huston when she walks into a room.

In this case, the room was the bar at the Langham Hotel in Pasadena, California, a few hours before Huston was set to take the stage before a ballroom of television critics at the TCA Winter Press Tour to answer questions for her new show, the Broadway-set drama Smash, which premieres Monday on NBC.

With her raven Cleopatra cut, an armful of gently clanging bracelets, and her impressive height, Huston is unlikely to get lost in a crowd, but her considerable talents as an actress render that an impossibility. As she slinked into a club chair on a gray January morning, she exuded a sense of serenity and warmth that is deeply at odds with the troubled characters she often plays.

“Were you one of those kids I scared to death?” she asked, when the topic of The Witches arose; Huston starred in the 1990 adaption of Roald Dahl’s novel as The Grand High Witch, Miss Eva Ernst, and terrified a generation of young moviegoers when she removed her face to reveal a grotesque monster beneath the placid façade.

The Academy Award-winning actress, perhaps best known for her roles in The Royal Tenenbaums, The Addams Family, and Prizzi’s Honor, is no stranger to television—she starred in miniseries such as CBS’s Lonesome Dove, HBO’s Iron Jawed Angels, TNT’s The Mists of Avalon, and appeared in a seven-episode story arc on Medium in 2008—but it is the first time that she has taken on a series regular role. In the backstage Broadway world of Smash, Huston plays producer Eileen Rand, whose divorce from her lecherous husband has not only resulted in the freezing of her assets but the awakening of her sense of righteous vengeance.

“I got very good practice at throwing drinks at men,” said Huston, laughing. “I got all too good at it actually … People have asked me, ‘Oh, is she a bitch?’ Yeah, she’s a bitch and a lot of other things beside, including also, I hope, someone who will be dear to our hearts, who we’ll begin to understand and sympathize with, even when she is bitchy.”

Given her stature within the acting community, it was a coup for NBC that Huston—the daughter of director John Huston and aunt to Boardwalk Empire star Jack Huston—signed on to Smash. The impetus, Huston said, was the death of her husband, renowned sculptor Robert Graham, in December 2008. The two were married for nearly 20 years and were constant fixtures in Venice, the L.A. neighborhood.

“It’s a time in my life of transition,” she said. “My husband died three years ago, so it’s a time where many doors close but in order to go on, work is the best thing. It involved a big move for me to New York for these seven months initially, and that was really scary, but it was also exciting and that’s what I’m doing these days: I am following my instinct.”

“Movies come and go and, at my age, I don’t necessarily get the greatest parts. I get good parts but I don’t really get to carry the movies in the way that one can be central in a television show at my age. It’s always been difficult for actresses over the age of 30. What niche are you going to fall into other than to play mothers, grandmothers? What is the actual cycle for an actor in movies? How often do you work? Given my present state and my capabilities and where I am mentally, this fit in brilliantly with my idea for my future playground.”

While Smash revolves around the efforts to mount a musical retelling of the life of Marilyn Monroe, entitled Marilyn: The Musical, on Broadway, the show veers off in a number of directions to follow the daily lives of its protagonists. Eileen’s shambolic divorce provides much grist for Huston’s character as she attempts to find funding for the nascent production and regain her balance after a brutal betrayal. But it also charts the rise-and-fall fortunes of the female producer and of a woman entering her 60s.

“Anjelica’s regal stature, her beauty, and her intelligence all were obviously essential to the character of Eileen,” wrote Smash’s creator, Theresa Rebeck, in an email. “It can be terribly intimidating. But then you realize that all of that is held in place by her gentleness, and the warmth of her heart, which she brings to every choice her character makes in Smash. It takes the entire show to a new level.”

An upcoming episode will deal with the Eileen’s relationship with her daughter, while the fourth episode finds her coming to terms with her age, the failure of her marriage, and the difference between dreams and reality, all summed up elegantly in a scene of Eileen cradling a Degas sketch. It’s a scene of haunting emotion and heartbreak, one appearing effortlessly pulled off by Huston. “She has a very deep and active inner life,” said Huston of Eileen. “I love working in the gray areas.”

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In other words: Eileen is more than just the bank. “We thought it would be great to have people that embodied the weightiness of some of these characters and a female producer, like the character that Anjelica plays, they’re very formidable strong women,” said NBC entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt. “Elizabeth McCann or the producer who did Chicago, Fran Weissler. We thought, well, let’s see if we can get somebody who, when they walk into the room, you go, wow, there’s a real force here.”

For Huston, the show represents an alternative to the slew of violent procedurals on television at the moment. “I’m just grateful it’s not cops or forensics or hospitals or the cult of murder and death that’s been going on in television for lo these many years,” she said. “The public really want to see something they can enjoy. It’s almost like a very sophisticated soap in some ways, and I love that aspect. I love the fact that we’re moving around in a real world as opposed to this very incredibly morbid world that seems to have been created on television.”

But Huston was decidedly coy when presented with one question on nearly everyone’s lips: Will her character end up singing on Smash?

“I’ll confess that I went off into a corner with [composer-lyricist team] Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman,” said Huston conspiratorially. “I won’t say whether or not I’ll be singing on Smash because that, like everything else in this show, is an audition.”