Cathryn Hartt: An Extraordinary Interview with An Exquisite Human Being. by Brian kirst

After I completed my profile on one of my favorite performers, Cathryn Hartt, I emailed it off to her, hoping for her approval. A few days later, I received a beautiful response and her agreement to an online interview. It has been a rough year for me with chronic sports injuries and major re-evaluations of an artistic career that hasn’t worked out the way that I had hoped. So, the following interview has been one of those lights in the storm – a moment that helps you keep going on with that next step into an uncertain future. Not only has Ms. Hartt had a wide-ranging career with comic performances in everything from Creature from Black Lake and the Adrienne Barbeau slasher epic Open House to For the Love of Benji, but she seems to have dealt with life’s changes with wisdom and grace and, as this interview suggests, has much to share with us about not only theater, but spirituality, hope and life. It was truly my honor to ask her these questions, as I hope it is your honor to read her thoughtful responses to every one of them.


Brian: You’ve done a number of films. Is there one in particular that you enjoyed working on more than any of the others? (This does not necessarily even have to be the film that you consider to be the best – just the one you had the most fun doing.)

Catherine: My most fun acting experience was an early film that I did under the name Cathy McClenny.  It was 'Creature from Black Lake'.  Jack Elam was the star and I learned so much about film technique from him.  Also, he was so funny and kind and the director, Joy Houck, was very kind about helping me bring my broad stage acting techniques down to film style.  I'd done a lot of stage acting and broad comedies and musicals and that tends to make you way to big for camera, which is very subtle.  I hadn't had any film training at this point so I was "eating the scenery" with my broad acting style.  It was also memorable because it was the first time I could take my mom to a movie premiere.

Brian: Do you have any specific memories about working with Jack Elam in 'Creature from Black Lake'? Also, that appears to be your first film role. It was an important one with a lot of physical comedy. Were you incredibly nervous? And, if so, did you use that energy to help with the role?

Catherine: I did love working with Jack.  He was a doll...and soooo funny.  I wasn't nervous because I'd been acting for years onstage and have worked with folks like Sid Caesar, Mickey Rooney, Pat Paulson and many wonderful and talented comedians and actors.  Once I start working a comic bit, I'm not just have to hold me down.  I love to get a laugh.  So my main problem was they had to tie me down from doing too broad a comic shtick!

Brian: Did you get a chance to watch Frank Inn work with the dogs on 'For the Love of Benji'? I think that would be fascinating to watch. Also, did you get to spend anytime with Benji? I was a huge fan as a kid. (And, honestly, I still I am, I guess.) I, also, believe that you are a dog lover. Do you have any animals presently?

Catherine: Frank was was Joe Camp, the director and creator of the Benji series.  I had worked with Joe as a director on an industrial film/live production and was so happy to see his dream turn into a success.  The original Benji was so sweet and smart...and all the other Benji's too.  Once the series became successful and Benji began to age, they had to find backup Benji's.  Also, when they work with animals, they usually have several different dogs to do different things.  So one dog may be trained to whine and pick up a letter and put it in a mailbox and another can jump off a cliff into a creek and fetch a child.  The trick is to find talented dogs that all look alike!  But a wonderful trainer like Frank communicates deeply with an animal and can develop a whole vocabulary of words and signals like teaching a child how to speak.

But I am a huge animal fan.  My "child" right now is an 11-year-old apricot standard poodle named Holly.  She is my life.  Her brother, Buddy, died a few years ago and I still feel his loss like a dear family member.  Holly is a cancer survivor and has been cancer-free for a year.  She is in all of my acting classes and is sometimes used in the scenes.  She, also, helps me teach an acting technique called "animal technique," which any actor who has done basic Stanislavsky technique will know.  The actor must observe an animal very deeply and take on its movements and thought processes.  This is the basis for a technique that many great actors use called "imaging."  In 'Edward Scissorhands', Johnny Depp used his little puppy and kitten at home to base his character upon.

Brian: Did you and your co-star in 'Pink Motel' do a lot of rehearsing to get your timing down? The beats and responses between the two of you are perfect and it seems that you must have put a lot of work into making some of the less than perfect bits flow.

Catherine: We did have an unusually generous rehearsal time in 'Pink Motel'.  Usually, you don't get much rehearsal time on sets...just time to block and tweak a few things.  They usually hire you because the audition you gave was what they wanted.  Comedy can be very tricky because it needs extra chemistry and a sixth-sense timing with the other actors and, often, the actors meet for the first time that moment we start filming the scene.   The director of Pink Motel was on a very tight budget and once we hit a location (Pink Motel was shot at an actual motel, not at a studio) with equipment and crews, the costs of filming skyrocket. Therefore, he hired a rehearsal space where we rehearsed the entire movie like a play for a few days without the crew and equipment or location.  Then, we needed very little rehearsal time when we hit the actual location.

Brian: In 'Flicks' you worked, exclusively, with Richard Belzer. Was he a well-known comedian then? Do you have any interesting stories about working with him?

Catherine: Richard was already quite well known as a comedian but I don't think he had crossed over into dramatic acting really at that point.  I didn't get to know him very well.  It was a very fast shoot on that movie...they just basically stuck us in front of the camera and blocked once and said "action."  Richard seemed a little shy.  Also, if I remember correctly there was a flash of nudity and everyone tends to get a little stiff and standoffish in those situations.  Also, I didn't even see that movie for a while because they changed the title and I didn't realize that was the movie I had made...happens all the

Brian: We can go onto IMDB and learn about your film credits, but we can’t do the same for your stage work. What are your most memorable roles and/or moments on stage? Do you have a favorite role –and do you have a role that you long to play onstage?

Catherine: Actually, most of my work has been on stage.  I had done about fifty productions before I even went to Julliard at age 17.  My last production was originating the part of Ginger in 'Gilligan's Island, the Musical'.  It was so silly and fun and was done by the creators of the original TV show.  It was a killer physically, as musicals are want to be.  I toured with it for about a year. 

I toured with Mickey Rooney for a number of years in a goofy play called 'Three Goats and a Blanket'.  Mickey is sweet but totally hyper and bounces of the walls 24 hours a day.  He got more fall-out-of-your-seat laughs out of an audience than anyone I've ever seen.

I learned a ton doing Bobbi in 'Last of the Red Hot Lovers' with Sid Caesar.  He was a bit quirky but a brilliant comedian.  We got along quite well, but I know he really intimidated one actress from fear of how to work with him so much that she had to quit...and that was an important job to have gotten.  You just didn't really ever know what he would do onstage.  He refused to rehearse so the only thing he did was let you have a line rehearsal to make sure you could say the lines really fast and that was it!  Very bizarre.  So once you hit stage (and my scene was a really fast banter with lots of sight gags) you had to totally invent as you went.  I loved it because I love improvisation.  Also, the first night, he got paranoid that the audience didn't like him and walked off the stage leaving me "tap-dancing" forever before they talked him into coming back.  But after that, we seemed to understand each other and I seemed to calm him so we had great fun.  He's a master of timing and a great person to hook into and play the moment.

I've done everything from Shakespeare and Greek tragedy to children's theatre, living theatre, street theatre, performance art, musical comedy, improvisation, theatre of cruelty, dinner theatre and experimental theatre.  I've worked throughout America and some in Canada.

My favorite show was the musical 'Stop the World, I Want to Get Off'.  I did it so many times that I started playing one of the children and ended playing the mom!  That was a magical time for me.  I first did it with my sister, Morgan Fairchild, at Theatre Three in Dallas Texas.  That was the most wonderful time in my acting.  The people at that theatre at that moment in time are still the most utopian mixture of talent and love and creativity all together at once that I have ever experienced.  Norma Young and Jac Alder created the theatre and it was a beacon for experimental thought and social issues...very innovative for the time.  Larry O'Dwyer was the Little Chap central character of 'Stop the World' and he is still the most brilliant actor/comedian I have ever seen.  I sucked up his timing and his heart.  I watched every performance that I was in from the wings to see him.  I learned his warm-up techniques and his fearless love of working an audience.  Morgan and I did two versions of the show as the daughters in Dallas over a few years and I ended up playing the female lead, Evie and the other women in his life, several years later in Arkansas opposite Larry.  I remember sitting in rehearsal many times as a young performer and thinking "I didn't know you could think like that."  That is what I hope to inspire in my students.  Also, Larry taught Morgan and myself the best definition of acting: "Acting is sharing your heart with your fellow man." 

Brian: You are an actress and a director/teacher. Is there one that you prefer? Or do they, both, satisfy different needs for you?

Catherine: I never thought I would love anything as much as acting because it is my very soul.  But I love coaching as much.  Why?  Because I act because I love to connect and communicate deeply with others...and that is the basis of a good teacher, too.  I would still love to act if I can ever find time in my tight coaching schedule.  But until then, I am thrilled whenever I see that light go off in another as they think: "I didn't know you could think like that!"

Brian: What do you feel is your greatest artistic achievement thus far in your life? 

Catherine: I don't think much in separate moments.  As I get older and look deeper and get simpler, I realize how much my heart and craft and the universe around me are all one and always changing.  The same place that I go inside to find a creative enlightenment is the same place I go to find spiritual growth.  Both need for you to be still and to listen instead of to speak.  So I see life as a wonderful gift of lessons.  The most ordinary moment is also the most extraordinary.  That's, I guess, what art is all is acting, writing, music, dance or painting.  So my soul grew from experiencing the time with my parents at their passings.  That opened my heart to seeing even more beauty and richness.  That allowed me to create with more heart and depth.  My school teaches me more about acting every time I look into another's eyes.  So my greatest artistic achievement is appreciation of the beauty of all the experiences of life and that I have an outlet to share them.

Brian: Finally, do you have an ultimate goal that you would like to accomplish as an artist in your lifetime?

Catherine: I want to make a difference.  I have learned to let go of how that looks. Guess you're an example. Who knew I would touch the heart of another with some of my silliest performing moments?  That's a tough lesson to accept...I always thought it would look like getting an academy  But I would still love to work on a film project that my sister and I would write, direct and act in together...that's a dream I have.