“A Short History of Decay” is a bittersweet comedy in which the matriarch of a family is gradually succumbing to Alzheimer’s disease. Written and directed by Michael Maren, the film stars Linda Lavin, Bryan Greenberg, Harris Yulin, and Benjamin King.
Since my mother had dementia and her mother before her, I feared that the movie would be emotionally difficult for me, but it’s handled in a way that isn’t at all dour.
I interviewed Linda Lavin by phone and then met her later the same evening at the movie’s New York premiere at the Crosby Hotel. The actress, who is still perhaps best known for the 1970’s television show “Alice,” has continued to work consistently in television, film, and stage. She was nominated for a Tony award in 2012 and is currently starring Off-Broadway in “Too Much Sun” at the Vineyard Theatre.
Below are some of my favorite parts of our conversation.
How did the project come to you?
He [writer/director Michael Maren] sent it to me…. And I was about half a dozen pages into it, and I turned to my husband and I said, “I have to do this movie.” It’s so beautifully written, and it’s so truthfully told in terms of the way people speak to each other, people who’ve been married a long time – a connection, a relationship….
I’m always drawn to material that can make me laugh and cry at the same time while I’m reading it, that makes me want to do it out loud, take it off the page, make a person out of the literature of it….
And then, the wonderful sort of coincidence of this connection between Michael Maren and me is that when I was a little girl, one of my father’s fishing buddies was a man named Mache Maren from the Boston area. We’re from Maine.
And I said, “I’ve never heard that name since my childhood.” And when I spoke with Michael on the phone, I said, “I knew a man named Mache Maren when I was a little girl,” and he said, “That was my grandfather.” So, I had to do the movie….
Another coincidence was that he was about getting ready to shoot it in Wilmington, North Carolina where I had been living and made a life for 17 years. I had gone there to make a movie and fallen in love with that town and stayed there and made a life there and met the love of my life there.
We started a theater there, redeveloped a neighborhood in that town, and there was a movie going to be made that I could star in and live at home. So, all of it made wonderful sense, and it was the right time.
Tell me about working with Harris Yulin.
I asked for Harris Yulin to be my husband, and he was available. Harris is a dear friend and a great American actor with whom I have played in “The Diary of Anne Frank” on Broadway. I knew he was dead right for the part, and he was.
And Bryan Greenberg was already set to star in it, the young man who plays my younger son, and Ben King plays my older son. So, it was a wonderful family.
Tell me about your character in the film.
This woman knows this is happening to her, so she’s not that far gone that she’s unaware. It’s really a story about a family and what people can do to take care of each other and to take care of themselves, which is something I think we often forget to do. We forget to take care of ourselves when there’s adversity in a situation….
When I read this, I thought, “I want to play a woman who is sweet in her dementia.” I wanted to play somebody who becomes sweet. I hope that that’s what would happen to me. I hope that I don’t go to a bitter place. I hope that I go to the sweetness in myself because that’s certainly much easier to be with. She has a lovely sense of humor. She’s also frustrated because she knows this is happening.
I don’t know what the hope of it is for anybody else, but for me in this movie, it would be to try to take the best care of ourselves that we can and release other people from the burden….
I was very lucky with both my parents for different reasons and in different ways, but the lack of independence, the loss of independence is a huge thing. And so, of course, we don’t go down easy, especially if we’ve enjoyed an independent life. We do not go silently into that night.
I love seeing old people on the screen instead of everybody being in their 20’s or 30’s and doing stupid stuff. I loved seeing “Nebraska.” It’s really nice to see real life issues that aren’t necessarily tragic. It’s not a tragedy, this movie. This is a life story. It’s truly a very moving, intimate comedy about real life.
Is it especially challenging to play a character with Alzheimer’s?
Every part is a challenge as far as finding myself in the character…. What if this were happening to me? How would I be? And when the writing is as good as this, it’s a guideline in terms of behavior.
The flare-ups of temper, the moments of affection – I’m familiar with those in myself…. It’s within me to tap into.
I found it a really very joyful and lovely experience working on this film. It was fun to do. We went into a huge supermarket to do our shopping scene, and I loved that. I loved that scene. I loved working with Bryan. We did a lot of improvising in the car scenes where I was nagging at him when he was driving too fast.
So, what do you look for in a role at this point in your career? What’s most important to you?
Great writing. Writing that’s true and funny and volatile and interesting and smart, provocative, tells a story well and has a coloration that gives me a chance to sing all the notes.
I’m also a singer. I have a night club act, and I’m performing it in July at Birdland in New York and in New Hope, Pennsylvania…. I have a CD out called “Possibilities,” so I look for material the way I look for songs. I look for stories in the way that I like to tell them and the way that’s fun to perform, in a way that helps me connect with people because it truly is all about connection.
You’ve been working quite a lot between New York stage work, film, and television.
When I went to North Carolina, I thought my career was over. I thought I’d work now and then, but I’m in a flurry right now. I had no idea this was going to happen. So, you never know, but it’s good to keep your options open and get out of your own way and make relationships with people.
“A Short History of Decay” opens in New York on May 16, 2014.