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Interview with Tovah Feldshuh

by: Caroline Westbrook - Last updated: 2002-12-09

Tovah Feldshuh

Stage and screen actress Tovah Feldshuh

While many actresses show up for interviews with their agents or publicists in tow, Tovah Feldshuh has brought her 91-year-old mother along instead. But it's quite appropriate that she should be accompanied by her, given that the 50-year-old actress, best known for her stage work (and her one-woman show Tovah Out Of Her Mind) is here to publicise her role as a New York Jewish mother in Kissing Jessica Stein, a comedy about a Jewish career girl (Jennifer Westfeldt) who strikes up a romance with another woman. The film, released on video and DVD on December 16th, is hugely entertaining - and Tovah herself proves to be equally entertaining company, kicking off proceedings with a few impersonations of her mother before settling down to tell all about motherhood, singing and her very unusual shul. What attracted you to the role of New York Jewish mother Judy Stein in Kissing Jessica Stein? What attracted me to the role was Jennifer Westfeldt (who plays Jessica Stein in the film), she's a friend of mine and she wrote this role for me to play. I'm big on relationships and friendships, and she wanted me to play it because she felt it was the right role for me. And also by giving my name to the project it helped legitimise the project, because for whatever it's worth, when it was being made, I was the most well-known person in the picture at that time. So if I could lend my professional acknowledgement - which happens naturally, if you're any good, people are going to notice you've been working in the same city for a quarter of a century - then it was my pleasure to do so. And nothing is really prototypical, you have to find the turns in the character to not make it prototypical, and we did in this character. It's so nicely written. I was very pleased to do it. What aspects of your own role as a Jewish mother did you bring to this role? I want the best for my kids, and the best comes from your perception of it. But I must say I am quieter than Judy Stein in certain aspects of my childrens' upbringing. I think it's very important to empower a child, and it can be very disempowering to micro-manage them. And yes, my 14-year-old daughter has an 11.30 curfew, and she usually gets in at 11.20. She's the most responsible, decent - and yes, in my home when my children ask me for a dollar I give them five, and they say, 'Mummy, mummy, my allowance is a dollar, why did you give me five?' and I say 'Because I know you know how to manage money, you know what to spend, what to save, what to put in the piggy bank - what to buy sweets with, what not to buy - I have complete faith in you, and if you really want to use this wisely maybe you'll save it for something you're dying to have that costs $150.' So that's an empowerment game, and Judy Stein starts out that way, but she ends up giving Jessica her blessing, saying 'whatever you choose in life is alright with me. How bad could it be, if it's one of your life choices?' Very important. Had you seen the play before you did the film? Yes, I saw it in the basement of a church - I think it's called the Skylight Theatre - next to 160 West 71st Street, New York City - and it was excellent, and funny, but not the screenplay. It was different, the role of the mother was much much smaller. And then they wrote it, much much bigger - and they edited the suitors in the film down to nothing - in the play each one had a scene. Jennifer and Heather (Jurgensen, co-star and co-writer of the film) had a lot to do with the editing of the film, the shooting of it, and the casting of their director, they didn't cast a non-collaborator, or a fancy director they had to work under, they didn't work under Charles Herman-Wurmfield, they worked with him, everybody really worked together. That's one of the greatest things - I love growing older, I love being in my middle years, I love often being the oldest one in the company, because unless you're a total Philistine, you're afforded a certain respect. I remember when I did A Walk On The Moon, my co-star Viggo Mortensen would not let me carry a thing - and I'm a jogger, I'm a biker, I'm very athletic. But he wouldn't let me carry a thing. Do you still have plans to bring your one-woman show Tovah Out Of Her Mind to the UK? I'm hoping to do it - you know, I was in negotiations to do that on September 11 - and after that it became extremely inappropriate for me to leave my youngest child. My oldest child has just finished his first year at Harvard, but my youngest child is now just going into ninth grade, so there was no way I was going to leave the United States within the foreseeable future, and this is the first time I have left the United States since September 11, and I was at The Ivy here when the world blew up in my face, and in everybody's face. But I'd love to do Tovah Out Of Her Mind Here. I'd love to go to a great theatre here, obviously not a West End theatre, unless that became appropriate, but I would prefer something in town, like the Arts Theatre, where you can fill the house. And Tovah Out Of Her Mind if I do say so myself, is hilarious, it's very funny, and it goes from monologue to monologue so I play about eleven or twelve different people in a night - different characters, some fictional, some non-fictional, and it's buffered by large units on Gershwin, Rogers and Hart, Berlin, because it was originally a concert, so the audience is able to know where they are. In a theatre you can be much more daring, just go to down and be outrageous. I love the work of Lily Tomlin and the work of Bette Midler, and I saw their one-woman shows and said, 'I can do that! I can really create characters and disappear inside of them, and I can sing!' It was also my way of breaking typecasting - it's so easy for people to pigeonhole you - so it's been useful. But I'd love to bring it to Britain - it's very adaptable for this country, and also my grandmother was British, my great-grandfather came to England, my grandparents are buried in Edmonton cemetery. I have literally 100 cousins from both sides of my family here in Hertfordshire and Hampstead. It's like coming home for me. What are you doing next? I just finished a film yesterday called Tollbooth, where I play the mother of three children, one of whom - the medical school one - declares that she's gay, another one gets all screwed up and is an artist doing horrendous art, and the third one kind of follows the path but she marries a schlub. The mother is Jewish, I turned the part down because of the homosexual thing again, I said this is too derivative of Kissing Jessica Stein and then I woke up in the morning and said 'you know, the art of doing Tollbooth is making this character different from Judy Stein, not saying no to it. So I took it. And I did my part in seven days on high-definition film. It's an independent film just like Kissing Jessica Stein was. It should be so lucky to be as good and successful as Kissing Jessica Stein. So I just finished that and I'm going to Australia to do three concerts of Tovah Out Of Her Mind, in Sydney. What was your own Jewish upbringing? Conservative. I mean the conservative movement, I don't mean republican. It's a big movement in the United States, and I belong to this fabulous shul called Bnei Jeshurun, with an Argentinian rabbi, and all they do is sing. You get in, you sing, you sing, you sing and you think you've found God, because you're sitting there vibrating the bones in your face. And it's very moving. They do the Shema the way Tibetan monks do their prayers. Can you imagine that? It's like being in Tibet. So by the time they've finished you've got a smile on your face! The Baptists have been doing this for years, singing and rolling around and thinking they've found their God. So it's very experiential, this shul, uses the best of certain Buddhist or Yogic principles in the pursuit of Judaism. It's on 86th and West End, it's in the basilica of a church because the ceiling of our shul fell in, so we couldn't pray there but the shul only holds 500, this holds 1500 and you can't get in the Shul. You can't get in the shul on a Friday night because people are dancing in the aisles.