Big Star of the Small Part
You would think that an actor who has appeared in more than 70 feature films,
dozens of plays and about as many television shows, as Beth Grant has,
would have been quite the leading lady as a drama major in college.
And you would be wrong.
By Steve Row
he’s a big star now but Beth Grant ’72 didn’t exactly burn up the footlights as a theater major at East Carolina. She had only one starring role on the main stage, and that didn’t come until her senior year. “I was not involved in any plays in my freshman year, or my sophomore year, either,” Grant recalls. “In my junior year, I did a one-act Tennessee Williams play in the studio theater and a Chekhov play off-campus. I was an extra in one of the main stage plays—I had a funny bit with a lamp in ‘Little Murders.’”
But she loved drama and devoted herself to learning theater and stagecraft in all forms, including directing, playwriting and costuming. No aspect of theater bored her. “I was the only girl to get an A in my lighting class,” she recalls proudly.
She studied under Edgar Loessin, co-founder of the university’s theater program, and turned to him her senior year when he was casting “Holy Ghosts,” a play by Romulus Linney that was to receive its premier at ECU. She had just been passed over for the leading role in “Glass Menagerie” and was fearful of again missing the brass ring.
“I asked [Loessin] if I could read one more time, and he let me. I was taking acting classes, directing, and I got A’s in my classes. He knew I was a hard worker,” Grant says. She landed the part.
Her one star turn on the college stage was thrilling, she says, but that wasn’t what carried her from Greenville to New York and Hollywood, where she’s now appearing in her third Best Picture film, “No Country for old Men.”
“I designed sets. I designed costumes. Because of what I did, I developed the utmost respect for all the behind-the-scenes people.”
Perhaps that’s where she gained the uncanny ability to portray strong female characters, especially the sad Southern mother. She’s played that small part in some of the biggest films of the past 20 years. She was in “Rain Man,” “Flatliners,” “Speed,” “City Slickers,” “Little Miss Sunshine” and “No Country for Old Men.” She’s been in four films with fellow ECU alum Sandra Bullock. She may be the hardest working and certainly one of the most successful character actresses in Hollywood.
“No one ever said I would be a star, but slow and steady wins the race, and my great success is to be a character actress who gets star billing.”
Her first performance
|Beth Grant has appeared |
in over 70 movies, including:
2007: No Country for Old Men (Carla Jean's mother)
2006: Factory Girl (Julia Warhol)
2006: Flags of Our Fathers (Mother Gagnon)
2006: Hard Scrambled (Alice)
2006: Little Miss Sunshine (Pageant Official Jenkins)
2006: Southland Tales (Dr. Inga Von Westphalen/Marion Card)
2005: Daltry Calhoun (Aunt Dee)
2003: Matchstick Men (the laundry lady)
2002: Desert Saints (Lou)
2002: The Rising Place (Melvina Pou)
2002: The Rookie (Jimmy's mother)
2001: Donnie Darko (Kitty Farmer)
2001: Pearl Harbor (the motherly secretary)
2001: Rock Star (Mrs. Cole)
2000: Sordid Lives (Sissy Hickey)
1998: Dance With Me (Lovejoy)
1998: Dr. Dolittle (woman)
1997: A Thousand Acres (Roberta)
1997: Lawn Dogs (Trent's mother)
1997: Love Always (Stephanie)
1996: A Time to Kill (Cora Cobb)
1995: Lieberman in Love (Linda Baker)
1995: Safe (Becky)
1995: To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar (Loretta)
1994: City Slickers II (Lois)
1994: Speed (Helen)
1993: The Dark Half (Shayla)
1992: Love Field (Hazel)
1992: White Sands (Roz)
1990: Child's Play 2 (Miss Kettlewell)
1990: Don't Tell Her It's Me (Babette)
1990: Eating (Bea)
1990: Flatliners (Housewife)
1990: Welcome Home Roxy Carmichael (Lillian)
1989: The Wizard (Diner manager)
1988: Rain Man (Mother at farm house)
1987: Under Cover (Miss Randolph)
Born in Gadsden, Alabama, Laura Beth Grant moved with her family first to Georgia and then to North Carolina, eventually settling in Wilmington. She vividly remembers her first experience entertaining others, before she even started school.
“Mama taught me a song to sing for my uncle when he came home from Korea—‘Oh, Where Have You Been, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?’ He was a very handsome guy, and he squatted down to my level in his Navy uniform and listened to me sing that song, just grinning at me.”
Even at that early age, “I was hooked. I wanted that look forever. As soon as I found out what acting was, I wanted to do it. I would play in Mama’s closet, wear her high heels and fancy clothes. I sang and danced and pretended to be Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley and Davy Crockett.”
Her co-star in those juvenile productions was younger brother Bubba, who later attended ECU, too. He now works in Raleigh. “Once we got a tape recorder and just recorded ourselves making up the wildest stories. We would interview each other and make up crazy tales.”
Grant remembers telling an elementary school teacher that her uncle had been excavating in Egypt and sent back a rat mummy as a souvenir. The teacher asked Beth to bring it to school. “I went home in a panic,” she says. “So I took a little red leather fingernail kit and wrapped it in toilet paper, then dabbed it with Mama’s liquid foundation make-up. I put it in a small oval-shaped crocheted pocketbook and took it to school the next day. I held it and walked up and down the aisles showing my rat mummy.”
The teacher never disputed the story. “As we say in show biz, ‘Fooled ’em again!”
At New Hanover High School she performed in a one-act play that won a statewide award. Then in the summer before her senior year she won an appointment to the Governor’s School of North Carolina, a six-week residential program for gifted children. For her audition, she listened “over and over again” to a recording of Dame Judith Anderson in “As You Like It,” and then performed a scene from that play to secure her spot in the program. One of the Jenkins’ kids
Her instructors at the governor’s school recommended she consider the drama program at East Carolina. They didn’t know she already was a Pirate.
Grant had served as a page in the North Carolina Senate the year before, where she met Suzanne Jenkins, daughter of Dr. Leo Jenkins, then president of East Carolina College. In the fall of 1965 she was invited to spend Homecoming weekend with the Jenkins family “and I became one of the family. I felt like I was the seventh child.”
She visited the theater department with Suzanne Jenkins, met Edgar Loessin for the first time, “and I fell in love” with the school.
She enrolled in 1967 and soon was involved in several activities. She was president of the ECU College Democrats for two years, for which she earned the Outstanding College Democrat Award (presented by U.S. Sen. Edmund Muskie.) At 19, she also served as a governor’s appointee to a state parks and recreation commission.
It during a summer class in psychology that Grant heard a wake-up call from a professor. “He said if we can teach our children to accept responsibility for their actions, then they will do OK. I felt like he was talking right at me. I was not disciplined, I was opportunistic, a party girl. I skipped classes. After this, I started taking more responsibility.”
Grant had visited New York to see what professional acting was all about and that’s where she headed right after graduation. She enrolled in the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute in New York. To prepare, Grant received assistance from Amanda Loessin, Edgar Loessin’s wife.
“She did show me a great kindness my senior year, after I decided to move to New York. She had me come to her house once a week and taught me memory and sensory exercises to prepare me for the work I would be doing at Strasberg. She did it for fun and for free, and it was a great gift.”
Grant’s first professional stage role was in an off-Broadway production of “Sid/Arthur,” produced by the New York Theatre Ensemble, in 1972.
She said in an earlier interview she was “thrilled out of my mind just to be working. Then I found out that I was replacing a male transvestite. It was then that I realized that I was a character actor, not a leading lady.”
Grant later appeared in the Linney play, “Holy Ghosts,” in New York, and she started a local theater company. After it folded, she moved to Los Angeles and began training as a producer. She worked for George Schlatter, directing on-air promotions and producing segments for “Real People.”
Taking the L.A. stage
Beth and daughter Mary with Bernadette Peters
She also tackled some stage roles in Los Angeles. Performing in “Picnic” at The Ahmanson, she was spotted by a film director who cast her in a small role in “Under Cover,” in 1987. Her second movie was “Rain Man,” the 1988 Oscar-winning film in which she played the mother at the farmhouse where Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman watch “The People’s Court.”
Since then she’s averaged two or three movie appearances a year, plus lots of work for television. A typical year was 2006; she played the pageant official in “Little Miss Sunshine,” Julia Warhol in “Factory Girl” and Mother Gagnon in “Flags of Our Fathers.” She also appeared in nine episodes of “Jericho.”
She followed that with a role as Carla Jean’s mother in this year’s Best Picture, “No Country for Old Men.” Plus, she filmed a dozen episodes of a new comedy series for USA Network, “Sordid Lives,” based on the 2000 movie in which she appeared.
She doesn’t want to restrict herself to any particular kind of role and she won’t take just any part. “I get a lot of ‘Southern’ parts, but that’s not what I want to do all the time. I want to compete with Glenn Close and Sigourney Weaver and those actresses.
“I have turned down a few things. I was called for a slasher movie, but I talked to (director) Todd Holland, and he reminded me, ‘Think of what you’re putting into the universe.’ But I’ll put my body of work against anyone else. And I’ll defend movies like ‘No Country For Old Men,’ even though there’s lots of violence.
“I’m pretty conservative in that way. I like to make people think. I’m sort of a complicated independent thinker myself.”
Her best thinking may come on stage. She has created roles in the world premieres of “On a Southern Journey” by Maya Angelou, “The Day Emily Married” by Horton Foote and “The Trials and Tribulations of a Trailer Trash Housewife” by Del Shores. She earned three best actress awards for her work in the Shores play. A mother on and off screen
Grant (second row, in gold shirt) attends many ECU events, including this meeting of the Los Angeles Pirate Club before last year's baseball game with UCLA. Brother Bubba is at far left.
Perhaps the reason that Beth Grant plays the Southern mother so well on screen is because she is one in real life. She and her husband, actor Michael Chieffo, are parents to daughter Mary, a high school freshman who has become a star soccer goalkeeper. [When you see Michael Chieffo’s picture, you immediately recognize him from recurring roles on “Law and Order: CSI” and “Malcolm in the Middle.”]
Grant has found that some roles help her in parenting, and some roles she develops into better characters because she is a parent and has observed parents closely.
In “The Rookie,” in which she plays the mother of the high school coach who wants to pitch in the major leagues, Grant based her approach to the character on a woman she knew in Greenville.
“She always had a twinkle in her eye, a good sense of humor. I often think of a specific mom and then bring my own experiences in.”
Now Grant is facing a bit of a dilemma: daughter Mary wants to follow in her parents’ footsteps and become an actor.
“I tried to discourage my daughter from that, but I gave up. At times, she says she’s given up her idea of playing soccer in college and says she wants to be an actress,” Grant says. “She sees it as a pretty good life, even with the pain of long times away from home.”
Grant and her husband try to arrange their work schedules so that one or the other is always at home. As an example, when she was involved in filming 12 episodes of the television series “Sordid Lives” recently, he was working a total of perhaps three weeks on the set. “The longest I’ve been away at any one time is three weeks. I hate it. I miss her so much it’s physical with me,” she says. Luckily, Mary “has never been sick without at least one of us there for her.”
The work ethic that Beth acquired backstage at ECU seems to have served her well in her professional life; it’s a trait admired by her peers and directors. “I was told at ECU ‘you’re not a natural, but if you work hard, you will make it.’”
Todd Holland, who has directed her in television programs and movies, says Grant is a risk-taker. “She is very comfortable being far out on a limb from the character. I sometimes have to bring her in to play more of herself. She has a certain vibe to give off—a little bit of Southern, a little bit of mothers or Middle American women. She becomes the moral center of the piece.”
Grant and Holland might team up for a large-scale project in the future—a screenplay that she has been working on for about 10 years. Titled “The New York Way,” the story mixes drama and time-travel fantasy, in which “a little girl from the South moves to New York City” to become an actress. While walking the streets of Greenwich Village, disheartened about job prospects, she sees someone she thinks might be herself as a younger person. She observes this younger version of herself from a distance and then returns from that previous time to apply the lessons she learned from reliving the past.
Grant’s daughter read the part of the young girl for studio executives, directors and music producers in late February, and Grant read the part of the older woman. Holland is among the directors invited to consider the script.
“We have three months to raise money, attract other stars and come back with details,” Grant says. “We’d like to shoot over the summer, because that’s when Mary is out of school. We could possibly shoot it in North Carolina, maybe Greenville or Wilmington.”
Meanwhile, Beth Grant, named a Distinguished Alumni in 1999, continues to practice her craft. Se will appear in at least a half-dozen films in 2008 and ‘09: “Natural Disasters,” “In My Sleep,” “Winged Creatures,” "Boy in the Box,” “All About Steve” (another film with Sandra Bullock) and “Southern Baptist Sissies.”
So, for the little girl who sang “Where Have You Been Billy Boy, Billy Boy” to her sailor uncle, things have turned out quite well. “My dreams have come true beyond any of my dreams.”