The Sunday Conversation: Dana Delany's power play

Her character in South Coast Repertory's 'The Parisian Woman' enjoys being part of the political scene. And for her role in ABC's 'Body of Proof,' she decided to get real-life experience. Scalpel, anyone?

By Irene Lacher / April 13, 2013
Dana Delany plays a calculating politician's wife in Beau Willimon's "The Parisian Woman," set in contemporary Washington, "inspired" by Henri Becque's "La Parisienne" of 1885. The world premiere production, co-starring Steven Weber, begins previews Sunday at South Coast Repertory and runs through May 5. The two-time Emmy winner also stars as acerbic medical examiner Dr. Megan Hunt in ABC's procedural "Body of Proof," now in its third season.
Actress Dana Delaney in her Santa Monica home. (Rick Loomis, Los Angeles Times)
Beau Willimon has a pretty dim view of people in politics. Do you share that?
— No, I don't. I've been involved in politics on and off over the years, mostly starting with Bill Clinton's campaign in '92. I was very involved in that. Then you start to face the reality of politics a little bit more once you get into it.

How did working on Clinton's campaign change your perspective?
— I was involved in '92; I was also involved in '96. Then it just started to seem to be all about money. Until we fix that system of special-interest groups, it's not going to change.

Are you optimistic about that?
— I think it's going to take a long time. I am optimistic because the fact that in the last four years we have our first black president and that the marriage equality issue has advanced so rapidly, it gives me hope.

Your "Parisian Woman" character, Chloe, asks, "Do you think I'm shallow?" Do you think she's shallow?
— No, I don't, actually. It's an interesting role to play because how do you play somebody who doesn't have ambition? It's like playing a negative.

What do you think motivates her?
— Mostly pleasure and the pleasure of the artistry of politics. She likes observing it, she likes being part of it, but she likes being invisible behind the scenes. That's much more fun for her. And I think she really does love her husband because he accepts who she is, and that's rare.

How did you come to be involved in this production?
— I saw "Farragut North" at the Atlantic Theater in New York, when it was first done there, around 2007. [The production moved to the Geffen Playhouse in June 2009.] I was really impressed. I remember going backstage to see Chris Noth, who was in it, and saying, "Wow, this guy is a really good writer." And he said, "Yeah, he's somebody you should watch out for." And that was about politics and sexuality. Of course that was turned into [the film] "Ides of March." And then [the Netflix series] "House of Cards" came along. So he's obviously been on a fast track.

Then I got the offer in February, and I really did not want to do a play, because I'd just got off of "Body of Proof," and I was exhausted. But I wanted to meet with Pam MacKinnon because she's a really wonderful director. So I met her for coffee and I looked at her and said, "Do we know each other?" She said, "Yes, I was Dan Sullivan's assistant on 'Dinner With Friends' when you did it at the Geffen theater." I went, "I liked you, and now you're this huge star director!" So I thought, "I don't know if I can turn this down now," so I said yes. On top of that, I got a concussion two weeks before we started rehearsing, so it's been a challenge. It was stupid; I hit my head on my kitchen counter in New York.

I'd read that you were also in a car accident two weeks before...
— It must be something I do to myself. I went and got an MRI and I'm OK, but it's been a challenge, because the one thing you're supposed to do after you get a concussion is not tax your brain.

Did you think the car accident was eerie, though, because you sustained a hand injury in it, which was exactly what had happened to your TV character?
— Yeah, it's a little weird. I find that life does always somehow interact with my art.

You've often played super-competent women like Dr. Hunt in "Body of Proof" and birth-control pioneer Margaret Sanger in a TV biopic. Do you think those kinds of roles have evolved over the years?
— I definitely do. When I started out, I was so often just the girlfriend or the wife or the mother.

I was so lucky early on with "China Beach" to have such a complex role. And it spoiled me because I thought it's always going to be like this. But it certainly made me realize early on how great television can be for women. It's a female medium, I really believe that, and it amuses me that the main networks are constantly trying to get the younger male demographic. Let them go watch zombie movies 10 times. That's not really what television is. It's an emotional medium, and that's not what boys watch.

Is that also because there are more women behind the scenes?
— No, I wish there were more women behind the scenes. I don't think there are enough. It's changing, but like in our writers' room, we have one woman, and it's run by men. I'm on the board of a couple of theater companies that develop plays with writers — the Ojai Playwrights festival and New York Stage and Film — and I'm always trying to support the up-and-coming female writers, because it's a different story they have to tell.

Why do you think that is in 2013?
— I hate to say it, but it's still biological. In the last two seasons we've lost female writers because they had babies. That's a fact of life — women are the ones who have the children.

For "Body of Proof," you actually studied corpses.
— I did the autopsies themselves. It was fascinating. By the third one, I got to participate, which was really exciting.

What did you learn?
— First of all, it gave me a sense of awe and if you don't believe in God or some higher being, you will after doing an autopsy. Because the system of the body is such a miracle. To me the most extraordinary thing was the pituitary gland. It's sort of the mastermind of the whole system, and it's tiny like a pea, and it sits inside this little box made of bone at the base of the brain, and it's like this little jewel box underneath it all. Who came up with that?

So first of all I had awe and second of all it made me really want to take care of my body. You cut a body open and you can see exactly how that person lived their life.

You've said that Dr. Hunt is "not that far off from myself." What did you mean by that?
— I think that what I relate to in her is that she's career-driven. My mother is an interior designer, as was my grandmother, as is my sister. In New York and Connecticut. My mother still works, and she's 85 years old. I don't imagine myself retiring. There's no point.

On the question of marriage, which you talked about when you turned 50, has it been hard to find the right person?
— I have been on such a journey myself of figuring out who I am that if I had married the person I was dating in my 20s, that would never have lasted. And even the person in my 30s and 40s. I feel like it's just now that I pretty much know who I am and what makes me happy. And I don't have a problem saying it now, which is the bigger thing.

There are so many friends of mine who have never been married, and I think it's a generational thing that may never happen again. I think my age, which is now 57, we kind of got stuck between our mothers being Betty Draper and then Gloria Steinem comes along and she was a role model for me. And what I was told was, put your career before your personal life. Make sure you have your own life first.

Do you have any regrets?
— No, not at all. I feel like I've been able to do everything I've wanted to do. I've missed out on nothing, and at this point I'm really happy living a simple life.
Credit to Los Angeles Times.