Blair Brown plays a D.C. doyenne of the right and designated head of the Fed in Beau Willimon’s Broadway play The Parisian Woman. This makes her the foil for Uma Thurman’s ambitious lefty agitator, who hopes Brown will put in a word with the unnamed boss – that would be Donald Trump – advancing her husband’s transition from tax lawyer to a choice judgeship. Fat chance. In what is easily the play’s most crackling scene, the two women engage in a conversational tango, playing nice until they don’t and the gloves (and masks) come off.
Brown has been such a constant on stage and screen that it’s almost impossible to slot her into any particular type, unless versatility and appeal – those searching eyes, that delicate overbite, the easy, infectious laugh – can be called constants in a career spanning more than four decades. She’s been a regular on Orange is the New Black, and called trippy William Hurt a “fascinating bastard” in Ken Russell’s 1980 Altered States. Her Broadway appearances include starring roles in two of the most pleasurably pointy-headed plays ever: Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia and Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, for which she won a Tony in 2000.
But if there’s a Blair Brown cult – and, be assured, there is – it’s based on her title role in the way-ahead-of-its-time Jay Tarses sitcom The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, which began its rocky life on NBC in 1987 and moved to Lifetime before expiring in 1991, trailing Emmy nominations and critics’ love in each of its five seasons. Molly was smart, self-determined, given to outbursts of song and blessedly complicated – features that, Brown says, made her an irresistible character to play while infuriating the NBC programming chief at the time, the late Brandon Tartikoff. As far as the brilliant Tartikoff was concerned, Brown recalls, Tarses’ off-kilter genius (c.f. The Slap Maxwell Story and Buffalo Bill for further evidence) reliably wrenched ratings failure from the promise of success every time.
That gave us a lot to cover in a conversation recently at Deadline’s New York HQ.
DEADLINE: You grew up in Washington, so doing The Parisian Woman must be pretty resonant for you.
BLAIR BROWN: I’m the Republican which is interesting — it’s been a little hard from time to time, for a liberal Washington girl, to learn my lines. I don’t have trouble learning lines, but there were certain things that wouldn’t…stick, because it’s not what I think. It was amazing, in Copenhagen to stand on the stage eight times a week and say the things I believed. This is the polar opposite, the antithesis of what I believe. I’m explaining the Republican point of view, which is really good to do. We used to have weekends off from politics. Not anymore! I feel a real obligation to make a case and not make it mockable. My mother, wherever she might be, will be very pleased.
DEADLINE: And working with Uma Thurman?
BROWN: She’s so brave. She’s taken the role of the company leader, which not every actor knows how to do. She does. All of a sudden there are little sandwiches here. And she’s really trying to figure out, What is this thing that we’re doing?
DEADLINE: This show has been in rehearsal and opened during a time of great upheaval over the issue of sexual assault, and it’s tangentially affected your play’s author, who also of course is the creator of House of Cards. Did Kevin Spacey’s departure from that have an impact on your show?
BROWN: It’s a bad time to be a predator. Everybody knows somebody. A lot of stories going around about predators we know and love. It’s a species problem, right? It’s not a show business problem. It happens in every country in the world, it always has, and so far I don’t see how it’s not going to happen. So can’t we talk about it in a bigger sense, like that?
On Molly Dodd: ‘That was the whole thing about the 360-degree woman: You were fantastic at your job, a great mother, a sexy partner, a good daughter, a loyal friend – and you think, This is a losing game. We said, This is a woman without a plan. That was what got a lot of people angry. Molly was perfectly happy like that.”
DEADLINE: I’ll take that as my cue to segue into the subject of Molly Dodd, a woman who would not be defined by anyone else and certainly declined to meet the expectations of the “have-it-all” culture that was emerging at that time.
BROWN: When Jay and I first met to talk about it, we said she can never wear sneakers to the office and put on high heels. That was the baseline. She was not that person. Because that was the whole thing about the 360-degree woman: You were fantastic at your job, a great mother, a sexy partner, a good daughter, a loyal friend – and you think, This is a losing game. We said, This is a woman without a plan. That was what got a lot of people angry. Molly was perfectly happy like that. There were day-planners then, where people put in each day’s goals, five-year goals. Five years? I don’t know what I’m doing at New Year’s.
DEADLINE: Of course, you and Jay were working for the day-planner crowd.
BROWN: The person who was really irritated by it was Brandon Tartikoff, our boss, the head of NBC at that point. He felt Jay could write a “boffo” comedy – and if Jay sees “boffo,” he just goes right next to that. There was a vice president in charge of comedy development – which is such an unfunny idea, right? – very bright, very pretty, and she said, “When I’m down, I go to the gym…” and I sort of looked at her and said, “Well, here’s the deal. When I’m down, I pour a glass of wine and pick up the phone…” and she looked at me, like, “Who are you?”
So the next episode, Molly was a little blue so she gets an exercise bike – but she has this giant bowl of buttered popcorn, and you could just see Brandon go “Arghhh! there she goes again!” Jay really was innovative. When Murphy Brown was pregnant, they literally copied the scene we shot, almost shot by shot.
DEADLINE: I’m just astonished that Molly Dodd isn’t available on any of the streaming services. Why?
BROWN: In their infinite wisdom – you would have thought Bernie Brillstein knew better – they never got the rights to the music [for off-network exploitation]. All the songs that I sang, they never got the rights. So it’s in a vault somewhere and will never see the light of day. I thought it would pay for my golden years, but not so much.
DEADLINE: Day planner or no day planner, are you working on your next move?
BROWN: I’m working on a modern day Lear with [Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 director] Rachel Chavkin. We might call it Queen Lear. Or we might call it something else.
DEADLINE: Are you good at not working?
BROWN: Yeah, but not as good as I think. I stay really busy. I am happier when I’m working. Sad to say.