Catch Me If You Can, a gripping psychological thriller by Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert in on stage at The Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham this week. Starring Dallas legend Patrick Duffy, Linda Purl (Happy Days, Homeland, The Office) and Gray O’Brien (Peak Practice, Coronation Street), the play tells the story of Inspector Levine, who is called to a house in the remote Catskill mountains to investigate the disappearance of newly married Elizabeth Corban. In a bizarre development a woman arrives at the house claiming to be the missing Elizabeth but, instead of celebrating the reunion, her husband accuses her of being an imposter…
I had the honour of speaking to actress Linda Purl recently ahead of her upcoming Birmingham shows to find out more about the play, life on the road and her incredible career on both stage and screen.
How are you?
We’re wonderful! It’s fair to say that we have the low-level exhaustion on this particular schedule, so physically it’s managing the adventure of it all.
I can imagine! What does your working week generally look like when you’re on tour?
Saturday night, 2 shows that day, Sunday morning we pack up, the final thing that we have before we leave is the Tesco shop on top of the luggage, then we put the next address into the GPS and we set off. We’ve been so lucky with the weather – we have yet to do a long drive in the rain at all – we were certainly expecting that, but also now we’ve had six cities in a row where there has been loads of wonderful pubs or inns for Sunday lunch. That has been a reset moment for me, where we sit down and we have our fish and chips or Yorkshire pudding. That’s where we can sit down and hit the reset button in these beautiful atmospheric pubs, it has been so joyful. Our families are in Los Angeles and are not able to come over, so we get that family vibe vicariously and then we set off to find our next location. We move in, we get the Tesco thing in the fridge and then discover the next new beautiful theatre, and we’re doing that for six months. It’s fantastic, we’re working with the best possible people, and when we hit the pillows at night we are out cold.
How do you manage to unwind after a show?
I’d be lying if I said we didn’t have a glass of wine! Patrick has one glass, I have half a glass, not because another one wouldn’t feel great, but you just pay the next day. We come straight home, we don’t socialise. The regiment is so strict, we have a glass of wine, we rightly or wrongly watch the news to stay in touch with what’s unfolding in the world. Being in this play – it’s funny, it’s quick-witted, it’s a bubble and we’re grateful for that, and I think the audience is too, but we want to stay connected with what’s going on. We go to bed, you have to make sure you get your hours in.
The play, it’s not like doing a Tennesse Williams where there’s a lot to emotionally unpack – it’s funny, there’s lots of twists and turns and hopefully for the audience too – you can go away just a little more light-hearted. We had the sweetest note that came in from an audience member that said, ‘thank you for letting us forget about the world for two hours and making us laugh’ and we feel that way too just doing the play.
You’re playing the role of Elizabeth – what preparation have you had to do?
It’s hard to describe. None of the people on stage are who they appear to be initially. The play peels back another level of a character and each character is multi-dimensional. That, for an actor, is a gift because when you’re doing something for this long of a run, if there aren’t that many levels for you to be playing, it can get boring and this play never does. We come off stage thinking “oh my gosh, there’s another twist of brilliance that we hadn’t seen before from the writers” – it’s an incredibly well-crafted play. The play is set in the 60’s with sort of a ‘Mad Men’ tone. She’s a very modern woman – fiercely independent, strong, single minded, it’s interesting that the writers write that kind of woman in the ‘60s.
Patrick Duffy is starring in the play, and he’s your partner in real life. How easy is it to work and live with your partner when you’re on tour for that length of time?
It’s a gift. I feel for the other actors in the play because they aren’t able to be with their partners. Ben Nealon has a gorgeous wife and a 3 year old baby girl who is just an angel, and they’ve been able to have a couple of weeks together over the last few months, and Gray O’Brien’s girlfriend is a wonderful actress who is busy in her own career, so they haven’t seen each other in six weeks. That’s really hard. Life is busy so they have to go home to their little flat and Patrick and I get to go home together. We did a film a year ago which was nearly our first time to get to work together – 40 years ago we did a reading of a play together but both of us barely remember that – but when we went to do a film together we were really excited to be filming with each other. We went off to Canada and it was at the height of the pandemic – we got off the plane, they say welcome to Canada, shove a stick up your nose and then tell you to go to your room for two weeks. They were serious about it, we thought before doing it, “oh no, we’re going to be hermetically sealed in a room!” but it was hysterical. We made home movies, we posted some on YouTube, it was silly, fun and eccentric. We had a balcony and I spent a lot of time on that balcony. We had a seagull, we called him Albert, who became our pet for the week and he would would show up every morning at 6.30am. You just find a way.
And then we went to work together and we thought, oh no, what if we have different ways or rhythms, different work ethics, but it was absolutely symbiotic. We work very similarly and it’s fun. There’s so much variety in what we’re doing and we get to relax together and then we’re on the road and it’s like the surf – there’s constant change and out on stage it is different every night, and the audience makes it so.
The audiences have been really interesting because they have been different in every town – some are quite proper, some are boisterous, some are rowdy, but the responses are distinct in each place. What is universal about a British audience is that they are smart and they know how to listen – they are theatre savvy, much more so than an American audience.
Our reputation as Brits is that we’re a lot more reserved and people are surprised to see that isn’t the case…
I don’t know that they’re more reserved. It’s the same in the states – a New York audience is different from a Texas audience or a Kansas audience – but a British audience listens and knows how to respond, they’re very attentive.
You’ve had such an incredible career and I can imagine that people are quite starstruck when they meet you and the cast. Have you ever walked onto set or into a rehearsal room and been completely starstruck yourself?
Oh my goodness yes, many times. I got to work with Laurence Oliver years ago in a mini-series that we shot in the UK and in Italy, and for all of us that got to work with him for a few days that was a lifetime highlight. Wonderful directors, some known, some not so known. Julie Harris, a wonderful American stage actress, I got to do 2 plays with her, and every moment was a life lesson as well as being an acting lesson.
I have to say, working with Gray O’Brien in the play, he’s the character in which my character acts with the most, he is something. He’s a fun guy. Most of the time I can understand what he is saying – sometimes I have to say, “Gray, can you say that in your American accent?” because I don’t know what the hell he’s talking about, but I’ve told him that when he does Stanley in A Streetcar Names Desire or Henry in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf I’m flying over. He’s an actor at the top of his game. He’s so present and immediate and I keep looking at him and thinking how does he do that? How does he get there? He’s a masterful performer!
Newer audiences will know you as Pam’s mom, Helene Beesly from The Office. As a personal fan, what was filming the wedding scene like?
It was emotional! It was really emotional!
Did you all improvise?
No not at all. I’m terrified of improv, I’m frozen in my boots, and what I learned on that show is that 95% of the time is that there is no improv. Those lines are scripted. To the writers credit, they know the actors and the characters so well that it felt like improv. Once the scene had been filmed they would occasionally go back and say “have at it” but that was more the exception than the rule?
It was really joyful. It augmented everything that was on that set – the real friendships and relationships – it felt silly going down the aisle dancing with Steve walking down the aisle but it was fun.
A friend of mine went to stage school and he made a comment once about being asked to pretend to be an egg frying in a pan during a workshop. What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever been asked to do either during a rehearsal, at drama school or on stage itself?
I don’t know if this is strange, but mask work. At some time I was doing a play on and off for three years, and that’s a long time to sustain a role. We would do it for a few months and then we would be off for a few months and then come back again. One of the times where we had come back into the rehearsal room we just had to find a new way in and I happened to have a bunch of neutral masks – just rubber masks with no expression. So we all put them on and first we thought, “well this is silly,’” but we were all game and jumped in, and it was fascinating. What happened is that once you put on the mask there was something in the psyche, you knew that you couldn’t express what you had to say through your face and so it would come up from your being to your face, it would hit that brick wall of the mask and then it would do a u-turn and would have to come out through your body language. You would have to read the other actors through their body language and there would be an essence of truth that came about in all of us in that rehearsal space. I highly recommend it – in life it would be weird to do but…
In Birmingham we have lots of talented young performers. What is your advice to those who want to have a successful career on stage and screen?
I there are two fronts to go forward on – show and business – and those are two very distinct courses which both need to be taken into account. On the show side, read as many plays as you can, good, bad and indifferent, international… Expose yourself to the theatre – go to a lot of theatre, see everything, big theatres, small theatres, classical, musicals. If you can’t go to the theatre get them on DVD and immerse yourself. Approach auditions as a chance to do your craft – take every job unless you find it offensive, really stay proactive. Memorise the monologues, go the the top of a lovely moor and speak it to the stars, get in your 10,000 hours of practise and 10,000 hours of exposure. For the business side it’s an exciting time for an actor because you can be very entrepreneurial. My son worked for a spell at a top agency in Los Angeles and there was a negotiation. The conversation was ‘we want actor A,’ and everyone agreed because they were better for the role, but the studio was pushing for actor B because they had many more followers on Instagram. Actor B got the role because he had attended to the business side of things. Keep track of who you meet, write thank you notes, reach out, remember people’s birthdays, keep that network going.
I would say is be aware of how people see you. For instance, I had a dear friend who was a handsome leading man but for a while he wasn’t working. He went to an acting teacher and the teacher said, “your problem is that you see yourself as a character actor, and the second lead, but when you walk in the room people see a leading man.” He embraced that idea and he went in with leading man in mind and from that point he didn’t stop working, he landing his own series etc. Put an objective eye on yourself and ask your friends how people perceive you when you walk in the room.
I’ve always sung but over the last fifteen years it has become more of my career, I do jazz concerts once a month. I will have done a concert by the time we get to Birmingham. As actors explore all avenues of your artistry – if you paint, paint, just be in the process. For me, music and singing is very much part of that – I don’t have to wait for someone to cast me in a role, I can call a club, book musicians and I can do my art. If you can find a way of being an artist with autonomy in whatever field, do that.