TDW Exclusive: Dawson’s Creek Star Mary Beth Peil on Playing Grams

10 11 2009

In honor of today’s release of Dawson’s Creek: The Complete Series, I’ve rounded up some key cast and crew to reflect on the monumental series.  If you followed my coverage of the Paley Center panel, you probably noticed a certain lady was MIA: Mary Beth Peil, better known as the one and only Grams.

I was lucky enough to track her down.  In our interview below, Peil discusses her favorite parts of playing grandmother to Michelle William’s Jen and shares memories of her time at Northwestern University, where we each attended college.

Enjoy the first part of TDW’s stroll down memory creek…

TeenDramaWhore: You started out as an opera singer and then moved on to theater.  What attracted you to a serialized drama about teenagers?

Mary Beth Peil: My life as an opera singer had NOTHING to do with a teen drama other than the fact that, having left opera in my early 40s, I was working very hard to prove myself as a legitimate actress and musical theatre performer. When the audition came along I went with the attitude of  “nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

TDW: Do you think you share any qualities with Grams?

Peil: Age-wise I am closer to Grams NOW than when we started. I always thought of Grams as in her late 60s, early 70s. When we started the show, I was 57. I have a wonderful relationship with my daughter as opposed to Grams with Jen’s mom. BUT I DO LEARN something new everyday it seems…from my kids and young granddaughters. Being able to work with young actors all the time is a wonderful way to keep learning … AND give advice when asked for it.

TDW: Why do you think Grams was the one to teach the greatest lessons and have the wisest sayings?  (My favorite is probably “Love is the hardest of woods.”)

Peil: Oh I love that line! When I was shooting FRINGE with Josh [Jackson, Pacey],  he brought out that line as one of his favorites. Grams was really the only GROWNUP. It seemed that everyone’s PARENTS were going through their own adolescence angst/identity crisis etc. and I think [creator Kevin Williamson] wisely tapped into the “PRIMAL Tribal Elder” syndrome which our society seems to fight or ignore.

TDW: Grams had a pretty progressive love life for her age. Which parts of that did you think were realistic and which not so much?

Peil: Again…I think society dictates that she was progressive for her age. But I think being surrounded by all those raging hormones and libidos had a subliminal affect on her. Made her see herself in the mirror a little differently each day and as time went on begin to realize there was something missing in her life. I think the only thing TRULY UNrealistic about it was the availability of single straight age-appropriate MEN!!!!

TDW: They touched on this a little bit at the Paley Center panel and I’m wondering what your take is.  Fans would’ve been devastated had Grams died during the show, just as they were when Mitch did.  Why do you think it was so important that she even outlived her own granddaughter?

Peil: Another life lesson for everyone…the only thing you can expect  is the UNexpected. Parents are supposed to go first  BUT it doesn’t always turn out that way. AND of course it gave Kevin the opportunity to write some of his best stuff for the last episode.

TDW: Your Grams voice isn’t actually your natural one.  What inspired the voice and what was it like having to do it so often?

Peil: It just CAME at the audition. Her name was GRAMS so I knew that she was older than me. The first time I said  “Jennifer!!!”…it all fell into place. They wanted a hint of Cape Cod  but not too much. It was like part of my costume…that voice…part of putting gray in my hair…that voice…GRAMS.

TDW: As you mentioned, earlier this year, you reunited with Joshua Jackson on the set of Fringe.  What was that like?  Are you in touch with any of the other cast or crew?

Peil: When I arrived for a fitting the day before I was to shoot, Josh came through the office where I was waiting and all the
staff was peeking out of cubbies and from behind desks to see what would happen when he saw me. He did not disappoint.
He is such an OPEN Unaffected person…he literally jumped up and down with joy like I was his favorite Christmas present. We hadn’t seen each other in a while. We had done a reading together a couple of years ago. And it was sheer delight to work with him on set and to see what a splendid actor and MAN he has become.  I shot a film in Wilmington (THE LIST) and reunited with many of the wonderful crew. The DAWSON’S crew was just HEAVEN! Salt of the earth types…happy to be living and working in coastal NC.
I saw Katie [Holmes, Joey] in ALL MY SONS on Broadway and was so proud of her. Have occasional emails, conversations with James [Van Der Beek, Dawson]. But Michelle is  my ANGEL! I have unconditional love and respect for her. For her choices in her personal life and her professional life

TDW: Finish this sentence: When I look back on Dawson’s Creek, I think ….

Peil: I’m a big believer in the Gods and Goddesses of TIMING and the CREEK came into my life at the PERFECT time. I am deeply grateful for all that I learned (about being on camera regularly) AND for my beautiful Upper West Side apartment which we call the “HOUSE THAT DAWSON BUILT.”

TDW: Will we see more of you on The Good Wife?

Peil: I think so…am shooting a wonderful episode right now. Hoping Jackie has more to do as we go along through the season.  It is a wonderful show…cast, crew, producers AND WRITERS !

TDW: Lastly: I’m a Northwestern graduate as well, and I’m wondering if you’ve been back to the campus since you went there and what reflections you have of your time there.

Peil: Yes, I have been back. Shortly after graduation I was appearing at the Opera house in Chicago so I came up to Evanston to visit. They were just starting the lakefront development. In the early 80s I was back again with Chicago Opera Theatre and 4 years later I was there with KING AND I and went up and was knocked out by the changes. And then recently I was doing a play at Steppenwolf and came up and literally did not recognize the place. I was a Music Major and it took some doing to even FIND that big old white elephant of a building. I had a wonderful rich time at NU…  a solid liberal arts education, the BEST preparation for a career in Opera AND one year of acting with the legendary Alvina Krauss. She let me take her class because she was an Opera fan..and I think she knew even back then that I was a singing ACTRESS as opposed to an acting SINGER. Even life in the Sorority house has given me life long friends.  How lovely that you too are an Alum….quite an impressive group of folks, eh???

Come back Sunday for another exclusive Dawson’s Creek interview!

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3 responses

10 11 2009
Alyssa

Great interview! I don’t think I have ever watched/read an interview from her and so this was fun to read. She seems to have a lot of love for the show and her character which is great.

10 11 2009
Em

That was so much fun to read! I love what she said about Michelle!

10 11 2009
teendramawhore

Thanks guys! I, too, haven’t seen anything with her before so I was really surprised that this worked out. I also loved what she said about Michelle (and Joshua, too). It caught me really off-guard but it is so sweet given all that Michelle’s been through and even regardless of that.

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