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The Ambassador of Life

MSCL.COM
January 1995

The Ambassador of Life

A few minutes with Bess Armstrong

by Steve C. Joyner (steve@mscl.com)

Bess Armstrong plays "Patty" on "My So-Called Life" and refers to the role as "the most interesting middle-aged character I've seen come out of Hollywood features or television in a long, long time."

An actress who has turned heads and won hearts for her outstanding stage, screen and television performances, Bess Armstrong brings considerable on- and off-screen experience to her character. "The most important preparation I've ever had is raising kids for the last six years," laughs the blonde hair, hazel-eyed beauty who is the mother of two young sons, aged six and two-and-a-half. She also feels that most working women with children will recognize something of themselves in Patty Chase. "She's going through a transition, too, where she's looking at where she is in her life. Patty speaks to a lot of us."

It was the role of the new young wife in Alan Alda's acclaimed feature film, "The Four Seasons," that established Ms. Armstrong as an actress in continuous demand. Prior to that, she had appeared on the New York stage and in regional theater in numerous hit productions, including Jules Feiffer's "Knock, Knock."

Bess made her screen debut on the TV series, "On Our Own," with Dixie Carter. She was a series regular, along with Carol Kane and David Allen Greer, in "All is Forgiven." She starred in the popular ABC Miniseries, "Lace," as well as in several movies for television. She most recently starred on the ABC comedy series, "Married People," as a pregnant lawyer married to a writer (Jay Thomas) and living in a New York brownstone.

Among Ms. Armstrong's feature-film credits are roles in "Nothing in Common" (as Tom Hanks' high-school sweetheart); "The High Road to China," opposite Tom Selleck; "Jaws 3-D"; and the upcoming release, "Dream Lover," with James Spader.

A native of Maryland, Bess was born and brought up near Baltimore, the middle of five children of parents who were both teachers. From an early age, she was enchanted with the smell of the greasepaint. Her father directed plays at the school across the street from Bryn Mawr School For Girls, which Bess attended for 14 years. Her parents made a deal with her: As long as she remained on the honor roll she could get as involved with school plays as she wanted. She graduated from Brown University with a double degree in theater arts and the classics.

Steve Joyner: Patty tends to be a very unpopular character with many of the young viewers. Maybe it's because you play the character so realistically.

Bess Armstrong: Well, you know, I almost take it as a compliment when people say that they don't like Patty particularly. I think it's a relief to finally find a mother character on TV who isn't likable all the time. Because I don't know any mother that's ever made it through her children's adolescence and teenage years popular-unless she's a complete kiss-ass. Actually, my biggest fear in the role was that she was going to turn into one of these updated June Cleaver types. I think the way that Patty is written is so much more honest and so much more realistic.

SJ: Are there similarities between you, the character you play, and you, the real person?

BA: I think it's a case of synthesis. There are times when Patty and Bess part company. There are aspects of her personality that are not me at all. Ultimately, Patty is a mixture of Bess and Winnie [Holzman]. As Winnie has gotten to know Bess better, Winnie has brought a lot of Bess into the character, but she has also been the one who has been writing her, deciding on the twists and turns, so therefore she's part Winnie.

SJ: You've been drumming up a lot of publicity lately and have become a "My So-Called Life" ambassador of sorts.

BA: Well I've had no problem going out and publicizing the fact that there's this populist ground swell of support. You know, I look at some of the shows that last on TV and this, to me, is sort of like a test, okay, because my fear is that all of these thousands upon thousands of responses-letters and faxes and calls and e-mail-from fans, may not have equal weight as one visit from a powerful producer saying, 'Take my show off and I'll castrate you!" And I've kind of been a little annoyed that the networks, in effect, are saying that fans don't have any say anymore. The networks are so tyrannized by the power of deals and the power of individuals within the network that it doesn't seem to matter what people like anymore. If ever a popular campaign should keep a show alive, it's this one. And if it doesn't work, I'm not sure it's worth ever trying again.

SJ: As an "insider, " do you perceive that this viewer campaign is having a real impact, or is it "statistically irrelevant?"

BA: I know that the publicist from ABC who took me around New York last week, told me that the guys up top-the "big guys" in New York-had personally come down to the audience development room several times simply to stare at the mail.

SJ: [Laughs] That's a neat story.

BA: Now that's a fact. That's impact. When they bother to come down simply to see it with their own eyes, I don't care what they're saying to the press-they get it. Actually, I'm really hopeful because I think that there's sort of been a little miracle here. What you guys have done is really incredible and that's why I have said that if this show comes back, I think it's largely do to you all. You have been a miracle for us and in my more optimistic moments, I don't see how they could cancel this show and that's, you now, eighty percent you guys.

SJ: Touché. Duh squared.

BA: Duh squared. Copyright 1995 Steve C. Joyner


“Do we have to keep talking about religion? It's Christmas.”

Danielle Chase, Episode 15: "So-Called Angels"