Judy Norton is someone who defies typecasting. Her standout role as Mary Ellen in the popular “The Waltons” television series was followed by many other projects, and today she continues to push herself to the limit.
The talented actress/singer/writer/director/producer sat down with Moviehole to talk about her new thriller film, “Inclusion Criteria,” as well as how “The Waltons” still continues to have an impact in her life.
Moviehole: How did you get into acting?
Judy Norton: I was probably five or six when I got into acting. My mom is from England and she had been a performer acrobat growing up; her brother and she had a balancing act and grew up during the war. She loved to go to the movies and she fell in love this image of Hollywood, so she decided ‘I’m going there!’ She came to Hollywood, sang professionally and she was an influence. Then my father said ‘let’s get the kids going.’ I had a brother and sister and we had musical theater classes — I did a review, I did children’s theater. For the first production of a different “Cinderella,” I was pretty cocky as a kid; I totally thought they should cast me as Cinderella but they didn’t, and I couldn’t figure it out (laughs). I was the countess of the ball, I had fun with it. Dad got us an agent, so I started auditioning and my first commercial was for Hostess Twinkies. It kind of rolled from there. When I was 10 I had worked with a theater company and couldn’t anymore because of the “The Waltons.” I did guest spots in TV and “The Waltons” was my big break.
When I hit 16, I tape-recorded myself singing and I recorded how bad I was — I was crushed. So I got a singing teacher and for years and years I worked my butt off. People said I could never do it, but I’d go home and work on it and sing things I wouldn’t sing in front of people. I got braver and sang in front of people and class and would say I was an actor first if they didn’t think my singing was good enough. I was first doing straight-up singing stuff, then I had the courage to step up and say “okay, I’m a singer” – it was scary but freeing, I tried to face my fears. There’s a lot of things I’ve done that I was scared of, I tried to conquer my fears.
It was tough to get singing started because I was already known, so they would expect me to be as good at singing as acting. It was so tough, I took classes and I was brave in class but as soon as it was a pressure situation I didn’t trust it. You have to get in front of an audience, it’s totally different to get out there, there’s no other way to simulate that pressure.
The tough (acting) auditions are the ones with the emotional demands, where you think “okay, what’s happening in this scene?” It’s having to always be ready. From the time I was young I could access those emotions, but with singing you can’t time your prep, it falls flat after waiting. When I’m on set, I know how to prep myself on set, and also they trust you. .
Theater was great for me as a writer as well, because you have to think in visuals; if I’ve written things and I’m directing a scene, sometimes I will think it’s not playing right. Such as “this falls flat and this joke needs to be punched up.” I don’t fully get to see it until it’s in the editing room. I was glad to have all of that (theater) experience to have that opportunity to do things in writing and directing too.
Moviehole: What were your most memorable experiences with “The Waltons” as Mary Ellen?
JN: I think most of it was really cast-related, working with a group of people I love, sitting around and doing table scenes — we would be in there all day and the set would get so hot with 30 people in there with the cast and crew and we’d get punchy, we would get silly and Ralph Waite would crack off-color jokes and then Michael (Learned) would start laughing and couldn’t stop. Then Mary McDonough would hold her hand to try and get her to stop. When you have that comfort level of working with people, those things were very special. We worked with John Ritter and he and Richard (Thomas) would try to one-up each other with jokes. Richard is very funny and you didn’t get to see it, but he has a subtle humor. The same thing with Michael, I’d see her be very funny on stage. It’s a nice surprise to see actors do something different. Like Robin Williams did something like “Dead Poets Society” or Meryl Streep do comedy.
Moviehole: Do you still talk to your castmates? Any “Waltons” reunions?
JN: Nothing I know of at this point. We’ve lost so many cast members it’s getting a little tougher. I don’t know that it will happen; we’ve done more interview-style reunions so I have no idea.
Moviehole: How has acting in “The Waltons” affected your own life?
JN: People still identify me with Mary Ellen. I’m recognized and I still get called Mary Ellen far more than Judy! We’re so fortunate to have done a show to have a long-term impact on people — the show is in Canada and other parts of the world, what a legacy, a timeless show. Timeless things and family values, core human experiences, those aren’t strictly about the 30s and 40s; I think it’s so important that that is represented in our films and TV today. Like my mom wanting to come to Hollywood and idolizing an image, what film and TV has represented, it’s the leading edge of a culture like music or hair styles, arts, film and television and music. Using our voices to not just point out what’s wrong but point out possibilities. I would like to personally be involved to inspire things, how to solve problems domestic and international, it would be wonderful . It’s too bad that manners are fading away, that it’s not taught in everyday living situations.
Moviehole: How did you get involved with this new film as a writer/producer/actress?
JN: The producer (and director) Josh Hodgins and I had worked together on other films, we got along well so he had said something about psychological thrillers and I remembered an article or story and that it had to do with the mind. It was the type of thing when I heard it, I thought that was scary, I would love to bring attention to that circumstance, the danger of that situation. I started mulling this idea around and told Josh who loved it and said if I wrote it, he’d like to be involved. He said “you write it and I’ll direct it.” That was January 2016. I said okay and I’m going to do it, I didn’t thought of it for myself. So when we decided to do it, that‘s when I really started flushing out the story and how it made sense for me to do the role. Then it was months of writing and rewriting. We filmed in November 2016.
Moviehole: How did you get into writing?
JN: It was sort of a fluke and happenstance — I was married to my former husband who was from Canada, and he had been hired to direct a show for this theater company. He called me about the present artistic team, and that the writer and directors were leaving. After the show was over, they didn’t know what the next show would be, so they asked “do you want pitch a concept (it had to be existing music)?” Then the script had to be original, this was a country show, so I came up with an idea and wrote up the first act and thus pitched it to the producer. I finished writing that one and then put together a proposal to do writing and directing. I spent eight years with that company with writing and directing. Putting a show in front of an audience when the first time the audience laughed, it was so exciting — all of that you got to experience and know how to do better the next time.
Moviehole: What is your acting method?
JN: I’ve studied with a number of people over the years, and I have an amalgamation of what works for me; it’s not a particular school of acting style. I had an acting coach as a kid, then I did repertory theater which was three years of training and I also studied with Milton Katselas at the Beverly Hills Playhouse. It was an evolution and as a kid I worked instinctively, I kind of had to find a way to have simplicity in my work and not hinder my work. To have enough feeding myself “who is the character” and trying to make it real to me, and to fully buy into it so you are just being there and living it. If I wasn’t inspired by it, I had to find a way to be invested in it.
If I’ve done that homework, then I know what key things to feed myself and I can just roll it. And also I am looking at what is the other actor doing. Sometimes you work with actors who won’t engage with you, they are totally in their head – it’s difficult and the challenge is not to let it pull your performance down. I try to get them to understand how important it is and force a reaction from them. Sometimes you can improv your way into a scene and have the other actor relate to something in it. Like I can’t relate to a drug addict, but you think, what is the essence of being a drug addict? You can consider that it’s being out of control or in some other reality — what did that feel like, what sort of things go on? There are certain things you can go method on but some things are a little dangerous (laughs). What are you fighting for? I try hook into something you understand.
Moviehole: What was the hardest challenge about making this film?
JN: Probably the time frame, it was a small independent film so we had to do it on a tight shoot. The crew was amazing to work with and Josh and the cinematographer, they were a joy to work with. We had to knock off eight or nine pages a day and there were great emotional demands on the characters. We had to be prepared if the schedule had to change around, so we did a lot of takes.
Also there’s a little bit of pressure and I didn’t want to be the one to throw us off schedule. You can’t keep extending after a bit, you have to get things shot, it’s the same things in television where you have to move on. I was always trying to just be aware of what I expected of myself and what the director needed and what the other actors needed. Those kind of shifts, of having to be ready to roll with whatever happened and what needed to be done. Then I got sick and was trying not to sound sick, like “I just really want to be lying in bed today.” But there’s no calling in sick.
Moviehole: Any advice to newbie actors/writers/directors on how to get a break in the business?
JN: Networking is still the one; you need to build legitimate relationships with people. If you are just annoying you are not going to get anywhere. You can join a writers group — some of the actors who are in the film were in my writers’ group. So literally three people got cast out of my writers group — in two cases they auditioned on my recommendation, and in both cases the director said yeah. Acting class, writers groups, there are various things you can attend and meet like-minded people; people have also met through social media and groups on the Internet.
Then go up the ladder — I mean, don’t burn bridges and throw people away – reputations are so important in the business. I get so many calls from people who say “hey, so and so worked with you, what do you think?” I’m not looking to rat on anyone, but I would say “this is was what good, these were the challenges.” If it’s someone I know really well, like a friend, I would give them more detail.
Moviehole: What are your upcoming projects?
JN: “Paranormal Intelligence” with Shanna Albert, we want to get that one going and it’s the beginning of a franchise.
I’m also working on a musical, based on the life of Greg Louganis (American Olympic medalist) – it’s a marathon not a sprint, we were three years into it and now we are starting from the beginning. Greg is involved with it. We are writing a book and Patrick Alan Casey did a pop rock score. It’s a visual medium about a diver – hello! We are fortunate to have significant people give us great notes last summer. There are other film projects in the infancy stage, they are being developed and also a couple of TV series ideas. I’m writing a pilot.
“Inclusion Criteria” came out April 13 and was produced by JH Productions and Sunday Moving Picture Show Productions.
Two other films that might be coming out in 2018 with no solid dates yet (which Norton Taylor wrote and had roles in):
“Finding Harmony” http://findingharmonymovie.com
“Another Day in Paradise”– https://www.adipmovie.com/cast/