Actress Michael Learned has that rare quality of instantly being believable in any role, whether it be a traditional mom, nurse, or the grandmother of a serial killer.
She was awarded several awards in her career for playing Olivia Walton in “The Waltons” and for the starring role in the television series “Nurse.” With the same solid acting that she did as the grandmother role in the hit Netflix miniseries “Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story,” I can see another Emmy nomination in the cards.
Learned remembered growing up in Austria where her father worked for the OSS (later the CIA) and being in a local school where “people had just come out of a war.” As a child, she became depressed and cried a lot as she had creative interests that didn’t have an outlet, especially ballet, so a doctor suggested she be with other kids who were the same.
Sent to boarding school in England, the ballerina thing wasn’t working out but Learned’s acting earned her a drama award.
Back at home, there were still problems; though the war was over, her parents were both heavy drinkers and, “it was fun until it wasn’t.” Add to that, her mother had five kids and could not afford help.
Learned tells of her break-through role on “The Waltons,” her bout with alcoholism and how she approached her “Dahmer” role in a fun and honest sit down with Moviehole.
She held back on nothing.
Moviehole: How did you get the mother role in “The Waltons”? It was a show that changed television and had a huge impact on the world.
Michael Learned: I was working at the American Conservatory Theater doing rep in San Francisco; I was going through a divorce with my kids’ dad, I was drinking too much, and I was a wreck. But I had to drive to Los Angeles to meet casting directors, and somehow magically I must’ve been hung over and looked a lot older than I was, and I think God’s hand was on my shoulder along with a woman named Ethel Winant who was the head of casting at CBS. She used to come up to San Francisco and see the plays we were doing, and she literally wrestled Fred Silverman (CBS vice president) to the ground for me. Way before Women’s Lib, there were women helping other women.
Moviehole: What do people say to you on the street about the Waltons?
ML: Not much when I was playing Olivia, because I was hardly ever recognized looking older on the show; I was blonde and wore tight jeans, I never was recognized. People talk to me now and I’m twice as old as Olivia was, but it never hurts when people come up and say they like your work.
Moviehole: What was life like after the Waltons?
ML: I used to wake up crying, actually; we would have annual family photos, and I had one dream that they took a photograph and wouldn’t let me in it. It was my choice to leave and I was shocked it was such a subconscious wrench. I still see the kids to this day; I was the one leaving and yet it was a big part of my life, but it changed my life, I was able to send kids to private school, there were so many perks. Not huge, big money like people get now, I don’t get residuals so much now.
Moviehole: Your role in the Dahmer series where you played the grandmother, how did you get it?
ML: I auditioned for it. I like to think it was my wonderful acting, but my manager said, “I have to do a full body (video) of you” and I said if I had known, I would have worn a bra! That cracked them all up and they said, “let’s give it to her.” At my age, I love to work, to get on the set and immediately become family with crew and cast. I was thrilled to get that role.
Moviehole: What was the role like?
ML: It’s really amazing when I think of it, the writers did a really good job of writing an old person and making her interesting — I mean this kid was cutting up bodies in her basement, how do you turn a blind eye to your grandson dragging in a garbage bag of foul-smelling body parts? If it were me and I was smelling that smell, I’d go down and take a look and say, “what’s going on here?” I couldn’t find anything about her but home movies with her and her cat. I watched videos with him, he was a good-looking guy and very articulate and was talking about killing people as if he were talking about a grocery shopping list.
There is another shot of her in her basement with her cat, so she obviously loved cats. I always felt I wasn’t just a presence in the film but there as a person to Evan Peters (Jeffrey Dahmer). There was nothing pretentious about him or la di da, he was kind and generous as an actor. He was in every shot, that’s a lot of work, it must have been exhausting. It’s better than therapy, to get your dark side out. And he’s played some dark characters like Charles Manson.
He’s funny, warm and such a good actor, and all that goes away once the cameras roll. He was friendly and talkative, then the cameras would roll and he was Jeffrey Dahmer. How can you make a serial killer likable? He was easy to love. She was in such denial about what was going on. I have my grandson here, he’s absolutely gorgeous, how would I feel? I’d be horrified and turn him in, but I wouldn’t stop loving him.
Moviehole: What with Angela Lansbury passing, I know you worked with her on a “Murder She Wrote,” what was she like?
ML: She was lovely, gracious. I did “Nurse” where I was in every shot, and you don’t have a life, you can’t really relax on the weekends. She welcomed me, was business like, we did our scenes together, she was very generous, and she did closeups with me. Everything you would want in a professional working relationship. She’s a theater person, it was like we were two theater rats together.
Moviehole: Who would you like to work with?
ML: I always wanted to work with Chris Plummer, I was an apprentice at his theater play – he had women hanging from his body like charms from a charm bracelet, which I say in a memoir I’m writing. He named his daughter Amanda Michael, for me. I was the only woman he didn’t have to sleep with (laughs), we were just friends. I would love to work with Steven Spielberg, it would be a thrill. When you are in that kind of aura of people so brilliant and talented, they make you feel comfortable. If Spielberg called me on the phone to do something, I wouldn’t sleep for a week.
Moviehole: What would you advise actor newbies?
ML: Get training, train your voice, read the classics and show up. I drove down to Los Angeles not knowing what was happening, I was just going to meet up with whoever they were. And it was meant to happen for me.