Her big, fat, Greek life in progress
People still stop Olympia Dukakis in the street to yell "I know who I am" - the signature line from her Oscar-winning role as Rose Castorini in 1988's "Moonstruck." So the publisher of her new book, HarperCollins, thought it was a natural choice of title for Ms. Dukakis's new autobiography.
But Dukakis disagreed, preferring a more accurate description of her life. "[In reality] I say 'What am I going to do today, and what will I do in two weeks?" she says in a forthright manner. "I have the option to transform." So she and her publisher settled on the title: "Ask Me Again Tomorrow, A Life in Progress."
Indeed, the director and stage and movie actress who also starred in the 1989 film "Steel Magnolias," is still seeking new challenges in the spotlight. Next month, she begins work on the film version of "A Confederacy of Dunces," with Philip Seymour Hoffman. John Kennedy O'Toole's critically acclaimed novel is hardly a safe choice - with its broad physical comedy and antisocial hero.
Having just completed a 10-city book tour, she returns next week to the Williamstown Theatre Festival in western Massachusetts, where she has been a regular since her acting career began in the early 1960s. She will appear in three plays and direct another for "The Chekhov Cycle," a series of readings of the Russian playwright's dramas. Her husband of 40 years, actor and director Louis Zorach, is also in the cast. Dukakis will also appear in two films this fall: "The Event," in which she plays the mom of a gay son who commits suicide and "The Intended," which is set in the rain forests of Borneo in 1924.
Dukakis is a feisty, warm, open woman with a sense of humor quick to surface. She was born into a close-knit family of Greek immigrants that included her first cousin, Michael Dukakis, two-time governor of Massachusetts and former Democratic Party presidential nominee. In her book, Dukakis describes the ingrained notions of a woman's place in society that she had to overcome, enforced by her mother's strong sense of duty.
"I refused several times to do the book. I didn't want to write: 'I went, I did and I saw.' I said if I could deal with the issues that confounded me all my life, I would do it," she says. "What turned out for me was an effort to define myself, not to be defined by ... social mores."
As an actor, Dukakis calls herself a "late bloomer." She worked as a physical therapist until she could save enough money to study theater in grad school at Boston University. She went to New York in 1959 with "$57 in my pocket," she says in her book. "I tried to crash auditions. All I had was one good pair of shoes and a lot of drive." Within a year she got her first paid acting job.
Dukakis was the only girl among the six Dukakis cousins. She was athletic, winning the Massachusetts junior fencing championship three years in a row. She also joined her high school rifle team. She writes, "I could have shot a man at 20 paces, but I couldn't get a date for a dance." She also recalls being beaten up because of her ethnicity. "One time I was tied to a tree with a dirty sock stuffed into my mouth, and I spent the next three weeks tracking down the kids who did it."
Michael Dukakis says, "Her Greekness permeates the book. Tenacity was part of the ethnic character. You were expected to aim high and never quit."
Dukakis, a mom and grandmother, has played a range of stage and film moms. Next year, she will play Clytemnestra in the Greek tragedy "Agamemnon" at the Aquila Theatre Co. in New York. She doesn't think of her mom when preparing for such roles, but reflects on her influence. "She was very reality oriented and not afraid to ... say the hard things. I have that part of her. It got me into trouble, but it's also enriched my life tremendously."