Susan Traylor is from a timeless, Altman-esque dream of California. She's a Malibu native who comes from acting royalty but stands up as a premiere actress, writer, and director in her own right.
Hollywood insiders will be familiar with Susan by way of her parents, legendary acting teachers who worked with the likes of Sean Penn, Meg Ryan, Anjelica Huston, Nicolas Cage, and Michele Pfeiffer. For decades, they were the people to go to for getting into character. But Susan has her own way into the roles she chooses—with instinctive dialogue and movement. She's made for herself a diverse and unusual cinematic career working with directors like Gus Van Sant, Robert Redford and Michael Mann. In 2005 she wrote, directed, produced, and starred in a startlingly good feature, an ode to her homeland called Welcome to California.
This month, her latest acting role, in director Stephen Balderson's The Casserole Club, comes to DVD. The film sees Traylor playing a sympathetic '60s housewife in Palm Springs named Sugar who gets drawn into the life of a swinger. I happened to be in LA this past June, and while I always make it a point to spend as much time as I can with Susan, on this occasion we sat down together with the recorder running.
JAMES OAKLEY: It has always been fascinating to me that your parents were acting teachers. Were they in Hollywood when you were born?
SUSAN TRAYLOR: They were actors first. My father came out here when I was a baby from New York to work on a movie. My mom was an actress in New York, and she would do coaching jobs on occasion. She taught at the Actor's Studio and for Lee Strasberg. Teaching wasn't by design. Lee would just keep bringing people to her to coach. And my mom had two children, so it was a steady source of income. So after my dad came to Los Angeles, Lee suggested she go out too, because he wanted to open a teaching studio there. She brought us out and surprised my dad.
OAKLEY: Do you remember making that trip?
TRAYLOR: I remember my father was living in a flat on the PCH and we just showed up there. It was Christmastime, and we were so sad because there was no snow. My sister and I took soap and put it all over the Christmas tree. Susan Strasberg was living in the Colony, but she was going to Italy to make a movie, so she let us stay in her house while she was away.
OAKLEY: That's in Malibu.
TRAYLOR: Yeah, in the Colony, which is where I grew up. While we were staying there, we found a house and moved into it, and that became my life.
OAKLEY: Do you remember Lee Strasberg?
TRAYLOR: Yeah. But eventually my parents went and started their own school. It was The Loft Studio on La Brea, but I think people know it by their names [Peggy Feury and William Traylor]. It was called The Loft to locals only [laughs]. Basically, anybody from New York theater who were my family's friends would make a beeline to our house and camp out for the weekend because they were so shell-shocked, being in Los Angeles.
OAKLEY: You were surrounded by actors in your childhood?
TRAYLOR: Yeah, actors and playwrights. There was a lot of talk about people's lives. I remember a friend came over to my house when I was going to school at Westlake, and she was shocked by the conversations. She said, "God, you talk about everything!" My sister and I would sit on the couch in the kitchen and all of these people would come to be around my parents for inspiration. And these people would talk about their relationships and all of their hard times, right in front of us. We were kids. [laughs] We would give them advice. It was pretty fun. It really was a great community. I remember Hal Ashby lived down the street. There would always be these beautiful women that we knew from acting class visiting him. Lee Grant lived in the Colony at the time. She was making a movie of the Women's directing workshop, based on Strindberg's The Stranger.
OAKLEY: But she was already famous at that time, right?
TRAYLOR: She was. She was in Shampoo. She was also one of the first female directors. And she asked me if I could come and do a little walk-on role.
OAKLEY: Wow. That was your first role?
TRAYLOR: It really was, actually. It was funny, one day Hal Ashby was driving down the street. I was eight or nine. He had this little red Mercedes. He pulled up and said, "You're a really fine little actress, you are."
OAKLEY: At your house you would put on plays, wouldn't you?
TRAYLOR: We would do readings. The play readings were a big thing on weekends. I remember doing A Doll's House. As kids, we weren't asked to participate, but we would sit and watch. Horton Foote plays, Pinter plays, Chekhov.
OAKLEY: Just light childhood plays... [laughs] Were you aware that some of the people coming through your house were famous? Or did they just seem like normal neighbors?
TRAYLOR: I didn't have a sense of awe. It wasn't like, "Oh, so-and-so is here." It was more, "This is interesting." I was paying attention to how they utilized their time when they weren't making and just being. A lot of people who can really make, it's hard for them to just be. And vice versa. I'm very interested in watching people. I remember my mother used to teach me that if you looked in the medicine cabinets when you went to people's houses, you could learn so much about them.
OAKLEY: What pills they're on, what depressions they have.
TRAYLOR: And what products they buy, too.
OAKLEY: Jumping ahead a bit, you wrote, directed, produced, and starred in a 2005 film called Welcome to California. In a way, you were born and raised to make that kind of film.
TRAYLOR: I was raised in an exceptional theater environment. And there was so much nature. Malibu in the '70s—you had the ocean and the fields and the mountains. And then had all these characters around. We weren't allowed to be professional kid actors. But so many of the people I idolized where studying acting with my parents, so they were around.
OAKLEY: They worked with people like Sean Penn and Meg Ryan...
TRAYLOR: There were a lot of great actors. But my parents were damned set against me being a professional actress as a child. They wanted me to finish high school first. They were trying to protect me. I ended up going to NYU for film school because I knew I wanted to make movies. We made a lot of little movies together. We didn't wait for them to be assigned, we just started making them, stealing equipment on the weekends. After my second year I returned home and took acting classes at The Loft. I loved it there. It wasn't about careers there. It was just about working. So I decided I wasn't going back to school. My mother said, "What are you going to do, stay in Bel Air and act at The Loft? That will be interesting for one or two movies. After that, Susan, no one's going to care. You need to go and you need some live some life." I kind of got what she was saying. I went back at the end of the summer and my mom died a couple months later. So in a weird way, it was sort of this unplanned gift that she was saying, "You can have a life of your own."
OAKLEY: When you came back to LA after New York, how did you go about building an acting career?
TRAYLOR: I remember I went in to read for one agent and I brought Harold Pinter's The Lover. The agent was just like, "Susan, no one here is going to understand that." And I thought, "Really?" To me, it was just the ultimate of acting. I was 19. I had to go to their New York office, where I read the same thing. They got me and they took me on. I remember, though, that it was a very open community. I remember I was taking care of my dad, who was not well, and he went to the set of Dances With Wolves. I went with him and I met the casting agent. About a year later, she called me up.
OAKLEY: You were in Dances with Wolves?
TRAYLOR: No. But a year later she called me and said Redford was directing this movie and she thought I was right for it. She said, "If you like the script, you can meet with Redford." I said, "I'd like to meet him." She said, "Read the script!" So I did. But the problem was that I wasn't quite sure how to audition for that character. For me it was so much about the way she walks, how she navigates around other people. I didn't know how to show that in an audition. She told me to go see what Redford thought. So I went in there and we really had a connection. We talked for an hour. And then he said, "Would you like to read?" I had to break the news for him that I didn't. But I demonstrated the part by walking around.
OAKLEY: And you got it.
TRAYLOR: Yeah. That was for A River Runs Through It. So it was different for me, going into a business office and talking about acting. I was used to my childhood. I remember my best friend's stepfather lived across the street, Jerry Hellman, who produced Midnight Cowboy. They were doing Coming Home at the time and would be on the deck having script meetings. Nobody was under fluorescent lights, breaking things down and testing them.
OAKLEY: Switching back to the film you directed, what about your experience of living in Los Angeles made you want to write and direct an ode to it?
TRAYLOR: I was going on auditions and writing at the same time. But my writing was totally closeted. I knew I wanted to make a movie but initially I was just writing forward and kept working until I was ready to make something. A lot of the parts I wrote were basically character sketches. Often I would just get in my car and drive. I lived over by the Hollywood Boulevard and I'd get on the freeway and drive until it became the desert. It was great to get out of Los Angeles a little bit—the people who live in the desert are really living in a different world. It almost seems more like the Midwest to me. So that driving experience, that need to get out, became a big part of Welcome to California.
OAKLEY: So you were driving on the hunt for interesting characters.
TRAYLOR: Not initially. I remember talking to a ranger out there about the animal life and it suddenly hit me, "Here's a story of somebody that could be expanded." It happened that way, fitting characters into a larger map of California.
OAKLEY: How was working on To Die For?
TRAYLOR: Gus Van Sant was great. I remember I had a lot of days on set but not a lot of speaking. I was just doing my part and Gus watches in a really profound manner... So things just fell beautifully into place. That was an incredible script too, written by Buck Henry.
OAKLEY: And more recently you were in Greenberg. What was that like?
TRAYLOR: Jennifer Jason Leigh and Noah Baumbach were friends. It made sense that they'd ask me to be a part of this LA couple in a movie where Los Angeles life is almost its own character. They were great too, so specific about every little thing. They had me play opposite Chris Messina. Noah used these open frames that we could move in and out of... we had fun.
OAKLEY: How is it that you've worked so often with Steve Balderson on his domestic black comedies? You've been in three of them. He's a director from Kansas and is sort of off the grid doing his own projects, making his own pictures and financing them. He's an artist. How did you initially meet?
TRAYLOR: He was somehow in touch with an actress, Sally Kirkland, and I knew her. He wanted to meet me and Sally passed along my number.
OAKLEY: The new one is called Casserole Club and it's set in 1969 in Palm Springs.
TRAYLOR: It's an ensemble of roughly 10 actors. There weren't formal rehearsals, and we had to come up with our own wardrobes. Steve would ship me a box of dresses that he'd picked out, and I had to build from there, go get them all tailored to fit and really develop the look on my own. So we get to Palm Springs and we all have to live together in a couple of houses and dine together every night. And we all had to cook together.
TRAYLOR: Everybody had to make a recipe that we would use in the opening scenes. One day all the women were cooking and the guys were doing something else. It was a very community-building set. Every night before we ate, we all talked about what happened on set that day.
OAKLEY: It's a nice idea for a director to let everyone in on the same page. Some directors try to keep their actors apart—especially from making decisions.
TRAYLOR: Steve gave us a lot of room to build the scenes, and the tension requires so much familiarity.
OAKLEY: How did you feel about the whole swingers aspect of the script?
TRAYLOR: It was really great. I just did it from a character's standpoint. My character is pretty much locked in her dress. She's meant to be beheld in a container. She's trying to fulfill a role. I don't have any problem with nudity in a movie, but I just didn't feel like for her it would be helpful.
OAKLEY: She's the one character that doesn't seem to be a closet hedonist. She is looking more for a connection. Her purpose was not to get laid.
TRAYLOR: She was really seeking a connection, yeah. She is always portrayed singularly or in a room with one man, never in the pool with everyone else.
OAKLEY: Have you thought about directing another film?
TRAYLOR: I'm working on writing another script. It's also set in Los Angeles. I can't seem to leave this place. It's a different story though. It's about foreigners who arrive in the city. So it's looking at it from a completely different angle.
OAKLEY: You're still fascinated by LA.
TRAYLOR: Totally. Anthropologically speaking, I'm incredibly interested in Los Angeles. And even though I wasn't born here, I think I've earned my native status.