Dana Delany has been lighting up small screens for decades with starring roles in hits such as China Beach, Desperate Housewives and Body of Proof. But the actress is taking the stage for The Night of the Iguana, playing at the A.R.T.’s Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge through March 18. The Phillips Andover grad also stars in season two of Hand of God, which drops on Amazon on March 10. She chatted with us about her long and varied career.
How did you get involved in The Night of the Iguana? I’ve been doing a lot of television, and I kept turning things down. And so I said to my agents, “I want to do a play.” And it all happened really fast. Somebody dropped out from The Night of the Iguana, and so they called me and I showed up a couple days later. I was in L.A., and I was like: ‘Oh, OK. Um, my lease is up on my car. I need to return it first and then I can come to Boston.’ It was very fast and furious. But I was totally thrilled because: One, I wanted to do a play; two, I’d never done Tennessee Williams before and it was something I always wanted to do; three, the cast is really quite something. It’s got James Earl Jones and Elizabeth Ashley and Amanda Plummer and Bill Heck, who is kind of like a rising star in the theater. So it’s been great. And of course, Michael Wilson, the director, is kind of an expert on Tennessee Williams, so I feel like I’m in good hands.
What appealed to you about doing a Tennessee Williams play? Well, he’s our classic American playwright. As a theater student, you read all of his plays. I always wanted to do one, and it’s never really happened before. Now I’m at an age where theater is a wonderful place for women my age. This role I’m playing, Maxine, was originated by Bette Davis on Broadway. It was a role she played toward the end of her career. I feel like I’m at the point in my life where I can start to do some really interesting, bold choices now. And theater is the perfect place for that.
How has it been sharing the stage with such a talented cast? It’s been great. Most of them have done Tennessee Williams before, and most of them have worked with Michael Wilson, the director, before. So I kind of sit in the room and just watch in awe. James Earl Jones is a theater icon. To watch that man! I saw him do Fences on Broadway when I first started acting. I saw him do Othello on Broadway when I first started acting. I saw him in this production of Othello that Amanda [Plummer]’s father was in. Christopher Plummer played Iago. And Kelsey Grammer played Cassio in it.…Now I get to sit in the rehearsal room with him and watch [James]. And he just—he just keeps working at it. He keeps making it better. He keeps improving it. He never stops working at it.
Have you told him you saw him in all these productions? I did tell him that, and I said to Amanda, “Did you get to see your father in this production?” And she said, “I was performing on Broadway at the same time, so they did us this favor, where one of us shut down one night, so we could see their play. And one of us shut down one night so they could see our play.” And she was in Agnes of God at the time.
You’ve had such a long career in TV. Do you prefer that versus theater? They’re just so different. When I was younger, I used to say, “Well, it’s all the same. It’s just acting.” But it’s really not. It’s quite different. It requires different technique and different concentration and energy. Theater is not for sissies. There’s a reason why after an actor gets comfortable, they stop doing theater. It’s hard. It’s not just learning lines. I’ve had people say, “Have you learned all those lines?” That’s not it. It’s more just the focus and the energy when you’re doing a play and you’re performing at night. You’re preparing all day long for that performance at night. I have such admiration for theater performers. I needed that. I needed that challenge in my life. The last play I did was four years ago at South Coast Rep. in California. It was a play by Beau Willimon, who created House of Cards. And I loved doing it, and I wanted to do another play because it had been such a good experience. And I just did Hand of God on Amazon, and that’s about to premiere. Once I found out that Hand of God was not going to come back for a third season, I said to my agent: “I want to do a play. I need to challenge myself again.” Because you get complacent. And I don’t like getting complacent.
Have you noticed differences in shows for broadcast TV and streaming? No. The only difference is you do fewer episodes. We only did 10 on Amazon, which I think is great because you can really tell a richer story. You don’t have to stretch it out, which has always been a big challenge for network television. And also you can do other things during the year. You don’t have to just do that. When I was doing Body of Proof, I’d be so exhausted at the end of the full season that you just want to go somewhere and lie down for a month. With Hand of God, you can do other things and you can have a life. That’s different. In terms of creative content, I think it’s pretty much the same. I think Netflix, Amazon, they pride themselves on being more hands-off, like HBO, where they hire creative people and let them do their job. Although HBO is very particular about what they put on the air, and they spend a long time developing it. Amazon, when we came on, was still figuring that out. And I think they’re probably a little more involved creatively now. I think it’s still emerging. The obvious thing is you can swear and you can have nudity, but as we learned on Hand of God, that’s not necessarily interesting. At first it was fun to use all these swear words, but in the end they don’t mean anything and you have to pick and choose how you use them.
What’s been the key to your success in defying a lot of Hollywood age stereotypes? I think I just really love what I do. It sounds corny but it’s true. I just keep going. I plan to act for as long as it makes me happy, which it does. … And you just have to keep moving in different directions and trying new things. I say this sincerely: I think it’s really hard for a woman because women are expected to age beautifully, and they’re also expected to be wives and mothers. I didn’t have that pressure on me because I’ve never been married and I didn’t have kids. I kind of marvel at actresses who can do it all. I think it’s really hard to do it all. Something suffers.
I know you went to school in Massachusetts. How often do you get back to the area? I come back to my reunion in Andover every five years. I love Boston. I have really fond memories of Boston. This is my third play I’ve done in Boston, and I shot Housesitter here in the ’90s. So I was here doing that for a few months, and it was fun. I have a lot of friends who live in Boston, and I hopefully I will be able to hang out with them. I’m from Connecticut, so I’m a New Englander. And I’m Irish. So when I look around Boston, I always think, “Oh, these are my people.” Everybody looks like a relative here to me.
What role do you most regret turning down? I had a chance to be on West Wing and I wish I had been in that. What’s on right now? I love Homeland, and I wish I was in that. I love Homeland. I love that show, and I think it’s amazing that they’ve managed each season to find a different perspective and a different location and still keep the integrity of the show.