For the past two months, Julia Duffy has been garnering raves at the Pasadena Playhouse for her superb performance as Birdie in Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes.  Best remembered for her seven seasons as Stephanie Vanderkellen on the now classic TV sitcom Newhart, Julia actually began her TV career on the soaps, most notably several years as Penny Davis on The Doctors. Since Newhart, the seven-time Emmy nominated actress has remained busy with frequent recurring and guest starring TV roles, and now a return to the stage.  As The Little Foxes comes to the end of its much-praised run, Julia graciously took time to answer questions about her lengthy and successful career.

Julia, you’ve been keeping busy doing lots of TV and film work in the years since Newhart and Designing Women. What prompted your decision to take on the role of Birdie in The Little Foxes?

I heard they were doing Little Foxes, a play I’ve always liked, and I reread it, thinking I could now be right for the role of Birdie. She’s always been cast as very dowdy and middle-aged looking, which is not how she’s described, and I thought my physical type made sense for the role. I’m a pretty good casting director and know when I fit a role or not. I became more and more interested in Birdie as I worked on the role. I probably worked on it for two months, on and off, until I finally got an audition. I figured it was a good exercise and I would just keep working on it on the off chance they might have me in to read. My most immediate connection with her was her nostalgia for a time gone by. I relate so strongly to that and wanted to delve into that particular emotion.

Obviously your preparation for that audition paid off! And it was refreshing to see a Birdie who wasn’t the dowdy middle-aged type.  So tell me, how did rehearsing The Little Foxes compare with what you’re accustomed to in film and TV?

The rehearsal process for stage is what comes the most naturally to me.  It’s how I was trained, and it always feel like I’ve gone home when I do theater. I think the process for film and TV is just an abbreviated version of it. Your job as an actor is to get there in the time allotted, whether it’s twenty-four hours or twenty-four days. It’s what we do.

What has it been like working on this stage classic with Dámaso Rodriguez, who’s helmed so many edgy new works at the Furious Theater?

I haven’t yet seen Dámaso’s other work, though I’ll see the upcoming play at Furious. For me he was the perfect director, as personal as I needed him to be yet with great respect, giving you distance if needed. He really trusts that you’ll get there, and I don’t know where his confidence comes from but it’s contagious. He plays no games. It’s all about the text with him, as it is with me. I mostly wanted to do him, and Lillian, proud.

What is it about the role of Birdie that makes it a good fit for you as an actor?

As I said I felt Birdie had been cast previously in a way that I felt wasn’t always ideal physically—though I’m sure Maureen Stapleton was divine—but it made so much sense to me that she have the look of an aging ingénue, and of course to be petite, considering her nickname. I’ve always looked young and to be able to use what I suppose is my “girlishness” in a role at my age seemed so right. After all, she’s described as acting childish, acting like a ninny, etc. In playing women my own age I always feel it’s a stretch to fit the role as I bring all that ingénue baggage with me. This time it was of use.

I agree totally. You were an inspired choice for the role.  I’m wondering, what is it about this 70-year-old play that makes it still seem so fresh and relevant in the 2000s?

I think any play that well written will always seem fresh. That’s what masters of the craft can do. It’s just so human, filled with people, both good and evil, who have been unable to get what they want and have all been, to some extent, victims of the society they live in and are trying to defeat that. Whether you have sympathy for any of the Hubbards or not you can certainly understand them. To feel lower class all those years and finally have the chance to elevate yourself—who couldn’t relate?


One can’t think about 80s TV without recalling Newhart and your role as Stephanie Vanderkellen.  How did appearing on such an iconic TV sitcom change the life of a successful young actress who’d already kept busy working on soaps, films, and episodic TV?

Stephanie was a gift and I never tired of playing her. She had tremendous scope as a character, both comedically and emotionally. The only negative after leaving the show is I felt that since she was a snob, due to her upbringing, people kept thinking of me for roles that were truly royal, domineering bitches. So not Stephanie. I learned how black-and-white people think and how they reduce things to the cheesiest level if given a chance. That definitely bothered me. Being typecast as someone flighty, rich, self involved, those things didn’t bother me because they are all comedy gold. But I have always felt terribly uncomfortable being asked to play a role Beatrice Arthur would do brilliantly. It was such a poor use of me, and the role.

Of all the roles you’ve undertaken post-Newhart, which was the one that most challenged or excited you as an actor?

Oh Birdie is the most challenging and deepest, by far. You have to look to the stage to find those roles.

You’re now in your fourth decade as a successful, popular working actor. What advice can you impart to actors just beginning their careers?

My fourth decade, wow that sounds so old! I think my advice is keep on doing it, stay in the game. It’s mostly about just showing up. Nine times out of ten you may be wasting your time but if you keep at it. That tenth time you get to play Birdie, at a great theater with a great director and great actors.

Now that you’ve gotten back to the stage,  can you think of any other classic roles that you would wish to undertake in the next few years?

So many roles! I don’t feel as limited by my “type” in theater so my imagination runs a bit wild. I do absolutely love theater of the absurd, it would be a blast to do Ionesco, or Beckett, or Oh Dad Poor Dad, or on the flip side, Pinter. The stuff you never do on camera, the really theatrical theater that only works on stage. And I’d love to work at the Guthrie, in case anyone’s listening-it’s my hometown.

Hopefully someone will send them a link to this interview! Thanks so much for taking the time to answer StageSceneLA’s questions!  It was a real thrill seeing your performance in The Little Foxes, and I hope to get more chances to see you work on our stages.


Julia Duffy on IMDB.com
Photo of Kelly McGillis and Julia by Craig Schwartz

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