At an age when most people have long since retired, Olympia Dukakis continues to beat the clock. Best remembered for her Oscar-winning performance in Moonstruck and roles in a string of ’80 and ’90s hits that included Working Girl, the Look Who’s Talking series, and Steel Magnolias, the 80-year-old Dukakis keeps a busy schedule that includes acting, producing and directing in movies and on stage. For the bawdy indie comedy Cloudburst, screening May 2 as part of the Tampa International Gay & Lesbian Film Festival’s monthly film series, the actress plays a surly, foul-mouthed, elderly lesbian on a wedding pilgrimage across the Canadian border with her blind and frail partner of 31 years, played by Brenda Fricker.
“They say it’s the most out-there part I’ve ever done. It was not difficult,” she says with a laugh by phone from New York, where she’s just landed after returning from performing the one-woman show Rose in Israel. Though she complains of jet lag, the octogenarian is sharp and witty recounting the Cloudburst shoot and her career in general.
Dukakis disappears into the role of Stella, her posture and vocalization turning almost as masculine as the flannel shirts and jeans she wears like a uniform. “I got scared a couple of times in post-production when I thought, ‘That looks like a man,’” she says. A man with the mouth of a career sailor: Stella’s rants could make Richard Pryor blush (in one scene, Dukakis uses the dreaded C-word about two dozen times in under a minute). But underneath the hard exterior is a wounded, sensitive woman who loves her partner and uses words as a weapon to keep others at a distance.
“It’s a love story in a very particular time when the idea of partnership between people of the same sex is not accepted,” Dukakis explains. “My character’s defensiveness is part of that. She’s going to be in your fucking face with it, because that’s what she did with the disapproval. She became stronger and more belligerent.”
The part couldn’t be further from reality for the mother of three, who this year celebrates her 50th wedding anniversary with husband Louis Zorich. So how did Dukakis approach playing a lesbian? “I mostly go for the human being,” she says. “I just try to deal with the human being that’s there. The fact that her sexual proclivities may be different than mine is just sexual. I didn’t think of it. We all have different things that turn us on. So in this, Brenda Fricker is it for me.”
Dukakis has experience playing LGBT characters, and points to her role as the transsexual landlady Mrs. Madrigal in the 1994 PBS miniseries Tales of the City. “I don’t know anything I have done that engaged me more or meant so much to me,” she says.
I should mention that Cloudburst is hilarious, and more akin to The Hangover than a geriatric Brokeback Mountain. The movie is Dukakis’s third collaboration with director Thom Fitzgerald, and the pair already have a fourth in the can. “He’s a wonderful director and the scripts are all really interesting and open up dialogue for issues I care about,” she says. “I would do any movie with him, no matter what it was, except I don’t want to do them in Halifax in the wintertime.”
Read the full Q&A with Olympia Dukakis, including her reaction to the news that Lifetime is remaking Steel Magnolias with an all-black cast, by clicking here.