Shirley MacLaine

As she joins the cast of Downton Abbey, the actor and sometime mystic speaks of love, laughter ... and when to quit yoga.

Illustration by Jody Hewgill

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Shirley MacLaine
“I have not had the experience of depression.”
Photo courtesy Block-Korenbrot, Inc.

Question: Do you believe in making New Year’s resolutions?
Shirley MacLaine:
Absolutely not. I am a student of change. I don’t want to make resolutions because I know I’m not going to keep them.

Q: Do you even celebrate New Year’s Eve?
New Year’s as a party means nothing to me. I am seeing what’s happening right now from devastating storms to unemployment and people struggling to make ends meet.

Q: Any predictions that there might be some significant changes?
Oh yeah, absolutely. I think there’s going to be a lot of pain and difficulty in adjusting to kind of what I call a new frequency. Everybody’s talking so fast and thinking so fast and moving so fast, and I think that they’re missing the really important stuff.

Q: I know how important a sense of humor is to you. No matter how serious you might be playing a dramatic part, when I think of you off screen, I envision you smiling.
Yep. I don’t know why. I don’t know. There’s a twinkle about me. I have not had the experience of depression. I know it’s a big statement to make.

Q: That’s startling.
Yes. I know it is. I don’t think it makes me a shallow person. When you’re as curious as I am, there’s always something to learn. Maybe it’s also because I’m a dancer. That’s how I learned discipline, mental and physical.

Q: You’ve talked about the contradictions of comedy and tragedy, both on screen and off. Can you experience both at once?
Oh sure. That’s life. I figure when you get past 35, if you haven’t learned that, then you better go back and start another one.

Q: So what is life to you?
I think it’s a cross between what’s real and what’s comedy. When you analyze it you realize life itself is kind of a funny joke. Look at what’s happening in the world. If you don’t laugh, you’ve got serious problems. I think comedy—a sense of humor—must be born in certain people. Maybe it starts when you are a little kid and the dog steps on your foot. You either think it’s funny or an imposition. I think I have a gift of quirky insanity. We need more comedy, more laughter, and a more ironic way of thinking about life.

Q: What about the other emotions?
Of course there’s fear and even hate. That’s when you need to say, ‘Well wait a minute now, what’s the opposing force, not hate but love.’ Of course, you might also say, ‘What is love?’ We’ve just made it so romanticized in this part of the world that you can’t really sustain it.

Q: How do you keep love alive?
As I say when I answer all profound questions: ‘With a good hat and a comfortable pair of shoes.’ I learned that when I did the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in 1994, hiking through the rugged country of northern Spain to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. I thought if I’m going to write books about metaphysical stuff, I better really understand what it’s like to be totally alone and have nothing. All I really needed was fresh water, a good hat to protect me from the sun, and a good pair of shoes. [You can read about the journey in MacLaine’s book The Camino : A Journey of the Spirit.—Editor]

Q: Do you believe in loving someone forever?
I think the need to promise to be with someone until the end of your days is foolish. And we don’t even want to have a discussion about monogamy. It just makes me laugh. I think the challenge of love is more about sustaining a relationship with yourself. If you don’t have that with yourself, you can’t have it with others. Relationships keep changing, too. So I guess the only thing consistent is change, really. That’s what I’m learning. I’m much more attracted and, I think always have been, to peace and humor than I am to sexuality.

Q: Who has been most influential in your personal life?
Everybody I’m involved with at the time. This is my point: Everything keeps changing. Sometimes I look in my address book and see the names of people that I had the deepest and most personal, intimate relationships with 15 years ago, and I don’t even talk to them now. Nothing dramatic happened. It’s just that new things occurred.

Downton Abbey
MacLaine joins the cast of Downton Abbey. Photo © Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE.

Q: You’ve said, ‘I made a decision to live my life in public. I wasn’t going to go hiding.’ Would you still say that if you were a young actress today with paparazzi and fanatical fans following you everywhere?
You know that is so hard on those kids. I’m so concerned for them. This is a terrible thing what’s happening. It’s putting into perspective the price of the necessity to be famous. Everybody seems to want to be acknowledged by others to the extent that they’re not happy with themselves as they are. And that probably is the lesson here. Whatever their reasons for wanting to be famous have really impacted their personal growth.

Q: Weren’t you ever hounded by the paparazzi?
I think they didn’t bother me because I’d already told them everything anyway. But on the other hand, when I was growing up and at the height of my popularity in those days, they weren’t as ferocious as they are now.

Q: What about the electronic, computer-driven world we live in?
This whole thing with technology? Oh my God, the other day I was in a movie theater and the person in front of me was looking at his iPad watching another movie while he’s looking at the screen. And I thought, ‘I won’t go to dinner with somebody who’s going to text me across the table.’

Q: What’s something you’d like to change about yourself?
I’m impatient with everybody alive. This is my big problem. I’ve been impatient since age 2. Ask the makeup people. After 20 minutes, that’s it. I’m agitated by then. I want to go to the stuff that compels me, the scene I’m going to play. I’ve always been that way. I think it was because I was a gypsy when I was young.

Q: Are you still into yoga?
I used to do 75 postures. I was really good. I was an advanced student. I don’t think I could do three now. Oh my Lord, oh the things we should or shouldn’t do. I try to listen to my body and my body says, ‘You can’t put yourself in that twisted, upper-down dog pose.’ But I think it was a mistake to give it up.

Q: What are you doing to keep fit and looking so terrific?
I’ve succumbed more to aerobic things like hiking. I’ve been talked into thinking that cardiovascular exercise, or whatever, is good for your blood pressure. I just can’t get into the habitual thing of, ‘I must do this every day.’ You know. ‘Mondays is my day to walk. Tuesdays is my day to meditate.’ I can’t do that.

Q: How much do you think you know about your own past lives?
Well, enough about them for the moment. There’s so much going on in the world that’s so insane that I’m more interested in this life right now.

Q: I reread Sage-ing While Age-ing. I imagine when you express yourself in performance or as a writer you’re learning about yourself as much as you’re learning about the universe.
That’s right. That’s why I act. I love to play characters that, who knows, I may or may not have been. I’ve come to this understanding that, that life itself is show business. If people get that perspective they’ll see that they are the writer, producer, actor, and star and financier and distributor of their own drama and their own comedy. Everybody can be empowered in that way when you look at it all, like it’s an entertainment basically.

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