On a soggy gray November afternoon just before Thanksgiving I sat in Louise Lasser’s modest one-bedroom on the Upper East Side, interviewing her. The occasion was the release of the complete box set of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, a short-lived seventies TV show produced by Norman Lear that was supremely weird and meta and critical of American consumer culture in a way that still is shocking.
It was set in a small town in Ohio, and Lasser played the titular protagonist who flounders around this bizarro Norman Rockwell world with a bewildered “how did I get here” air that will be familiar (and thus slightly reassuring) to anyone who has ever experienced even the slightest existential drift or wondered why suddenly everyone around you seems to look and dress exactly alike and why all the stores carry the same products and why any sign of difference or texture is being slowly sanded down into an enduring, relentless marmoreal sameness…but I digress, sort of. Because the brilliance of Mary Hartman was in many ways its scathing critique of the way TV sneakily delivered capitalistic messages straight into our unsuspecting minds via commercials, convincing all of us that everything would turn out alright if we just buy the right kind of floor wax.
The season climaxed with Mary suffering a nervous breakdown as she is about to be launched on national television as “America’s Number One Consumer Housewife.” Lasser was perfectly cast in the role, with her New York accent and slightly stunned air, not to mention the doll-like dress in which she was incongruously attired.
Today Lasser is still a babe, with wispy blonde bangs that keep falling into her blue eyes. She still has the same husky voice and daffy vulnerability that brought the character of Mary to life. During our chat Lasser openly discussed her relationship with Woody, what it was like working with Lena, and why the world never got to see the genius pairing of her and Gilda Radner in an SNL skit.
The conversation was so wide-ranging that we decided to divide it into sections for readability. —Ed.
LL: I spent three years in college. Then I got pretty depressed. These things were flirting with me all of my growing up.
CB: Did acting help with depression? Did it give you an outlet for those emotions?
LL: When you’re depressed you’re not thinking this will help me…it’s so part of the fabric of everything. I remember sometimes with Mary Hartman . . . I was gradually morphing into her. There was no her without me. I don’t think acting helped me deal with it. It helped me in that I felt free and comfortable to express my worst needs and thoughts. Thoughts that, I would think, in life I might get rejected for having. Pretty fast it came to me that she [Mary] was a bipolar character, that she swung around, and I was aware that came from me, that I knew how to do that. They’d write a script and I would add riffs to it. In the original scripts, there were a lot of changing keys without modulating.
CB: Have you ever played a character before or since that you had that kind of relationship to, where it was an extension of yourself?
LL: I think there’s a need in every character I’ve ever played, without having thought about it, that’s completely that—that’s all my weak, not-being-able-to-get-on-top-of-it thing. In other words, in this, they give her such an unusual situation that a girl like her, a church-going little Mary, only would try her best to do everything, and be kind to people, and to be good. And yet, Tom, that I’m so attracted to, Tom, he’s the husband, and he’s so mean to me, he’s alcoholic, and I think he’s the best thing. I think he’s the best person that ever lived and no person could be better to me. And I have a daughter who simply hates me.
CB: That character is so loveable and she’s trying so hard.
LL: She’s trying so hard. And she can’t admit that it’s not working, so she eventually, the two collide and she falls apart. [When Norman Lear approached me about the role] I would say, I just can’t do it, I don’t know who she is. I would explain to him, I had five meetings with him [before taking the role.] There’s these characters, and then where Mary is just is this big hole of blankness. Now I realize I didn’t get who she was because I was in there and I couldn’t see myself in there. If you stand out here you can see what fills it in. It’s disturbing, that project.
On Woody Allen
CB: You were married to Woody Allen. Can you talk about that?
LL: Yeah, but ask me questions. Because it’s so much, you know.