by Carrie Frye
Actress Alison Arngrim may be more recognizable as her TV alter ego of Nellie Oleson from “Little House on the Prairie,” a role that still resonates with fans more than four decades later. After the notorious role, Arngrim’s many talents have led her from more television to the stage to a one-woman comedy show, which spurred her successful 2010 book, “Confessions of a Prairie Bitch.”
Residing in Southern California with her musician husband, Robert Paul Schoonover, Arngrim spends most of her time traveling wherever her roles lead. With “Little House on the Prairie” still airing in more than 140 countries worldwide, French fans embraced her comedy so much that it led her to develop two comedy shows and spend a quarter of her year for the past 10 years in France performing.
Lending her talents to Judson Theatre’s spring production of the Agatha Christie classic mystery, “And Then There Were None,” Arngrim is set to grace the North Carolina stage this month, March 23-26, in Pinehurst. As theater lovers might expect, Arngrim reprises the role of Emily Brent, which is merely one in a long line of unpleasant characters she excels at portraying.
ONC: What appeals to you about “And Then There Were None”?
AA: When the gang at the Judson Theatre asked if I would come out and do a show, I knew a bunch of my friends have been out to North Carolina already for some of the plays. Dawn Wells (“Gilligan’s Island”) had been in a previous show, and she plays my mom in an upcoming pilot I’m working on. Half of my friends have already performed there (laughs). So I said, “Awesome.” I have always liked Agatha Christie. I remember reading all of the Agatha Christie books when I was a kid. So it was, “Yeah, I’m in.”
Tell us about your character, Emily Brent, and how are you making her your own?
I am playing the bitch again (laughs). It’s not a surprise, I know. She’s just one of the most objectionable people in theater ever, and so, let’s call Alison. “And Then There Were None” has all of these fabulous people stranded together on an island in the 1930s, and they are not quite sure how they got there. You couldn’t do this show set in modern day, because if someone wrote you a letter, and you didn’t recognize the name and invitation to an island, you’d be looking them up on Facebook. All of the characters have various pasts, but Emily is the incredibly uptight, older British woman who claims to be religious but is mostly just holier than thou. All of the characters are all accused of having killed someone or contributed to someone’s death. Emily drove a young girl to kill herself, drove someone to suicide, so she’s that awful.
What’s your process for developing a character?
Emily is very proper British. She’s more “Downton Abbey.” And I believe she would be speaking more toward the old Received Pronunciation, because why change anything? What I do with any character, especially an objectionable character, which oddly I get called to play a lot, is make them real by believing in them. Normally, you read the script and you feel, “I don’t like this person,” but when you’re playing them, you just have to flip the whole thing on its head, and not only do you have to like them, you believe them, and believe they are right. You have to somehow suspend all sanity and think, “Absolutely, she’s right.” And then you can go there. I love playing these people who are saying and doing things I would never say or do on a bet, and yet, I wind up playing them, as if I do this all the time.
Is it more fun to play this type of character?
It really is. You are getting out of yourself and into someone else. You are going to another zone, and you are really having an emotional impact on people. Look at how many people are still mad at Nellie Oleson, and that was more than 40 years ago (laughs). They are still writing and Facebooking me. It’s crazy. When my husband and my friends meet people, they still say, “Oh, you’re friends with her?” There are some people who are still terrified of me, but yet, if you do it right, you really hit a nerve with people and get quite the emotional reaction. And I like that. I love making an impression and creating a character that’s memorable.
What appeals to you most about the stage?
My parents actually met in a theater. My mother and father actually ran the Totem Theatre in Vancouver, British Columbia, in the early 1950s. My dad and his business partner Stuart Baker founded the Totem Theatre and started a whole chain in the ‘50s. My father went on to be on Broadway, and my mother got into radio voiceover. My father eventually became a manager and worked for Seymour Heller and Associates (a storied talent agency). He managed Liberace and Debbie Reynolds. Theater is where my parents started, so I started doing theater very young. When I was 13, I did the Garden Theater in Los Angeles, and I did “A Cry of Players” and played Suzanna Shakespeare. I was already doing legitimate theater then. Then, in my 20s, I did the dinner theater route and went around and did several of the big dinner theaters and did all of the classic bedroom farces. Over the last few years, I have done quite a bit of theater in Los Angeles. My comedy is more of a one-woman show with video.
From writer to comedian to actor, what do you enjoy about having such a versatile career?
It is a great way to stay employed (laughs). I guess there are people who only do one thing, and if you can manage that and get people to hire you and find venues for it, but most people have to do more than one thing. In the old day of musicals, everyone sang and danced and acted as well. Now, it seems you have to be able to act and write and produce to get anything done. I am fascinated with how things have changed so much. In the 1970s, I was in a series, but I am intrigued by the new genre of Web series and television shows made for the Internet that are made to go on Hulu, Netflix or Amazon. This is a whole new venue and an idea of whole new networks. These options didn’t even exist a few years ago. Now, there’s a new HBO, and I remember when there was an old HBO (laughs). Now, you have Web series, and I am doing those. I have just done a couple of pilots, a horror series, and one called “Life Interrupted” with Dawn Wells of “Gilligan’s Island,” Michael Learned of “The Waltons” and Erin Murphy of “Bewitched,” who are all in it. It’s very funny. I also did this thing called “Living on a Prairie,” in which I play a therapist. That’s this new thing, when someone calls and says we are shooting this thing, and it’s on the Web. I am up for all these new things; sign me up. I am still doing theater in L.A. and experimental theater, and in France, for the last 10 years, I have spent three to four months each year doing the French version of my comedy show. We do a whole series of shows in France. And I just did eight shows down in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.
Starting your career at such a young age, was there any advice or wisdom that your fellow actors shared?
Michael Landon. His thing was all about the fans. His thing was, “You don’t work for me or NBC, you work for them.” And that’s why he had people follow him from “Bonanza” to “Little House on the Prairie” to “Highway to Heaven.” He had a built-in audience that just came with him, and the crew came with him, too. The people who have really done well had this understanding, so they didn’t take themselves horribly seriously. They could laugh at themselves and relax and have a good time. They understood that it’s about the fans. For a lot of actors, they do a job, and they walk away. The idea that one thing hits a nerve and resonated. It doesn’t often matter what they think of it, when it resonates, people are still tuning in 40 years later. I know that people who are successful did pay attention, so I have always tried to do that.
Is there something you can share about yourself that most fans don’t know about you or “Little House”?
The big question is always, “Was it a wig?” Because my hair was way too perfect on that show. And they tried curling my hair like that for the first couple of episodes, but it was a disaster, and they did indeed have a wig made. So my hair stays in bouncing perfect curls even going downhill.
Can you share any fun behind-the-scenes moments from “Little House on the Prairie”?
We all got along really well on the show, and we all still speak to each other. It’s amazing (laughs). It always blows people’s minds when they find out Melissa Gilbert and I are friends, because we were just punching each other in the face so hard on that show. The idea that we would be having terrible fights at work and that we would have slumber parties at each other’s houses on the weekends and be making fudge seems impossible. But, we basically grew up together, and she’s like my little sister.
In navigating your second 50, is there a goal you have set for yourself?
I just turned 55, and I have had this huge other career since turning 40. I started doing the one-woman show, “Confessions of a Prairie Bitch,” and then it wasn’t until 2010 that I wrote my book and was so successful, so I had this whole other life after turning 40 that I just never anticipated. My mother had quite the career, retired for a while, and then she went back to work in commercials and television when she was older. She had a huge voiceover career as Casper the Friendly Ghost … she was every cartoon back then, but when I try to think back on what was she doing when she was 55, she wasn’t doing this (laughs). I don’t really have a map of what I am supposed to be doing at 55. I am just so amazed. I didn’t speak French before I started doing a show in France. I took French in high school but was terrible, so I had to go back and learn it. So the idea that I could be doing a show that hasn’t been written yet in a language that I don’t currently speak in a country I haven’t been to is actually possible. That could happen. If you had told me 10 or 20 years ago that I could be performing in a television series in a format and medium that hasn’t been invented yet, but you just don’t know. We buy into “this is what my parents did at this age,” but that’s not happening as much anymore. I have been traveling extensively, so this year, I was thinking of winding it down a bit, and North Carolina isn’t that far, so I’m kind of reining it in (laughs).
Some Behind-the-Scenes Extras with Alison Arngrim:
How are you preparing your British accent for your character of Emily Brent?
So it has been interesting reading about the English accent changes. They used to call it a BBC accent, but it now called a Received Pronunciation (RP), and there’s a new RP and an old RP. BBC presenters now don’t talk now like they did 30 years ago. They now speak in a much more modern British accent. Young people, even upper crust young people, don’t speak in the RP as they did 20 years ago. I do believe Emily would (laughs).
How do you balance all the traveling?
I am usually desperate to get home. I have always traveled a lot. When I was 15 and still doing the television show, I started doing a lot of NBC affiliate things that took me all over the country and started doing stand-up, so I went out and toured. I have always traveled for work and enjoyed it. In the last few years, I have been traveling extensively, so this year, I was thinking of winding it down a bit, and North Carolina isn’t that far, so I’m kind of reigning it in (laughs).
And more on Alison’s ideas on the Second 50…
We buy into to what this is what my parents did at this age, but that’s not happening as much anymore. My husband is 67, and he’s not doing anything his parents did. He works full-time as a musician and plays guitar in a band. Growing up, people his age now didn’t do that, nor were they jumping on a plane to hang out with their wife in Monte Carlo. I grew up in show business where the concept of retirement is different. I am a friend with Carol Channing, and I can let you know when she officially retires. She is still booked for speaking engagements. My mother sort of retired, and then she came out of retirement and worked until the day she died.
Editor’s note: This editor had a great time just chatting with Alison and talking about how far Pinehurst might be for some family to drive down for the show. Her voice is the same “Nellie Oleson” you know, remember and love to hate, but it is truly a case of a wonderful acting, Thank you Alison for sharing your time and talents with OutreachNC and Judson Theatre!