Whether she is portraying the magical Anna Madrigal in the Tales of the City series or looking back on her own life, career and advocacy in her new documentary, the aptly titled Olympia, Oscar-winning actress and longtime LGBTQ advocate Olympia Dukakis is forthright, wistful, and wickedly hilarious.
The world lost Olympia Dukakis today when she passed away at the age of 89. When I spoke with her recently to promote her highly acclaimed documentary Olympia, she was game to discuss absolutely everything. Whether it was her work with Cher (Moonstruck) or Dolly Parton (Steel Magnolias), or her advocacy for the LGBTQ community, Dukakis had a very simple message for the community that loved her almost as much as she loved us-“Never let anyone intimidate you….justice always prevails”
Rest In Power Olympia Dukakis.
Michael Cook: Was it overwhelming to be looking back on your entire life when you decided to be the subject of the documentary?
Olympia Dukakis: I do think that at the very beginning there was an element of “God, what have I done? Why did I agree to do this?” but as they started filming, I realized that it wasn’t going to be that bad. I’m not one that focuses too much on the past, so I was worried that I would get bored talking about it. Harry Mavromichalis (the director) is extremely engaging and has a way of making you open up about anything and everything. I think he’s extremely talented and so I trusted his sensibility and allowed him to lead the way. Looking back on this, I’m so grateful to have shared this journey together.
MC: What are some of the parts about your life that you loved getting a chance to relive? Anything that made you cringe?
OD: I absolutely loved seeing all the archival footage. Especially the video footage from the 1970’s and 80’s. I loved seeing my parents, my brother and sister-in-law, my colleagues from The Whole Theatre, Louie and the kids. I hadn’t seen that since then, so it was almost like seeing it for the first time. I thought my mother’s response after I won the Academy Award was hysterical! I had forgotten about that…
MC: What do you look back on as your biggest career achievement? Life achievement?
OD: That’s a tough question. I don’t think there’s one career moment that stands out from all the rest. Having been able to do what I love for so long is something that I find deeply gratifying and has brought a lot of meaning to my life. But if you want to be more specific, Tales of the City, Moonstruck, Mother Courage, the Rose Tattoo, Rose (my one-woman play), Hecuba, all definitely the Chekhov plays.
My family is my biggest life achievement and the great friends I made along the way.
MC: The LGBTQ community has embraced you in your appearances in everything from “Jeffrey” to “Tales of the City”. When you did you know that you were beloved so much by that community?
OD: It’s been a mutual love affair. One of my best friends was gay. He died during the early AIDS epidemic and that left me angry. I couldn’t understand how the world we lived in would turn a blind eye to people’s suffering. When they offered me the part of Anna Madrigal in Tales of the City, and I saw the humanity and complexity that Armistead Maupin gave this character, I knew I wanted to do it. I had no idea it was going touch so many people, but I knew that it was a once in a lifetime opportunity because these kinds of projects don’t come often.
I’ve always felt the love, but I don’t think it hit me as hard as when I was Grand Marshall at San Francisco’s Pride. Sitting in the car and waiting to enter the parade, I was approached over and over again by gay men and women who wanted to tell me how they felt about me. I was so overwhelmed with gratitude and so humbled that my small contribution would have such a lasting effect.
MC: What message do you have for the LGBTQ community as someone who has battled on the front lines?
OD: Stand in your truth. Never let anyone intimidate you. Continue the work to move the conversation forward, especially now with the assault on the trans community. It’s important to remember that no matter how hard others may try to stop progress, they will never succeed. They might slow it down, but justice always prevails.
MC: What could possibly be something that you as a performer did not get to achieve that you always wanted to?
OD: About ten years ago, I started toying with the idea of making a music album. I wanted to sing some of my favorite songs (from George Jones ‘I Don’t Need Your Rocking Chair’ to ‘Misirlou’). Not that I’m a good singer, but I wanted to sing. And not that anyone would want to hear me, but I wanted to do it for myself.
MC:When or where do you feel the most authentically, yourself?
OD: The limitless freedom the stage gives me, allows me to express myself to the deepest core.
MC: You’ve acted with gay icons like Dolly Parton and Cher; how does it feel to join them as an official icon to our community?
OD: I’ve never thought of myself as an icon, but if I had to be one, I’d choose the LGBTQ+ community any day. Plus it ain’t too shabby to hang out with Dolly and Cher!
For more information on ‘Olympia’ the documentary, check out their website