'I'm Still Alive': Sean Young takes the stage in 'Ode to the Wasp Woman'

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'I'm Still Alive': Sean Young takes the stage in 'Ode to the Wasp Woman'
Sean Young, left, and her castmates during a rehearsal of “Ode to the Wasp Woman,” at the Actors Temple Theater in New York, Oct. 19, 2023. Young said her character in the play has “some damage to deal with. But it is also an opportunity to purge whatever’s there of your own.” (Ye Fan/The New York Times)

by Alexis Soloski

NEW YORK, NY.- Manhattan has dressing rooms dingier than the one in the basement of the Actors Temple Theater. But not many. Sean Young, curled into a folding chair atop peeling linoleum tiles with a smudged mirror behind her, claimed not to mind.

“I don’t have the disease of snobbery,” she said on a late October morning. “I have an incredibly high tolerance for dirty dressing rooms, you know what I mean? I like slumming it.”

Young was in rehearsal blacks — leggings, a muscle tee, sneakers — her hair half up. She was two weeks out from the first preview of “Ode to the Wasp Woman,” which is scheduled to open Thursday and run through Jan. 31. Written and directed by Rider McDowell, the play details the lurid, untimely deaths of four Hollywood has-beens and barely-weres. Young, in her New York stage debut, plays Susan Cabot, a B-movie actress whose titles include “The Wasp Woman.” Cabot was beaten to death by her 22-year-old son in 1986.

Young has had her own tragedies. “But here’s the good part of the story,” she cheerfully said. “I didn’t end up damaged.”

A movie star in the 1980s (“Dune,” “Blade Runner,” “No Way Out”), Young saw her career derailed by the mid-1990s. She refused to play certain Hollywood games. In past interviews, she has said that after rejecting the advances of colleagues, including actor and director Warren Beatty, she was dropped from projects. (A representative for Beatty denied this.) She played other games too enthusiastically, as when she showed up on the Warner Bros. set dressed as Catwoman, angling for a role, or tried to crash an Oscars party.

James Woods, who starred with Young in the 1988 film “The Boost,” filed a $2 million civil suit accusing her of stalking behavior. Though that suit was eventually settled out of court, with Woods required to pay all of Young’s legal fees, Hollywood had already branded her as volatile, difficult, even crazy. Which explains a slide toward TV movies and guest spots. She also appeared on “Celebrity Rehab” for alcohol abuse.

McDowell, the “Ode to the Wasp Woman” playwright and director, knew about what he referred to in a recent phone interview as Young’s “past antics,” but he had wanted a well-known actress of Cabot’s age. Young fit that bill. He had found rehearsing with her pleasant.

“She’s very lighthearted,” he said. “There’s no Hollywood behavior.”

In that grim dressing room, her voice was throatier, her features no longer those of an ingénue. But at 63, Young still has the fidgety electricity and easy glamour that made her indelible in those early screen roles. On a break from rehearsal, she discussed her current role and her early career. (She refers to films, series and plays indiscriminately as “shows.”) These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Q: What was the first decade of your career like?

A: I look at the first 10 years of my career as somewhat tragic, actually, because my mother — who has passed away, so I can say whatever I want — inserted herself into my career. What she really wanted was to collect 10% and not have to work too hard. By 28, I basically divorced her. I said, “I’m not doing this anymore. I’m sorry.” Those first years were messed up, in terms of career strategy. If I’d had a better manager, I would have had more of a running start. I don’t feel like the rest of my career was as great.

Q: What happened? It began so well, and then it fell off a cliff.

A: Part of that cliff was when James Woods accused me of stalking him. Then I moved to Sedona [Arizona]. And I said you can all go [expletive] yourselves. So I created part of that cliff.

Q: That generated a rumor, for a while, that you were crazy.

A: Oh, that still floats! I walk into a show and everybody’s kind of a little afraid. Then I hear, “Oh, but you’re so nice.” Believe me, that was a pain in my ass. I did not like having to prove myself over and over and over again. This is what I’ve taught my sons: Mommy was right, but it didn’t do me any good. Being right is not actually your best play. Your self-preservation is actually more important than being right. Do you remember when I got fired by Warren Beatty?

Q: From “Dick Tracy”? Yes.

A: I worked a week on that show. At the end of one day, he’s dropping me off at the Sheraton. He walks around the car. Mr. Gentleman opens the door. I’m getting out and he grabs my ears, trying to pull me into a kiss. I go, “What the [expletive] are you doing?” I mean, I yell at him. And he goes, “Well, I was just testing you.” I lean into him and I say, “Well, OK, are you clear now? That I’m not here to [expletive] you? I’m just here to do this part. Do you need to test me anymore?” Several days after that, I get fired. They put out in the papers “artistic differences.” Like I was the problem. That really was the definitive cliff. My joke now is I should have just said, “I’d love to [expletive]. I’m just busy right now.”

Q: Was there a culture of abuse in 1980s Hollywood?

A: I don’t think there’s ever been a time in Hollywood where there wasn’t abuse. But a feature of the ’80s is that we were really overpaid. There was also a cocaine habit that pervaded, and that could lead to some very dramatic circumstances.

Q: Have things improved?

A: I’m not so sure. I don’t think there’s any less egotism or narcissism. It’s funny. You see leading men or sometimes leading women, they turn. They lose their humility. They lose their sense of humor. They lose their gratitude. Those were things I was very lucky to hang on to.

Q: I’ve read that you’re a Trump supporter. He’s someone who has been accused of abuse. How do you square that?

A: Until you’ve actually been red-pilled, until you’ve actually gotten some proof or done enough research or really taken a look at what modern life is, then you’re still eating the propaganda. I believe that the reason Trump has gotten the treatment he’s gotten is because he’s a direct threat to permanent Washington, D.C. I don’t care what kind of a person he is. What I care about is that he put a border on the southern part of our country. That’s the priority I feel.

Q: So it matters less to you who he is than what he might be able to achieve?

A: We have no way to really verify it. If you’re going on the assumption that [abuse] actually happened, you also have to ask yourself why this woman’s [expletive] was right there to be grabbed.

Q: But so many women have come forward.

A: That’s why it’s done that way. Because that makes it much more believable. Even going on the assumption that maybe it is true, and I feel very bad that that could be the case, it’s still Trump coming in and being a very humongous threat to a part of the Washington, D.C., culture that actually, in my view, needs to be completely wiped out. That’s the priority I feel.

Q: What drew you to this play?

A: I know this sounds silly, but actors just like to work. I can do anything. So when something comes my way now it’s like, thank you very much.

Q: Had you heard of Susan Cabot before this?

A: I had heard of “The Wasp Woman,” although I never had seen it. For this, I watched it all the way through. It’s pretty cheesy, but I wanted to make sure I knew who she was. She had a great face.

Q: Do you think Susan Cabot is a tragic figure?

A: Well, her son murdered her. That’s tragic. That’s at the top of the list. But her dad left her before her first birthday, and her mother was placed in an insane asylum. Show business might have been the thing that offered her any self-confidence. That was the one thing that had meaning for her.

Maybe her career was the one moment where she might have felt like, I’m somebody. There’s a line in the script: “I came from nothing. From less than nothing where people laughed at my dreams.” So she’s pretty messed up.

Q: She didn’t have the career she wanted.

A: There’s more than just her in this business who can say that. The way in for me, with every part, is I say: What am I going to learn by doing this? And is there anything about the role that I wouldn’t want to deal with?

There was a feeling with Susan that there was going to be some damage to deal with. But it is also an opportunity to purge whatever’s there of your own. And when you purge something, it doesn’t haunt you anymore. You cry yourself out, and you really don’t need to cry anymore. You’ve gone to that place of discomfort and it didn’t kill you. I’m still alive.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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