“I just don’t have any impulse to define myself at all by anything other than a person. I’m a person.”
This interview was conducted as part of the LGBTQ&A podcast.
Since winning an Emmy award in 1999 for her breakout performance in The Practice, Holland Taylor has been a constant presence on screen in shows like Two and a Half Men where she played Charlie Sheen’s bisexual mother, The L Word as billionaire Peggy Peabody, and most recently, Hollywood, the hit Ryan Murphy show that earned Taylor another Emmy nomination.
Though the 77-year-old has only recently started discussing her relationships publicly in interviews, Taylor says her sexuality has never been a secret; it’s simply been private. “I’m more free talking about my personal life now because people do speak very personally in interviews. But when I was younger, I didn’t have a big public marriage or relationship with children and a big public life. I just lived my life normally. I wasn’t behind closed doors,” she says. “It would never have occurred to me to talk about my personal life in an interview anyway.”
Holland Taylor, who can be seen next as The Great Leader in Bill and Ted Face the Music (available digitally and in select theatres on August 28th), talks on the LGBTQ&A podcast this week about not wanting to be confined by labels, working with Ryan Murphy on Hollywood, living in New York City during Stonewall and the AIDS crisis, and what it’s like to be in such a public relationship (with actress Sarah Paulson).
Read highlights from their interview on LGBTQ&A below and click here to listen to the full interview.
Jeffrey Masters: You’re 77 and seem to have never been busier.
Holland Taylor: I know, I know. I’ve had an extraordinary career in that the usual plight of the actor, which is long periods of not working, has not been my situation. I’ve really worked pretty steadily. My beginning years were hard because I was too young to play the parts that I was right for. Because I was never an ingenue. But once I hit my stride, I’ve really never had a hard period.
That is so atypical that I feel kind of guilty about it. I’ve been blessed with good fortune.
JM: Are the anomaly amongst actresses your age or are you seeing that across the board?
HT: Oh, I’m seeing a lot or maybe because I’m in the Ryan Murphy universe, I mean, Ryan Murphy has an enormous interest in women as characters on their own, separate from any relationship they may have with whatever man is in their purview. Female actors are used to having roles that are connected to a man: you can’t just be a person whose story is being told. You are the wife of, the mother of, the daughter of, the friend of, the sister of a man.
And you think about it. There are very few stories that are just about a woman’s life, how she lives her life, what her life means to her in some sort of existential way just doesn’t exist or there are many rules like that. I think now in the Ryan Murphy world, he sees women. He sees women and their particular evolution of their life and how they realize themselves. He finds it very interesting. So there’s plenty of women and elder women in his world.
JM: One of my favorite scenes from Hollywood was between you and Joe Mantello when you discussed what your relationship was. It stood out as being rare to see a character your age talking about those things.
HT: Yes. We were very aware of how rare a scene it was and as such, we really wanted to do it well. We had a lot of sort of fluttery nerves about it because it seems such a critical scene and you can’t really fully write out a scene like that because so much is unspoken, so much is difficult to say.
It’s such an ineffable occurrence that happens when one person reaches out to another and the reach is not grasped. In fact, I’m sort of feeling a tightness in my throat just thinking about it because it was a scene of such delicacy and we really so wanted to do it well. People never forget moments of such delicacy and human pain and human stress and human yearning.
JM: When you were first starting out, how did you see queerness being treated by the industry?
HT: Living a long life, you don’t always remember. When I started out, I mean, it was a time when gay characters were real anomalies and they were probably in the story because of their gayness. So often they would be stereotypical in that sense. I don’t really remember when it just changed really quite dramatically. It probably was after AIDS.
After AIDS, you could not do stereotypical gay characters. You just could not do it. Do you remember when Stonewall was? Was that in ’66 or 67?
JM: It was ’69.
HT: ’69 was Stonewall? I don’t think I’d even had a gay relationship then, but everybody I knew was gay. Everyone in my social life was gay it seemed to me. I mean, the theatre and artists and poets and writers.
It’s so funny that I say that, but all the artists I knew were gay. That isn’t true, but a lot were and maybe it’s a broad sense of acceptance in life you find in the arts community. So for me, I didn’t feel isolated. I didn’t feel it as such an ostracizing thing because my whole society was very inclusive of every kind of person from the time when I was a young adult. So I’ve never been that actively political except during the AIDS period when I was very. That was a very shocking time. You talk about a pandemic.
JM: In 2015, you publicly shared for the first time that you were in a relationship with a woman. Why was that the right time to share that with the public?
HT: Well, I’m a very private person, just generally. I would be no matter what my life was, but I was not private in the sense of hiding. I lived my life in public. I think I was about 29 or 30 when I had my first relationship with a woman, but I didn’t talk about it per se. It would never have occurred to me to talk about my personal life in an interview anyway.
When I started to be known, it was just a subject that never came up in a sense that no one would ask me. I don’t know why no one would ask me, but they didn’t. And I don’t know what I would have said. It’s so funny. I can’t really remember any anxiety about that. I had not been in a relationship for a very long time.
The relationship was with Sarah [Paulson] became so public because she’s an enormous star and I was somewhat well-known. It became a news event and so I wasn’t going to deny it. Do you see what I’m saying? Other relationships that I had have not been with famous people. No other relationship I had would become a news event in that sense. When once that happened, there was no way not to just speak about it.
JM: It’s a funny thing to hear you say that you were never asked about it. I’m trying to think about if I would ever feel comfortable asking someone in an interview if they were queer without them opening the door to it.
HT: Yes, I was not asked and I would not have offered in all likelihood, certainly. I mean, I’m more free talking about my personal life now because people do speak very personally in interviews. But when I was younger, I didn’t have a big public marriage or relationship with children and a big public life. I just lived my life normally. I wasn’t behind closed doors.
I don’t feel it’s very interesting in a sense and I don’t have any impulse to talk about it any more than if I were at a cocktail party. I would just start talking about my personal life. It’s like, “Who’s interested?”
JM: In one interview you said that you were “not political about it,” regarding dating women. Can I ask what you meant by that?
HT: Well, I don’t join clubs. I just live my life out in the world. I don’t understand, certainly at this point, carrying signs about it or making proclamations about it or making statements about it. It’s just about life. It’s just a normal life for me.
So it isn’t like campaigning against some law or other or some discrimination. That would be a political act. So beyond that, it just doesn’t feel like a political atmosphere to me in my life.
JM: A couple of minutes ago, you said that you were never asked about sexuality in interviews. Can I ask how you identify and what labels you use?
HT: Well, if you said, “What is your sexuality?” I’d say I’m gay. I really don’t like the definitions. I just feel like I’m a person. It’s not the major defining thing of my life. It’s not defining. I’m a human being. That’s defining. Do you see what I’m saying?
JM: I think that’s impressive because for most people in your generation, it was such a defining thing for people. It’s so interesting that you escaped feeling like that.
HT: It was a confining thing. It was confining and separating and dividing. I don’t find it defining in the sense of… it’s funny. I’ve never really thought about it this way. I just don’t have any impulse to define myself at all by anything other than a person. I’m a person. I suppose I could say, I am a woman.
I would say that is to be a man or woman is a broad enclosure of qualities that is permeable because we’re very large entities. We’re very large and shape-shifting entities. So even woman is a little bit of a cage, a little bit of a barrier against a sense of largeness that I think we are as persons. To be a person is a very big universe.
JM: Not wanting to be confined by labels, how much do you think being an actress contributes to that? In your life, you inhabit so many different types of people, not just Holland Taylor.
HT: Yeah. Interesting. Well, I think it’s all a large universe in me. And within that, I can make a constellation of characteristics that are a character and I can sort of live in that constellation, but it is still within the larger context of who I am.
I remember Stella Adler saying, “Use your imagination to think about the character’s experience.” You have to research and know a great deal about the character and about the character’s time and place and about everything that the character does. But it is still you. You are the imaginer.
JM: How are you thinking about Hollywood and your career right now with everything going on with the pandemic?
HT: I’ve had an extraordinary run. I’ve really had a very privileged career, blessed with good fortune at every turning. I’ve had great roles in television. I’ve had great roles in film and I’ve had a truly great role on stage. And so I feel very fully realized as a person and anything from now on is kind of gravy or icing on the cake. I mean, in the case of Hollywood, that role was a gift.
So as far as now is concerned, we are seriously on hold. I don’t have any idea when I will work again. A year? Two years? I don’t know. But its been quite something to not be working because it’s a big part of who I am.
Click here to listen to the full podcast interview with Holland Taylor.
LGBTQ&A is produced by The Advocate, in partnership with GLAAD.
Bill and Ted Face the Music is out digitally and in select theatres August 28th.