Center image: Beverly D'Angelo at the American Masters TCA panel in January (Photo: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)/Graphic: Nick Wanserski

Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.

The actor: Beverly D’Angelo says that she won’t write a memoir until “my past becomes more interesting than my present.” So, not anytime soon—but when she does, it will be spectacular. She’s the kind of person who can drop lines like, “Oh, that was when I was married to the duke” in casual conversation. Her filmography includes roles in iconic movies from Hair to National Lampoon’s Vacation. She appeared at the recent Television Critics Association conference at the panel for the upcoming American Masters special on Patsy Cline (which airs this week on PBS); portraying Cline in the Academy Award-winning Coal Miner’s Daughter was D’Angelo’s breakthrough role. She sat down with The A.V. Club to discuss some highlights from a career that started when she was a teenager singing in Canadian bar bands, to making her movie debut in Annie Hall, to working with a variety of Oscar winners and cementing her position in a beloved film franchise.

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American Masters: Patsy Cline (2017)—herself
Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980)—“Patsy Cline”

Beverly D’Angelo: The real thing about Patsy Cline for singers to listen to is her phrasing. Not to copy it, but it’s her phrasing and the way that she was able to take a song and make it her own was because she delivered it with so much emotional intelligence. As magnificent as her voice was, it wasn’t about the gymnastics or facility. If you listen to where she takes her breath, you get a thought, and that’s why it seems to come from her. They say Frank Sinatra’s phrasing is like listening to her or Billie Holiday’s phrasing. It’s where they breathe and what words they connect to communicate what they’re feeling, and she really, really, really was incredible in that way. It’s so authentic. You can listen to her songs now and still feel the same way.

The A.V. Club: Was it daunting for you to take that on in Coal Miner’s Daughter?

BD: Thank god I was so young and stupid because if I would have known what I was really taking on, I think it would have been overwhelming, but I was really pretty innocent. I’d have made a couple of movies but I really wasn’t even set on being an actress. To me, it was like, “I’m a singer. I’m going to play a singer.” And that’s all okay. I felt entitled to do that, but I was too young and dumb to be that scared, although I was scared of Loretta [Lynn]. I really wanted her approval. I really did. And I’m like, “Oh my god, oh my god, they’re going to find out about my wild past and that I’m supposed to be just a little girl here.”

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But yeah, it was also because of Sissy Spacek’s personality. She’s so engaging and fundamentally Michael Apted because his background was as a documentary filmmaker. So what he did as a director, he created an atmosphere in which people were free. And it was very relaxed and very natural. So once the casting was done, it was good casting. Even what everybody’s relationship was with each other. And it was true. And he kept everything true. It was certainly not Hollywood. It wasn’t a Hollywood version of anything. It felt very authentic.

AVC: And you and Sissy had a good rapport from the get-go?

BD: We did. I knew her as an actress and I knew of her from this fantastic movie called Badlands. And of course Carrie. And she was just so friendly and it was such a sunny day. We had the same agent. So we had people in common. She’s just a really down-to-earth person and I’m not particularly—and especially wasn’t at that time—that down to earth. I was a singer and had been singing in bar bands and suddenly was starring in movies, so it was her grace. I remembered knowing exactly how much pressure she was under, and I remember saying over and over and over again, “She’s carrying this whole show like a feather.” She was just light and steady as a breeze. She’s just wonderful.

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AVC: Was Loretta Lynn also on set?

BD: She was in and out. She was touring. I know that Michael Apted went on the road and he would travel with her on a bus for months before he started shooting. And also he was British, so I think that helped because he had an outsider’s view.

AVC: And was she as delightful as you would expect?

BD: My impression was just that she was real. She wasn’t someone who was performing when you met her. And even her performances were real. I don’t think she has a fake bone in her body.

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Hair (1979)—“Sheila Franklin”
Annie Hall (1977)—“Actress in Rob’s TV show”

AVC: Hair seems like a huge get for a role. That was a big deal when they made that into a movie, but it was one of your first movies.

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BD: I had come to New York. Singing with Ronnie Hawkins in Toronto. I immigrated to Toronto as a studio vocalist in 1970, and I used to do background vocals. There was a recording industry there and I’d triple-track myself or go in with somebody else and do a lot of background vocals and stuff, and I played anywhere that I could. I’d get jobs out of the newspaper. I’d go down to the union and get a job because the musicians’ union would guarantee you’d get a gig. And I sang with any band, any place, anywhere, anytime. But the real gig to get was Ronnie Hawkins because he had the most popular band in town. The best musicians always played with him.

I had come to Toronto because—I just had this crazy life—but I was escorting this band when I lived on a commune in British Columbia, and this singer had brought me into Toronto to sing background. I loved it and wanted to stay in Toronto. Immigrated there, but the job to get was with Ronnie. I was going in another direction. I was starting to sing jazz. Singing in a place called the Zanzibar, which was a topless bar. I was fully clothed in an evening gown. And between two girls who were on 5-gallon oil drums with the tops cut off and Plexiglas and light shooting up, and I performed from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. Every 40 minutes, I’d say “Now gentlemen, it’s swing time.” I was 18. And these girls would get on trapezes and swing across the patrons’ heads.

AVC: Was it even legal for you to be in there?

BD: No one ever even asked me how old I was. I just sang there. But Ronnie was down on Yonge Street. And this friend of mine said he’s looking for a singer and I went down to the street because what Ronnie would do is he would play and then after the gig he would rehearse the band because everything was fresh, so you’d go over it. So I think I finished early, and I went down and he was rehearsing the band, and I auditioned with a jazz song. It was a Les McCann song called “Compared To What” because I knew who he was, but to tell you the truth, I wasn’t even a fan. Wasn’t that much of a rockabilly fan. I had gone from folk music to square dancing. My dad had been a big band player. My mother was a classical violinist so I had a whole polyglot of influences, but I was going in the direction of jazz, to tell you the truth.

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But I go down the street, I sang for him, and he said, “Stick with me, honey, and I’ll have you farting through silk.” And I went, “Well, great.” So I started working with him. And we were a very popular band. And it was also at a time when there was a lot of draft dodgers in Toronto and lots of pot everywhere. People were smoking in the clubs and stuff like that. And so we would play and then we’d finish and then we would rehearse, and then at about 2 a.m., we’d all go back to Ronnie’s place in Mississauga, which was just outside of town, and just party all night. And then you’d go to sleep and wake up at 5 p.m. and do the same thing all over again.

So one night I didn’t go out to his house after with everybody, and I got a call the next day saying, “Ronnie got arrested. They found six pounds of pot on his property. Don’t come to work.” And I’m like, “Oh my god!” So at the same time, they were auditioning for a repertory company. And I had to get that job. So I auditioned. I remember I didn’t even have the right shoes, so I thought, “I’ll just take them off and audition barefoot,” and I sang my heart out. I had done a radio musical for CBC playing Marilyn Monroe. And the man who wrote that musical was a man named Cliff Jones, and he had written a musical version of Hamlet, so I auditioned for the repertory company that was doing that that was staging that musical and got in. So I took off and traveled with that repertory company across Canada.

Then we were summering in Rhode Island, and Colleen Dewhurst was an actress who had a home there, and she had done A Moon For The Misbegotten on Broadway. She brought her producer up. He brought a director named Gower Champion. Literally they did fire everybody but that girl. So I went from there to Broadway, and we didn’t go to Boston or anything like that. And it opened and then we previewed for three weeks, and then it closed after a week. And so there I was, I’m in New York and I didn’t know what I had to go back to because I had been traveling with that show. And it’s like a year later, plus I had no money.

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AVC: Are you even 20 yet by this time? How old were you?

BD: I think I was 21. And so I’m in New York and there was a nice camaraderie of these Broadway show kids, dancers and singers and stuff. But I’d come from more of a rock ’n’ roll world. So I was kind of floating around. But the attention and the reviews that I got for Rockabye Hamlet, I got a lot of knocks on my door, including Woody Allen’s casting director called me in. And I went in and she said, “This is Woody Allen.” Because you have to understand, not only was I broke, but I also lived off the radar purposely. I didn’t have a television. I didn’t go to movies. So my awareness of filmmaking as an industry, it wasn’t even my interest to be honest. I was a singer, I thought.

So I met Woody Allen and I kept a diary then and I’ve kept a diary to this day. And I had had a dream about him where I was at a party and Bob Dylan was there, and I went into the backyard and it was snowing and Woody Allen was playing the tuba. So I told him about this dream. And he said, “Look, I’m shooting this movie. Do you want to be in it?” And I went, “Okay.” And he said, “Okay, well tomorrow, I want you to come down.” So I ended up with a line and because I had a couple of lines in that, I got my Screen Actors Guild card.

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AVC: From Annie Hall?

BD: It was called Anhedonia at the time. But I never saw a script. It wasn’t called Annie Hall. And that was at the end of 1975, going in to 1976. And in those days, they could take two years before they released a film. So that ended up being released after this other film. Anyway, I did so many films in such a short amount of time. But I didn’t really land until Coal Miner’s Daughter as far as, now there are acting opportunities that are going to open up. And I was pretty disenchanted by that time. And thank god I did Vacation because if I wouldn’t have done Vacation, god only knows what would have happened. Because I married an Italian duke in 1981 and was based in Italy and I stayed married to him. But I went to live in Ireland.

I’ve not been a good milk cow for the entertainment industry. I was someone who brought the goods that I brought. I looked at it from what has happened and was like, “Nobody’s ever going to get me here.” And I supposed it was laziness on my side. I like to think of myself as the laziest girl in show business. But at the same time, everything comes when it’s supposed to come. So when I finally figured out what love was, which was what my whole quest was, then I thought, now all I want is a TV series. It’s like, okay, I get it.

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AVC: How did Hair happen after Annie Hall?

BD: So here’s the deal. The word was out again among this group of Broadway babies. We were all singers and dancers and all that kind of stuff. So the word was out that there were open calls for the film of Hair, but the prerequisite was that you couldn’t have been in the original one because those people were too old. Because they had done the original one in 1969, and it was now 1978. So they didn’t want anybody who was in the original one and preferably they didn’t want anybody who had even seen the original one because what [director] Milos Forman and [writer] Michael Weller were doing were taking the songs in a more traditional way. I ended up being in Hair at the Hollywood Bowl a few years ago, so I could experience that too. Just a little part. Adam Shankman directed it. It was great.

But Hair to theater was one thing. It was revolutionary. It wasn’t as though the approach that Milos was taking to bring Hair to the screen was as revolutionary as what the musical was to theater itself, because they took the songs and they used them traditionally. In a traditional musical, every song either furthers the plot or explains the character. So that was pretty traditional. And I don’t think the writers… I knew there was a little bit of friction about that because they had turned in a script too.

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But the auditioning process was very specifically Milos’ thing, because it was long. I once asked him, “What do you think is the most important thing you do as a director?” And he thought about it and he said, “casting.” And it’s interesting to think of because the way he cast, he kept bringing different groups together and had them improvise. Or we’d go through a scene. So things started to emerge. I wanted to play the hippie girl because I had been a hippie, but things started to emerge like who fit in where. And that’s how I fit in.

AVC: The chemistry between you and Treat Williams is amazing in that movie.

BD: It’s funny because we were like siblings and we were always kind of vying for Milos’ attention, but I was in love with Milos for real. For a brief time. That was a really important relationship to me. We shot that movie for at least a full year because I remember when we went back to do reshoots in Central Park, they had to put leaves on the trees. Because we had started it with leaves on the trees and by the time we came back for reshoots, we had to put leaves on the trees to get it to match. But that’s how it used to be. The first films I did were all three- or four-month shoots. That was not uncommon. Some of them were much longer. And I’d say all together, I seem to recall that the shooting took place in at least a six-month period, and editing was at least a year. At least.

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AVC: I hope sincerely, if you have diaries from all of this, that you will write a memoir. Your life sounds amazing.

BD: I’m starting to get close to it. Here’s my philosophy about a memoir. This is what I say to everybody. When my past becomes more interesting than my present, then I’ll write the memoir. But I have written a lot and I do disguise things in third person. I’ve gone through different pushes of different times. Like what about this, what about that. And the last time I went through this, it was with a book that I had written a lot called Once Upon A Nanny and was pushing for that, and they said to me, “We’ll give you X amount if you write this thing in first person.” And I said, “I can’t do that yet. I’ve got kids.” So I don’t know. I’m getting really close to that point where I can’t keep doing these interviews where I’m talking about walking down the street to see Ronnie. I would like that to be common knowledge. And also, it’s like the road less taken kind of thing. Somebody was saying the other day, something about a therapist and I said, “I can’t go into therapy. I can’t start all over again.” I cannot meet one more person where I’ve got to tell them, so that can kind of ease the road if you get a memoir out there. Then you’re walking into a room where you don’t have to go, “Oh god, do I have to remind these people that they already know this.”

National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983)—“Ellen Griswold”

BD: Thank god I did that movie.

AVC: So you were kind of disenchanted with Hollywood, but Vacation sucked you back in?

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BD: No, what happened was, I got married to the duke and just thought, well, this is great. And then I think Coal Miner’s Daughter came out in ’80. I got married in ’81. And again, laziness, but I got sent this script. I was even saying to my agent, “You should talk to this person.” I was giving him ideas for actresses who were friends of mine. When I think back and I think how generous I was, when I would call and say, “Hey Jennifer, you should check this out.” No one ever did that for me, but that’s how I saw it.

But my husband, my Italian husband, he was an economic student at USC. He read it and he said, “This is very, very funny.” He said “Look at this Cousin Eddie. This is hilarious.” And I said, “God, there’s this rule you’re not supposed to act with kids.” And also I was 29 and I’m playing the mother of these teenage kids. So I didn’t see me like that, and I certainly didn’t see me as a little buttoned-up suburban housewife. But my mother was. And I thought, I can act. So I went in, I really thought it would be a lark, and it was very much in the context of, this is for the people who love Saturday Night Live and this is a satire. So I was living in Italy when my friend called me up and said, “Do you know you’re in the No. 1 movie this week?” I’m like, “What are you talking about?” He’s like, “Vacation is No. 1,” and my agent was saying, “Really, what are you doing there? Get back here.” Because I was just having this life. I was amazed that it was a hit because people didn’t see it as a satire and this niche thing. They identified with themselves.

It was kind of conceived as being a successful movie, but along the lines that Animal House was successful. But this was mainstream and everybody was like, “I’m just like Ellen.” “Oh, my husband’s like Clark.” And I thought it would go away. It never went away, and to this day, it hasn’t gone away, so I thank god that I did that. Because not only is my friendship with Chevy Chase tried and true, and when I say tried, I mean tried. We’ve gone through so many things together. We tried to do a TV show a couple years ago. It was a nightmare. I was so mad at him when we were shooting the pilot. And it was over, and it was like, thank god, now I can go back to loving him. That’s a long-term friendship. And this relationship that I have with the public because of the Griswolds—what a gift. Generations.

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AVC: Do you have a favorite of those movies?

BD: The first one. Well, I’ve done five. The original one, European, Christmas, Vegas, and then the reboot.

American History X (1998)—“Doris Vinyard”

AVC: Is there a project you worked on that you loved that you wish had hit harder?

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BD: I think American History X got some very well-deserved attention, but I really wish that things had worked out for [director] Tony Kaye. I did two other movies with him after that and neither of them was released. One of them was called Black Water Transit. And then another one, it was kind of free form, I think it was called Lobby Lobster or something. But if I had any wish that I could have made come true, I wish that Tony Kaye had been allowed and had been welcomed into the Hollywood filmmaking industry in a way that was equal to his incredible talent and gifts. And I think with that movie, he became the definition of the misunderstood artist, and I wish there was more attention on that man so he would be able to make the films, or whatever he wants to do. Because he’s a brilliant, brilliant, very deep guy and has a skill set that’s beyond and has a genius and there should be a place for him. That’s something, if I could shine a light on that, it would be on Tony Kaye.