Since arriving in Chicago in 1980, Ohio native Hollis Resnik has embodied a pantheon of troublesome troubled women. She’s inadvertently eaten her children as Tamora, Queen of the Goths. As a Mother Superior of a Jersey convent, she helped her sisters outwit gun-toting mobsters. She’s traversed into the woods as a witch. She’s dreamed and died in Parisian penury, screamed of demons setting London on fire, carpe diem’ed through the Great Depression in Manhattan, celebrated angels in 20th-century America, revolutionized the dress code for the Hampton elite, and outfoxed a family of southern vipers.
When she wasn’t onstage, the award-winning actress took up tennis and tango and, for a while, a tango dancer she romanced off the dance floor. This week, she checks another box as defiantly aging screen siren Norma Desmond in Porchlight Music Theatre’s Sunset Boulevard, the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical based on Billy Wilder’s iconic 1950 film noir of the same name.
The musical, which premiered in 1991, closely follows Wilder’s Oscar-winning aesthetic, from the dead body floating in the swimming pool that opens the show to the ruthless spotlight that closes it. Norma has long been presented as a dark, demented hysteric and sexual ghoul who preys on vulnerable men half her age. But for many of us—Resnik included—Norma Desmond is more than a delusional crone waltzing in the shadows with a chimp, dreaming of the days when Valentino danced on her palazzo.
We caught up with Resnik between rehearsals to talk about the role, her epic career, how menopause made her an alto, and why she’s always glad when opening night is over.
Tell me about Norma.
Well, hers is the classic story of a fading actress who hides away, finds a younger lover, and goes nuts. That’s the basic plot. Plus murder. It’s heartbreaking.
Norma is fascinating to me. She had an amazing, successful career as this young, beautiful woman—and then the roles dried up. As they do, especially for women.
The struggle for actors today is to stay working until we can get our social security. The older you get, the fewer roles there are. It’s harder on women, easier on men. That’s just the nature of the beast. I accepted it a long time ago. I truly enjoy doing smaller character parts now, but—again—those roles get fewer and fewer.
You’ve never really stopped working for any significant period of time. How do you get into Norma’s desperation for a comeback?
Norma’s situation is so different than mine. I can accept easing out. I accept that my body and my voice have changed, are changing.
There are other things I want to do in my life. I want to travel. I have ill parents—my dad is 95, my mother is in her 80s. They’re in Ohio. I have an older brother there, and I’ve been going back and forth a lot, but I’m not putting in the time I’d like to with them.
But Norma? Unlike me, she literally helped create the very industry that’s thrown her away. She was 16 when she was discovered. At 33, by the time the talkies came, she was pushed out. There’s this slow drip, drip, drip of her losing touch, dancing alone with her pet chimp and writing this impossible script for Salome.
Norma has two massive ballads. Is it more challenging to keep your voice in shape after decades of belting out 11 o’clock numbers?
Menopause changes your voice. Some women can keep their high notes, but I didn’t, not entirely. I’m past menopause by ten years now, and my pitch has changed. I was a lyric soprano for years; now I call myself more of an alto. So I try to sing every day. It’s like everything. Like so many things, the upkeep gets a little harder.
How realistic is Norma’s plight? Hollywood has changed as far as the way it treats women . . . right?
In Hollywood, women are essentially done at 45. There are exceptions, of course, but the vast majority of roles dry up. So that’s pretty realistic, even though it’s set in the 1950s. I also think Norma has a sense of nonrealism built into her. A larger-than-life dramatic flair is a part of her.
It’s going to take me a while to really get it. I never feel comfortable opening night. Never. Never. Never. I don’t feel fully settled until two weeks into the run. I get much more grounded after the hubbub of opening is over.
What are the key survival tactics for an actor who is no longer an ingenue?
You have to connect. Call a friend a day. Say “I’m thinking of you.” I don’t have a huge social network anymore. I’m not a big party person, but I try to stay connected with my friends. And I try to help the younger crowd. You don’t want to tell them how to do things, but you do develop a sense of leadership as the years go on. v