The phone went silent for a moment near the beginning of my recent chat with Tovah Feldshuh. I asked, with just a trace of panic, “Are you still there?” Her reply: “I’m completely here. I’m listening to you the way Ruth Bader Ginsburg would listen to you.”
For good reason: Feldshuh is playing the revered Supreme Court justice in Sisters in Law, a new play by Jonathan Shapiro, based on Linda Hirshman’s book about the relationship between the court’s first female justices, Ginsburg and Sandra Day O’Connor. Directed by Patricia McGregor, it runs Sept. 17-Oct. 6 at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, Calif.
In a recent phone conversation, I spoke to Feldshuh—who, true story, was my first Juliet—about her research into Ginsburg’s life, her penchant for playing historical characters (including Golda Meir in Golda’s Balcony and Irena Gut in Irena’s Vow), and her insatiable quest for adventure. She even happened to mention that she would be slipping away from Sisters in Law during tech rehearsals to appear as a male boxing coach in a workshop of Dancing With Giants, a new play by her brother, David Feldshuh (Miss Evers’ Boys), at the Jewish Community Center in Denver (performances ran Sept. 13-15). This is a woman who, though younger than the icon she’s playing, like RBG shows no signs of slowing down.
ROB WEINERT-KENDT: I read in an interview you did last year that one of your dream roles was Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Had this play already come your way, or were you just putting that out into the universe?
TOVAH FELDSHUH: I was not thinking of this play. A playwright in New York was going to write me a one-woman play about her, because I have such a voracious appetite to play her. I thought it was a very good match. As I’m studying the role for this play, I realize there is a mountain to climb here. Not only because of her erudition and her tremendous intelligence and desire to learn, but because of the core of her personality. She was born in 1933, years before I was born, and her mother, whom she adored and whom she lost the day before she was to graduate at the top of her class from her Brooklyn high school, gave her two distinct messages: Be a lady and be independent. Though that sounds like an oxymoron, what her mother meant was: To make your way in the world, present like a lady, waste no time with unproductive emotions like anger or spite, but go forth in the world and don’t let people push you around.
Of course, Ruth is diminutive. That I have on my side—I think she’s less than five feet. I’m barely five foot one. Used to be five two and three quarters, but I’ve been a runner for 40 years, now I am a swimmer, and I lost about an inch and a half. In any event, we’re both little.
What else have you learned about her?
Ruth leaned on the law the way a great rabbinical scholar would lean on the Torah. This was one of her children. She had Jane, she had James, and she had the law. And what she did have, which Golda Meir didn’t have, she had the great love of her life, which was Marty Ginsburg. Marty Ginsburg for Ruth Bader made all things possible. He filled out the areas in which she was particularly shy. He was a connector, social, garrulous, beloved, brilliant, as brilliant as she was, probably the top tax lawyer in New York. And he had the gift of communication.
She’s a well-known theatre fan. Have you had a chance either to perform for her or to meet her?
I have never met her. I was in New Guinea at the Sing-sing festival, the cultural and musical meeting of the tribes that happens once a year, and when I came back to start working on this part I wrote to her immediately. I had it sent priority mail. But now this thing has come up with her chemo, and she is also on vacation and may not even get my letter until the end of September. I don’t know that I will meet her! But you know, I didn’t meet Golda and I did okay with that show. I did go to Israel to research her and met her entire family. Maybe with luck, if this play keeps going, which I hope it does, I will have the opportunity to meet Justice Ginsburg.
You’ve done a number of shows playing real figures: Golda’s Balcony, and also one I just found on the internet, Tovah Is Leona!, a cabaret show in which you channel the real estate felon Leona Helmsley. Do you approach these roles as imitations, or are you after the spirit of the person—how do you think of it?
I would never imitate, no. I think you have to capture the soul of the person you’re trying to embody. You become their body, so they go through the molten lava of your soul, but you change the tubing. For every character, you need a path in. My job is to figure out why they speak the way they speak.
This is why Ruth is such a challenge. She is by nature meek, shy, recessive. She doesn’t take the room. She responds to those who are speaking to her. That is her m.o. Her shining star is her brilliance, her ability to put together new thoughts and new ways of looking at things. She is called the mother of the modern feminist movement because she had to educate the men in the highest court of the land that gender discrimination actually existed. You hear me? Actually existed. When she started out, in 12 states there were no laws to protect women if their husbands raped them. There were rules in my mother’s lifetime where if she wanted a credit card, she’d have to get my father to co-sign.
From some reading I’ve done about her, especially in comparison to Sandra Day O’Connor, who sort of responded to whatever situation she was in, it seems like Ginsburg always had a more strategic approach. She has a real vision of the constitution, of what the law should do, and she’s been very deliberate about realizing it. She has a meek demeanor, yes, but she’s moving her chess pieces ahead. Does that sound right?
Yes, she’s step by step. And the play shows the differences in their nature. Sandra Day O’Connor comes from a ranchers’ tradition. The way she met male dominance was, “I’m one of the girls who’s one of the boys.” That was her m.o. That was not an option for Ruth. Ruth is urban. Sandra is rural. Ruth is mind. Sandra is body and space. Ruth is a philosopher, working out her muscles on Wittgenstein, a thinker, a Socrates. Sandra Day O’Connor is a combo of Roy Rogers and a valedictorian. She was a golfer. Ruth didn’t have the vaguest idea how to swing a golf club. The famous RBG Workout only started late in Ruth’s life. Maybe Sandra Day influenced that, because on her third day as a Supreme Court justice, she ran an exercise class for all the women to keep them strong, to bond, to stay hearty and healthy. She was also a more conservative judge because she was brought up within the patriarchal universe and was taught to compete by being like the fathers, not being like the mother.
You know, there’s a saying: Talent is the ability to hit a target nobody else can hit, and Sandra Day O’Connor could do that, but genius is the ability to hit a target nobody else could see. That is Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Those boys didn’t know gender discrimination existed, so she, like a loving kindergarten teacher, tried to take them along. What she learned from Sandra Day is that she had to be an incrementalist. She, along with the great Brenda Feigen of the Women’s Rights Project at the ACLU plotted, in the best sense, case after case that would move their argument forward, and she won five out of the six cases in the Supreme Court.
I’ve read that your father was a lawyer. Given what you said about the instructions Ruth’s mother gave her, I’m curious, what were you encouraged to dream about for yourself by your parents?
I was very heavily influenced by my father, who’s a Harvard lawyer. My husband is a Harvard lawyer. My father-in-law was a Harvard lawyer and my uncle was a judge. I applied to Harvard Law School and only made the wait list, so I became an actor. Which brings me back to Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She graduated first in her class from Columbia, but she couldn’t get a job at a New York law firm. They would not hire women. She had to become a professor, first at Rutgers and then the first tenured female professor at Columbia Law School. She has said that if she had had it easier, she would’ve never perhaps become a Supreme Court justice. She would have ended up in a big corporate firm. But I mean, when Sandra Day O’Connor graduated at the top of her class at Stanford Law, Gibson, Dunn, and Crutcher did offered her a job as a secretary. I have a poster of Golda Meir from that era and it says, under her, “But can she type?” This was the view.
My father was a very heavy influence in my life. He always said, “Reach for the stars. If you reach for the stars, you may land on the roof. If you reach for the roof, you’ll never get off the ground.” I had an allowance of a dollar a week. I think I was seven. One time my father gave me $5, and with my tail between my legs I came to him and said, “Daddy, it’s the wrong amount of money. You gave me $5 and my allowance is $1.” He said, “I know that, Terri-Sue.” (Terri-Sue is my birth name.) “But you know how to manage money. You know what goes in the piggy bank, what goes to Scarsdale Bank, what you’re going give for charity for trees in Israel, and the few pennies you’re going to spend on a Three Musketeers bar. You know how to manage money.” I didn’t know the first thing about it, but he put into his children what he hoped for his children. And I think that’s a big similarity between Ruth’s mother and my father. That vision.
Also, every child from my background had a classical instrument. I was a serious pianist but I couldn’t win at national music camp, so I tried out for plays with music and I immediately started to get roles, and I said, “This bodes well.” I was never willing to stay in an area where I would be an also-ran, where I’d be second rate. I just couldn’t stand it.
It seems like playing someone so shy and retiring is a bit of a stretch for you.
Yes. Golda was quieter than me also. But with Ruth, my body language also has to turn inward, and then she has this thing with her posture as she’s grown older. I hope I don’t need a chiropractor at the end of this run! The play starts out when I’m 42, in 1975, then she’s inducted into the Supreme Court in 1993 so she’s 60, so that’s very close to home for me. That’s fine. The play ends when I’m much older. I will fool with posture big-time and make sure that I stand like an erect middle-aged woman, a somewhat erect 60-year-old and a slightly bent-over 80-year-old.
I want to ask about your work on “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” where you were brilliant as Rachel Bloom’s mother. I just wonder, were you concerned at all about playing into the Jewish-mother stereotype?
Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna wrote it, and my job was to fill it. I understood that part in my sleep, about a mother loving somebody so much that she keeps having the fix her. Because I played Golda and now I’m playing Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and because, while I was doing “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” I was offered to play the president of the United States in a CBS series that ran two seasons called “Salvation”—I was not concerned about protecting my people on this one. I just said to myself: Do the work. You have enough of a reputation between the prime ministers and the Christian rescuer I played in Irena’s Vow. This is another aspect, a throwback. Also, this was Rachel’s experience, otherwise her character wouldn’t have reared its head. I just loved doing it, and I loved doing the rap.
Yeah, I was wondering if you based your rap flow on any other artists.
I worked with the choreographer and the costume designer and they explained to me what they were doing. They did show me a video, I can’t remember—was it Beyonce? It was somebody that was hip and thought they were the greatest, and used ways to cover up whatever they could or couldn’t do. It was so doctored, that rap number, but I loved it. It was my first rap number on network television. It was hilarious.
I just want to go back to something you said earlier. What took you to that festival in New Guinea? Were you performing there?
No. Since my mother died in 2014, at over 103, I have gone full-tilt boogie with: The years may be short, so make the days long. So I’ve climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. I’ve been to the glaciers of Iceland with our son. I’ve visited Siberia, Mongolia, Borneo, Java, and now northern Thailand to visit the tribes, and now Papa New Guinea and French Polynesia. I have just gone all over the world. Korea. I have hopped all over—mostly Asia, because I know Europe very well. I’m an avid adventure traveler. I’m actually thinking of going to Ethiopia next.
Do you have a list of these?
I could make it. My son made me count the countries. I think it’s over 90 countries that I have visited in my lifetime, but it accelerated considerably when mom died. Do you need a list of them, Rob?
I’ve seen Leningrad, but I’d like to go back and see it again. I saw it as a student when I was at Sarah Lawrence. I sang there. I’m saving that adventure Alaska trip until I’m too decrepit to do anything else. At some point the cruise thing starts to creep in. But I don’t want a luxury cruiser. I want an ice breaker. I want an expeditionary ship.
You said you know Europe very well.
Well, my people are from Vienna and London. That’s my “old country.” I have never been Minsk; one of my grandparents was from the Russian Pale. But I was in family apartment just last year in Vienna. It was a big thrill. They ran the Zabar’s in Vienna.
I wish you all the best with Ruth, and I hope we get to see the play in New York, maybe?
Yes. I honor her. For a little woman, she’s a tall order.