Interview With Actress Elizabeth Shepherd, “Dear Kate”

By Ruth on May 29, 2017 in Interview, movie
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There is really almost nothing I enjoy better than talking with people who have inhabited this planet longer than I have. I used to be that one who would settle back and listen to my grandfather tell me stories of days gone by. My parents trained me to respect those who were older that I, and it is something I continue to observe to this day. So having the opportunity to talk with actress Elizabeth Shepherd about the new movie in which she is featured, Dear Kate, was quite an engaging discussion to say the least. 

Elizabeth Shepherd as Lorna in Dear Kate

RH: I am so happy to get to talk with you today, Elizabeth.

ES: Yes, Ruth, I am just delighted.

Where do you live?

I live in New York, but I spent many years living in Canada.  And I have worked all over Canada. I am happy to say I have three passports. {laughs} I started very early on. I started in England. From there, I first came to New York. But in 1972, I first went to Canada to work in Stratford and the Shaw Festival. And I did tons of stuff at CBC when they were doing dramas. Then curiosity took me to Hollywood. Then I came back to New York, and I lived in Hoboken. Then I spent a lot of time in the ’90’s in Canada. Then I started coming back here to New York in 2003. My son is in the United States. So I consider myself a sort of honorary Canadian. Quite a mixture by now.

You have had a phenomenal career. I was looking over your works, and although I am only in my forties, I am a student of old Hollywood. I grew up watching the classics. I wasn’t even aware of the movies coming out in the ’80’s ’cause I was too busy watching movies from the ’40’s and 50’s. 

I quite understand ’cause that’s my taste too.

I know you are originally from England as you said. Have you always been interested in acting?

Yes, I have always enjoyed acting. I think that was the gift I was given to share with the world. It’s interesting ’cause my parents were missionaries. So the nomadic life was something I was familiar with from the start. And there’s also a connection between the church and the theater. You stand up in front of people, whether it’s a congregation or an audience. You wear your heart on your sleeve and communicate with them. I was also brought up with the idea that what one does in life is one’s calling in life, not necessarily a job or a career. So that has been my outlook.

But also, Ruth, I was lucky ’cause I started early on in the ’50’s  when the profession was very different to what it is now. The amount of work I have done and the fact that I have always managed to earn my living is something I was able to do in the time I’ve been an actress. A young woman starting now, unless she becomes a great big star immediately–a celebrity I should say–you can’t be an ordinary working actor and earn a living your whole life nowadays. So I’m fortunate that I went into it at the right time.

I was reading that you are a Shakespearean-trained actor. 

I was very fortunate ’cause I went to Bristol University as a first step from out of the Methodist world. Bristol University was the only university at the time that had a drama department. This is in England, of course. I was very fortunate that one of my English professors was a man called Bertram Joseph, who was a brilliant academic on Shakespeare for actors. He wrote a book, Acting Shakespeare and Elizabethan Acting amongst other things. I really had the most wonderful branding in Shakespeare from Bertram Joseph, who directed me as Juliet. I have done a lot of Shakespeare in my life, and when I’m not acting, I teach an acting class on Shakespeare to students at an acting conservatory. That was very fortunate.

Yes, unfortunately, that doesn’t happen a lot anymore. A lot of the younger actors I have seen in the business don’t realize the value in Shakespeare. I think so highly of Shakespeare. I’m a student of literature and history myself, and that was a part of my training. And as you said, it has changed so much. So many of the classics are lost on the younger generation.

Yes, I think it’s a great shame. What I find terribly tragic is that as a society, we are losing vocabulary. And if you don’t have the words, you really can’t clarify the meanings. You can’t think clearly. And that surely is happening in the United States. Young actors, when they come to me, they’re not used to having all those words in their mouth. They’re used to communicating in code with their phones. To get them to revel in language and see the power of words is a challenge. It is up to actors to help keep the language alive. And to remind people how exhilarating it is to be able to put your feelings into words. As I said, I was so fortunate in my own journey in the profession. And the young actors now have to create their own work.

I agree with you one hundred percent ’cause I’m also a teacher, and I think it is so eye-opening when you have to explain what I would consider common vocabulary to teenagers ’cause they’ve never heard that term. {pause} I think I also hear from young women entering the profession that there are not as many opportunities for women in the business. Is that something that you have seen change in your lifetime?

In the theater, I think, there was more acceptance of women. The kind of prejudices against women and against gay actors…. I think there was much more acceptance in the profession. But I still think there is an imbalance. Women in the profession are becoming much more outspoken and asserting themselves, particularly in the case of writers and directors. They should have the authority and be just as prominent as men in the profession.

Speaking of our movie, Dear Kate, what is certainly still there in the attitude against women is ageism. But there are actresses like Meryl Streep, who are pushing the envelope. But in any case, the Baby Boom generation, the older women, they see themselves on screens and on stage with respect and interest. This is something that is changing somewhat. To have a lovely role like Lorna in this movie… she’s such a sympathetic. I think Lorna has done a lovely job of shining a spotlight on the kind of loneliness that can happen when older people are neglected.

Ilona Elizabeth McCrea as Young Lorna in Dear Kate

Speaking of Dear Kate, I did some reading about this film, and I think that as a culture, we are losing respect for the older people like there once was. There are cultures all over the world that respect the elderly and treat them as such.

Exactly! It puts us to shame really in the West. It does! You miss out on the relationship and the experience. It’s also short-sighted because if you’re lucky, you will become old. {laughs} The kind of residence that Lorna is in in the movie…she’s lucky, ’cause she can afford it. There are some really nice senior residences. A dear friend of mine in New York has just moved into one, and she is lucky that she has the means to do it. Another actress friend of mine, who unfortunately developed Alzheimer’s, could only afford the regular nursing home. And that was a very, very difficult situation.

This film is Lorna’s life in flashback. She is writing this letter, and that’s why it’s called Dear Kate. The form of it is that my character is writing a letter to her daughter, hoping that her granddaughter will be coming to visit. The viewers get a chance to see Lorna as a child and as a young woman. She was a professional singer, and we see how she met Kate’s father, Lorna’s husband, who has Alzheimer’s. He’s in the same residence. As a couple, we’re stranded because our daughter is so absorbed in her own life and selling the house. And the role of the aide who is taking care of me is played by a native Canadian, and this aide shows a kind of sympathy which is welcome. But with our daughter, there isn’t even that.

My character still has her wits about her. It is my husband who has Alzheimer’s which is very subtle because I mention the fact that he recognized me today. But I am still quite vital. I feel as though my whole life has kind of wound down, and who is there to appreciate it? To see it, to value it. Which is why I’m really wanting to have this much more intimate relationship with my daughter to pass on and know who I am. And to know who she is and have real contact with my granddaughter. To keep the family ties together. I think that Ilona, who directed and wrote it, had observed all these things and written this story to shine a light on the situation. Hopefully, anyone who sees the film will be inspired to go and call their mother.

It’s interesting because, in some ways, this film’s message speaks so much to the situation I’m in. Several years ago, I returned home because it would seem my dad is in the beginning stages of dementia or Alzheimer’s. 

Oh dear, yes. So painful.

Yes, and as I tell people, it was hard to leave my life and come back home and live with my parents. My mom asked me, and I came. And yes, they help me. But it wasn’t the easiest decision. I knew it was the right thing to do.

Good for you.

It’s been a blessing, but it’s been hard to see my dad go downhill. But I think having both my daughter and me here has helped my dad to not go downhill as fast. 

Yes, I’m absolutely sure. And it is good for your daughter to know her grandparents.

And sometimes it’s hard because other family members don’t always see what’s going on. My dad doesn’t even recognize what’s going on.

Yes, there’s often a lot of denial. I know with my friend, there were stages where she got really angry about it all.

And as I read about the film, I realized just how timely this film is. There are so many families who are touched by Alzheimer’s. 

The side of Alzheimer’s and how it affects the family is not really explored in our little film other than the daughter doesn’t want to know about having to deal with her dad. She’s the opposite of you.

Well, I think it still can make people stop and think.

Yes, I hope so.

Like we’ve said here, all too often, the young people don’t respect their parents and even cut themselves off. Families are so splintered today. 

Yes, I know. I grew up in England, and I was brought up to look up to my elders. You go to England now, and all the young people just push you off the sidewalk.

Well, it sounds like this film has some good lessons if people will sit down and watch it and really listen. 

Yes, I hope so because I think a lot of heart went into the making of it. Ilona and Matthew Ackland, who produced it, they’re young people who really care and wanted this subject to be out there to move people.

And I think it’s amazing for them to have an actress like you who has had this brilliant career, and you’re not slowing down. You’re older than my mother.

Well, I turned eighty last August, and I still can’t believe it. {laughs} I don’t seem like an old lady yet.

It’s not like I think of my mom as really old, but so many people at eighty and even seventy, they just almost stop living. They figure they’ve put in their time, and they can just rest and not do anything.

Well, on the one hand, I can’t afford to retire. But on the other hand, I have no desire to retire. I’m still very active, which I think is a good thing. And I must say that when I was sent the script of Dear Kate, I was happy to do it ’cause it’s such a lovely role. I enjoy finding roles that really say something.

And you don’t sound like an old lady either. {laughs} You sound very coherent and well-spoken. I’m sure physically that you are not able to do the things that you did, maybe when you were twenty or thirty because that happens to all of us. I think it’s commendable that even though you can’t afford to retire, you don’t even have the desire to retire. 

Oh no, even if I could, I wouldn’t.

As an addendum, Ruth, you might be interested to know that as I told you, I am a missionary’s daughter. It’s a rather extraordinary story. My father was a missionary in Burma. He worked in the leprosy hospital in a pastoral sense. He had enormous love for the leprosy patients. He actually contracted leprosy. The treatments he went through were very difficult at that time, but he was eventually cured and was an enormous inspiration to people in India. The spirit in which he accepted the illness was a part of his ministry. God must have chosen him to bear witness inside of this situation, which he did.

But when he came back to England, because of the prejudice and stigma of the disease, the Methodist church pushed him away into country circuits. And he was not to talk about leprosy. When he died, the minister said, “Oh, I won’t mention his leprosy.” But I said, “You will mention it!”

Well, ever since he died, fifty years ago, I’ve been trying to get the Methodist church to recognize his experience and to use his wonderful spirit. Finally, just last month, there was a wonderful tribute that came from a particular Methodist minister called Dr. Leslie Griffiths. He wrote a wonderful tribute, and I followed it up with a letter that was published in The Methodist Recorder. Really, it highlighted his wonderful service, and it used my father’s story as a way of illustrating the terrible weakness of the myths that still exist around leprosy. Leprosy can be cured very easily now. But anyone who has been associated with it is still shunned. The stigma has not been cured at all.

Over the years, I’ve been in touch with various leprosy missions, and now we’re all pleased that this is another tool that we’re able to use. My father’s story is finally out in the world. So that’s a whole other side of things.

Elizabeth, I am so glad you shared this. It is quite a story. That is such good news for you! After fifty years, it’s about time. 

Yes, I really felt that my father’s ministry, the fact that he had accepted this ministry and the leprosy, that there was a purpose. Even after his passing, he now can speak about this illness through me.

Well, that is good news for you. And you didn’t give up.

No, I didn’t give up.

I applaud your persistence. I’m like that too. 

Well, that’s good for both of us then to be persistent.

To have shared this glorious conversation with Elizabeth is one encounter that I shall never forget no matter how long I live. Elizabeth has seen so much throughout her lifetime, and her experiences should be chronicled by a biographer before she leaves this world because I feel that her tales are inspirational, motivational, and above all, genuinely heartfelt. Her passion for acting and the industry is something that has not diminished in spite of her age. When my mother overheard a portion of this interview, she couldn’t conceive of the fact that this woman was eighty years old! Elizabeth is no relic nor vestige from decades past. Indeed, her wisdom, sense of humor, and tender spirit are as vibrant now as they always were. And the fact that she shared a personal story from her family in which her father was ultimately venerated for his service…I cannot thank her enough for going the extra mile to impart such a kaleidoscopic anecdote which gratefully had a happy ending. 

I can only hope that I will have the opportunity to view this film, Dear Kate, very soon because I long to see this gentlewoman embrace, empower, and embody the character of Lorna. The ideals with which Elizabeth was reared are still pertinent and essential today in a society that has veered from the narrow path to which dreamers are still called even in the twenty-first century. Elizabeth is living proof that the marriage of the old and new is possible if one will take the time to listen and understand those with whom one is privileged to interact on a regular basis. There is hope for this world in becoming a society in which the elder generation is cherished and the younger generation is teachable. Elizabeth may be forty years my senior, but it doesn’t mean that we aren’t fundamentally cut from the same cloth. I believe Elizabeth sensed it as strongly as I did when we spoke, and I greatly anticipate the next time I get the opportunity to talk with a woman who taught me so much in a relatively short period of time. 

Be sure to look up all the links below, and if you haven’t in awhile, why not give your mom or dad a call today, okay?

FOLLOW DEAR KATE AND ELIZABETH

Website: dearkatefilm.comfar sidepictures.comampia.org/20 17-rosie-award-nominees
Twitter: @DearKateFilm
IMDB: Dear KateElizabeth ShepherdJulian Black AntelopeIlona Elizabeth McCrea

About the Author

RuthView all posts by Ruth
43-year-old single mother of an active 14-year-old girl Born in Tacoma, WA; lives in Yelm, WA Entertainment Writer Available For Interviews and Reviews Substitute Teacher

3 Comments

  1. BILL HOFF May 29, 2017 Reply

    My dad had this aweful disease too. Will put this movie on our must watch list!

  2. Sally Gearhart May 30, 2017 Reply

    Sounds like a wonderful film and definitely going to watch it! I tend to gravitate towards older people myself, i have so much respect for them! They have the best stories to tell, i just wish more people would slow down enough to enjoy them. I truly enjoyed your post, thanks for sharing!

    • Author
      Ruth May 30, 2017 Reply

      Sally I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. Definitely agree with you. Thanks for stopping by.

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