Betty White 'The Lorax' Interview
The imaginative world of Dr. Seuss comes to life like never before in the visually spectacular adventure, 'The Lorax'. Twelve-year-old Ted will do anything to find a real live Truffula Tree in order to impress the girl of his dreams. As he embarks on his journey, Ted discovers the incredible story of the Lorax, a grumpy but charming creature who speaks for the trees.Question: What attracted you to The Lorax and this story by Dr. Seuss? Do you think it’s a great message for the here and now?
The incredible Betty White plays Grammy Norma in the movie.
I think it’s a great story, not only for me, but for everyone, because of its approach to the environment. We are abusing the beautiful planet we live on to the point of almost no return, and in a beautifully visual way this movie is showing us that we had better change. Don’t just pass a tree and notice it, realise that it can go away like that [clicks fingers] if we don’t really watch what we are doing. I think the movie says it in such a nice way without it being preach-y. I think it sends a beautiful environmental message.
*Q: Tell us about your character, Grammy, in The Lorax?
Well, she uses age as a buffer, I guess. She is at the age where she can have a special relationship with her grandson, the sort the mother can’t. That’s because the mother is always correcting and teaching, but Grammy has done her bit; so she’s free and he’s free. What I like about Grammy Norma is that although she is a busy-body and she can be a pain in the neck if you had to be around her too much, but she is not mean-spirited.
*Q: Did you find you had things in common with her? Are you a grandmother?
No. I have three of the best stepchildren – Allen [Ludden, Betty’s husband, now deceased]’s kids – they are just wonderful. We are so close and they are so dear. David, our oldest, went to Bangladesh – he and his wife are both doctors and they go back and forth to Bangladesh – and they adopted a little infant Bangladeshi baby. I have an adopted grand-daughter, her name is Mahona and she’s nine years old. They spend a lot of their time in Bangladesh, so I don’t see her as much as I could but we stay in touch of course. But animals have always been in my life; they always said: “If Betty had a baby, it would be a litter!”
*Q: Do you enjoy the process of doing voice-over for an animation, as opposed to being on-screen as yourself?
I haven’t done that much voice-over. I have done some: I do a continuing role on Pound Puppies which is a cute serial, where every once in a while they call and I go in and do it, but it’s different. I must admit I miss the body language of on-screen acting. So often you act with your whole body, and where you can’t do that, it all has to be vocal. I finally found a little system. The only thing I could make work was: here’s the printed page and your lines of dialogue, and I would try to picture not my part in that scene, but what was going on around me, so you were still reacting to that side of it, rather than just trying to project something without other people in the room.
*Q: They also videotape you while you are recording the voice, is that right?
Yes. I didn’t know that until it was all over, and I am so glad I didn’t know it until it was all over! That’s where they get body language for the animators. I didn’t know that, or I would have been very self-conscious, because you have to make these dumb noises: “Well gasp, you just fell over. So gasp.” [gasps] So I am making these noises and thinking, “What am I doing?” I am glad I didn’t know I was being filmed, but I think the animators are magicians, they really are, because they catch an essence of you that you don’t know is there, but then all of a sudden you recognize little things in that animation.
*Q: Did you ever think, when you started out in the business, 63 years ago, that you would be, at this age, as hot as you are today? BW:
First of all, you don’t think, at that age, about being 90. That doesn’t occur to you at the time. To still be working is such a privilege, don’t think I ever take it for granted. They always say that once a woman passes 40, there are no good parts for women, so I just think they’ll catch onto me one day! In the meantime, I am taking it very easy.
*Q: And President Obama doesn’t believe you are 90! Did you send the President your birth certificate? [President Obama recently sent Betty a video message for her 90th birthday, jokily requesting she provide her birth certificate to prove her age]
BW: I think that is the funniest thing I have ever seen. For him to have that sense of humour and a twinkle in his eye is amazing. We had nothing to do with that out here, nobody knew, and when I say, “we”, I mean the people who put the birthday special together. I couldn’t believe what he said: “Dear Betty, I don’t believe you’re 90 years old, in fact I would like to see your birth certificate.” I loved it.
*Q: Can you explain what has happened in the last few years, to make you such a big a number again?
Oh, I don’t know that I am that big a number. I think a lot of it’s age-related, and people saying, “She’s still walking, let alone working? Isn’t that amazing?” I also think that I have been so lucky to be associated with the projects that I have worked on like Mary Tyler Moore and Golden Girls through the years. There has always been one that has repeated itself, so various generations watch it growing up - they have seen it for so long, they have seen it since they were small– or since their parents were small, or their grandparents! So I think it’s a matter of being familiar too. That helps. That helps a lot.
*Q: Have you ever played yourself in a part?
Yes. For five and a half hours a day, six days a week on The Al Jarvis Show, which was a local talk show when I started in the business. You had no script, no nothing, you just made it up as you went along.
*Q: How about in a movie or a TV show, is there any of the parts that you have played, any of those women you have portrayed that were really you, or were they all far away from who you are?
Well, in Mary Tyler Moore, Sue Ann Nivens was the happy homemaker, and she was a wonderful cook and she could take stains out of anything. She was cheating with Cloris Leachman’s husband, and Cloris got wise because her husband would come home with his clothes cleaner than when he went to work – she found that suspicious. My husband, Allen Ludden, always said that people would ask him, “How close is Betty to Sue Ann Nivens?” and he would say, “Well, they are really the same character. She was the neighborhood nymphomaniac, so they are really the same character, except Betty can’t cook.”
*Q: Can you compare today’s Hollywood with that of 50 years ago?
I am not close enough to the Hollywood scene, because age-wise of course I have moved past that, but I am not sure it has changed that much. Back in those days, the big beast was Confidential magazine, everybody was scared to be written up in Confidential magazine because they would try to dig out the down and dirty, and as much exposé as the could do, so Confidential was the big scary thing. Nowadays there are so many scary things doing the same thing that Confidential magazine was doing back then. I’ve always been so upset, when every once in a while a young, successful, new star gets this the tremendous privilege [of being in Hollywood] and then abuses it and blows it, or they get into substance abuse or whatever. They’ve got the world in the palm of their hands, and anybody on the planet would give their eye-teeth for that opportunity. I just think it’s so sad when they do that. They know exactly what they’re risking when they abuse their fame, so when they say “Oh, I didn’t realize!” I get angry.
*Q: Do you ever wish you were someone else in Hollywood? You have always been successful, you’ve been working your whole career, but has there been any point where you wished you had the career of someone else?
Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. I would not be in this business if it weren’t for them. I know people laugh and they like to make fun of it, but I saw Naughty Marietta 48 times, and I didn’t just like Jeanette MacDonald, I was Jeanette MacDonald. I just thought she was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen in my life. I did Summer stock [summer theatre festival] one year, many years later, and Jeanette Mac Donald and I we were doing the same play. She closed [the show] on Saturday night, and I was opening the next day, so I was introduced to her and my chin just dropped. I was old enough to know better than to do that, but she said, “Betty, I have so many beautiful flowers in my dressing room, would you take them and would you take care of them? I don’t want them to die.” So the whole week I was there, I was thinking, “These are Jeanette MacDonald’s flowers!” Those flowers never got such good care their entire life! She was so lovely. Meeting Nelson Eddy was just the end of the world, for me. One day I was over at NBC, and Nelson Eddy was standing down at the other end of the hall, as if he was waiting for someone. I saw him and I turned around and ran. That was as close as I got to him. He had no idea what a deep impact he had on my whole life.
*Q: Do you ever get star-struck meeting any big stars today?BW:
Oh, I have never met her, but if I ever saw Meryl Streep, I would just fall down. I’ve never met her, but I am such a fan. I just feel like she can be real. I think she’s from another planet. And George Clooney isn’t chopped liver either!
*Q: He is quite handsome. Aren’t you friends with George Clooney?
Oh yeah. We have a running gag… I think it was at last year’s Screen Actors’ Guild, where I had to say a few words, so I stood up to speak. When you sit at your table you’re only really aware of the tables next to you, but then when you stand up on stage and look around, there’s this enormous Shrine Auditorium with hundreds of people. I said, “I have always been star-struck by celebrities,” still am after all these years, “...and so it’s wonderful to look out here and I recognize every face, and not only that, I know some of you, I’ve worked with some of you, and I’ve even had a few of you. And you know who you are.” So then I went back stage and did the press and everything, and when I came back out, I was thinking about rejoining my table. George Clooney was up at the microphone, and he saw me come back and said, “…And I want to thank Betty White for her discretion.” I loved it! I loved it!
*Q: Who were the great Hollywood leading men that you had a love affair with on-screen?
I have never had a love scene. Well, yes, one. Only one love scene, with Leslie Nielsen, he was in Airplane… a wonderful comedian and he died not too long ago. We had one love scene and it was a very sweet one, it wasn’t one of those wrestling matches. I adored Leslie. I did a couple of things with him. I had said that I would never play a romantic love story, but they wrote one just for me. They asked me who I would like as my leading man, and Leslie was in England doing a film and I loved his sense of humour, so I wrote him a note and they sent it to him in England. I got a note back and it just said, “Yes.” That’s the kind of humour he had. He was such a dear, and anybody who played with him will tell you the same story: he got this huge kick out of a whoopee cushion he had. So here we are, in the middle of this romantic love scene, and he gets the whoopee cushion out – I didn’t find it funny! He said that was the funniest thing that ever happened. They never talk about him without talking about his whoopee cushion.
*Q: He used to carry that with him even when he did interviews.
Of course he did! The humour never went away for him. It wasn’t what you might call class humour, but…
*Q: At this point, do you think about the future, or is it just one day at a time?
Oh, I think about the future, and all of the things on my bucket list that I’d love to get to. I won’t get to them all.
*Q: What would you love to do?
I’d love to go to Australia and New Zealand. I would love to see them, I’ve never been there. I just find myself so deeply privileged to be 90 years old and feel as good as I do, have the energy to be able to do the things that I get offered – that’s why I keep over-booking myself, because I can’t say no.
*Q: Where does the energy come from?
That’s what I am blessed with, it’s good health, and I also love what I do, which helps. They just picked Hot In Cleveland up for 24 more shows, and then they came to my agent and said, “In a few years, we would also like to make…”. I said, “Do they know how old I am?” I am using all the privileges of age at this point: they spoil you rotten, they can’t do enough for you! It’s also silly – and I have heard other old people say the same thing – because inside you still feel like the same person you have always felt. I guess it’s because I have never dreaded death, I think that has a lot to do with it. My mother had a wonderful philosophy about death. Whenever we’d lose somebody, we’d say, “We know so much about so many things, and we are learning more all the time but one thing we do not know - we don’t know what happens after that. Is it a blank? Is there something beyond that? Nobody knows.” But my mother would say, “Now they know the secret!” which took all the dread out of it. So when I get to that point, I’ll know the secret.
Q: Do you do anything to stay young and healthy? Do you go walking? Do you eat carefully? What’s the secret to staying youthful?BW:
I haven’t learned that secret yet! The girls – Wendie Malick, Valerie Bertinelli and Jane Leeves – all try to preach to me that I must have something healthy, so I don’t tell them that I’ve just had a hot dog and French fries. When they ask me what I had for lunch, I lie and say that I had salad. Then I have to confess to them that I actually didn’t and they just think it’s terrible, but I say, “Look, I’m 90. How old are you?” I don’t eat a lot of heavily spiced food; my hot dogs are with no mustard, just plain, but it’s what I like so I just enjoy it. Salads: no dressing. I don’t have to really watch my weight and I don’t have a sweet tooth, which is fortunate. I have just been so deeply blessed with having a body I don’t have to worry about, and I enjoy a cocktail at night when I come home, but there’s no reason to have a second one. I also don’t smoke – never have – so I think those things help the whole situation.
*Q: You said earlier about young actors who blow their talent early… Is there someone who you have worked with in your career who was very talented but left too soon?
No. I have friends who have those connections, but fortunately I have not worked with anybody like that. The nice part about doing the kinds of series that I have done, is that you keep each of those little families after the series is over. Then when you start a new project, you make a new family, but you still have the old one. Last week on Hot In Cleveland, Ed Asner was our guest star; it was such fun and we had to dance together – it really is the best business in the world.