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Interview: Actress Mary Beth Peil talks ‘Contest,’ ‘The Good Wife,’ and more

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In the new movie, “Contest,” which releases to DVD and VOD on Dec. 17, Mary Beth Peil plays Angela Marie Tucci, the grandmother of Tommy Dolen (Danny Flaherty). But this is not the first time Peil has played somebody’s grandmother. It was just a little over 10 years ago when production wrapped for “Dawson’s Creek,” in which she played Evelyn “Grams” Ryan. And, currently, she can be seen on CBS’ “The Good Wife” as Jackie Florrick, the mother of Chris Noth’s character, Peter Florrick, and the grandmother to his children.

Contest,” which first aired on the Cartoon Network in October as part of the channel’s anti-bullying campaign, tells the story of Tommy, a high school teenager who works with his grandmother, whom he calls “Gran,” at her local pizza place. But, at school, Tommy is not quite the popular person, and he is constantly bullied. One day, the one who tends to lead the bullying, Matt (Kenton Duty), suddenly befriends Tommy and wants to help him win a cooking contest. Is Matt being honest, or will this turn into one big prank?

The Chico Movie Examiner recently conducted an over-the-phone interview with Piel about her role in “Contest”; her high school years; her roles as the grandmother in this film, “The Good Wife,” and “Dawson’s Creek”; and if there’s a possibility for a “Dawson’s Creek” reunion. Check out the full interview below.

David Wangberg: For “Contest,” this role is not the first time in which you’ve played a grandmother. You played one in “Dawson’s Creek” and…

Mary Beth Peil: [laughs]

DW: I’m sure you’ve been asked about that quite often.

MBP: It’s been 10 years since “Dawson’s Creek” ended; we started about 16 years ago, and I’m finally the right age. [laughs]

DW: [laughs] I wasn’t going to ask you that, actually. You played a grandmother in “Dawson’s Creek” and in “Contest,” and you also play the mother of Chris Noth’s character on “The Good Wife,” and you’re the grandmother of his children. Whenever you approach a role that calls for you to be the grandmother or the mother of a person, do you place yourself in the situation your character faces and think about how you would react to that in real life?

MBP: Oh, sure. You try as best as you can. If it’s a situation you’ve never had any experience with yourself, you try to work on something, or imagine something, or remember something that might be close to and then elaborate on it.

DW: Now, if you could place Jackie, Grams, and Gran – all three of your grandmother characters – in a room, how do you think it would turn out?

MBP: [laughs] Jackie would win hands down. There might not even be any blood. She might be able to do it bloodlessly. The other two would acquiesce.

DW: [laughs] She just might verbally abuse them, and you don’t always get in trouble for that.

MBP: [laughs] She doesn’t usually have blood on her hands. That’s a good question, actually; that’s very funny.

DW: In your high school years, did you hang out with the popular crowd, or were you more in the not-so-popular crowd?

MBP: There were two crowds in my high school – I think it’s safe to say – as far as the girls were concerned. There were the bad girls and the good girls. We’re talking about the 50s. I would say I was definitely in the good girls group. That doesn’t necessarily mean the most popular by any means or the in-crowd. It was kind of a mix, but the good girls were the people like the editor of the yearbook, and I always got the solo in the year’s concerts. The good girls were – I guess you would say – more of like the geeks or the brainy ones. But the fun thing is, as we’ve gotten older and moved on into real life, a lot of those bad girls are my friends. They turned out to be pretty good girls. [laughs]

DW: I think that applies to not just people from the 50s and 60s, but even today. A lot of the people from my high school years – those who picked on me – now talk to me on occasion.

MBP: It all sort of evens out, eventually, doesn’t it? And also, it can go the other way around. It’s probably pretty classic that some of the sports stars – the football stars and the cheerleaders – their lives, after the glory days, maybe weren’t as exciting.

DW: True. Now, is there anything that you’ve learned over the years that you would like to go back and tell your high school self now?

MBP: Yeah. I would tell my high school self not to be so sensitive, not to get your feelings hurt so quickly, and try to see the big picture – which, of course, is impossible in high school. But, yeah, I got my feelings hurt quite a lot.

DW: One of the controversies of last year was when the documentary, “Bully,” got an R rating by the MPAA because of the language and subject matter. They ended up repealing it and gave the film a PG-13 rating. I was wondering, when it comes to documentaries or feature films about high school bullying, or just bullying in general, do you think a rating should not be applied to it, and that it should be made available for people of all ages, because it’s such a relatable matter?

MBP: Again, that’s a really interesting question, and I haven’t really thought about it. I think, maybe, there’s a way to have both, which is what I think the ratings are for. There are some kind of bullying movies, like documentaries, where they’re really showing you what it’s like, and I don’t think there’s any way you could do that without the language, because language with most kids these days is no holds barred. But if you’re talking about a bullying movie for kids who are a little more protected or in a more religious, fundamentalist kind of atmosphere – I’m sure they get bullied, too – I guess, in order for them to get the benefit of seeing a bullying movie, perhaps you would have to clean up the language a little bit, maybe to make it more like what their reality is. I don’t know; that’s a really interesting question.

DW: When you go on to take the roles of playing someone’s grandmother or mother, what is it that mostly attracts you to wanting to portray the characters – whether it’s in “Contest,” “The Good Wife,” or “Dawson’s Creek?”

MBP: In general, I would say, with regard to any character, whether it’s a mother; grandmother; lesbian; an old witch; or whatever, it has to do with the writing. The writing makes a difference in what appeals to me.

DW: What are you hoping people will get from seeing “Contest?” It’s coming to DVD this Tuesday (Dec. 17), but for those who didn’t see it when it first aired on the Cartoon Network, what are you hoping will be the message that they find in the movie?

MBP: I hope that what they’ll see is the importance of family and that family can mean the family that you’re born into and the family that you find – the friends and the allies that you find – and you start finding them early on. You don’t have to wait until you’re 40 years old to have a best friend whom you can consider family. I think the movie, in that respect, illustrates that story very well, aside from the actual overcoming of the bullying. The reason that the bullying is overcome is because these kids create family amongst each other. They’re not afraid or ashamed to include the grandmother as part of their family.

DW: Yeah. And with Tommy, the main character, it’s just him and his grandmother. You don’t see his parents at all.

MBP: That’s right; that’s all he has. But he learns that it doesn’t have to be all that he has. I guess what I’m getting at is that he knows his grandmother is his family, and I think that he thinks that’s all he’s got. But he learns through the movie that family can be more than you’re born into. As you go through life, you make your own family; you accumulate people who become your family.

DW: Now, it’s been 10 years since “Dawson’s Creek” ended. Do you know if there’s any chance for a reunion?

MBP: Oh, golly. I have no idea. I hear that rumor every once in a while, and I’m assuming it’s a rumor, or I would have heard something concrete. I think it’s wonderful that people still talk about the show. I do a lot of theater, and I have people come up to me after the shows all the time, who were deeply affected by “Dawson’s Creek,” or even get grownups, who didn’t start watching it until it was into reruns, and they were in their 30s and 40s when they discovered it. It’s really, really interesting.

DW: That’s the great thing about having cable television or any channel where the show is syndicated. People who didn’t see it on the first run can catch it now.

MBP: That’s right. You can go back and revisit; it’s really nice.

DW: I know you have “The Good Wife” right now, but is there anything else that you’re working on at the moment?

MBP: I’m actually doing a play at Lincoln Center called “Domesticated,” which was done by a wonderful writer, Bruce Norris, who won the Pulitzer and the Tony two years ago.

DW: And what’s “Domesticated” about?

MBP: That’s a difficult question. [laughs] It’s actually sort of based on a family where, not like on “The Good Wife,” the politician gets caught with his pants down, and it’s their relationship – the affect and the stress that it puts on the family. It’s a dark, dark, dark comedy.

This concludes the interview, but the Chico Movie Examiner would like to thank Mary Beth Peil for taking the time to speak about “Contest.”

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