They say the kitchen is the heart of a home. So it seems fitting to talk to Evelyn “Evie” McGee Colbert — who says one of her motivations behind her long-standing commitment to Montclair Film is to try to develop a caring community — in the kitchen of her Montclair home. The interview was on a sunny October day and, during our conversation, it became apparent that she runs a busy household. Her dog, Benny, interrupted us several times, seeking her attention; her son’s friend dropped by; and her husband Stephen Colbert stopped the conversation by calling out “bye” as he left for work as host of CBS television’s “The Late Show.”
Evelyn Colbert’s intelligence, down-to-earth manner, commitment to equity and inclusion in her work and easy laughter complement Stephen Colbert’s intellectual, sharp wit. Our conversation covered a lot of serious territory, including concerns about climate crisis and our country’s great political and economic divide, but was often punctuated by bouts of laughter. She and Stephen have raised three children together but are now empty nesters, and Evelyn shared her plans to move forward now that carpooling, helping with homework, making lunch boxes and PTA meetings are tasks of the past.
Though she has made raising her children and managing the house the center of her world, she is also committed to advancing and protecting the arts and the cultural vibrancy of New Jersey.
Colbert is a founding board member of Montclair Film (which presents the Montclair Film Festival and organizes other events throughout the year) and is the president of its board of trustees.
“I think that everybody has a story to tell — not just one, lots of stories,” she said. “And I think that we, as a country and a society and a world, are richer when anyone has the ability to tell their story. Giving someone the opportunity to talk about what’s important to them will make their life richer and will make the people who hear it (have a) life that’s richer as well.”
She believes these exchanges build empathy and shared experiences.
“The fact that you might see something that makes you uncomfortable or that you don’t understand or that moves you to tears or makes you laugh, and then talk about it with your neighbors and friends and come together in that shared experience … it makes for a powerful community,” she said.
The 10th annual Montclair Film Festival takes place from Oct. 21 to Oct. 30. Under the direction of Colbert and others, it has evolved, over the last decade, with a robust educational program; a new venue, Clairidge Cinemas, that will be used during the festival and will reopen fully in early November; and a large, diverse and engaging selection of festival films.
She is looking forward to opening with Wes Anderson’s film, “The French Dispatch,” Oct. 21 at the Wellmont Theater. “I can’t wait to see that and I’m excited about ‘The Power of the Dog’ (directed by Jane Campion and co-starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons) and Maggie’s film (the Maggie Gyllenhaal-directed ‘The Lost Daughter’) … I think it’s a great program.
“We deliberately scaled back a bit because we wanted to allow not full capacity due to COVID. We have a 25 percent reduced capacity to allow for more spacing and the films have bigger windows between them so that people aren’t passing each other in the halls. You can exit one theater and then (patrons can) enter another one — to just avoid crowds due to COVID. We are vaccine-only and masks are required.”
Evelyn Colbert is an independent film producer and has appeared as an actress in “Strangers With Candy” (both the film and the TV series), the film “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” and the TV series “Alpha House.” She performed in several theater groups early on in her marriage.
Now, she says, “I do it every now and then, not full time. I toured in a show written by a friend of mine before COVID — it’s a really interesting play — it’s an adaptation of a Chekhov short story called ‘The Black Monk.’ He adapted it with the Emerson String Quartet and we performed it as a concert piece all around the country for two years. We did maybe 20 performances — we went to Korea, to Detroit and we went to Princeton. So that was fun for me, to fulfill that part of me. It was nice to dip my toe into that.”
She and her husband optioned the rights to the book, “On Her Trail: My Mother, Nancy Dickerson, TV News’ First Woman Star,” written by the Colberts’ friend, “CBS’s This Morning” co-host John Dickerson. Serving as executive producers, the Colberts have a script and need to further develop the project.
The Colberts co-executive produced another film, “Derek DelGaudio’s In and of Itself,” which is about storyteller and conceptual magician Derek DelGaudio. “We sold it to Hulu during COVID and premiered it at Montclair Film Festival’s drive-in,” said Evelyn Colbert. “It’s beautiful.”
The Colberts are also working on several projects via their production company, Spartina Productions. “There are things that are not formally announced that we are producing,” Evelyn said. “We are ramping up to do more, so that’s very exciting.”
Colbert was raised around the corner from her husband in Charleston, S.C. She graduated from the University of Virginia and trained at Circle in the Square Theatre School in New York. She launched her acting career in New York and later worked as an administrator for theatrical organizations, including the Drama League of New York and the Remains Theater of Chicago. She and Stephen Colbert met at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston in 1990 and married in 1993.
During the pandemic, she provided off-camera laughter, banter and technical support for “The Late Show” while it was broadcasting from their home in Montclair, then at their home in the Charleston area and, later, when the show was confined to a small room in New York’s Ed Sullivan Theater. In June 2021, Stephen could finally return to a live audience for the first time since March 2020, when the pandemic began.
“The happy thing for me is that Stephen and I have been working together and I didn’t expect that to happen,” Evelyn said. “So I think that in some ways we are closer, though we’ve always been very close. We’re blessed with, I think, a really good marriage. We actually have some projects and things we do together now and the timing of it is perfect because we don’t have to worry about (the kids) anymore.
“I think everybody in the world didn’t anticipate that this would be 18-plus months of this. During the weeks when things started closing, Stephen said, ‘We’re shutting down the show.’ The next morning he calls me from the bathtub and says, ‘I’m going to do my monologue from the bathtub.’
“I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Can you hold the iPad?’ ”
She explained that her involvement grew incrementally as the pandemic lasted. “It wasn’t like he said to me, ‘Can you help me do my show for the next year?’ It was like, ‘Today, can you hold the iPad in the bathtub?’ and, ‘Tomorrow, will you go out there when I’m in front of the fire pit.’ And then we went to South Carolina … So it happened bit by bit by bit. But what was clear to me is that he couldn’t do it alone.”
Her involvement in the show has enriched their relationship, she said. “I would have thought it was not going to be great. During (his 2005-14 show) ‘The Colbert Report,’ I used to always say to Stephen, ‘That character does not cross the door.’ I remember he’d play music on the way home — he’d say he had to ‘get that guy out of my head.’ ”
Contemplating events of the past five years — Trump as President, Trump’s resistance to President Biden’s election, the climate crisis, social and racial inequities, and her own children growing up, Colbert said “I think all those things increase anxiety — even the kids being out of the house, though that is a little less anxiety, but more reflective. It’s a different stage of life. It’s a marker.
“Most of those things are very troubling. I worry about the world in a way that I don’t think I did six or seven years ago. I just think we are in a difficult time. Climate change is probably the thing I worry about more than anything.
“We are still not doing enough about it. And I think it’s very sad to see how very divided this country is. I try to explain to (her children) John and Madeline and Peter but particularly John, who wasn’t even born (on 9/11), what it was like after 9/11 with the unified response in this country. I never expected that a global pandemic would divide us the way it has.”
Colbert said that now that her children are grown, “I think about myself differently. I think about the ‘who am I alone in the darkness’ question that we all grapple with. I’m still a mother and I’ll always be a mother, and a wife. Those are the most important things to me. But there’s a hole there that I’m looking to fill that I think other things will fill, in time. It’s a realignment.”
During the height of the pandemic, the Colbert family took safety precautions like many of us and did not want non-family members assisting with the production of “The Late Show.” “We didn’t want strangers in our home,” Colbert said. “We weren’t comfortable even having members of his crew in the house.
“During that time in March and April of 2020, we locked the doors and it was just the five of us in our family and so you look around and say, ‘Who else is going to do this?’ It was actually kind of fun. It was a bit like, ‘The family is putting on a TV show. Let’s all pitch in.’
“Madeline said, ‘Dad needs real help with his makeup. I’m going to do that.’ Peter, who is a film major, helped set up. When we got to South Carolina, we really set up a studio and did it out of what Stephen calls the spare bedroom, but it’s really a library in that house. We loaded in equipment. Peter was on headset, setting it all up. Then he ran the show for a while, but then he basically said, ‘I’m not going to graduate from college if I continue having this full-time job.’ So, then John did it for a while until he said, ‘I’m not going to graduate from high school if I continue having this full-time job.’ The kids helped a ton until they didn’t help anymore.”
After about five months in the Charleston area home, the Colbert children went back to their former lives, which meant less concern about spreading COVID-19 to their parents or grandparents. “They needed to get restarted,” Colbert said. “And we are just a couple blocks from my parents, who are very elderly and my mother is immunocompromised, so we were extremely careful because of that.
“So when they did that, there was another six weeks when it was just the two of us and so then I was running the show, which meant putting on the headset and doing what they (the crew) told me to do, which was push buttons. We did the whole thing with iPad and iPhone and overhead sets.”
Members of Stephen’s crew were directing them by Zoom from their own homes. “At one time there were maybe 15 to 20 Zoom calls in a day to get the show done,” Evelyn said. “I wasn’t on all the Zoom calls. A lot of them were writing calls. There were Zoom calls for the crew and Zoom calls for the guests. It was all happening virtually.
“This past June he came back with an audience, but in August 2020 he went into a small theater at the Ed Sullivan Theater (with) some of his staff … The rule for the studio is that only four people were allowed in the room where Stephen did the show, which was himself, his stage manager, his show runner and then sometimes me. There was a little teeny red chair in the corner and I would just come in when I could and laugh, because there was nobody else there. I continued to come in, especially on days when I thought he’s tired or there was something that was going to be hard to talk about, or there was a guest I wanted to say hi to over Zoom, or I had a reason to be in the city.
“I will say that you do things for people you love, and it wasn’t a hard thing to do. It was a lovely thing to do and a lovely thing to feel needed in that way.”
It was not easy for Stephen Colbert to transition from performing in front of 400 people every night to talking to a computer screen, Evelyn Colbert said. So her support was essential. She encouraged him by telling him before a scene that “this is going to be fine and this is funny.” She reassured him that “people are responding to you.”
“He’s a performer,” she said. “His background is onstage. He’s not just a guy who wants to think and talk all the time, although he does want to talk all the time. He wants to perform it. So that performing energy is hard to come up with when you are just talking on a screen.”
We spoke about celebrities that do not have confident, loving family members surrounding them. “I think when you hear about people in the entertainment industry who spin off, sometimes it’s because they are surrounded by people who tell them how great they are and tell them what they want to hear,” she said. “They don’t have any grounding, any sense of who they are without all of the hullabaloo. I think it happens to people who have fame really early in their life.”
She and Stephen grew up around the corner from each other. They didn’t know each other but knew of each other in high school, because they shared friends.
“At our wedding, one of our good friends stood up and said, ‘I tried to introduce these guys four times,’ and it’s true,” she said. “He’d always say that Stephen and I should meet and we’d say, ‘No, not interested,’ because who is interested in someone they grew up with from their hometown? I was living in New York. He was in Chicago. So, it was right when it was right.”
Evelyn Colbert said Stephen Colbert “is very generous and very loyal” in his support of Montclair Film events. He has frequently participated in “In Conversation” events in the past and, this year, will engage Gyllenhaal in an interview about “The Lost Daughter,” Oct. 24 at 1 p.m. at the Montclair Kimberly Academy’s Upper School.
Evelyn Colbert has been involved in the festival since Day One. “I sat down with (founder and board of trustees chairman) Bob (Feinberg) 11 or 12 years ago and then we had a party here at my house, then we got some board members, we had a fundraiser,” she said. “We did all that before we ever had a festival.”
The early mission was to create a community-based festival “to liven up the arts in Montclair and provide economic stimulus. Stephen and I grew up in Charleston, where the Spoleto Festival takes place, and we were kids when it started, so we lived through years of seeing the impact an arts festival can have on a community. It made a lot of sense in a town like Montclair, given that we already have an art museum, we already have a university, we already have a community here. It’s not a bedroom community. And so I felt like an arts festival would make a lot of sense here.
“Film festivals are a little different in that you can always have another film festival. Filmmakers, particularly documentary filmmakers and emerging filmmakers, will go wherever you show their movie. The idea was to help the community but also to provide a different type of exposure for filmmakers that’s not commerce-driven, that’s not about selling your film.”
She added that since the festival is not commerce-driven, “it’s just not as intense a scene as some other festivals.
“Montclair has a wonderful, discerning, literate audience. It’s a great community for someone to show their film. Our focus is to support the filmmakers, not have the agents make multi-million dollar deals on the sidewalk. It’s a place for filmmakers to meet filmmakers and to see how audiences responded to their artwork. That’s all still deeply in our mission.
“Part of the mission that has expanded is the education program. We’ve always had a kid’s competition and short films. But now we teach lots of classes and we have our building. So that has evolved.
“Our latest thing is we are taking over the Clairidge theater. It’s super exciting and now we are going to run a year-round independent movie theater. It’s much bigger than we ever thought, but it fits into the DNA of what we wanted to achieve.”
Many indie movies, of course, touch on the kind of subjects we discussed in the beginning of our interview, such as the environment and the country’s economic divide. “One of the reasons we feel strongly that the Clairidge needs to exist is that people, I think, after these 18 months of isolation, want to have shared experiences,” said Colbert. “I truly believe that the types of films that we show promote empathy and understanding.”
She recounted her experience going to a foreign film at the festival about Syria. “I remember seeing a movie two or three years ago about a family trying to escape from Syria. And it’s gut-wrenching.”
You can read about a subject like this, she said, but when you see a film about it, you “understand what these little children experienced and how hard it is to give them opportunity and hope. Art is a way of understanding things other than you. And that’s how we get past the state of where we are now in this country.”
She is excited that the festival is partnering this year with OUT Montclair to feature films about LBGTQ+ issues. The festival will also host activities with Trans Affirming Alliance, inviting trans filmmakers and audience members to discuss opportunities in the film industry. “Let’s talk about LGBTQ rights. Let’s talk about trans people,” she said, adding that at a prior festival “we brought Taylor Mac here. He gave an incredible performance at the Wellmont … Taylor said, ‘Get up … dance with each other. I want men dancing with men and women dancing with women, break the boundaries down. I’ve done this show all around the country and Montclair, you people are on it. You are up and ready to hug each other.’ It was beautiful. A community that is vibrant like Montclair needs to provide its residents with those opportunities.”
During the pandemic, the festival focused on drive-in and online events, and expanded beyond the borders of Montclair. This fall, it is launching “a show called “Front Row Festival” on the NJ PBS television network that will feature six weeks of documentaries, short films and conversations with filmmakers.
In addition to Montclair Film, Colbert has served on Gov. Phil Murphy’s Restart and Recovery Commission. This statewide council provided guidance on New Jersey’s plans for economic recovery from the pandemic.
“It’s been incredibly rewarding,” said Colbert. “Somebody in Stephen’s family has an expression that I taught my kids: Never turn down a legitimate adventure so long as it’s safe. So when Phil Murphy called me to be on this commission … I said yes and it has been a fabulous experience. My focus has been the arts and cultural recovery.”
She called her friend, NJPAC president and CEO John Schreiber, for guidance. “We created a Monday morning posse — five of us meet and plan advocacy and what to do next to keep the arts and culture needs front and center in the conversation.”
They helped create the New Jersey Arts and Culture Recovery Fund, “to support the arts and culture sector broadly rather than just making donations to individual nonprofits,” she said, adding that the fund has already raised $4.5 million and recently hired a full-time executive director because “arts and culture always need help, regardless of the pandemic.”
The state, she said, “is only richer when it has a thriving arts and cultural sector. If we lose the jewels in the state, who is going to want to move here without a beautiful theater to go to like NJPAC or the Paper Mill Playhouse? Things like that make New Jersey all the better. We moved here because of the art museum and Luna Stage.”
Reworking Gertrude Stein’s expression “there is no there there” (written about Stein’s original hometown of Oakland), Colbert said “There’s a there there. Communities that have rich arts and cultural sectors are better for it in so many ways.”
We ended our conversation by talking about muddling through life’s many passages and finding grounding moments with family that ease the transitions.
“It’s fair to say I ground him (Stephen) and he does the same for me,” Evelyn said. “Laughter is like a tonic. He’s good at getting me to laugh when I’m really stressed.”
When her daughter was two weeks old, she and Stephen brought her to a pediatrician for a checkup and she was asked, “What made you think this man would be a good father when you married him?”
She says: “He makes me laugh and, for us, that is such an important part of getting through the difficult things about life. You help each other laugh through it — not laugh at each other, laugh with each other — and say, ‘This is terrifying — or sad or gut-wrenching — and we’ve just cried about it and now we’re going to laugh because that’s going to make us feel better.’
“He’s good at that. He’s good at seeing me spin off and then he’ll say something and I’ll say, ‘Well, that’s the stupidest thing I ever heard, so now I have to laugh.’ ”
For more on Montclair Film, visit montclairfilm.org.
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