Over the years, Amy Irving has given an impressive number of sensitive and compelling performances in films, including “Carrie,” “The Fury,” “Crossing Delancey,” “Yentl” and “Carried Away.” Her stage credits include “The Coast of Utopia” at Lincoln Center in New York, “A Little Night Music” at the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, and many others.
I recently interviewed her, and while her reflections about these experiences were fascinating, it was her candor, irreverent sense of humor, understated intelligence and adventurous spirit that stuck with me long after our conversation ended. Her down-to-earth and soulful manner made it clear that Hollywood’s glitz and glamor don’t have a permanent hold on her. She is guided by her professionalism as an artist and her commitment to her family.
Her interest in authentic and immersive creative projects motivated her to create her first album, Born in a Trunk, featuring songs about her career, relationships and family. This “musical memoir” will be released digitally on April 7.
You can hear her elegant and rich voice on songs from the album, with stories woven between them, at a show, also titled “Born in a Trunk,” that she will present at the Outpost in the Burbs in Montclair on March 4 and City Winery in New York on April 10. Visit outpostintheburbs.org or citywinery.com.
Irving will be backed by her 11-piece band, Goolis, led by Montclair native Jules David Bartkowski, who wrote the songs’ arrangements and adds vocals to some of them (Bartkowski is also known as Goolis). Other members of the band also hail from New Jersey, including brothers Sammy and Max Mellman of Montclair, and Emma Blackman of Glen Ridge.
Irving said that a friend who is an actor recently said she “had courage to try something out of her comfort zone,” and she agreed.
The album would not have been made without the enthusiasm of her son and music manager, Gabriel Barreto, who produced it. He is the younger of her two sons, from the second of her three marriages, to director Bruno Barreto; Max Spielberg — co-founder of a boutique video game company, FuzzyBot — is her older son, from her first marriage to Steven Spielberg. She speaks about both with admiration and affection.
“I would never think in a million years think of doing this,” she said. “He (Gabriel) sat me down and said, ‘I have this band Goolis (his client) — you know them — and they would love to work with you. Would you do an album with them?’ And I had enough margaritas to say ‘yes.’ Then I spoke with my husband (Kenneth Bowser) about what songs I should sing and we decided it should be songs from my life, my career, my raison d’etre, my family … we came up with 10 songs and I’m the only common denominator.”
The album includes Antônio Carlos Jobim’s “How Insensitive,” Jimmy Webb’s “Children’s Song” (from the 1979 film “Voices), Merrit Malloy and Pino Donaggio’s “I Never Dreamed” from (“Carrie”) and Amanda McBroom’s “Errol Flynn.”
Irving has enjoyed her recent experiences singing in cozy settings in preparation for her upcoming shows. “When I got up and performed, I actually liked doing this,” she said. “It felt like it was in my wheelhouse. I like the hours. I like the people I’m working with.”
She has enjoyed making movies, but not everything about the process. “I don’t want to work 15 hours a day,” she said. “I don’t want to sit in a dressing room for six hours waiting for your next shot. The whole rhythm of movie-making can be very boring. Onstage I’m able to have creative satisfaction because you work on a character. You do the play from the beginning to the end. It’s a journey — you have a lot more (connection) with the actors, as opposed to the director — but once you’re out there, you’re on your own. There’s a freedom and a continuity and a flow and maybe twice a month you can actually feel in character for the entire duration of the show — it’s such a high. You just don’t get that in film.”
When you’re onstage, there is a palpable exchange of energy.
“That too, definitely,” Irving said. “When I suddenly came out of COVID and I’m standing there (onstage) without a mask on and people are looking up at you and you’re communicating your story, it just feels good to connect. We’ve all been so disconnected. I feel energy from people and it makes me feel like I’m stepping back into life and it feels so good.”
We spoke about the impact of the pandemic on her career pursuits and how her singing project has re-energized her.
“My son has given me the most incredible gift,” she said. “He gave me a goal in the morning when I wake up. I literally thought it was over and I didn’t want to (perform) anymore. He made me want to do it again and go in a new direction. He opened up this new world to me. Gabriel and I are having a great time together and for a mother and son to have this kind of experience is golden.
“Because I have a beautiful home and life with my husband and two dogs, (the pandemic) was not horrible … We kept very busy and we played music every day and we practiced the guitar every day although neither of us are very good guitar players; we sang every day because I’d already done the album and we couldn’t launch it until this was over. I was preparing myself.”
Also, during the pandemic, “I studied and took a lot of Zoom classes and read ‘Anna Karenina,’ ” she said. “You do all those things that you’ve been putting off … I’ve never read ‘Anna Karenina’ but I have now. But by the end of it I think I was on to chick lit.”
She recounts the difficulty when she first went to a public gathering.
“I got a little anxious about stepping out,” she said. “The first time I was in front of a small audience was at (director) Joan Micklin Silver’s memorial service (in 2021). I was so nervous I could barely speak.
“I’ve suffered from stage fright my whole life. You get to a place where you can handle talking at a memorial service and I couldn’t even do that. So I just thought, well, forget about getting up onstage after that. Then Gabriel told me it was time to launch the album and I told him the only way I’m going to be able to do this is by taking baby steps.
“We’ve been slowly getting me back out there. Susie Mosher (see video below) has been very lovely about letting me sing at her Tuesday night ‘Lineup’ at Birdland (in New York) … I had a dress rehearsal in the barn here in my house for about 30 people and it went really well. And I have this great band, so it’s not like being out there alone. And so I thought, well OK, let’s take it to the next stage.”
Gathering press clippings for the launch of this project, she found that they revealed an incomplete narrative of her life. “I know I was doing the best I could to fit into this world (show business) and I always felt like a fraud and I would pretend for these interviews,” she said.
She felt pressured to only “show them the best and the happiest in everything,” she said, adding “You never want to talk about your dark sides, your problems or anything, of course. I was so happy all the time — so happy with this guy, so happy with this husband.” She reacted to these interviews by thinking “Amy, you couldn’t have been that happy.”
Did these pressures to conceal come from the industry, I wondered.
“Yes, but I also had to answer to my parents,” she said. “It was very important to me that they were proud of me. They didn’t know anything dark about me. I always had to be a good girl. Daddy didn’t love me unless I was perfect … that kind of thing. You end up being a phony.”
Irving said her song selection has given her an opportunity to present her authentic self. “I’m being honest (on the album) … I’ve never discussed what my father went through before,” she said.
She has done so by including the McBroom’s evocative “Errol Flynn,” which is about McBroom’s father’s difficulties in show business.
Irving’s father, Jules Irving, was an accomplished director and producer, and the founder of the San Francisco Actor’s Workshop. Irving said that after Hollywood lured him from theater, his professional life got turbulent, adding “he ended up dying too young — 54 years old.”
Now fame it is fleeting and stars, they keep falling
And staying right up there, that’s the business of art
And luck kisses some, and she passes by others
Disappointment and bourbon are hard on the heart
There are other revelations on the album.
In 1980, Irving co-starred with Willie Nelson in the film “Honeysuckle Rose,” making her film singing debut (see video below). He wrote a song about her, “I’m Waiting Forever,” that includes lines such as “I love making love to your memory/It’s all that I do while I’m waiting forever/Waiting forever for you.”
She said that by including that song, “That was a song that Willie wrote for me — about my experience with Willie and our friendship that evolved … and now he sings it with me on the album.
“We are talking about doing an album together. “He loves Goolis. He loves what they did with his song. He said, ‘Pick 10 of my songs and Goolis can do new arrangements for them and we’ll sing on them. I’ll even put Trigger (Nelson’s guitar) on it, too.’ ”
She says the inclusion of “How Insensitive” was inspired by her second marriage, “so clearly (life) wasn’t happy, happy all the time … I’m being honest, rather than saying, ‘I’m going to do this happy song about Brazil by Carmen Miranda.’ ”
Norman Gimbel wrote chillingly painful lyrics in this song: “How insensitive I must have seemed when she told me that she loved me/How unmoved and cold I must have seemed when she told me so sincerely/Why, she must have asked, did I just turn and stare in icy silence.”
She said that Bruno Baretto, though, “did make a beautiful movie in ‘Carried Away.’ I loved that movie. I was executive producer on it.” The movie is “one of the things I’m most proud of,” she said.
Irving said that her father as well as her mother, actress Priscilla Pointer, have had a great influence on her and are represented by album selections in addition to “Errol Flynn,” including “I Never Dreamed Someone Like You (Could Want Someone Like Me),” by Merrit Malloy and Pino Donaggio, from “Carrie.”
“My mom played my mother in ‘Carrie’ so the first song I sing (in the show) is from ‘Carrie, ” Irving said. “It’s the song that plays when Carrie does her first dance at the prom. I did that because it was my first film.”
“Carrie” is also “the first movie mom and I did together,” she said. “We did six together … I loved growing up watching her onstage. Through osmosis I learned the language of Shakespeare and Chekhov, falling asleep in the audience. I loved doing ‘Glass Menagerie’ on the stage with her. Acting is trust. I trusted her.”
“I Never Dreamed Someone Like You (Could Want Someone Like Me)” also conjures up Irving’s marriage to Spielberg. “Carrie” director Brian De Palma “introduced me to my first husband,” Irving said. “He set us up on our first date and on our second date.”
She sings “Queen of the Castle” from the 1987 movie “Rumpelstiltskin,” directed by her brother David Irving. “It was based on the play that my dad directed and my mother was Queen and I was the miller’s daughter,” she said.
She and her siblings were all in the San Francisco Actor’s Workshop company, along with their mother. When Irving was a child, her mother told her that “theater was our religion.”
Later, the family moved to New York when her father became artistic director at the Lincoln Center Repertory Theatre Company. She attended the Professional Children’s School and later trained at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco and the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts.
From an early age, Irving had a goal to succeed in the industry and felt she needed to meet her father’s creative expectations, she said. But this project frees her from some of those concerns.
“There’s a little less pressure on me as far as me being hard on myself because I geared my whole life to being an actor,” she said. “I didn’t gear my whole life to sing on an album. It’s a different world. So, if I’m not at the top of my game in the beginning, that’s OK; I’ll go and have a good time. As long as it’s fun, I’ll continue it.”
Because she is the singing voice of Jessica Rabbit in the 1988 animated film “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” she sings that movie’s “Why Don’t You Do Right?,” “though the arrangement that Jules did is completely different than when I sang it for the movie,” she said. “I love the new arrangement. It’s upbeat and has a lot of energy to it.” The song will be available as a single on March 3.
She appreciates “everything Jules has done — every piece — from New Orleans sound to Sergio Mendes’ sound … Every song is different, which is what I love about it.”
Bowser, a documentary filmmaker, is also represented on the album by the song “I Will Follow You Into the Dark” by Death Cab for Cutie. “When Ken and I were dating, it became ours,” she said in promotional material.
Their backstory is magical, set on the romantic streets of the West Village in New York.
“Ken has been one of my brother’s best friends for over 30 years,” she said. “He was married twice and I was married twice. My best girlfriend, (the late) Judy Nelson, and I went to a party at NYU where my brother David is a tenured professor in the filmmaking department.” She was “still pretty raw,” having recently left Bruno Barreto.
“We went to this event honoring my brother,” she said. “Ken was there. We listened to the speeches and, as we were leaving, Judy said to me that I’m going to marry that man. I said, ‘Give me a break.’ And a year later he and I crossed paths in the Village.”
They both called David to ask if the other was single. “We started dating and it’s been pretty great,” she said. “I finally met the right guy. We got married in 2007.”
Like her character in 1988’s “Crossing Delancey,” Isabelle “Izzy” Grossman, who found happiness with good-guy pickle man Sam Posner (played by Peter Riegert), Irving has found her match in Bowser
This romantic comedy resonated for many single women searching for love. “I think it’s about being a mensch,” Irving said.
Veteran Yiddish stage actress Reizl Bozyk played Ida (or Bubbe), Izzy’s grandmother. Working for a hip bookstore, Izzy meets writers and others she considers beyond Ida’s traditional Jewish world. Izzy is pursued by an untrustworthy, arrogant author as well as the intelligent, kind Posner.
The movie now allows us to glance at New York at a time when Starbucks wasn’t ubiquitous. And through Ida’s eyes, we see a world changing. The film honored a Jewish immigrant lifestyle that was slowly fading, while also respecting the increased independence of women in the 1980s.
This was Bozyk’s first film role. “She was more frightened than I was,” Irving said. “I usually was a little nervous on the first day of shooting or during the first read-through, but I don’t get nervous after that. She was shaking during her audition. She was scared to death. She had a huge story about having to leave Poland to avoid the Holocaust and going off to Argentina. She and her husband were like the Burns & Allen of Poland … I ended up holding her all the time and we became close as I held her hand through it.”
I thought “Crossing Delancey” was relatable to single women who didn’t share Izzy’s New York Jewish roots.
“Absolutely,” Irving said. “I get comments from all of the world: ‘I’m looking for my pickle man.’ And it’s not all Jewish people saying that.” She said that the movie is about the value of connecting with another person and “not being able to really see someone.”
“Izzy runs a bookstore and imagines that if she has a connection with a writer, it would enhance her world,” she said. “She’s attracted to that world,” but Irving didn’t think Izzy was assessing the author who was pursuing her. Instead, she was looking at his status as a writer. “But people aren’t what they do; they’re who they are,” she said.
We talked about the notion of making a sequel to “Crossing Delancey.” “I don’t think (Sam and Izzy) made it,” she said. “I think she was not mature enough to be with a nice guy. I think it takes a little bit longer.”
Izzy would have broken his heart?
“Probably,” she said. If there was a sequel, she and Bowser agree that the movie would focus on Sam and Izzy’s children from other partners who find each other and reintroduce their parents.
I asked Irving about her experiences working with Micklin Silver on “Crossing Delancy,” and Barbra Streisand on “Yentl.”
“I loved working with Joan,” she said. “That set was really special because it had a female writer, a female director and a lot of women in the show. It had a feminine feel about it. It felt like you could talk about anything and she was open to whatever you wanted to do.”
She said working was Streisand was “very different, but Barbra knew exactly what she wanted to do. It wasn’t as collaborative because she had been working on this for so long and she knew exactly what she wanted. I felt like her doll that could dress up — put lipstick on to match the peaches in the room.”
Initially, she turned down the role because she thought it was going to be a part about “another sweet young thing,” and Irving felt she had done that already and needed something different.
Streisand convinced her to take the role. “She sat me down and talked about (the movie) as her dream and I’m very attracted to that sensibility: that it’s a dream and it’s not about money or fame.
“And so, of course I said yes and it didn’t hurt me in the end, either,” she said with a laugh, adding “she took me places I didn’t see, and it turned out to be a great experience.”
She said that early in her career, a lot of the thrill of movie-making “was really about going to different countries and being able to shoot in Prague and London. It was more about the adventure. In India I did a mini-series, ‘The Far Pavilions,’ for four months” in 1984.
She became immersed in the culture, and spent time with the locals. She also enjoyed hanging out with co-stars such as Rossano Brazzi, Omar Sharif and Rupert Everett. “We were a motley group,” she said.
When she played Rosemarie Lemon, a deaf teacher in “Voices,” she found it thrilling to step into another culture. She immersed herself in studying sign language and dance for the film. “It’s a beautiful love story … shot in East Rutherford and Hoboken,” she said. “My sign language teacher was deaf and he would take me to deaf clubs. My coach would make me go to Martha Graham classes. I loved the preparation.”
The movie was impactful for other reasons, too. Irving has a sister who taught deaf children and their worlds merged through this picture, making them closer. “Plus, it was the last thing my dad ever saw me do. It resonates so much for me.”
When he watched the dailies of “Voices,” his offered his appraisal of her performance by saying “you’re very true.” She wasn’t sure if that was entirely positive, but her mother reassured her that it’s the highest compliment he ever gives. “That’s why truth is what I seek in my work,” she said.
Her biggest struggle when she first made movies was finding like-minded community.
“I felt like a fraud … to be a movie star didn’t fit into my mold,” she said. “There was stress. There I was, Steven Spielberg’s wife, going to dinners with the heads of all the studios.
“There’s an expression in Brazil which means ‘she’s not from the same beach.’ Which makes sense if you live in a beach community.”
She said that the industry crowd “weren’t people that were from the same beach. Those weren’t my peeps … I didn’t feel like I belonged … I was having a pretty good career at that time. It was insulting when people would reduce me to Steven Spielberg’s wife when I was working so hard. I was doing my own thing.”
Do you think your parents instilled this strong sense of self in you?
“There was a very strong discipline in our household about professionalism and why we were doing (theater),” she said.
Irving had a role as a writer in director Ann Hu’s 2020 movie “Confetti.” The film is about a woman who became a champion for her child, leaving China for New York to find assistance with her daughter’s untreated dyslexia.
It strikes me that devotion to family is at the center of Irving’s world. I asked her if that was accurate.
“Yes,” she said, “especially now coming out of quarantine, you realize what’s important. Some of the friends aren’t there anymore. Some you stayed very connected to. It weeded people out and the most important aspect of everything was family.
“We got the kids up here (in Westchester County, N.Y.) and we spent a lot of time with them. They quarantined here because it was pretty awful to be in the city during that time.
“We did OK, but it did feel like it was all over – like this is it and I’m not going to work ever again. We are just going to see our life through. I moved my mother here … I was very nervous about that — she’s 99 this year. She’s great and she’s all there in every aspect. But I was a little concerned about her flying during COVID.
“Steven (Spielberg) ended up giving us a lift on his jet … she’s his ex-mother-in-law and he still considers her as a mother-in-law. We had a great trip back. We were looked after, so, lucky us.
“Steven and Kate (Capshaw, Spielberg’s wife) and Ken and I try to double date at least once a year,” she said. “We get along … Steven is my family. I love him very much and he loves me very much.”
Given her interest in immersing herself in characters or situations that are new, I asked if she was inspired by her role in director/choreographer Martha Clarke’s off-Broadway show “Chéri,” a mix of music, dance and theater.
“That’s a perfect example of it,” she said. “In ‘Chéri,’ I was the only actor.”
We agreed that what we learn as we age is that no one role or job will make or break us. So it’s best to leave the quest for perfection behind.
“I think you’re absolutely right, which is why stepping into this new world (of ‘Born in a Trunk’), I don’t have to be perfect,” she said. “I can make mistakes.”
She referenced the moment in 2016 when Patti Smith stumbled when singing “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” at the Nobel Prize ceremony honoring Bob Dylan. “When she lost her place and she stopped — she got nervous. And at the end, the whole audience applauded. They were with her.”
When Smith struggled, we connected with memories of our own moments when we missed a beat. Irving has felt this support on her recent singing engagements.
This courage, I think, is what keeps us vital as we grow beyond our initial goals into uncharted territory, and it’s what we will see onstage when Irving presents “Born in a Trunk.”
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