Amy grew up in Chicago and, like other artists before her, including Paul Sills and David Mamet, was a student at Francis Parker School. Her father is Chicago radio personality, John “Records” Landecker (WLS FM radio). At the time of this conversation she was between seasons three and four of the Amazon series, Transparent, in which she plays Sarah Pfefferman.
When I was in high school, I saw Fool for Love [at Steppenwolf in 1984] with Rondi Reed and William Peterson. It was the first play that really informed the type of theater and work that I would end up doing. I was probably way over hormonal. I could not take it. William Peterson was the hottest thing I'd ever seen in my life. Rondi and him were just burning up the stage. It just absolutely blew my mind.
After I went to University of Wisconsin, I lucked out and got an internship at Steppenwolf right out of college as Eric Simonson's assistant. I was reading scripts for him and assistant directing productions. Through him I got to direct at Next Theatre [in Evanston], a Timberlake Wertenbaker play called Love of the Nightingale. I thought that I was going to be a director, but then my sister and her friend started a theater company named Studio.
This girl, Shannon Stephen's, parents, Paul and Ann Stephens, owned the building that the China Club was in. They gave us a space above the China Club to put on plays. There was thumping music from the club below. We had rats; we had homeless people who would take dumps in the hallway. It was gross, and yet it was like we were in heaven with this huge loft space. We would create these magical productions. We were creating such cool art in this total shit show of a space. But people would come. It wasn't a ton of people, but people would come. Reviewers would come. That's the thing about Chicago is the press. The papers support it, too. They try to get there.
I joined the company to perform in Coyote Ugly, and I got these rave reviews. So there was this moment of, "Oh, maybe I can be an actor." That was a turning point where people started to look at me as an actor because of those reviews, and I started to look at myself as an actor.
We did Saints and Singing by Gertrude Stein in the basement of Café Voltaire. We were four women getting dressed in a meat locker, seriously, like the refrigerator for the restaurant was our dressing room. It was absurd. But Café Voltaire was a big deal for us at the time. If you had no money, and you wanted to put on theater, that was the place to do it. It's our version of Mickey Rooney’s barn.
I directed a 17-year-old Michael Shannon in a play there written by my boyfriend at the time. We were so idealistic and hungry. We just wanted to create. I was always in those tiny theaters and willing to do absolutely anything for a long time.
[Things changed for me when] I did Edmund by David Mamet, and Anna Shapiro came to see that show. She gave me a role in a play at Famous Door, which then led me to understudying A Streetcar Named Desire at Steppenwolf when they were still on Halsted. The cast included Gary Sinise, Katey Erbe, and John C. Reilly. Terry Kinney was directing. It was by far the biggest thing that ever happened to me in theater. It was the most daunting role I'd ever tried. I had to go on twice in previews.
It was the scariest thing I've ever done in my entire life. It's a three-and-a-half hour play, and it's all Blanche. I was only 27, and I was non-union. Lila Robbins, who played Blanche lost her voice in previews, and I had to go in not even having rehearsed the entire play. We had never gotten to the final scene, but it worked out perfectly because Blanche is completely disoriented and doesn't know where she is. I basically just played my own state of being. People thought I was doing a great performance but it was really just me having a nervous breakdown in real time.
From that I learned that I was fearless. I was such a scaredy cat before then. I would get so nervous before auditions. [Pauses.] Maybe not that I'm fearless, but that I'm way more powerful than I think I am. I didn't know that I could do anything. I did not know that until that point.
I didn't leave Chicago until I was 34. I was committed to staying, but a play that I did at the Goodman went to New York. It was a Rebecca Gilman play called Blue Surge. Bob Falls directed it.
It went to the Public Theater in New York, but they couldn't afford to transfer the actors. They hired local people, except for Rachel Minor and Steve Key. They got to go, but the rest of us didn't get invited, we were all just devastated.
Then I got a call from Bob Falls in the middle of the night. He wasn't happy with the girl in New York, and he and Rebecca wanted me to come if I could figure out a way to get a place to live. They would pay for my airfare, but I had to find a place to live in Manhattan. I just happened to know a person in Manhattan that I could actually ask, "Can I crash at your place?" It was a friend who was my roommate––actually my old boyfriend in college, who then became my roommate and friend. He said, "I'm going to do a show at Mark Taper Forum. I leave Monday, and my studio apartment which is walking distance from the Public Theater is free and available to you."
I thought it was a sign from the heavens, and it really was. Everything lined up in New York for me. I had to give it a chance and move because I got an agent, and I met my (now ex)-husband, but we had a beautiful child. Things really took off there for me. It turned out I did end up leaving Chicago, but that wasn't actually in the plan. It was a last minute call from Bob Falls in the middle of the night. There you have it.
“That’s what Chicago theater is all about.”
Jill Soloway, who created Transparent, is a Chicago theater person, too. She did the Real Live Brady Bunch with her sister Faith Soloway who also writes on the show. I realized early on that there was this very symbiotic sensibility on our set from that tradition. I worked with Shira Piven out here, too. In fact, she directed one of our [Transparent] episodes. There's just a real groundedness in that that helps you. It is an ensemble.
I think my experience in Chicago theater is why I don't worry about how I look as much as most actresses do. Maybe I should, but I don't have it in my DNA to worry about my hair and makeup, or worry about my wardrobe, or worry about if I'm naked. That's what Chicago theater is all about. You are emotionally raw. I come from that, and I do think it creates a visceral reaction and people connect to it because it is so spontaneous. It's not a planned thing. That's just how I was brought up.
We were older women who had spent a good portion of our careers just doing theater that we loved with our own companies, running the show, trying to create art. Here we are now getting a big fat check to do it on a much bigger stage, but really the principle is exactly the same, which is you do it for the love of it, you do it to connect with each other. If you connect with each other emotionally and authentically, the audience will connect that way, too.
I feel like it's the tradition of that place [Chicago]. Our base in emotional realism is, I think, very specific to Chicago. I think that has to do with the cold and the working class and the commitment and the authenticity of it. When you take out large budgets, and you take out fame and fortune, you get a much purer form of art. That was always the thing in Chicago.
Mi now been friends for thirty years! I think about when I directed him at that tiny Café Voltaire when he was 17. And now we run into each other at the SAG Awards, the Emmys, the Tonys. It's surreal. We're all standing there going, "How did this happen?" It is really quite something.