As an actress and a person, Marion Ross is the epitome of charm and grace, which makes her role in the new film “A Reason” all the more eye-opening. Ross stars as Aunt Irene, the matriarch of a very dysfunctional family who, knowing her time is short, summons relatives to meet with her one last time.
“It’s lovely to be not so charming, not so nice. And to be o-l-d,” Ross said when reached by phone for an interview.
Filming took place over a two-week period at a house in Brentwood, California: “[The owners] were in the process of selling the house, so it was still in good shape. We just dressed it up a little bit.”
From Mrs. C to Aunt Irene
Calling herself a “compulsive nice person,” Ross said she still doesn’t get tired of being called “Mrs. C” or “Mrs. Cunningham,” the iconic mother from “Happy Days.” “In our fast-moving culture, you need a handle,” she explained. “So I have a handle, and I don’t feel very much locked into it.”
As an example, Ross offered up her work in “Brooklyn Bridge,” an acclaimed CBS series created by Gary David Goldberg: “Here I was playing a Jewish/Polish grandmother, a wonderful opportunity for me.”
Arguably, Ross’ most memorable work can be seen in “The Evening Star,” the 1996 sequel to “Terms of Endearment.” The actress plays Rosie Dunlop, housekeeper and companion to Aurora Greenway (Shirley MacLaine). In this memorable supporting role, Ross clearly deserved an Oscar nod.
“For that one, they said ‘We want you plainer, plainer. And even plainer, plainer.’ I said ‘Do you want somebody else? Would you like somebody else in this part?’ It was a strange experience acting like you were invisible, because here was Shirley MacLaine,” she said. “I would come into makeup in the morning, and they would say ‘You’re stealing the movie.’ By totally pulling myself out of the spotlight, it made for wonderful work.”
“Loving that I am lasting so long”
Ross said she was under contract to Paramount Studios at the age of 22: “It’s really a lovely arc, isn’t it? A lovely arc of a life. I have a nice life; I have not wrecked anything yet. That’s pretty good.”
In “A Reason,” Ross interacts beautifully with young, upcoming talent such as Magda Apanowicz, who plays troubled granddaughter Serena.
“[Magda] is an interesting young girl. I was so taken with all these young people,” she said. “Our movie world has changed because there are so many of them and so many projects and so many series. When I was 25, I hired a press agent because it occurred to me that this was about selling. How am I going to make this work? It’s about selling.”
Ross established a foothold in broadcast television thanks to “Love and the Happy Days,” a segment on the 1970’s comedy series “Love, American Style.” The actress originated the role of Marion Cunningham in what would become the original pilot for “Happy Days.”
After shooting that segment, Ross and other cast members were given a retainer of approximately one thousand dollars. She then went to the Globe Theater in San Diego where she did “Summer and Smoke” by Tennessee Williams.
“So now I am playing this neurotic, Tennessee Williams person and they called and said ‘We want to redo that pilot,” she said. “Who knew that not only would it do well, but it would do well forever?”