Her Spectacular Splashes Onstage and in Life Suggest Amy Wright's Success Is Far from Accidental
01/30/1989 at 01:00 AM EST
Three of Amy Wright's fish have just died. She has carefully lifted the remains of Nicky, Sam and Richard into a tiny net and flushed them away. "I hate it when they die," she says, padding down a dark hallway in her Greenwich Village fiat toward her kitchen to check on another family pet, Fred the frog. Fred stares back at her from his murky tank in this cluttered room that looks locked in the past. The walls are dingy, the hanging pots and pans lost their gleam long ago, the old-fashioned appliances might have been borrowed from Ralph Kramden.
It is a scene not unlike those invented by novelist Anne Tyler, whose wryly perceived glimpses of ordinary domestic rituals have been brought to the screen in The Accidental Tourist. In the film, chosen by the New York Film Critics' Circle as the best of 1988, Wright deftly captures Tyler's pitch as William Hurt's quirky sister—a slightly absent spinster who alphabetizes her canned goods and ignores her telephone when it rings. The part seems tailored for this winsome actress, who was singled out in the New York Times as "the film's brightest light."
In real life Wright is no more tethered to convention than the character she plays. Though she has never married, she is the mother of a 6-year-old daughter fathered by actor Rip Torn during his 24-year marriage to the late Geraldine Page. "Amy doesn't give a damn what other people think of her," says playwright Lanford Wilson, a longtime colleague. "I can't imagine her conforming just because someone else thought that she should." Though Wright's face is more familiar than her name, she has established herself with acclaimed, sometimes eccentric performances off and on Broadway and brightened more than a dozen films, including Wise Blood and Crossing Delancey. Observes Wilson: "Amy is a very, very talented girl. She's not on breakfast cereal boxes, but she is no secret in the theater community."
At 38, Wright retains a sparrow like delicacy that belies her steely determination to follow her own path. As she puts it, "I feel pretty good about the way I do things. It makes sense to me." Wright's brother Andrew, 31, views his sister as a species apart from the usual actor. "A lot of those people are hard to take when they get to a certain level," he says. "I've been out with Bill Hurt when he was loud, obnoxious and self-centered. Amy would never be gregarious at a party. She'd be the one sitting in the corner observing everyone else."
Wright's unconventional ways are not unusual given that she was raised in a household where family dinners were followed by family pillow fights. The eldest of four, Wright grew up in Chicago's Hyde Park. Her father is a psychology and statistics professor at the University of Chicago, her mother teaches nursery school. There were no televisions and no rules that couldn't be bent in the Wright household. Amy, a sister and two brothers—now respectively a sociologist, a lawyer and an architect—were encouraged to pursue whatever interests made them happy. Amy's passion for performing blossomed in high school. "She was such a quiet, unassuming girl," says her father, Benjamin, "no one expected her to be so breathtaking on the stage." Or so convincing, As Joan of Arc in a senior year production, Wright so entranced her audience that one of her younger brothers raced to the stage in mid-performance and blurted, "Ame, are you okay?"
Wright majored in theater arts and earned a teaching credential at Wisconsin's Beloit College. When she headed to New York in 1974, she settled there with her great-aunt. "Aunt Lizzie slept in one end of the apartment," says Amy, "I slept at the other, and we would both work the same crossword puzzle that was always out on the kitchen table." Occasionally, Amy would bring a date home, such as the Bunyanesque playwright, John Ford Noonan. "Aunt Lizzie would be lying in her room wearing her little hairnet, reading a mystery," Wright recalls, "and I'd poke my head in with this 6'4" guy in a bandanna standing behind me, and her little eyes would pop out of her head."
Offbeat outsider roles were her sustenance from the start. After studying with Uta Hagen, Wright's first professional performance was as Laura in a 1975 production of The Glass Menagerie at the Pittsburgh Public Theater. That was followed by an introduction to Lanford Wilson, who was so impressed by an audition she gave that he wrote a role for Wright—as William Hurt's flighty niece—in Fifth of July, which eventually took her to Broadway.
Rip Torn entered her life in 1976 when she played Ophelia to his Hamlet in an off-Broadway production. She was then 26; he was 45. "He liked me and wanted to be with me, and I was very interested in him, but I did not want to break up his marriage or steal him away from Geraldine Page," she says. "I was somehow comfortable, well, sort of comfortable with the situation."
The situation grew more complex after Torn formed the Sanctuary Theater Workshop and directed a trio of August Strindberg plays with Page and Wright. In one of them, The Stronger, the two actresses played the wife and mistress of a theatrical director. "Gerry was willing to act with me for Rip's sake," says Wright. "As difficult as it was personally for all of us, I felt very lucky to be able to work with her. There were some bad moments," she adds. "I was jealous of her for certain reasons—for being a better actress, for being married to Rip and having known him for so many years, and she was jealous of me for other reasons. We both suffered."
After a year that group disbanded. "Gerry and Rip had their life, and Rip and I had our life," says Wright. "He is the only one who knows about both. I don't think Gerry ever saw the baby or if she ever wanted to." (Page died at age 62 in 1987.)
While Torn and Wright own a house in Connecticut, Amy continues to live separately from him in the seven-room apartment she once shared with her late Aunt Lizzie. When he's in Manhattan, Torn spends much of his time with Wright and their daughter, Kate. According to Lanford Wilson, "As a couple, Rip and Amy have that wonderful Mutt and Jeff balance. He is outrageous, and she holds her own with him. You can't imagine either of them not saying what they think."
Amy is well aware of Tom's tempestuous reputation. "He is a lusty guy," she says. "He likes to have a good time, to laugh and drink and eat. He likes women. People think of him as a hot-tempered person, but he is really rather gentle. Our problem," she continues, "is that we come from different generations and different cultures. That makes it hard to communicate sometimes." Asked if she would be open to a new relationship, Wright jumps up to smash a cockroach that is dashing across her kitchen wall, and the subject is closed.
While Wright's involvement with Torn is unresolved, other elements of her future are not. This spring her new movie, The Miss Firecracker Contest, will be released. "I don't do things just for a chance to act in front of an audience anymore," she says. "I pick my work more carefully because it takes me away from Katie." Wright is considering directing a play and having another child. If either project transpires, it will be at her own pace. "I'm very slow," she says, "but I eventually get where I'm going—even when it appears that I'm not going anywhere."