Real Gals is a series in collaboration with GlamourGals, a nonprofit that encourages teens to volunteer in senior homes across the country. The series features profiles on women of all ages, with a special focus on older women—the things they're accomplishing and how they've made their mark on the world.
Caroline Thomas is a 72-year-old acting teacher and poet living in New York City. She pursued acting because of her mother, Elissa Landi, who was an Old Hollywood movie star. When Caroline was 4, her mother died from cancer at 44. Caroline spent most of her childhood with her grandparents in Rings Island, a marshy town at the northeastern tip of Massachusetts. She was close to her father, Curtis, although, as a professor who taught in New Jersey, he was away a lot. After college she moved to Europe with her father where they lived for five years. Caroline immersed herself in the post-war culture there and attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art before heading back to New York City to pursue acting. Today, she runs her own acting school, the Total Theatre Lab, where she's worked with actors like Zoe Saldana, Laura Prepon, James Gandolfini, David Duchovny and Devin Druid. (NBD!) Here, Caroline talks about coping with losing her mother at such a young age, her unique teaching style, and her thoughts on aging.
On losing her mother at a young age
"I didn't mourn her consciously—I think this happens when you're 4. You just put it down into the unconscious. It's all there, but you don't remember it. I had a great deal of material about her. She published six novels, she made 39 movies, and she was still very famous when I was a child. She also left a legacy of letters. I would go up to the attic when I was a child and root around in these trunks, but nothing ever brought her back. Then I got cancer six years ago, the same illness she had, and when I came out of that I realized my mother did not abandon me. And I understood many things about problems I've had in my life. I always thought people would leave. So I would put them at arm’s length so I would have control, so they wouldn't just disappear. Of course, people disappeared anyway [laughs]. I do remember my mother now a little bit, after six years of intensive work, mostly through teaching and writing—I've written over 100 poems and several stories, in which I appear using the name of one of my mother's most famous movie characters. She was an extraordinary woman and her legacy has followed me a great deal. She was charming and present and warm, despite all the kind-of-frosty parts she played."
On her struggles at boarding school
"I went to the girls’ division of Andover, which was called Abbot Academy in those days. It’s in Massachusetts, not far from where I grew up. I was a terrible student. I always had a learning problem, which I think has to do with the upsets in my early childhood. I always thought I was quite stupid, actually [laughs]. I have the grades to prove it. I didn’t concentrate. I have only been able to learn alone, by myself. I trained myself to learn later."
On living in France and England with her father
"After I finished two years at Barnard College, my father decided to leave his job and I moved with him to Europe in the late summer of 1964. I stayed there for five years. That really formed a great deal of my life afterward—it was an extraordinary experience. I went to France first: to Aix-en-Provence for a year and then Paris for a year. I studied acting and some singing. I was soaking up the post-war culture, which I was drawn to. That really formed my political stance, which is very liberal. Then I went to England and I got into the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. I was there for three years. My life has been very interesting and that’s really due to my father—he just took me around. He knew all kinds of people; he was interested in everybody. I was a fly on the wall—I picked up everything by just watching."
On being an actress vs. a teacher
"I pursued acting because of my mother, but I don't see myself as an actress. I didn't enjoy acting. I was shy then; I still am. I've forced myself to deal with it and teaching has helped a great deal because I'm not shy when I teach. I have two talents: one is for teaching, the other is for writing, which I developed over many, many years on my own. When I came back to New York after being in Europe, I had something of an acting career. I mostly did theater. I also cast a film called Anna. The star of the movie was Sally Kirkland and she was nominated for an Academy Award for that part. So that moved me along. I very quickly started to shift over into the idea of teaching. My father was a teacher and he would always bring his students around to the house, which I do, too. I like the interaction. I finally learned to act through teaching it. I know what it is now. I know what acting really is."
On meeting her husband, Robert
"I’ve been married three times. My first husband was Jewish, my second husband was Greek, and my current husband of 28 years is a Polish extraction. You know, I’ve been around [laughs]. Very lucky the third time. I met Robert in an acting class 41 years ago. We went out together for a little while. He decided to move on and had the grace to tell me in person. Ten years later when he turned up again, I agreed to see him. Then we got married and had a child. I have two children: a son, Robert, from my first marriage and a daughter, Elissa, with Robert. We have a wonderful family. That’s been a very good part of my life in latter years, but difficult earlier. I started Total Theatre Lab with Robert when we got married. He renovated our first venue and built tiny theaters in different loft spaces—our lights were fashioned from discarded 105 oz. tomato cans he found in the garbage. He created props and built furniture—the most outstanding was a dumb waiter for a production of Harold Pinter’s play The Dumb Waiter. I could never have done it without Robert. He has evolved into a wonderful actor and maybe we'll start teaching together one of these days!"
On aging and feeling invisible
"Well, I’m overlooked, which in some ways I like because I see how I profited from attention that was often only due to my decent looks when I was younger. There’s the sort of person who regards old people as useless and in the way—or just has no idea how to relate to them. Generally I find that I’m more invisible, but it seldom bothers me. If I’m invisible to someone because of my age, I’m generally not interested in them either. They wouldn’t be the kind of person who would interest me in the first place. I’m grateful for the seat that’s offered me on the bus or subway, but I don’t expect it. Some days I feel 100 and other times age doesn’t even come into it. Being old can be good because you have the experience of life to draw on. But if you don’t feel well, the awareness of being old is more likely to go on and on, and that can be tedious or terrifying. I put up a fight, I try in every way I can to battle the ill effects of aging, with vitamins, attitude and exercise, and by demanding that doctors pay attention. I'm working harder than I ever have and the aging process definitely makes long hours and hard work more difficult."
On acting and her teaching style
"I think acting's good training, even for people who don't pursue it, because you learn to communicate better. The great moments are when I'm just sitting in a room with a student and we're working on their [script] and I can see when they get it. That basic thing that feeds acting always comes from the inside—it's not about anybody else; it's being able to channel the character through yourself. I'm a great believer in method acting but not the version that was so popular years ago—I've made a few changes. The big thing that I do is I put the methods together, but I don't line them up side by side; they feed into each other. I teach them simultaneously. I don't know if anyone else does that. Acting is fiendishly difficult and my students—all of them—are in large part responsible for the evolution of my teaching content and style."
Photographs provided by Caroline Thomas