Constance Shulman has never courted celebrity. Her best job ever, she says, was working as a voice-over actor on the Emmy-nominated cartoon show “Doug” on Nickelodeon way back in the 1990s.
Of course, she is loving the success of her current gig, the Netflix series “Orange is the New Black,” but not so much the attention. She’s just one of a large ensemble cast working on the show set in a woman’s prison, portraying the kind-hearted and likable Erica “Yoga” Jones, but people are starting to recognize her.
“I’m a very private person, so while I really appreciate the audience out there for the show, I’m still just a little awkward dealing with the public,” said Shulman, a 57-year-old character actor who also had small roles in films such as “Fried Green Tomatoes,” “Men Don’t Leave,” “Reversal of Fortune” and “Fletch Lives.”
“When I first started out I wasn’t that crazy about autographs. Now we have selfies, so the ante is up. You’re walking down the street and people ask if they can get a photograph with you. I’m so appreciative of all the fans, but I guess I’m just old school and still a little shy.”
‘The Rose Tattoo’
WHERE: Williamstown Theatre Festival, ‘62 Center for Theatre and Dance, 1000 Main Street, Williamstown, Massachusetts.
WHEN: Opens at 8 p.m. today and runs through July 17; performance times vary
HOW MUCH: $40-$68
MORE INFO: (413) 597-3400, www.wtfestival.org
Before Shulman heads back to film the fifth season of “Orange is the New Black,” she’s spending much of her summer in the Berkshires performing at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in a production of “The Rose Tattoo” with Marisa Tomei. The show opens tonight and runs through July 17, and included in the cast is Shulman’s daughter, Gus Birney.
“My daughter got a part in the show, and she’s only 16 so she wasn’t about to come here by herself,” said Shulman. “So I came with her and I got this quirky little role. It’s been a very fun experience working with my daughter, and who knows how often that will happen again.”
Tennessee to NYC
Shulman was born in Johnson City, Tennessee, and moved to New York City in 1989 to pursue an acting career, landing a role as Annelle, the hairdresser, in an off-Broadway production of “Steel Magnolias.” In that year she also got a small part in the film “Fletch Lives” with Chevy Chase, and in 1990 was in “Men Don’t Leave” with Jessica Lange and “Reversal of Fortune” with Jeremy Irons.
In 1991 she played Missy in “Fried Green Tomatoes,” sharing three scenes with Kathy Bates’ character, Evelyn. Also among the cast were Mary-Louise Parker, Mary Stuart Masterson, Jessica Tandy and Cicely Tyson.
“That was a difficult time for me because my dad had died right before,” remembered Shulman. “So I was sad, but it also meant a lot because I knew he would have been so proud of me. He would have loved the film so much. It was bittersweet because he was gone, but it was really great to embrace the South and southern women that way. What I also remember about that film is that there were so many amazing actresses in it.”
After “Fried Green Tomatoes,” Shulman began working as the voice of Patti Mayonnaise in “Doug,” an animated series created by Jim Jinkins and based on Jinkins’ experience in the sixth grade.
“That was a fantastic job, the best job anyone could ever have,” said Shulman. “It was creative and fun, I got to work with a group of incredibly talented people, and I had a young baby at the time. I could bring the baby, I could wear pajamas if I wanted to; all they were worried about was my voice, which can be a very potent instrument.”
When she left the series in 1996, Shulman pretty much stopped acting to raise her two children. She remains married to their father, actor Reed Birney.
“After raising my children, I told my husband I might want to get back out there and test the waters,” she said. “It had been a long time, so I called a good friend who runs an agency and talked to him about sending me out on a few auditions and seeing how things worked out. Well, the first thing he talked about was this Netflix show where I would play a yoga instructor. I’m like, ‘what is Netflix?’
“So it was kind of like new territory, and I had no idea it would resonate with people the way it has. It’s such a varied audience, and they were not only willing to accept the show, the audience really thrived on the ladies’ lives in the show. I was very pleasantly surprised at how well the show was received.”
Back to the stage
As much as she enjoys her TV and film work, Shulman is eager to get back on the stage.
“I was at Williamstown about 30 years ago, and when I first got in this business I did a lot of theater in and around New York City,” she said. “You don’t really want to go off and do theater if you have young children, so this is the first time I’ve done this in a long time. It’s a completely different experience than TV or the movies. For an actor it’s so thrilling and exciting and terrifying. If I could afford to just do theater, then for me personally that would be the best job.”
Reach Gazette reporter Bill Buell at 395-3190 or [email protected]
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