Cybill Shepherd plays haughty well. That’s why she’s so successfully portrayed Martha Stewart twice in films and often ends up with roles like the one you’ll see this Sunday on “Drop Dead Diva,” the Lifetime dramedy shot in Peachtree City.
In the episode. Shepherd is a fashion editor nicknamed “Queen of Mean” who sues a former employee about to release a tell-all book against her. Jane, played brilliantly by Brooke Elliott, has to defend Shepherd.
“Brooke’s a real hard worker,” said Shepherd, who talked to me by phone from her hotel room in New York City today. “The way she plays that part is wonderful. She’s so funny. And then she moves me. There’s really a lot of emotion in there.”
She also had worked on a recent Lifetime movie hit starring Jennifer Love Hewitt, “The Client List,” which last week drew 3.9 million viewers, the second most popular made-for-cable movie of the year.
“Between those two projects,” she said, “I’ve had the most fun in I don’t know how long.”
In fact, Shepherd hopes to return next year to “Drop Dead Diva.” Some guest stars have already made repeat appearances such as Rosie O’Donnell and Paula Abdul.
Shepherd made headlines in Atlanta three years ago when she opened the one-woman play “Curvy Widow” at the Alliance Theatre. Shepherd stumbled her way through opening night jitters, resulting in an AJC review by Wendell Brock so brutal, it drew curiosity seekers and helped the show sell out for weeks. (I can’t find the review anymore online but this story talks about it. And here’s a bit from our AJC archives: “Perhaps it was opening night jitters. But in my six years of reviewing theater for this newspaper, I have never seen a performance as embarrassing and painful to watch as this.”)
“I felt like I was slimed,” she said, by the review. “I was excoriated. The only thing good the guy had to say about me was my hair. I couldn’t act. I was not funny.” She then laughed a long time, recalling how not funny it was to her at the time. The show ended up going to San Francisco. Once “Curvy Widow” got straightened out and she got used to what she had to do, she received better reviews.
Shepherd said she can’t help reading negative critiques. “People will come up to me and say, ‘Don’t read it!’ But you can’t learn anything if you don’t read it. I’m always looking for constructive criticism.”
And too much good press, she said, “can be more dangerous. If we start to think we’re that good, we may not work so hard to be better.”
Shepherd then said people presume her life is always glamorous and easy since she’s an actress. She whipped out an example from her first film “The Last Picture Show” in 1970 that it’s not all limousines and first-class hotels. “We were in this scene riding in a convertible. It was 20 degrees. It was freezing. I had to wear a light summer dress. I had to do everything I could not to have my teeth chatter!”
Shepherd said before “Moonlighting,” she had done a lot of plays and is open to doing more down the road, including a revival of “Mame” and the Tennessee Williams play “Sweet Bird of Youth.”
“Those plays,” she noted, “are a lot better than ‘Curvy Widow!’ ”
Now 60, she said she admires role models such as Lillian Gish, a Hollywood legend for more than 60 years, and Academy Award winning actress Ingrid Bergman. who worked until the final year of her life in film. She also loves Betty White. (I mean, who doesn’t?). “She’s my idol!” Shepherd said. In fact, she wants to be on “Hot in Cleveland,” the TV Land show White co-stars in. “They need a blond!” she cracked.
“Let me write that down,” she said, facetiously. “Guest star on ‘Hot in Cleveland!’ ”
Besides fishing out more movie and TV roles, she’s putting together her own one-person show, perhaps with cabaret elements. And she has three independent movies coming out soon.
We then got into more serious matters: her support of gay rights. Last year, she came to Atlanta to accept an Atlanta Human Rights Campaign award.
And last month, she said she had her most proud moment of her life receiving a GLAAD Golden Gate award from her two daughters.
“My sister died a year ago,” she said. “She was a lesbian. She lived in fear her whole life she’d be found out. She was in that kind of place and time in Memphis.”
And she naturally supports gay marriage. “Why are they so afraid?” she said. “We’re not forcing anybody to marry anybody. And nobody is forcing anybody to be gay or lesbian. It’s another excuse to treat a human being as less than a human being to deny their full rights.”
You can watch her on “Good Morning America” today promoting the show, which she did before she talked to me: