Marcia Cross: Back On Stage


Bryan Batt and Marcia Cross | Photo: Jeremy Daniel

Juan A. Ramirez
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August 28, 2023 9:45 AM

Marcia Cross, a striking, strong-jawed figure known for her indelibly delicious turns on TV hits like Melrose Place and Desperate Housewives, is making her return to the New York stage after a three decade hiatus. In Pay the Writer, now in performances at the Signature Center, the Juillard grad plays the long-suffering ex-wife of an older literary giant recently diagnosed with cancer.

Her entrance — a furious flash of satin commanding attention in a Vietnamese restaurant –  gives her audience the wit and glamor they’ve come to expect from the seasoned soap-turned-primetime star.

The part itself, however, provides an onstage outlet for issues with which the 61-year-old has become intimately familiar: while Cross’s first husband was several years her senior, her second and current partner was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2010, eight years before her own encounter with anal cancer. That revelation prompted her to boost awareness and end the stigma against her now-remitted disease, co-founding the HPV Cancers Alliance, for which she is still President. 

Now, on the heels of a recent modeling gig, the actor catches Theatrely up on how Marcia Cross’s life and times have led her to a momentous 2023. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length. 

Theatrely: I'm so excited that you're doing a play; I had no idea you were a stage actor.

Cross: Gosh, it's so funny when people say that because this was my first love and what I've always wanted to do, so I feel like I've finally come full circle. But the ‘why now’ really has to do with two things: the play and my children’s age. Doing a play in New York is really hard if you have kids in another state. But I did the reading of this a year ago and I just fell in love with the part, so here I am.

Were you specifically looking for a play?

I saw Glenn Daniels, a casting director from back in my New York days, on Twitter, or Instagram or something, and he asked me what I wanted to do. Out of my mouth came, “I want to do what I always wanted to do: I want to do plays!” Sure enough, it was, like, the next day, I opened my inbox and there was this play. It feels wonderful, I just feel home. It's so corny, I almost didn't say it, but that's how I feel now. I'm more lost in my kitchen than I am if you put me in the theater or on a set. It's where I feel like myself.

Had you worked with your co-stars Ron Canada or Bryan Batt before?

No, though I did a reading of the play with Bryan last year, and it has been a wonderful time getting to know Ron. As Sheldon Epps said to me before I went to work with him, “He's a fine actor.” That’s quite a compliment from him, and I was like, “Away I go!” He probably thought, “Oh, some TV actress.” But so far I think he's having a good time.

Is ‘TV actress’ a role you find yourself having trouble navigating your way out of? Do you ever find yourself being dismissed in that way?

Oh my god, I'm always dismissed. I was dismissed after Melrose Place. This is my problem: I create these iconic characters, which is not a good thing to do because then you have to wait until people forget about it. So I had that one. And then I do Desperate Housewives, and everybody thinks I’m that person. It's like, “Oh my god.” You know what I mean? It’s a constant thing in show business, so hopefully it's been long enough that… You know, I really don't care. At this point I’m just going to live my life and do my work.

I think things might have changed because, with social media, for better or worse, we don't associate actors with their roles as intensely. I would like to hope that the cultural legibility of the actress as not-the-character has improved since Housewives.

I never thought of that but, you’re right, it wasn't that way. I think that just kind of came with phones, because I remember Eva with her BlackBerry, and I’d be like, ‘What are you doing?’ You know? She was the first to do it. But there wasn't all that going on then, you didn’t get both the person and the actress.

Marcia Cross, Bryan Batt, and Ron Canada | Photo: Jeremy Daniel

How are you finding your way into your character here? We don't get too much concrete information about her past, but she's sort of the catalyst for a lot of the action.

She does say enough that you do know that she's an artistic, passionate woman who met an even more artistic, passionate man who was also a little bit older than her. That happens when you're young, you know, it's easy to get seduced by somebody – in this case, somebody very worthy — and you start to make a life with them and lose your own dreams because, if you suddenly have a baby, or whatever, it's very hard to get back into putting yourself first. I completely understand that for many, many reasons. To love somebody like that, I also understand. And I’ve done things like crazy Kimberly [from Melrose Place], so I like women a little on the edge. That's my happy space.

You have an interesting parallel with her in that someone you care about is diagnosed with cancer. Was that something that pulled you into the play or something you needed more time to think about?

At my age, at this point in my life, I'm very aware of time and loss. That's one of the great things about being elders, you have a lot to draw from. I don't shy away from any of that. If anything, that's the gift you bring as a more mature actress. 

Was your activism on that front something that came naturally to you? 

Well, I'm an Aries. I have very blunt horns at this point in my life because I'm pretty opinionated. My activism around my bout with cancer really just had to do with what kind of cancer it was because, lucky me, nobody wants anal cancer. I mean, it seems surreal as I sit here and say this but, had it been any other kind of cancer, I just would have gone on with my life. But because I am who I am and thought it was ridiculous people are so uptight about the anus, I had to change that.

I would read all over that people were so ashamed that they wouldn't tell others about it. There's also a lot of doctors who don't know about it, and I'm in touch with so many women who went to the doctor and were sent home thinking they had a hemorrhoid or something else, and then it progresses and they're looking at stage three cancer. Women need to be educated, doctors need to be educated.

Was it a completely foreign space for you to enter?

When I first said something, some friends showed me things people were tweeting that were kind of crass about me which, whatever, I understand because of the word “anal.” I remember talking to my oncologist going, “To hell with them, I'm not doing this. Why am I sticking my neck out there?” But then I was like, “Oh, snap out of it. Put on your big girl underpants and get on with it.” You’ve got to take some knocks. Let people be uncomfortable, let them say whatever they want to say.

It's a silly thing, I think about my obituary and it's going to say something about anal cancer. It's the funniest thing, the curves our lives take that we don't plan on. 

Looking at what you've been doing this year, though it seems your life is on a separate curve. You did an interview earlier this year where you mentioned that, after Desperate Housewives, you were waiting for your life's third act. Now you’re back onstage, you did a modeling campaign—

Come on, that was hysterical, right? I was like, “You want me to what?” But it was so fun. They just reached out to me out of the blue. And I thought, “Yeah, okay.” This year has been wonderful. I was out in London for the shoot and I went to this thing called Series Mania in France, which was extraordinary. And no, doing this play, this is really wonderful for me. I'm so happy again. I'm ridiculously happy. 

Do you feel this might be the third act you were talking about?

I hope so. I don't know, I thought it was going to look a different way. But if this is what it is, then it will have been worth the wait. I also think, unconsciously, even though after a few years of rest after Desperate, I’d go “Okay!” I think I didn't really want to leave home that much. Which is weird but, I think I waited so long to have my girls that I kind of knew it was going to go like that, which it has, and it'll be gone soon enough.

But, god, If I'm lucky to be able to do more theater, that would be great. And, you know, I'd love to do more TV or film as well, but never at, like, an eight year pace. But what we did [with Housewives], nobody really does anymore. I mean there's very few network shows like that. Most people do, like, ten or thirteen episodes then get a year off. We worked pretty much round the clock all year for all eight of those years. Are you kidding me? That sounds fabulous.

For more information on Pay the Writer, click here.

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Juan A. Ramirez

Juan A. Ramirez writes arts and culture reviews, features, and interviews for publications in New York and Boston, and will continue to do so until every last person is annoyed. Thanks to his MA in Film and Media Studies from Columbia University, he has suddenly found himself the expert on Queer Melodrama in Venezuelan Cinema, and is figuring out ways to apply that.