Out of the Spotlight
Out of the spotlight and in the wings, the actress-playwright is taking on motherhood, Hollywood, a famous spouse and Buster Keaton…all without breaking a sweat. This month’s BayouArtist is Vanessa Perkins.
article by Michael DeVault
If Vanessa Perkins Stewart was unaware of Buster Keaton’s legacy prior to about four years ago, that’s understandable. After all, the comedian had been dead for more than fifteen years by the time she made her way into the world. The success of recent films like The Artist not withstanding, silent movies aren’t exactly in vogue anymore.
“I wasn’t necessarily a Buster Keaton fan,” says Vanessa. “I just didn’t know him.”
That changed, though, one day midway through her courtship with actor French Stewart, a comedian in his own right who had experienced many of the same career highs and lows as Keaton. “When I first met French and we were falling in love, I found out that one of his greatest idols, one of the people he wanted to portray, was Buster Keaton,” she says.
Vanessa was intrigued. She wanted to get to know French better, to value the things that he valued, and if Keaton were so important to him, she felt she should know something about Keaton, too. So she did what any good student of the dramatic arts would do. She began to research Keaton’s life.
Buster Keaton’s legacy, by most measures, was the prototypical Hollywood powerhouse of the Silent Films era. Like many of his contemporaries, Keaton wrote, produced, directed and starred in his films. Film critic Roger Ebert called Keaton “arguably the greatest actor-director in the history of movies,” hardly faint praise for a man who completed the bulk of his work before the Great Depression. Keaton’s comedies set the benchmark for technical achievement—there were frequently massive sets, complex stunts and more times than not heavy machinery, such as automobiles, steam engines, even trains—and comedic acting. Some credit Keaton with the successful integration of slapstick humor and physical comedy to movies. Always, though, Keaton maintained the signature, expressionless façade that ultimately led to his nickname: Stone Face. By the end of 1929, though, Keaton’s career was finished. He had become as much a victim of the Sound Revolution as he was of his own creations. The world moved on, and it seemed for a time, it was perfectly content to do so without Stone Face.
The more Vanessa read, Keaton’s story began to make sense to her, especially in light of French’s own life so far. “As a writer, I was intrigued because I felt where Buster Keaton was in his life then was sort of where French was,” Vanessa says. After all, French Stewart had been a household name in the 1990s, when he was starring on the NBC hit show 3rd Rock From the Sun alongside John Lithgow and Jane Curtain. Stewart portrayed Harry, one of the four aliens sent to scout Earth ahead of a planned alien invasion. For much of the series, French’s “Harry” provided the physical comedy. Watching an episode today, it’s easy to see the connection and inspiration French drew from Keaton. It’s also mostly impossible not to recognize the striking physical resemblance the two men share. The similarities and similar acting styles made it plain why French would be a natural to portray Keaton in a biographical project. There was just one problem. Keaton’s greatest fame came when the actor was in his twenties, young even by Silver Screen era standards. By the time Vanessa and French became engaged, French was 45.
“He felt he was too old to play him,” Vanessa says. The matter of a suitable script was another issue all together. No one had sat down to work up the life of Buster Keaton in a dramatic form, though several had tried—including French himself.
“I could never figure out how to get to the story,” French tells BayouLife, of his interest in Keaton’s story. “But I wanted to play my hero.”
With no script and his age weighing on him, it seemed to French that the chance to play Buster Keaton would never come. Vanessa decided to change that, though. Or at least she’d put a hearty Louisiana girl effort into it. Shortly before they were married, Vanessa sat down at the keyboard and began to write. She stole moments away to tinker with scenes, to conduct covert research. All the while, she kept her project secret from her fiancé not because she wanted to surprise him, but because she was afraid of what might happen. Vanessa was hedging her bets. “I didn’t want to insult his hero,” Vanessa says. “If it was good, I decided I would give it to him. If it wasn’t I wouldn’t say anything.”
French’s 46th birthday was just around the corner, and Vanessa took that up as her deadline. She was working in Hollywood, acting, working in various levels of production, and had even done some writing. But she was still a working girl, so money was an object. So for French’s birthday, she booked a hotel room in Long Beach, took her fiancé, and then presented him with the script. “I said, ‘I can give you my mind and my heart, but I can’t afford to give you a whole lot else’,” Vanessa recalls. Together, she and French sat on the sofa in their beachside hotel room and read the script.
“It was the thing I wanted most,” French says. “It was the most beautiful gift you could give a person. She just handed me something she’d been working on for six months.”
And, according to French, Vanessa’s play was “everything he wanted and needed.” Vanessa cut right to the heart of the story, to the place that meant the most to French’s life in that moment, and the story came alive. “It was probably the most personal thing that anybody could give me. Once I read it, it just felt like she’d fixed my problem.”
A few months later, Stoneface premiered at a tiny theatre in Los Angeles. At just 99 seats, the house was tiny. But Vanessa credits the production with opening doors. “It gave us the right exposure we needed. Everybody came out to see it. We got great reviews and people came out to see it for months.”
Stoneface is hardly her only writing endeavor, and Louisiana is never far from her mind. She’s actively engaged in pitching a television series about New Orleans’s Storyville community to cable networks. That endeavor finds Vanessa partnering with producer-director Taylor Hackford, who keeps a home in New Orleans with his wife, Helen Mirren. “We start pitching at the end of May,” Vanessa says. She likens Storyville to Boardwalk Empire, and says with a little luck, the show could enter production pretty quickly. “It depends on how excited the network is and how much they believe in us.”
In late June, Stoneface will open at the Pasadena Playhouse, a 700-seat powerhouse of West Coast theatre that has sent more than a few Tony Award-winning plays and musicals to Broadway. Last year’s Tony-nominated A Night With Janis Joplin is just one play that’s made its way from the Pasadena Playhouse to New York. The Stewart-Stewart production of Stoneface is set for a four-week engagement with an option for an additional two weeks. Then? Vanessa’s hopeful.
“We’re looking to move to New York after this,” she says. “We’re trying to get the horses lined up and the ducks in a row.”
There’s reason for her optimism, too. The producers attached to Stoneface have an existing relationship with the Manhattan Theatre Club, and they’re excited about the possibilities for the play. “It’s not a Waiting for Guffman kind of optimism. It’s a realistic possibility,” she says, referring to the Christopher Guest comedy about a troupe of community theatre actors from Missouri.
Her community theatre roots have never been far from Vanessa’s heart. When she and French travel to Monroe, they visit Strauss and the kids there, take part in frequent YoungTroupe reunions, and even find time for breakfast with her old director, Cathy Webb.
Webb says she’s not surprised that Vanessa has come so far in the world of show business. She’s watched Vanessa’s career with optimism, amusement and pride ever since she met Vanessa as a girl. “She was six or seven, and it was 1985,” says Webb. “She was a very tiny little one.”
Vanessa was part of the cast of Magic Theatre a children’s ensemble show, where she took part in a segment called “The World of Yellow.” Webb recalls first meeting Vanessa. “I really just have this image of looking down at her and thinking ‘Now this one has determination!’
More acting followed, then came musicals and, eventually, the first true love of Vanessa’s theatre life—Shakespeare. Vanessa credits a trip to the Alabama Shakespeare Festival with awakening her love of classical theatre, her first exposure to professional theatre. She decided then she wanted to be an actress. “It made me want to be in the world more,” Vanessa says of the trip.
She went on to play Juliet in a YoungTroupe production of Romeo and Juliet, before eventually attending the Oxford School of Drama in England, where she was roommates with Busy Philips and attended classes with Zach Knighton, who would go on to star in Happy Endings. Acting was her first love, she fell into writing, but now with the arrival of their first child, Vanessa is returning her attention to performance, which she’s never strayed too far from. While she was pregnant, Vanessa shot the film The List, starring Almost Famous‘s Patrick Fugit and Doctor Who‘s Karen Gillian. She also is pursuing several other opportunities to appear on screen, though it’s too soon to reveal those, she says.
Meanwhile, she has a major champion in her husband, and a tremendous opportunity with Stoneface. “We’re very proud of the show,” says French. “And I’m very proud of my wife.”