Decades of work on stage, screen, and television and the love of three devoted men sounds like a full life; but in many ways, the story is just beginning for veteran performer Joan Benedict Steiger. With credits dating back to the original “Candid Camera” on television to her acclaimed solo performance as Leona Helmsley, she has lived the artistic life she first dreamed of as a child in Brooklyn, New York – and the dream shows no signs of ending.
Joan talked to us about her career and life in Los Angeles.
You got started in the performing arts early on in life. Did your parents decide it would be best for you, or did you make the decision on your own?
I definitely made the decision myself. I was seven when I decided to be an actress. I saw Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire in “Top Hat.” When I came out of the theater, into the street, I ran back into theater saying I didn’t want to be part of the outside world. I decided then that I wanted to be part of the world of Ginger and Fred. I started tap and ballet at eight. I had always wanted to be a dancer. Later in my teen years, I decided to pursue acting as well.
Did you find you had a natural gift for performing, or did you have to cultivate the skill?
I had a natural gift for tap dancing and, at the time, ballet. When I started acting lessons at 15 I was always very shy, which most actors are. It was not that easy for me because I was too shy to express my emotions. It wasn’t until I started acting on the stage that I was able to overcome that shyness. It took a lot of hard work.
What is one of your fondest memories of being on the stage?
One of my fondest memories is when I did the one-woman show “Leona” about Leona Helmsley. For being such a shy person, I was always playing very strong women. I was alone on stage an hour and 10 minutes with no intermission.
What was it like working with Robert Lewis and Stella Adler?
Fabulous. Bobby Lewis! I was his favorite. He was just fabulous. That’s when I really came out of my shell, with Bobby Lewis. He thought I was wonderful and that gave me so much confidence. The same goes for Stella. She was not that critical, but didn’t say much either. I did a scene from “A Street Car Named Desire” for Stella and she didn’t say anything. As I was leaving at the end of class, she grabbed my arm and said, “Bravo.”
What are some of the things you learned from Lewis and Adler that you still apply to your craft on a regular basis?
I learned mostly to know the environment that you are living in. I remember when we were doing our scenes from “A Street Car Named Desire” Stella had said to one actor, “I don’t believe you live there.” Be sure that before you make an entrance, think of where were you before you make this entrance. There’s a preparation for an entrance. If you live there, make sure you know everything about the space and the environment that you’re working in. Know the circumstances that brought you to the scene.
On the surface it seems there are many differences between working on the stage and working on a film scene. What is one of them?
On the stage you have the continuity and when you’re working on film, scenes are shot out of sequence. You have a chance to re-do a scene in film.
We've read you sit facing the door at your favorite restaurant in Malibu to observe people as they walk in. What are some of the things you've taken away from your people watching?
Excellent material and character choices for my acting, especially body language.
If you could give just one piece of advice to the aspiring actors out there, what would it be?
Never listen to the naysayers, if it’s unconstructive criticism. If you are sincere about being an actor, you will work hard, dedicate yourself and study. Learn everything you can about every subject, every person. The more you can put in your reservoir of knowledge the better an actor you will become.
You've already done so much; what's next for you?
God I wish I knew! (laughs) Living! To find another handsome, talented, esoteric guy.