The irrepressible Cybill Shepherd returns to TV in Mrs. Washington Goes to Smith, an original movie airing August 1 on the Hallmark Channel. In it she lives out a dream that many women—including, as she reveals below, herself—have had: to return to a college education that was interrupted and finally earn her degree. The story is set at Smith College, which operates the Ada Comstock Scholars Program for returning students. Along the way, the freshly divorced Mrs. Washington gets a makeover from her twentysomething roommate, is picked for the Smith basketball team and catches the eye of one of her younger professors. We talked to Shepherd about her back-to-school days.
MORE: What intrigued you about this movie?
CYBILL SHEPHERD: I’ve always loved stories about women who have lived certain lives and then face huge challenges. Especially women who are past the change—that’s what I like to call it instead of menopause. Alice Washington suffers a double whammy: Her children have flown the nest, then her husband, whom she dropped out of college to support when he was in dental school, dumps her for a younger woman. And then she gets to pick up her dream by becoming an Ada Comstock Scholar at Smith, which by the way is a real program.
What was your own college experience?
Well, I started modeling full time in New York and I went to Hunter night school, then the College of New Rochelle; I would commute out there two days and model three days a week. Then I transferred to Washington Square College at NYU and spent about a year there. I took very few courses because I was working full time by then as an actress. I think my last paper was on the rumor that Mozart composed the opening of Don Giovanni while he was playing billiards. Then once I moved to California I went to USC. I didn’t get my degree.
So this movie presented me with two things I would have loved to have done in my life: one was to graduate and the other was to play college basketball.
Really, you played basketball?
Just like Mrs. Washington, I played in high school, but back then girls weren’t allowed to dribble more than three times and we had to stay on one side of the court. The only competition was intramural in the school. If you wanted to play competitively outside, you went through your church league until eighth grade and in ninth grade private sororities played each other.
In preparing for this role I had eight sessions of three hours each with a Hall of Fame coach. I needed to look like I could make the shots; turns out I did make them. The one where you don’t see me make the basket was the last shot of the day and I said, "I’ll never get it." I was 50 feet out and I got it in. I said, "Oh my god! Why didn’t you have a camera on this?" And they said, "Because you said not to!"
Your character dates a younger man, a professor [played by Jeffrey Nordling]. You do a great double-take when he reveals his age.
I loved the aspect of him being younger than me. I want to find a man like that. I’ve definitely dated younger men, but I’d like to date the right younger man—or any kind of man. Yes, I’m single.
Your two youngest children are in college now, aren’t they?
Yes. I still suffer from the empty nest thing myself. When they come home and they bring all their friends, those are some of the happiest times. And when they leave, it’s an empty house. Once the kids are gone you have to find yourself again. But there’s also a chance to take on things. I couldn’t be out of town very long when they were in high school; now I’m ready to tackle more theater. I’d like to do a revival of Sweet Bird of Youth. I’m also developing a new cabaret act and republishing my memoir, Cybill Disobedience, as an e-book.
And you have a role in the new ABC series Eastwick, I hear.
Yes, I’m finally getting to play the witch of my dreams. [The series, like the 1987 film, is loosely based on John Updike’s novel The Witches of Eastwick; Lindsay Price, Rebecca Romijn and Jamie Ray Newman star.] I’m the ultimate older witch who shows the young ones that they don’t know anything compared to me.
Let’s switch gears and talk about playing Martha Stewart, which you did twice, in Martha, Inc. and Martha Behind Bars.
I just loved doing that. When I was developing the character, I sort of looked at her as Queen Elizabeth I—a person who often said, "Off with their heads." A woman who is incredibly powerful. Of course, I don’t imitate that; it becomes a kind of springboard for me.
[Martha Stewart] is a complicated woman. She’s a mentor, a kind of genius, and she’s had this huge success—and boy, has she worked for it. She also has a temper. We didn’t make that up in the movie. I’m thinking that if I have to do Martha Stewart again it might have to be a musical.
Have you ever met her?
I did, many years ago. I always fantasize that Martha will call me one day and say, "Thank you, Cybill, for doing such a wonderful job of portraying me." But I don’t think I’m at the top of her call list.
Mrs. Washington Goes to Smith airs on the Hallmark Channel August 1.