Photographs spill out of big manila envelopes, making a mess of Dana Delany’s coffee table. There’s one of Dana at about age five, chubby and jubilant, a Mexican hat on her head and dish of M&M’s in her hand. There’s the actress at 16, with frosted hair, and another snap taken a few years later, after she opted for a perm. She grimaces, but fondly, as she appraises them: the head shots (doe-eyed ingenue, strong-jawed heroine, and one that she calls her Shannen Doherty look); the captured moments from her film, theater and TV work; the Polaroids from countless photo shoots and a pile of candids with her family and friends.
As she shows me a group portrait of her father, uncle and paternal grandfather (“I identify with all of them. We’re all Irishmen”), I start to divine a pattern, which continues to emerge as she offers up shots from her fiftieth birthday party four years ago, which was hosted by her best friend, who happens to be male. “I was his best man at his wedding,” she says, and I’m tempted to comment, but Delany beats me to it.
“The thing I notice is I’m hanging with the boys,” she says, fanning the photos in front of her. Only later will I realize she is leading up to the most surprising moment of our interview.
No conversation with Delany is dull, and during my time in her high-ceilinged modern house in West Los Angeles she will sound off about sex after 50, menopause and swimming with dolphins. She will discuss her ongoing spiritual search and talk about remaining unmarried while truly liking men. Still, I’m caught off guard when Delany reveals that in her dreams, she imagines being a man. And not just any man, but—wait for it—George Clooney.
“It might sound funny, but I wouldn’t mind being the female version of him,” she says, explaining that she doesn’t know Clooney, really, unless you count the time 23 years ago when he was on The Facts of Life and Delany was doing a sitcom called Sweet Surrender and they shared a makeup room. “I wish we shared a dressing room!” she jokes. “I can’t honestly say I know him, but I’ve watched him from afar, and I really admire what he does.”
It is clear, as she ticks off Clooney’s charitable works, his savvy acting choices, his reputation for being a great, loyal friend and, yes, the fact that “he honestly says, ‘I’m not getting married. It doesn’t interest me,’ ” that this perpetually single, politically active Emmy-winning actress has thought through the Delany/Clooney comparison. She has also thought about how it will sound.
“I know—people are going to say, ‘Oh, she wants to be a playgirl,’ ” she says. “But that’s not what I mean. I like him because he’s a responsible human being who loves his life. Who is totally true to himself.”
You don’t have to spend much time with people who know and love Delany to understand how precisely her description of Clooney also describes her. Delany is warm, open and supremely comfy in her own skin, her friends and colleagues say, and that gives her easy access to a generosity that can be uncommon in Hollywood.
“She’s just a doll,” says Marc Cherry, the creator of ABC’s Desperate Housewives, who considers Delany one of his five leading ladies despite the fact that she didn’t join the show until its fourth season. (Delany was his first choice for the role of Bree; she turned it down, three times. Now she plays Katherine Mayfair, a divorcée who this season was accidentally shot and spent time in a mental hospital.)
“Dana knows she’s talented, and that gives her an inner peace that a lot of people in this town don’t have,” Cherry continues. “She doesn’t take herself so seriously, and she’s genuinely interested in people’s lives. A lot of actresses can be narcissistic. Not so with our Dana.”
Her current prime-time success has afforded Delany some perks; for example, she just bought her first New York apartment, in Greenwich Village. And her agent tells her that movie executives are showing more interest than they have in years. (Although she’s been in her share of films, becoming a fixture on Desperate Housewives—seen all over the world—has upped the likelihood that she will pull in foreign box office.)
But for her, being part of what is currently TV’s most successful female ensemble show also seems ironic. For despite all of Delany’s female fans—many of whom have followed her since she played the stoic nurse
Colleen McMurphy on the late-1980s Vietnam War drama China Beach—she has always been the girl who hangs with the boys.
HERE IN HER LIVING ROOM, the photo collection—which MORE has asked us to browse through—occupies us only briefly because she’s eager to get past the reminiscing. “I tend to be an emotional person,” she explains, settling into a shell-pink couch that complements the long-sleeve, pink-and-white striped T-shirt she’s wearing with jeans; her hair is still wet from the shower. “I don’t like looking through photos,” she adds, “because you go down that dark hole, and it takes me forever to get out of it.”
Delany was born into an Irish-Catholic family with an interesting legacy: Her great-grandfather perfected the Delany Flush Valve for toilets, and her grandfather and father carried on the business. She was raised in the suburbs, at the end of a cul-de-sac in Stamford, Connecticut, that wasn’t all that different from Wisteria Lane.
Delany says her spiritual curiosity emerged in childhood. “Even as a little kid, I remember walking around waiting for God to speak to me—to give me the sign that this would be my calling and I would be a nun.” But she also loved to read, daydream and perform on stage. So although she went to Mass regularly until she was 16, a convent would not be in her future.
“As a kid I was a loner,” she says, recalling that as a “chubby” girl she didn’t feel particularly pretty. “Everybody else wanted to play sports and hang out with friends and go shopping. My favorite thing was to sit on a rock and pretend it was a horse. I would make things up.”
Delany attended exclusive schools—Phillips Academy in Andover for part of high school and Wesleyan University—but she balks at the way she’s sometimes been characterized as a dilettante who inherited a fortune. She points out that she has supported herself since she was 22. Still, she acknowledges that growing up she wanted for nothing—except perhaps a more supportive mother. To wit: When Delany was in junior high, her mother, an interior designer, suggested she get a breast reduction.
“I just think she didn’t want me to be competitive,” Delany says, noting that her mom is smaller.
Ah, Delany’s big breasts. She has never shied away from talking about them, about how men view them as assets and so does she. While promoting the racy 1994 S&M comedy Exit to Eden, in which she played a dominatrix, she told Newsweek that the way she found out what size gloves to buy for a beau was to place a male colleague’s hand on her boob (“Definitely a large,” she said). It’s not a braggy thing—spoken in her voice it just sounds factual, even pragmatic.
It’s the same with sex: She likes it. A lot. She tells me it has changed as she’s gotten older, though mostly for the better. “Here’s the difference after 50: Your hormones change,” she says. “So much of our lives is driven by hormones—sexual, procreative hormones. Believe me, I’m still very sexual, but I’m sexual in a much more energetic, spiritual sense, which is deeper and more fun.”
Is she willing to be more explicit about younger versus older libido? Just try to stop her. In her younger days, she says, “I had times with people where it was ego-driven or where you just wanted to have an orgasm. It was like, ‘Let’s get to the endgame.’ ” Now, however, “great sex means it could go on for hours—and I’m not talking like Sting,” she says, referring to the rock star’s alleged interest in tantric sex. “Poor Sting has been so misquoted. But, you know, you take a break. You eat something. You talk, you laugh, you hang out. It’s ongoing and it’s sexy, and your whole life can be like that. Of course, you end up having a lot of orgasms, which is a bonus.”
Ever the girl who can hang with the boys, Delany has repeatedly dared to make choices and say things that you’d more likely expect to see or hear from a man. Apart from her remarks about sex (she once told an interviewer that she buys Playboy not for the articles but for the pictures), there has been her evolving attitude toward marriage. Sometimes she has spoken almost glibly about being single, gaily telling one reporter: “No pets, no plants, no children.” Once, analyzing what ended her 1980s romance with actor Treat Williams, she said, “I realized that I didn’t want to be with Treat, I wanted to be Treat. I wanted to have his confidence and power.” In other words, subsuming herself into a love relationship might cost her.
At other times, though, she has made marriage sound like an extreme sport she’d love to get the chance to master. Shortly after she turned 50, she told MORE she thought she was finally ready to get married. But now Delany, who is dating a movie producer, says marriage is no longer something she thinks about. “I feel so fulfilled in my life, and I’m so content being by myself that if it were to happen, that would be great, but it’s not a priority,” she says. So what changed in the last couple of years? “I think I was still reacting to the outside world and society. I sort of feel like I’ve found myself, that child, again—the one who was so happy to be out on a rock pretending it was a horse.”
Given the realities of her job, Delany’s serenity is impressive. Meryl Streep aside, Hollywood metes out tough punishment to actresses over a certain age. Delany, for all her talent, hasn’t ever truly broken through on the big screen. And as she’s gotten older, she’s watched herself be professionally eclipsed by younger women. Her friend Annabeth Gish alludes to this in recalling True Women, the 1997 TV movie on which they met. “Dana was the headliner, then me, and then there was another actress, named Angelina Jolie,” Gish remarks wryly. Enough said.
DELANY’S FRIEND James Ellroy, the novelist, thinks he knows what protects her from bitterness. He calls the actress, a longtime devoted yogi, “the eastern swami type. She cares about people in a non-sappy way. I think what Dana understands is that living solely in the material world is unacceptable. And a big fat drag besides.”
Take, for example, her house. It’s lovely, but simple. She bought it in 1990, and until she added the New York apartment, it was the only home she owned. It has made sense to her to live within her means (she rents out the guesthouse to this day) in order to have money to travel and to pass up acting jobs unless she really wants them.
Right now, Desperate Housewives occupies only about three days of Delany’s week, which is good, because she has other things going on. She is actively involved with six charitable organizations—“two diseases, two political, two arts” (those would be Stand Up to Cancer, the Scleroderma Research Foundation, the Creative Coalition, NARAL Pro-Choice America, New York Stage and Film and the Ojai Playwrights Conference). “And then,” she adds, “there’s all the New Age stuff.”
With that, she tells me the story of the dolphins. Over Christmas 2008, Delany swam with 400 of them off the Hawaii coast and emerged thinking about death. Or, to be more precise, about her utter lack of fear about death. Delany says that the day of the swim, as she was mulling over who in the world would miss her when she was gone, three people popped into her mind. And when she woke up from a deep, post-dolphin nap, two of those people had called or texted her. Out of the blue.
“I told them what I had been thinking, and we had these really heavy conversations,” Delany recalls, concluding, “That’s all that interests me these days: Who can I really connect to in the deepest sense?”
Delany has a six-year contract with Desperate Housewives, so at least for the near term, her Katherine Mayfair will be shaking things up on Wisteria Lane. (In a spring-season plot twist, she’s locking lips with a woman. As Delany has joked with Cherry, becoming a lesbian is not becoming a man, but it’s close.)
Ellroy has a long-term vision of Delany’s future. “What is she now, 54? When she moves into her sixties, she’ll be the doyenne,” he predicts. “And she can get some kind of groovy Barbara Stanwyck gig, like The Big
Valley,” the late-1960s TV series on which Stanwyck played a nineteenth-century rancher who wielded a bullwhip and an iron will with equal skill. You know—a woman capable of doing a man’s job. “I’m not much for whips,” Ellroy says, “but Dana would look good with a whip in her hands.”
Amy Wallace has profiled Jamie Lee Curtis, Holly Hunter and Meg Whitman for More.
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