Candice Bergen has a pointer or two up her sleeve at any given moment.
“The word is ‘miffed.’ You were ‘miffed,’” she corrects me after I used “muffed” to (incorrectly) explain how I was feeling. “I direct people all the time," she said. "I’m really annoying.”
While it’s impossible to capture someone’s essence in a 30-minute conversation, I wondered if Bergen is a serious person or the type who doesn’t take anything too seriously. Maybe both? After all, the 74-year-old actor has been in the public eye for more than six decades.
“My life is an inwardly focused, mid-70s sort of life,” Bergen said of her current state of affairs. “All of my splashing and adventuring is in the past. My life is contained and not without complications, but it's a very, very nice life. My dog just jumped up on the sofa with me; he's a big part of it. I have a 6-month-old grandson. He is a big arrival in everyone's life as it should be.”
In anticipation of her new film, HBO Max’s “Let Them All Talk,” Bergen chatted with TODAY from her residence in New York City about the many acts of her life, and how her latest role as a grandmother may be the most rewarding one of all.
From ‘Murphy Brown’ to improvisation
Best known for portraying the titular role on the TV series “Murphy Brown,” which aired from 1988 to 1998, Bergen had to push herself out of her comfort zone for “Let Them All Talk,” a film directed by Steven Soderbergh that relied more on the actors’ improvisational skills than a script.
“I was very concerned about (improvising) at first,” she told TODAY. “But once we started doing it, it kept things much more alive, and you had to pay attention. I sometimes suffer from ADHD” — attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. “My daughter diagnosed it, and I really had to stay focused. I mean, you couldn't drift off in the middle of any scene because you had to know what you were going to be saying coming back. I liked the surprise of it.”
In the film, Bergen stars with Meryl Streep and Dianne Wiest, who play lifelong friends looking to reconnect after their friendships have deteriorated over the years. Bergen plays Roberta, a down-on-her-luck lingerie saleswoman who is trying to earn some redemption as well as some quick cash.
“I thought Roberta was a fantastic character and I loved her,” Bergen said of her role in the film, which primarily takes place on the transatlantic ocean liner Queen Mary 2. “She was a real survivor, but she had a great sense of humor. She was very resourceful, and she was on the boat to hunt. I mean, she was going to find the guy because she was tired of selling lingerie to Houston matrons. But she was such a good time gal.”
Roberta represents a bit of a departure from the roles audiences are used to seeing Bergen play — like the judgmental politico mother-in-law (“Sweet Home Alabama”), the uptight editor-in-chief (“Sex and the City”) or the pageant coordinator out for revenge (“Miss Congeniality”). Here, Bergen seems to be a little more common, and that shift seems to work. Critical reviews have praised all three of the main actors in the film — especially Bergen.
But amid the fanfare, Bergen insists that she is shocked. “I thought this was a little tiny movie,” she said. “I thought: 'Three older women talking? Who will give a damn?' And it turns out that a lot of people do.”
Many acts: Modeling, movies, journalism and comedy
Born on May 9, 1946, in Beverly Hills, California, Bergen is the daughter of a famous ventriloquist and model; she first began performing alongside her father’s puppets before she herself began modeling as a teenager. After spending two years at the University of Pennsylvania, she left school in Philadelphia for life in New York City. “I got pulled in another direction,” she said.
Her screen debut was in the 1966 film “The Group,” which follows a band of recent college grads into their 20s. The film explores controversial topics for the time period; Bergen’s character is a lesbian.
“I had just turned 19 and left two years of college and this movie came up and I thought, ‘Well, why not?’” she said of accepting the LGBTQ role when so few existed. “I didn't have many lines. It was a very small part. My mother was, of course, bereft because she said, ‘Your first role you have to do a lesbian? You start with an ingenue!’ It was a lot for a parent ... I understood.”
From there, Bergen appeared in a slew of films, but it was also during these years that she dabbled in journalism. “There was a period in the '70s when I did a lot of photojournalism and I would do stories, and I would take pictures, and I would travel around and just focus on things that interested me,” she said. “The Ku Klux Klan, women coal miners, stuff like that. I sort of didn't do many movies.”
"We stayed way too long at the fair with ‘Murphy' but it was such a comfortable, gratifying work environment."
Bergen even worked for TODAY as a correspondent, once interviewing Barbara Walters for a segment. When “60 Minutes” came calling with a full-time job, she declined. “I knew it would be fraud,” she said. “I knew that the other journalists would go nuts. I also didn't want to do it full time, so I just thought it was risk-fraught.”
Bergen soon found her way back to acting, appearing in films like “Starting Over,” “Rich and Famous” and “Gandhi.”
NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” which launched in 1975, offered opportunities to break new ground. That inaugural season, she became the first woman ever to host the late-night comedy show, the first host asked back only a few weeks later, and the first host to appear in sketches (before her, only musicians and stand-up comics served as hosts, and they didn’t partake in the skits). Then in 1990, she was the first female to join SNL’s Five-Timers Club.
“That was really fun because the elevator operators in Rockefeller Center didn't understand what a phenomenon the show was and we all would do a (sketch),” she said. “The cast was dressed like bees and I was dressed like Sonja Henie, who was a famous figure skater from Norway, and we all went down in the elevators in costume with our ice skates on.”
“The elevator men didn't crack a smile and didn't even look at us,” she said. “Then we skated around on the ice, only none of us could really skate and it was so much fun. ‘SNL’ was just pure terror and pure exhilaration.”
In 1988, she used her real-life journalism experience to become the fictional news correspondent Murphy Brown. “We stayed way too long at the fair with ‘Murphy,' but it was such a comfortable, gratifying work environment and we all become a real family with your cast and crew people,” she said.
Family time and Instagram scrolling in quarantine
Today, Bergen is doing what most septuagenarians are doing in quarantine, spending time with family while also trying to figure out technology. (Before our call, she had a “technological nightmare” trying to join a Zoom call with TODAY’s Hoda Kotb, Streep and Wiest, something she said was “humiliating.”)
While she hasn’t quite figured out Zoom, she’s fallen hard for Instagram. “I have wasted countless hours on Instagram,” she said. “I love the glimpses that it gives you into people's lives. I don’t really follow anyone, just sort of see what floats up on my screen.”
Bergen offers a glimpse into her own life on the photo- and video-sharing service with her popular Bergen Bags project, for which she paints delicate drawings on vintage designer bags. All the proceeds go to a good cause, including many animal charities.
Also on her feed? Photos of her darling grandson, Arthur Louis Albert. Her daughter, Chloe Malle, gave birth to him in May, and Bergen’s feed suggests she was made for the role of doting grandmother.
“It was very fraught,” Bergen said of her daughter's birth happening during the early months of the pandemic. “I walked her to the hospital from the gynecologist, and then she had a very difficult time for a few weeks, and that was very stressful.”
But Bergen adds what she is loving most about being a grandmother is seeing her daughter become a mother. “What's lovely is seeing her become such a natural mom,” she explained. “She is so patient and loving with him. It’s great. And her face has changed, and her voice is lowered. She is so good. She is also a worker bee, but she is just so loving taking care of this baby.”
Bergen is looking forward to the future with her grandson, and it comes as no surprise that she is most excited about teaching him a thing or two.
“I'm looking forward to him being older,” she said. “I have lots of conversations with myself all the time with him. Like on the plane, I was thinking of how I would take him to Japan and explain the Japanese and all the contradictions, and I will take him to Kyoto.
“I have a barn near him and I'm going to have classes. I'm going to have a whiteboard and I'm going to explain the sun and the moon and the Earth's rotation. He is going to be working."