On the set of “Two and a Half Men,” Holland Taylor as Evelyn Harper is cooing her thanks for “the lovely birthday card” to everyone but her son Charlie, who appears to have forgotten the occasion.
Evelyn keeps pushing Charlie’s buttons and he starts to rant about her faults, including her “astounding narcissism.”
It’s a typical emotional skirmish on the popular CBS sitcom, starring Charlie Sheen as Charlie, Jon Cryer as his brother Alan, and 10-year-old Angus B. Jones as Jake, Alan’s son.
With script in hand, cast members rehearse the scene on a Warner Bros. soundstage, plotting their moves around the living room couch as they hone the laughs for this new episode. Currently in reruns, the show (9:30 p.m. ET Mondays) begins its second season Sept. 20.
“I’ve often played very strong, flashy, kind of inadvertently mean women. I am not that way in my real life,” Taylor says during a break.
That’s instantly apparent. Her appearance is not as flamboyant as Evelyn’s high-toned style. She’s simply dressed in T-shirt and red and white striped pants. Her pale auburn hair is unfussed. Her conversation calm and philosophical.
“Holland has an innate sweetness, which enables her to make a character, who could be very toxic, alluring,” says Chuck Lorre, the series’ co-creator.
When Taylor looks at the script, Lorre says, she often teases the writers about the issues they must have with their mothers, and then executes the role with all “the grace notes” that make it both palatable and funny.
Says Taylor: “I think the dreadful mother is a very rich source in comedy writers’ bag of tricks, but by the same token the deck can get stacked. If that happens then Charlie and Alan become more like victims and she becomes more monstrous, so I try to fully justify her.”
She is aware that as a series develops, it’s inevitable “actors have to bring elements of themselves to the part or you just don’t have enough juice. So I guess I do try to let myself seep into it. I suppose that brings out the odd reading or the odd point of view and if the writers like that, then they pick up on that flavor and start writing to it ... so it becomes very collaborative.”
Mothers and grandmothersTaylor first starred in the 1980 sitcom “Bosom Buddies,” playing Ruth Dunbar, the ad agency boss of the cross-dressing Tom Hanks and Peter Scolari.
Before that, the 61-year-old, Philadelphia-born actress had worked almost exclusively on the New York stage. She starred in numerous plays, only once having to take a temp job when no roles were forthcoming.
“I remember I went to the job wearing white gloves, a little old-fashioned even for 1965,” she laughs, noting her conservative style, which was perhaps one of the reasons she often got cast in older roles as a young actress.
She’s played “a bunch of mothers” on-screen, including Jim Carrey’s in “The Truman Show” and Nicole Kidman’s in “To For.” In 1982 she was Princess Diana’s mother Frances Shand Kydd in the made-for-TV film “The Royal Romance of Charles and Diana.” Upcoming she’s Debra Messing’s mom in the romantic comedy “Something Borrowed.”
Now she’s also able to play grandmothers, including Jake’s in “Two and a Half Men” and in the “Spy Kids” sequels.
She acknowledges the fact with a faint laugh. “That’s hard. I’ve never been particularly maternal, but I’m certainly not grandmaternal!”
Taylor won an Emmy in 1999 for her recurring role as the sexually predatory judge Roberta Kittleson in “The Practice.” Last season she only appeared in one episode of that now-canceled ABC show, and doesn’t know whether the character might show up on the offshoot series “Boston Legal.”
Taylor, who’s single and makes her home in Los Angeles, is half way through a two-year college course in spiritual psychology.
“You know when you are little you have growth spurts. Then when you are older you have aging spurts, or — to be kinder — maturing spurts. I just sort of realized that I had definitely entered the last act of the three-act play,” she says. “I didn’t feel very well equipped inwardly. I had been very much dealing with my career and the usual concerns of life and I hadn’t really paid very much attention philosophically and spiritually to life.”