A Return to the Stage After 35 Years: Interview with Actress Langley Cornwell
With starring roles in several TV series, short films, and feature-length movies, you’d never guess that Langley Cornwell hasn’t been acting her entire life. After touring the country as an actress in her early twenties, Langley took a break -- a hiatus, really -- shifting into a 35-year career in corporate marketing.
Yet shortly after retiring, her passion for acting was reignited, pushing her into a new era of exciting character roles, improv acting, and voice over work.
South of Broadway Theatre Company was thrilled to host Langley’s return to the stage in our recent production of Three Tall Women, an award-winning play in which she brilliantly starred as Woman B.
We sat down with Langley to learn about her acting career, the exciting, challenging and not-so-glamorous parts of being an actor, and why this particular production inspired her to return to the stage after so many years.
How did you initially get into acting?
I started in the eighth grade; my first starring role was playing Winnie the Pooh in a local musical. It was silly dancing around in a bear outfit, but that performance definitely gave me the acting bug and I continued acting off-and-on throughout high school and college. After I graduated, I got a “regular job” at Jefferson Pilot Broadcasting, but realized I wasn’t ready to stop acting. I quit my job and went on the road, touring as a professional actor for about five years in my early twenties.
Why did you make the transition out of theater?
Touring as an actor at that level is really difficult. You don’t have a homebase -- you’re basically living on a bus. At about 25, I felt like I needed to focus on building a more stable life and career, so I joined the corporate advertising world, working my way up to VP roles at agencies and at companies like Le Creuset. I retired in 2010 after 35 fruitful years in the corporate world.
After all those years, what inspired you to return to acting?
When I shut the door on acting, I really slammed the door on it. I didn’t have the bandwidth or time to think about it and didn’t necessarily think I’d ever return. Then, in about 2010, a friend mentioned that her husband, a Hollywood producer, needed extras for a movie he was filming. She had no idea I had a background in acting and figured I might think it was a fun opportunity. I was nervous to act again after so many years, but the second I got on set, I loved it. I realized it’s in my blood. I found an agent, started getting auditions and have been working in film and TV ever since.
What drew you to the Three Tall Women script and/or the role of Woman B?
I went to see Three Tall Women in New York because I love Laurie Metcalf -- she’s such a powerful actor. I was so moved by the strength of her performance, the nuances and the contradictory emotions, the amount of subtext in it. I thought, what a challenge to communicate all that to an audience...I’d love to try. It had been well over 35 years since I’d been on stage, and I hadn’t given theater a moment’s thought. I probably wouldn’t have if it weren’t for that role and for Laurie’s performance. It really struck a chord in me for so many reasons.
Tell us about your experience working with South of Broadway and your co-stars.
At first, I was very intimidated because my co-stars were both very accomplished actors who had been working in theater while I had not been doing any. Once we started working, they were so generous and lovely -- I never felt like I didn’t belong or like I couldn’t hold my own.
When you rehearse that much, you learn each other’s lines and work as a team. We felt very connected and got each other through it. That camaraderie is one of my favorite parts of acting. You’re going through an extreme circumstance together, so naturally you form a special bond.
What was the most exciting part about returning to the stage? The most challenging part?
I thought it would be completely nerve-wracking but it felt natural, which was such a nice revelation. During our performances, I was delighted at the rush of adrenaline and the connectedness. When you’re on stage, you can feel yourself taking the audience on a journey, and the audience willingly goes with you. Nothing compares to that.
Practically speaking, the hardest part was learning the lines. This play has so much dialogue -- it’s a two-hour play with only three actors -- and that was a real muscle that had atrophied in the 35 years I hadn’t done live theater.
What did you find most rewarding about this particular performance?
I cannot tell you how many women have approached me since then and said things like, “Wow, you’re so courageous,” or “I think I need to do something that challenges me or pushes me out of my comfort zone.” I’ve had women tell me the performance inspired them to start painting or writing or trying something they’ve wanted to try for years.
To be even a small source of inspiration for women is a huge win for me.
What did you hope to share with the audience about your character?
Edward Albee wrote this as a semi-autobiographical story about his adoptive mother. He tried to reveal what a horrible person she was, and was so surprised that people ended up empathizing with her. I read somewhere that he said something along the lines of, “I ended up writing a character that is far more fascinating than my mother was, and far more compassionate. What have I done?”
I thought it would be so interesting be to take that horrible person and still make an audience feel a kindred connection to her. This piece shows how difficult and complicated it is to be a strong woman. I held executive titles in a male-dominated industry, so that really resonated with me. To showcase her strength and the challenges associated with that, and to have some empathy for her plight.
What are a few of the main differences between preparing and executing a role on stage versus being on film?
The biggest difference is, of course, that theater is live. You’ve got an audience and there are no do-overs, whereas on film, you can cut and edit.
On opening night of this show, for example, I had a sparkly bracelet that got hooked up into my dress. You can’t stop and fix it -- there’s a sold-out crowd, you have to stay in character, say your lines, and carry on. You’re using so much more mental power on stage.
Everything else is pretty similar. You still have the character development, you’re still telling a story. To paraphrase Sanford Meisner, whether you’re on-stage or on camera, you’re still “being real in imaginary circumstances.”
Do you see yourself doing more on-stage in the near future? If so, what are you looking to do next or what would inspire you?
Theater is a huge time commitment, but I would consider it for the right role. Now that I’m older, there are certain big roles that I couldn’t play in my twenties that I would love to play.
I’m still doing a lot of film acting. I just finished a film called “Awaken” that was submitted into several festivals, and I’m acting in the pilot for a show called “The Urbans” this month.
How do you like spending your time outside of acting?
I’m a passionate animal activist and a health and wellness junkie. My husband and I both worked very hard when we worked, so now we try to live a relaxed life. We live on a lake in Charleston and are enjoying retirement!
You can learn more about this inspiring local actress by visiting her website.
Langley is also a South of Broadway Summer in NYC alumna. Founded in 2005, this will be our 14th year hosting this highly successful artistic residency in New York City, where participants reside at the famous Julliard School Residence Hall for an immersive, inspiring three-week experience in the one and only Big Apple.
Interested in joining us for an experience of a lifetime? Contact us to audition!