"The Lion in the Winter"

Ian Buchanan and Mariette Hartley star in "The Lion in Winter." (Photo by Michael Lamont / April 17, 2014)

Preparing for the role of Eleanor of Aquitaine, the embattled wife of King Henry II — fierce protector of her children and sly survivalist in James Goldman's play "The Lion in Winter" — has been a challenge for actor Mariette Hartley. It has also has been a "rich and wonderful experience."

The actress spoke by telephone recently about the play, which opened Saturday at the Colony Theatre in Burbank, and about working with her daughter, Justine Hartley, who plays King Henry's mistress, and actor Ian Buchanan, who plays Henry. She also spoke of her long career of more than 60 years and about the personal challenges she faced with her family's — and her own — struggles with alcoholism and depression, and the ways they impacted her career and life.

"The Lion in Winter," which first debuted on Broadway in 1966 and was later adapted into a film starring Katharine Hepburn and Peter O'Toole, is a fictional story about the battle between King Henry II and his imprisoned wife Eleanor over which of their three sons will succeed him. Eleanor, the three sons, and Henry's mistress Alais, with whom the king at one point plots to marry and produce new heirs, take part in devious, complicated plotting and planning to achieve their own ends. Ultimately, no heir is chosen, and Eleanor is sent back to prison.

"I've always done challenging pieces," Hartley said. "For me, that is what my mission seems to be in my life on earth. To be awake, to stay awake, and to bring a certain kind of consciousness to the world, and to myself."

This is not the first time she's played Eleanor, nor the first time she acted with her daughter on stage. The two played the same respective roles nearly 15 years ago at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts.

"It's an intriguing experience to revisit her [Eleanor] at my age," said Hartley, 73. "There's a lot of water under the dam. Eleanor is a very, very strong and intriguing character. Fighting for her sons' lives, and her own even, and having this love for a husband who keeps her locked up."

As director Stephanie Vlahos described the real Eleanor of Aquitaine, who was married to King Louis VII of France prior to marrying Henry: "Eleanor is a complicated woman. She bore eight children, had two husbands, rode on horses all the way to Damascus in a crusade, avoided being slaughtered by the Turks, had many affairs, and was an enormously interesting woman in a very interesting world. She came from a very cultured province, was highly skilled and well trained in the art of being a woman, and educated [a rarity in the 12th century]."

Vlahos' description of Hartley, whom she directed in the recent production of "Morini Strad" at the Colony, reflects the character traits of the queen the actress portrays: "She is a very powerful woman and actress. She is very clear on the thought process and craft. It is great, but can be formidable. She is very clear on ideas on how she relates to the character, and in that there is a great thing. It is a very interesting process..."

In addition to playing such a strong and complicated character, the challenge that Hartley also finds is the fine balance of the comedy and the darkness in the story, she said.

"The play is a drawing room comedy with tragic overtones," Hartley said. "We [Ian and I] worked really hard on the relationship; the lightness, and then it gets very dark. The English are different. They're always putting each other on all the time, with light banter, taunting, in almost a sexual way, like foreplay. But it's foreplay to nothing. She's [Eleanor] going back to prison."

In a story filled with five other complex and rich characters, Hartley, who described herself as "pretty ADD," also talked about the tasks of memorizing lines before hitting the stage, working with blocking, and last-minute crises, such as the actors not being able to decorate the stage during the performance to reflect the time of year, Christmas, and yet convey to the audience that that's what's going on. Hartley noted that such concerns are small in comparison to what goes on in the real world, "but our little world, that ultimately as an actor becomes your world, becomes the most important thing. Other things have to disappear, which makes me sad because I miss my family."

Hartley is at least able to work with her daughter Justine in this production, which Hartley said is "pure joy."

She added, "It's strange to be playing these parts, because she's my 'husband's' mistress, and she's my daughter. To have it all intermingled, and what she needs to play — rivalry and jealousy — she's never felt that with me, and I never with her, so you have a tendency to work with different stuff inside."

Throughout much of her career and life, Hartley learned to hide "stuff inside," and used acting as a way to escape what she didn't understand.

As a young girl, she watched the disintegration of her family, with two alcoholic and depressed parents. Her father committed suicide when she was 12, and she kept it a secret for more than 25 years. After facing her own problems with alcohol, depression and abuse, Hartley ultimately healed herself, and revealed her personal story in the book, "Breaking the Silence." She is the national spokesperson for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and speaks to schools, clinics and hospitals around the country.

The ability to help others understand depression, post-traumatic stress syndrome, and other causes that drive people to commit suicide, and to give them an avenue to find help, has enhanced Hartley's life behind her career as an actress.

"It's become one of most precious, satisfying, fulfilling parts of my life," she said, "watching people come out of their own darkness, getting help."

"One thing that became evident," she added, "[is that] acting, trying to find work, doing all that kind of stuff, cannot be my main goal. I always tell kids, in high school or acting students, to do something else around acting, or not around it, just in your life that is of service. That's essential … to always be reminded that my life is a life of service."

Hartley plans to continue working — "I'm in an industry here where it's finally beginning to open to our age, my age, thank god" — spending time with her family, and to travel with her husband, Jerry Sroka. "It's going to be a wonderful life," she said.

What: “Lion in Winter”

Where: Colony Theatre, 555 N. 3rd St., Burbank.

When: Through May 18

More info: (818) 558-7000, colonytheatre.org

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LAURA TATE is a frequent contributor to Marquee.