When you?ve lived in southeast Iowa for most of your life like I have, it?s not often that you get to hobnob with film stars and television bigwigs. There?s probably a better chance of finding a $100 bill floating in the middle of the local grocery store aisle than spotting Brad Pitt or Steven Spielberg driving around Mt. Pleasant in their Range Rovers.
So when a sliver of Hollywood came sauntering into our little Midwestern town to shoot a movie at the Old Threshers grounds, of course, I was secretly very excited that my job gave me an excuse to poke my nose around a film set and sniff out a star.
Now, when it comes to actress Helen Slayton-Hughes, it?s not really accurate to say that she sauntered into town. At 85 years old, Slayton-Hughes has all the sass and spunk of a 10-year-old that?s just been released into Disney World without supervision for the first time. It?s more truthful to say she whirled onto set, ready to work, practically oblivious to the damp, cold December evening that had to be nothing short of brutal for someone from sunny Los Angeles, Calif.
And while she may not exactly be a Hollywood A-list superstar, Slayton-Hughes sure has worked with plenty of them. From Amy Poehler to Tim Allen and Jerry Stiller, the woman has boasted stage and screen time with some of the biggest stars of the past 20 years. Parks and Recreation fans know her as Ethel Beavers, while True Blood followers remember her as Caroline Bellefleur. And then there are movies like the six-time Oscar nominated film, ?Good Night, and Good Luck? in which she acted alongside Hollywood great, George Clooney.
Now for someone who calls the likes of Hollywood front man George Clooney and comedy darling Amy Poehler a co-worker and friend, it wouldn?t have surprised me if Slayton-Hughes was a little more than annoyed that I, a young, rather inexperienced reporter, wanted a few minutes of her time to talk with her about her upcoming indie comedy film, ?The Gift of the Magpie? shot in Mt. Pleasant and Burlington.
However, it was a mixture of relief and delight to see her smile gleefully at me and lead me into a back room where there were chairs and a heater to chat.
?So tell me about how you came to be an actress,? I asked her after getting some of the basic questions out of the way.
?Oh, honey,? she laughed. ?I am afraid you will think it?s dumb, but if you really want to know, I?ll tell you. But don?t get your hopes up for some rousing story.?
As a little girl, Slayton-Hughes says one major life moment sealed her fate as a lifelong actress.
?When I was six years old, our principal let me recite ?Oh Captain, My Captain!? over the school?s loudspeaker. As far as I knew, I was the only student he had ever let do something like that,? she said, jumping immediately into a dramatic rendition of the famous Walt Whitman poem like she has rehearsed it not moments before. ?Oh it was such a sense of power knowing my voice and performance was going out to the entire school! I knew right then that my path was set. From then on I acted and never stopped.?
She has since went on to star in roughly 200 stage plays and musicals before making a jump to commercial films and television in 2001.
?Last year, as I was walking around L.A., it suddenly dawned on me that I was living the dream. When I was doing theater in New York, I never thought I would move to L.A., but I can?t imagine why I didn?t move there sooner. L.A. is crazy and silly ? really a lot like me,? she laughs. ?It?s just been so nice to do what I love for a living. I?ll never forget how lucky I am.?
And even though I did ask her to give me the low down on some of her famous co-stars, she wasn?t about to dish any dirt. In fact, she says she has been truly fortunate to work with some of the best, but says she spends most of her time on film and television sets trying to conquer her nerves.
?Oh yes, I still get nervous,? she says adamantly when I question her about it further. ?I get so nervous that by the time I get done with a scene I can hardly remember what I just did.?
?George (Clooney) is wonderful though?just a wonderful man,? she went on, talking about her time on ?Good Night, and Good Luck?, which Clooney directed and starred in. ?Getting to play Bill Murray?s love interest (in Parks and Recreation) was absolutely hysterical! Oh, I couldn?t believe my luck. I just love it all.?
And as I rounded out our conversation and watched her act for a bit later in the evening, I came to the realization that I hope to have a career like hers. At 85, Slayton-Hughes was still head over heels in love with her job. You would have to be blind not to see how much she loved to perform, as if it was part of her DNA ? something she felt compelled to do.
But perhaps more importantly than that, she was still humble. Especially in the midst of small-town Iowans, when she could have stuck up her nose at us, she seemed more interested in fitting in rather than standing out for the sake of her own ego.
I suppose that?s a good lesson for all of us. Find what you love ? whether it?s what you do for a living or something on the side ? and just have fun with it. That?s perhaps the biggest truth my rare brush with Hollywood left me with. You are never too old to have a passion for something, so gracefully share it with the world. As President Woodrow Wilson so aptly put it, ?You are not here merely to make a living. You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand.?