Known to baby boomers as the single and ambitious Ellyn Warren of the late-1980’s groundbreaking series “thirtysomething,” which changed the face of television, it should surprise no one that Emmy-nominated Polly Draper is once again mining the depths and complexities of a single woman. Starring in Bay Street Theatre’s premier of My Brilliant Divorce (now through June 24), she brings her incredible prowess as an actress to Sag Harbor in a play that has had huge success worldwide but has never before graced an American stage.
“It is so well written,” says Draper, who was asked to do the play by Matt McGrath, the director and a dear friend. “The character is so funny and… as horrifying an experience as divorce is, it is told in such a fantastic way. You’re riveted…but laughing.”
That her work is informed by a Yale education—both undergraduate and graduate —doesn’t begin to explain her capabilities. Her career began in Palo Alto, California when she was just 11. “I was always railroading the neighborhood to be in little productions. We did a family movie called Murder on Draper Lane,” she says. “It was my first feature.”
“I didn’t know acting was something you could do for money… but it was the thing I loved most,” says Draper, emphasizing that her parents have been incredibly supportive. “They are making the long trek from California to see the play” even though her mother is 80 years old and suffers from Parkinson’s Disease and her father is 84.
Draper has worked continuously in film, television and on and off Broadway. Her television credits include “Ryan’s Hope,” “Tales from the Dark Side,” “The Larry Sanders Show,” “Law & Order,” “Monk” and “The Big C.” Film credits include Making Mr. Right, The Pick-up Artist, and Danielle Steele’s Heartbeat. She has performed in numerous theatrical productions including Closer, Brooklyn Boy, and Sister Mary Ignatious Explains it All For You. In fact, if you look at a list of her accomplishments, there isn’t a year since 1975 that she has not been involved in some sort of production.
Draper enjoys all aspects of creating. “I like good work in any medium… I like to be inspired by it. Acting was my first love, but I have a more holistic approach now and have fallen in love with the rest of the business. Writing became a creative outlet when I wasn’t acting. Directing gave me control of the outcome…When I am doing one I miss the other.”
She has found her seeds for new projects in unexpected places. It was during an appearance on Arsenio Hall in 1989 that she met her husband, band leader and jazz musician Michael Wolff. Her film The Tic Code, which is about a boy with Tourette’s Syndrone, was scored by Wolff and inspired by his own personal battle with it. It won the Audience Award for Most Popular Feature at the Hamptons International Film Festival in 1998 and received a “special recognition” award from the festival jury. The film also took an award at the Berlin International Film Festival and garnered Draper a Bronze Gryphon award for Best Actress—she starred in it with Gregory Hines—at the Griffoni Film Festival.
She loved being in the Hamptons during the festival. “We stayed in the American Hotel. Our babysitter thought she heard that it was haunted and stayed up all night hearing ghosts…”
Returning to the festival in 2005, she won the Audience Award for Family Feature Film for The Naked Brothers Band: The Movie, a rock-mockumentary about a boys’ band starring her sons Nat and Alex Wolff. That night Albie Hecht, head of Nickelodeon was in the audience and loved the movie. He picked it up and it ran as a series from 2007-2009. It was a big hit and became a launching pad for her sons’ careers in music and acting.
Both boys are currently shooting movies and have released an album. Nat is filming Admission directed by Paul b (American Pie, About a Boy) and starring Tiny Fey and Paul Rudd. He plays a young man trying to get into Princeton, and with Fey is the admissions officer. Alex just wrapped Hairbrained with Brenden Frasier. “It’s a buddy movie about a really smart boy who goes to college and becomes friends with a much older student” explains Draper with a droll laugh. “Both boys play geniuses… I feel so proud of them.”
It’s not easy balancing a multi-career family. “My husband and I keep trading off who goes to the set with the boys. But it’s never not been fun.” Nat and Alex attend the Professional Children’s School in New York City “with ping pong players, tennis players, jazz musicians, composers and someone who owns their own restaurant!” says Draper. “Their personalities are similar—they are all really passionate. It’s a wonderful atmosphere.”
Working on the Naked Brothers show was “a fantastic way to come together,” says Draper. “We have so much to talk about each other’s projects—it’s our bonding thing.” And “we all share basketball—we are massively into it in a passionate way!” Knicks? “Not really. We are Lakers fans, but have recently fallen in love with the Knicks as part of the (Jeremy)‘Lin-credible’ phenomenon.”
She is proud of her accomplishments as a parent, and Draper says “we are a really close family. Even through the ‘evil’ teen years, we all have so much in common, it’s hard for us not to relate to each other.”
Draper is very happy to be back on the East End this summer. “I have a beautiful relationship with the Hamptons—I have won two awards here. I love driving out, the little vegetable stores, the beach, the shops…and now I have a beautiful role in a wonderful play.”
When asked what’s next for the woman who helped open up possibilities for all women with her “thirtysomething” character, Draper replies “Are you kidding? This has been so traumatizing memorizing all these lines!” But she jests. She is a creative whirlwind. “I am just finishing up a Steve Soderburg project and Fred Ruse is producing my next script” which she hopes to direct… “I want to get that made. It’s the next step on my wish list…” And it wouldn’t surprise anybody if she’s back at the Hamptons Film Festival with that project real soon.