Olympia Dukakis' Spiritual Journey
The Oscar-winning actress talks about her exploration of women's spirituality and meeting her Indian guru.
BY: Margaret Wolff
Excerpted with permission from "In Sweet Company"
We know her best as Rose Castorini, the intrepid wife from "Moonstruck," the devoted friend Clarey from "Steel Magnolias," and the clear-sighted Mrs. Madrigal from "Tales of the City." Olympia Dukakis has endeared herself to audiences around the world for her dynamic portrayals of the grand transformations and subtle accommodations that are the bread and butter of women's lives.
The daughter of Greek immigrants, Olympia grew up in Lowell, Massachusetts in a neighborhood where ethnic discrimination, particularly against Greeks, was routine. Early in her career, she was advised to change her name to something "less ethnic." She refused, despite the fact that it would have paved the way to a greater variety of roles.
Olympia supported herself as a physical therapist during the height of the polio epidemic. She saved her money, returned to school and earned a Masters in Fine Arts at Boston University's School of the Performing Arts. Degree in hand, she moved to New York City to pursue a stage career. Shortly thereafter, she appeared in a production of "Medea" where she met and fell in love with actor Louis Zorich. Their forty-year marriage produced three children and a lifelong repository of unconditional support.
In 1988, after thirty years of performing and teaching, Olympia won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, for her portrayal of the Italian matriarch in "Moonstruck." Later that year, she stood on the podium alongside first-cousin Michael Dukakis, then Governor of Massachusetts, as he accepted the Democratic nomination for President of the United States. It was, for her, a profound moment, a proud declaration of her ethnicity that she claimed for her entire family.
One of her most personally memorable roles was in the play "The Trojan Women." It opened her heart to what has become a profound relationship with the Great Mother, the feminine aspect of God long venerated in the ancient cultures of the Indus River Valley. In 1985, she met Srimata Gayatri Devi, an Indian spiritual teacher in the Vedanta tradition, and studied with her until her passing.
In 1992, she and several friends co-created "Voices of Earth," a non-profit theater company designed to help women, including herself, explore their spiritual heritage and birth their own spiritual transformation. Olympia describes the performances that have emerged as "emotional, physical, spiritual and joyful" pieces that explore through metaphor issues unique to women's lives.
The following are excerpts from the interview.
Olympia is apprehensive, she tells me, "talking about women's spirituality in a world that has suppressed its existence for thousands of years."
Is it because it's hard to put something so subtle into words?
"No. I think it's because most of us talk one way and live another. There are a few people who truly, truly walk the talk - who are, as Merlin Stone wrote, `women who have gone over the mountain.' The rest of us just talk the talk. The rest of us are still trying to find ways to live in the world with spiritual values. Myself included. We've learned certain skills, we've learned to prevail somewhat, but we've not made it over the mountain. I sometimes truly despair at ever being meaningfully altered and affected by the things I claim are so important to me. .
"Most of us are not real eager to grow, myself included. We try to be happy by staying in the status quo. But if we're not willing to be honest with ourselves about what we feel, we don't evolve."
I tell her that I think this struggle to bring our inner and outer worlds together is an ongoing part of the spiritual life, that when we face these contradictions, we can then choose how we will `walk our talk.'
"I understand this now," she confides. "In 1985, I became very involved with Gayatri Devi, a spiritual teacher, who helped me see this."
How did you meet her?
"It was at Omega Institute. My husband, daughter and I were in therapy because of issues that came up after he had a terrible automobile accident. The therapist said everyone was OK except me, that I was behaving as if we were still in crisis. He said I had to do something to focus on myself, by myself, or he wouldn't see me anymore. I rooted around for something to do and a friend suggested I go to Omega. I had my doubts - it seemed to me like a camp for precocious adults! - but I went anyway.
"The only weekend I was free was during what they call their `Spiritual Weekend,' so I signed up for that. Friday night, the presenters sat on a stage and talked about their upcoming workshops. There were rabbis and Cambodian monks and Indian swamis and Protestants and Catholics and Native Americans. It was a whole smorgasbord! And there was this little lady in saffron robes. I was very moved by what she said, but of course, I didn't permit that to influence me! I decided to go with a shaman because I'd been reading a lot about shamans at the time.
"The workshop I went to was like a bad acting class! Everyone was trying to get in touch with their feelings - beating drums and howling - but I stayed with it. The next day, the leader asked us each to share why we'd come to Omega. Everyone gave such esoteric and spiritual reasons - and there I was because my therapist told me that if I didn't do something about myself, he wouldn't see me anymore! But when my time came to talk, I got very choked up and said, `I'm here to open my heart.' I don't know where that came from, but that's what I said.
"The workshop continued with much sage-burning and carrying on, but I just couldn't do it anymore. I walked outside toward a little house where I heard the chanting of women's voices.
"I looked in the window and saw the woman I'd been so moved by the night before sitting in lotus position on a slightly raised platform. I walked in and sat down. Gayatri Devi was a bhakti, as they say in India; hers was the path of devotion to God. She was talking in an animated way about the Great Mother, about Her role in the Vedanta tradition. The more she talked, the more I cried. I didn't know why I was crying. It wasn't that I was sad; I was just crying...
"After the break, I went over and asked Sudha - Ma's assistant at that time, and the one to whom the mantle was passed after Ma's death - if I could speak with Ma, with Gayatri Devi. She told me it would be impossible to see her, that Ma was totally booked. I wasn't too upset because I already knew something about what Ma had been talking about. The truth was, I had secretly gotten involved with the Great Mother on my own, thinking I was the only person on the planet to do so. I had no idea other people were interested in Her.
"I started to walk outside when Sudha came over to me and said Ma wanted to see me. I froze and said, `It's OK,' but Sudha said, `No, Ma wants to see you.' So I started up the hill to where Ma was sitting - to a table and two chairs facing each other under some trees - and as I walked, my awareness of all external sound left me. It was as if I were walking in a vacuum. I sat down and told her my name and what brought me to Omega. Finally, I told her about the two times I heard the Voice
"She became very alert, then asked me some questions about the Voice. Then she said, `What are you afraid of?'"
Tears begin to run down Olympia's cheeks. "I said, `I'm afraid of this love, afraid I would be lost.' And Ma said, `Lost in the sea of Her love?' I said, `Yes. I'm afraid if I allow myself to feel it, I won't come back. I know what that is. I've psychologically let go before and struggled to come back.'
"Ma looked at me for a long time, almost as if she were x-raying me. Then she talked to me and her words made me feel I would be all right, that I could receive the Great Mother's love - which is still hard for me to do - and give Her love - which is easier. You know?"
Before I can answer her, Olympia digs into her jacket pocket and pulls out a small book of prayers written by Swami Paramananda, an Indian monk of the Ramakrishna Order. "I want to read something to you," she says. She reads me some prayers, not as an actress but as a bhakti, filled with the devotion that inspired words she has since made her own.
Great Mother Heart, how tender art Thou
I ask her how she would define spirituality.
"Well, there's something open-hearted about it. I really understood how important this was when my mother was dying from Alzheimer's. Her defenses went away and she was no longer suspicious or critical. Her heart opened.
"So why does this seem part and parcel of spirituality? I guess because in order to be open-hearted, you have to trust, or be willing to trust - but trust with open eyes. You have to look at the reality of things. Sometimes there's darkness and pain. That's part of life, too."
Being open-hearted in the face of contradictions?
"Being open-hearted when the world pretty much looks like a place your heart should be defended and protected against."