It’s been exactly 20 years since we first watched Holland Taylor terrorise a group of law students with the Socratic Method in Legally Blonde. As Professor Stromwell, Elle Wood’s (Reese Witherspoon) tough but fair mentor, she gave generations of ambitious young women a brutal wake up call: “If you’re going to let one stupid prick ruin your life... you’re not the girl I thought you were.”
It’s the kind of advice that Taylor’s latest character could have used a little sooner. Taylor stars in The Chair, from creator and showrunner Amanda Peet, as Professor Joan Hambling, a 30-year veteran Chaucer scholar at the fictional Pembroke College. Joan is part of an eclectic cast of characters populating the life of newly-minted English Department Chair, Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim (Sandra Oh). Her historic ascension should be a moment of celebration; instead, it’s an immediate shit show. As Chair, Ji-Yoon is faced with budget cuts and declining enrollments, not to mention pressure from the dean to force some of her more experienced professors into early retirement. Joan, whose handful of remaining students spend their time posting crude things about her on RateMyProfessors.com, is on the list.
In The Chair’s premiere, she finds her office has been moved to a dank, isolated basement with no ambiance and no internet access. After decades of watching her male peers forge ahead while she’s stuck organising the Christmas party, this is the final straw. In this belittling office, Joan is suddenly forced to confront the fact that she’s let herself be sidelined and disrespected both by her peers and her students.
By the time the finale rolls around, Joan is ready for her second act, personally and professionally. She’s tired of putting others first, and finally starts to live her life in all its weirdness. Whether she’s brazenly flirting with the IT guy, burning her student reviews, or calling out a classroom bully (her own) about the horniness of Geoffrey Chaucer’s oeuvre, Joan is never boring to watch. The Chair feels like a breath of fresh air for Taylor, whose career choices have also started to visibly shift. Until fairly recently, Taylor was synonymous with a very specific type of snooty-yet-glamorous ice queen, the kind that can make you wilt with a look. (See: George of the Jungle’s Beatrice Stanhope, The Practice’s Judge Roberta Kittleson, Legally Blonde’s Professor Stromwell.) Joan, however, is not cool, calm, or collected. A lifetime spent deciphering medieval texts has made her dreamy, and more than a little wacky, leading to some of the show's most brilliant and hilarious moments.
Ahead, Taylor unpacks the many ways in which she identified with Joan, and weighs in on the show’s bittersweet ending. (Spoilers!)
Refinery29: What initially drew you to the role of Joan?
Holland Taylor: “As an elder, it’s very interesting the roles that come to you. This is a very real person who I can identify with in about 10 different ways. So often you have to concoct something to play roles that are just fulfilling some cliché idea, which happens a great deal in writing for older people in our country because we don’t value our elders..”
In what ways did you identify with her?
“I’m playing her exactly my age, and there are different things that happen as you get older that are very challenging. In America, elders are not thought of for their value. They’re often dismissed, and I have in mind a friend of mine who’s no longer living, who was a very important person in her career for about 50 years, and when she was elderly, people no longer even listened to her. It was really stunning to see that she was checked off. It’s interesting, the invisibility that happens. And goodness knows there’s a kind of invisibility for women and women’s opinions in any world that you might think of — in academia, in industry, in financial markets. For a woman to make her way and have a strong foothold, she has to be much better, and achieve much more than the men.”
"In America, elders are not thought of for their value. They’re often dismissed."
Joan is one of three professors being checked off, as you say, but her reaction is very different from that of her male colleagues. You get the sense that Joan almost expects to be sidelined whereas the men see it as an affront because they’re so used to being revered.
“That’s the gender position in our society. She would have had to have been so striking and so forceful in her personality to not be the one who is asked to do all the things that women are asked to do. Of course, we’re not in that age anymore, but coming from where she did, she never achieved what she could have otherwise. She’s a distinguished scholar — to be a medievalist is a very big challenge. If you’re a professor of American literature, you speak one language. If you’re a medievalist, you have to be fluent in four or five. It’s another world of demands.”
Joan is so irreverent and kind of all over the place — a very different kind of character from the ones we’re used to seeing you play.
“She’s kind of losing her filter. Amanda Peet said to me in the beginning: ‘Joan doesn’t always have a filter.’ I thought that was so great. As she’s gotten older, and as her standing in the university is slipping, she feels like she’s being pushed to retire, and the students are less interested in medieval studies, her complaints and her upsets come bursting out in unexpected ways. It’s fun to play someone who might say anything or do anything — who has no fucks left to give, as they say.”
You mentioned Joan’s situation is mirrored across the board in our society — did you see parallels between her trajectory, and yours in Hollywood?
“I’ve been a lucky one, so there’s always that to consider. I worked all the time, and I’ve gotten some roles that have really defined new periods for me. So, I haven’t had some of the typical hardships that almost every actress would have in this profession. I’m not in Joan’s position — I mean, I might be in some regards that I don’t know about, for all I know, my agents have submitted me for many roles that I’m not even considered for — but I don’t have that experience. I’ve been given roles that have let me explore something deeply, which is all an actor wants to do.”
"It’s fun to play someone who might say anything or do anything — who has no fucks left to give, as they say.”
Can you give examples of the kind of roles you consider to be landmarks?
“What I meant by that is that certain roles opened me up to be considered for things I might not have been considered for before. When David Kelley gave me that extraordinary role in The Practice about 20 years ago, she was an esteemed judge and an admired person in her 50s, and she was sexually active. It was very striking material for that time, believe me. It brought the whole element of sexuality into my world as an actress and I got roles that were more modern and more dynamic in that way. The character was more involved as a woman, not just as someone who was past the age of sexual viability.
And then Governor [Ann] Richards [in Ann, on Broadway] — all my life I played characters that were kind of frosty and well-bred, and that’s not who I am! I wanted to get out of that, and when I played Governor Richards, who was an extremely warm and empathetic and connected person, that was a fabulous change. After all, people in the industry do look at what you’ve done to get ideas about what you might do. In that sense, it’s a role that has defined the next stage in my career.”
Your character in Legally Blonde, Professor Stromwell, was formative for so many women. How would you compare these two professors you’ve played, 20 years apart?
“I love the idea of playing professors! I went to college and that was a very formative period for me. I admire scholars. But being a law professor like Professor Stromwell, and being a Chaucer teacher like Professor Hambling are very different. The law professor in Legally Blonde, she’s so striking, she’s so sure-footed. The law doesn’t bend very easily, you know it or you don’t. What she stands on is so monumental and secure that she seems that way. Joan is more interested in the mutations of the language and how words are formed, and she’s off in another world of imagining 500 years ago from these scraps of writing that remain from that time. She’s a far more elfin person, full of imagination.”
But in many ways, the two are battling the same kind of gender discrimination — Professor Stromwell memorably gives Elle Woods the caution of not letting “some stupid prick” ruin her life.
“Joan actually has let men ruin her life. The male leadership in her work environment, guys that she’s affectionate with, and cares for — loves, after 30-some years together — have basically corralled her life and she’s let it happen.”
The show ends on a high note for Joan, who takes over from Ji-Yoon as Chair. I’m curious, do you think it’s a happy ending?
“It’s a happy ending for Joan. As Chair, she’ll have to do a lot of the things she had to do all through her career at that school, because the Chair is about so much more than teaching. They’re involved with managing people, events, and placating people, and juggling between trustees and staff. It covers a lot of ground, and it’s very demanding. But it’s a happy ending in the sense that in that split second, Sandra Oh’s character thinks that Joan can do it. And Joan thinks that she can do it. How long she will remain Chair is quite another issue.”
It’s a complicated moment, though. You’re happy for Joan but at the same time, her rise means that Ji-Yoon is brought down, mostly because her white male colleague wasn’t able to properly deal with a crisis of his own making.
“There’s probably going to be some conversations about that. That’s very interesting, [but] I didn’t really think about it at the time. But it’s a very rich story. The whole arc about Ji Yoon and [JuJu] and the father is a wonderful element in this show that doesn’t have to do with any of these other things. The show is challenging because it is not a cut-and-dried plot where the elements all fit together and everything is essential for the plot to move forward. There are elements of pure interest. Amanda is an extremely creative person and she’s created a world, which is engrossing. It reflects the messy reality of life. Some things turn out that seem to be good, some things turn out that seem to be nothing — you just don’t know.”
What was it like working with Amanda Peet as showrunner?
“I know Amanda socially — she’s Sarah Paulson’s closest friend. We’ve known each other for quite a while and I love her. She is a hell of a writer! And Dirty John — if you have not seen it...Oh my god! That is a staggering performance.She was very clear of a lot that she wanted from Joan, and she was always right.
Who kept the “Fucker in charge of you fucking fucks” plaque?
“Props department, my dear.”
I was hoping you took it home.
“Actually I took a tiny little Chaucer book home. If they need it, I’ll bring it back.”