Saturday , May 18 2024
Caroline Lagerfelt as Paula Vreeland (Credit: Eliza Morse/Netflix)

Exclusive Interview: Caroline Lagerfelt on Returning to ‘Sweet Magnolias’ on Netflix, and an Andy Bragen Play Reading

I’m revisiting Netflix’s hit drama series Sweet Magnolias, which focuses on a warm and lively trio of friends in Serenity, South Carolina. In Season Two, housewife Maddie Townsend (JoAnna Garcia Swisher), attorney Helen Decatur (Heather Headley), and restaurant owner Dana Sue Sullivan (Brooke Elliott) handle the joys and challenges of running their new community spa. Along the way, Maddie receives encouragement and advice from her greatest cheerleader, her mother, Paula Vreeland, played by the inimitable Caroline Lagerfelt.

Lagerfelt is well known for her roles in film (Minority Report), television (the original Gossip Girl), and theater. Last year, fans could watch her in The God Committee, a film about an organ transplant committee starring Kelsey Grammer and Julia Styles. Lagerfelt closed out the year memorably with her performance as Agnes Bogdani on Law & Order: Organized Crime.

As one might expect, anticipation was running high ahead of her return to Serenity. I called Lagerfelt to talk about the inspiring lessons from Paula’s arc, the difficult heart-to-heart conversations with co-star JoAnna Garcia Swisher, and her latest theater work. Keep those tissues handy during the first part of the interview!

Headshot of Caroline Lagerfelt
Courtesy of Caroline Lagerfelt

On Paula Vreeland’s Popularity

Paula doesn’t appear in every Sweet Magnolias episode but when she drops in, every word counts and stays with you long after she’s left the frame. Lagerfelt, who is 74 years old, reflected that her character is “eminently relatable.” Many women today are living longer and seeking fulfilling pursuits in their golden years. Like them, Paula interacts with girlfriends and peers from her generation, grownup children like daughter Maddie, and grandchildren (Carson Rowland, Logan Allen, and Bianca Berry Tarantino).

“The audience sees somebody dealing with three different generations and, within helping other people, trying to keep her own sense of balance. She has her own life. She has her painting. I think that’s something a lot of women like. Somehow we’re supposed to or we’ve been expected to give up absolutely everything for our children.”

Paula’s Take on Motherhood

Season Two is particularly poignant as Serenity residents undergo ordeals including an alarming car crash and the death of a beloved community member. Maddie is rattled by both incidents and talks through them with her mother. Lagerfelt picked some of those moments as among her favorites from the new season, which premiered on February 4.

Take for instance Paula’s advice to Maddie about a predicament with grandson Kyle Townsend (Logan Allen). Because children will fall down in life no matter what we do, she ends the prep talk with: “All you can do is stand there, waiting. With love and attention. He has to be the one to decide he wants to stand. That’s not your job. Your job is to love him like I love you.”

At another point, Paula reminds Maddie, “The best mother in the world cannot protect her child from every hurt. She can only be there to help her child work through the pain.”

If you streamed the moments without shedding a tear, beware of the ultimate tearjerker in the Season Two finale, when Paula mentions end-of-life planning. “Sweet girl. Just because I have a plan doesn’t mean I’m in a hurry to leave. And when I do go, I’ll still be your biggest fan for eternity. Always a voice in your ear and a beat in your heart.”

After giving me the last set of lines, Lagerfelt explained, “[Paula and Maddie] were talking about planning for the future, for one’s future exit from these earthly realms. I’m a single mother of two boys and one has to deal with the reality very clearly. Sometimes that can be distressing for younger people. You have to keep your sense of humor, and I think that’s one of the things that I like most about Paula.” 

Photo of Sweet Magnolia cast in the garden scene
Justin Bruening as Cal Maddox, Hunter Burke as Trotter Vidhyarkorn, Logan Allen as Kyle Townsend, JoAnna Garcia Swisher, Gary Weeks as Ashley Davenport, Caroline Lagerfelt as Paula Vreeland, and Carson Rowland as Tyler Townsend (Credit: Steve Swisher/Netflix)

Behind the Scenes at Sweet Magnolias

The one-on-ones are moving not only to audiences. They can leave creatives and cast members alike in tears. That’s especially true of the last scene I mentioned. “When we were filming it, we could hardly tape it. We were both in floods of tears. It was very close to both of us. Jo had lost her mother not too long before we shot the scene. It was incredibly challenging for her. As a mother myself, I just cried seeing how upset she was.”

On a lighter note, Lagerfelt appreciates the quality of casting and the special atmosphere on set, for what the latter brings out in her own acting as well as in her cast mates’. The creative team is fully supportive and handles editing post-production in a manner that respects an actor’s choices for scenes. “I don’t think I’ve ever been more relaxed in a show, more confident that I can just do what comes into my head and where the director-producer will let me do it, give me confidence, back me up, and guide me.” 

If Sweet Magnolias gets the green light for a third season, Lagerfelt has ideas about what to incorporate next. First, she wants to have a scene with Chris Medlin, who plays Isaac Downey and, like her, comes from a theater background. She also wants Paula’s paintings to come back. “I would love to see more of her professional life peek its head occasionally in different episodes, so you see that maybe she’s not a millionaire from it, but successful enough to take care of herself.”

Behind-the-scenes photo of Vickie Eng, Caroline Lagerfelt, and Cindy Karr
Vickie Eng, Caroline Lagerfelt, and Cindy Karr on set (Courtesy of Caroline Lagerfelt)

“Harold Pinter to Shakespeare for me is the perfect arc of theater”

Aside from film and television, Lagerfelt’s career includes critically-acclaimed productions on Broadway, Off-Broadway, and in many top U.S. and U.K. regional theaters. She’s garnered Outer Critics Circle and Obie Awards as well as a Drama Desk nomination. To me she listed greats Harold Pinter and Simon Gray as playwrights she enjoyed working with.

Performing classics by Shakespeare was a highlight, too. “When you’re in school, [it] always seems so insurmountable and boring. Yet when you actually act it instead of reading it, it’s just thrilling. He knows so much about vengeance, love, hate, infidelity, and everything that makes the world go round!”

One summer years ago, Lagerfelt’s encounter with a Chekhov classic in Upstate New York was “probably the worst experience” of her life. The Cherry Orchard was done in situ at an estate, where actors moved from room to room and into a garden. “The audience followed us into many rooms. A lot of [the] rooms were very, very small! They were all pushing and standing on tiptoe to get closer to us so they could see what we were doing and saying… In the garden, we were trying not to swat away at the mosquitos biting at us as we were doing our scenes.”

“I hope there are more plays about old people because then I can keep working.”

Lagerfelt looks forward to revisiting Notes on My Mother’s Decline, a vivid two-hander by playwright Andy Bragen. It was the last play she did prior to the pandemic, at Off-Broadway’s New York Theatre Workshop. On March 3, she’ll join Bragen and Playco Founding Producer Kate Loewald at McNally Jackson Books in New York’s Seaport district. The event features a Q&A about Notes and another play of Bragen’s, This is My Office, which were recently published together as a book. Lagerfelt will read selected excerpts of Notes on My Mother’s Decline before the event concludes with Bragen’s book signing.

Notes is an interesting two-hander because the son, played at NYTW by Ari Fliakos opposite Lagerfelt, narrates aspects of the mother’s life and illness affecting him. Sometimes the mother has her sanity and at others she doesn’t. Mother and son relate to one another on tangential yet parallel tracks. “She’s lying in bed talking about things—sometimes what he’s watching or listening to—sometimes off on completely random spikes of things that distress her very much. At the end, they have a moment when they come together. It’s the first time they actually look at each other, talk to each other and touch each other.”

Lagerfelt believes that writers and creatives should provide more opportunities for people to explore, see and understand the later years of life. Notes was cited in the New York Times as among the best theater of 2019. The production generated a lot of interest in how the mother struggles with rage, love, and loss: topics that audiences over 60 or 70 want to see depicted from their perspective. Many of Lagerfelt’s friends, including two in their 90s, came to see the play in 2019. “Instead of being depressed by it, they were thrilled that maybe their future or part of their present was being reflected on stage. People were understanding it, laughing at the funny tragic bits, and becoming very silent at the very tough or moving parts.”

Image of the front cover for 'This is My Office and Notes on My Mother's Decline' by Andy Bragen
Book cover design by Greta Polo with photos by Fitz Patton and Marsha Ginsberg (Courtesy of Northwestern University Press)

The play left Lagerfelt reflecting about it long after it closed, too. “I kept going back and thinking, ‘Ah, Jesus, why didn’t I think of that?’ or ‘Oh my God, I wish I called our director and said maybe she’s thinking this [way] about it. Maybe she’s not angry about the cancer and she’s trying to make light of it for her son.'”

So, would she do another production of it someday? Lagerfelt replied, “I’d love to redo the play! I’m excited about having a chance to try out a couple of new things. I don’t think you repeat what you did before. You keep the basic truths there, but if you can find something newer, a different aspect or idea; yes, I love that!

For more information about Andy Bragen’s book launch, visit McNally Jackson’s website. RSVPs are required for the event.

Both seasons of Sweet Magnolias are available now on Netflix. Want more on the world of Sweet Magnolias? Dive into our interview with Chris Medlin.

About Pat Cuadros

Pat Cuadros is Pop Culture Editor for Blogcritics Magazine. She frequently covers TV, film and theater. Her portfolio includes interviews with Ndaba Mandela and actors Juliette Binoche, Fran Drescher, Derek Jacobi and Brent Spiner. She's also spoken with notable voice actors Petrea Burchard, Garry Chalk, Peter Cullen and Brian Drummond.

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