Inner View: The Many Stages of Melissa Fitzgerald, Part I
From West Wing to the Non-Profit Justice for Vets, Irish Roots Fuel the Fire
By John O’Brien, Jr.
You know Melissa Fitzgerald. Your mind immediately snaps to The West Wing when you see her face. The West Wing veteran, and now, Director, Advancing Justice, lives a life of passion and persuasion, whether on the West Wing stage as Carol Fitzpatrick, or on the world stage, fighting for justice for our veterans.
When did you know that you were Irish?
That’s a really good question. I don’t remember when I knew I was Irish, certainly before I went to visit Ireland. We are very fortunate to have that type of rich culture.
I think how important education was in our family gave me a hint. That was true on both sides of the family. That felt Irish to me, maybe just because they were Irish, in my family, my parents, my grandparents, their parents were all Irish. They all valued education and that felt Irish to me, I guess because my Irish ancestors were educators.
Also, storytelling, that is something that I identified with as being Irish. My father is a great storyteller, and my mother too actually. They enjoy people, and they want to be around people. They are very charismatic and entertaining. I always felt that was an Irish quality, the gift of gab.
Singing too, I remember when I went to Ireland and travelled around. I like to sing. In every sort of bar or place, somebody would just stand up and start singing. I really appreciated that. There is a joy to that, and a melancholy and sadness to that, that feels Irish to me. I carry that with me.
So, you are a sap?
Total sap. I agree, I agree. Tyrone is part of my family’s [roots]. We’re really from all over [Ireland], like Galway, Dingle and Cork.
I did an Irish play many years ago with Leo Penn, Eileen Ryan, James Gandolfini, Robin Lange,. Laura Salvato We did this modern Irish classic called Remembrance, by Graham Reid. It takes place in Ireland in the North.
There is a Catholic family and a Protestant family, kind of like a Romeo and Juliet, but in reverse. It is the older, the mother of the Catholic family and the father of the Protestant family, that fall in love, while they are tending their children’s graves. They’ve each lost children to the other side, and yet they fall in love. Their remaining children can’t accept the relationship.
It’s a beautiful play, really, really lovely play. That was nice to have that opportunity to do that and kind of get inside the skin of an of an Irish family, an Irish person.
You know I was talking with some friends and we were talking about how, as we’ve gotten older, we really appreciate kindness so much more than we ever have. It is such a rare quality, pervasive kindness. Being kind to people you don’t agree with, being kind to people you don’t know, and really trying to understand people who maybe are different than you are and who think differently than you do. I just think that is such an important piece; I think it is really the only thing. [I wish] that we had a little more of that.
As a true SAP, I do feel hopeful, I really do feel hopeful. I think it is important to give other people grace, and hopefully they will give me the same when I need it, when I’m not on my best behavior.
Was it a big leap to go from Fitzgerald to Fitzpatrick?
No. It’s funny because it was a few episodes before I got a first name! I was just grateful. I don’t think I realized that I had a last name until I saw it on screen in Season 5.
I wanted to be an actor, so I took Shakespeare, I studied literature and I thought, why go to a University if you’re not going to study in one of their better departments? Their [The University of Pennsylvania’s] English Department was really strong. Nobody I knew was an actor. My dad is a judge, and my mom is a nonprofit executive director; she worked at universities too.
I moved to New York right after I graduated from college and I really had nothing. I got the backstage newspaper, the acting newspaper, and I looked for like an open audition. I really was green. I met somebody there and they told me about a class at HB Studio. I got to study with Herbert Bergoff and a bunch of other really great teachers. Sandy Dennis recommended The Neighborhood Playhouse.
I went there (Neighborhood Playhouse SCHOOL OF THE THEATRE), in what was an intense two-year Conservatory Program, wonderful. It was full time; you couldn’t work professionally while you were there, because they don’t want you [to continue] your old bad habits. I am so glad I went to that, [I learned] so many incredible life lessons and acting lessons.
It was intense: the first year we had almost 100 in the class, then the second year we had twenty-four or twenty-five. Almost 3/4 of our class got cut. It was really great training.
Are there a lot of similarities between you and the character Carol Fitzpatrick?
I think she’s more organized than I am! I think there are actually some similarities. I was definitely drawn to The West Wing. First of all, it’s the best writing I’ve ever seen. Secondly, I just felt that it was important. I thought it was going to be, artistically, obviously incredible, but also have social relevance and importance in the world. I really wanted to be a part of it and I didn’t care how small my part was. I just wanted to be a part of that show.
Obviously, Carol goes in to work in government. I think most people go in because they believe in something bigger than themselves. I believe that government can and should be a force for good in people’s lives. Sometimes when life is really hard, we need government to step in and lift people up; give them the chance that they need.
Do you ever get tired of talking about the acting part of your professional career?
I loved it. I had a great time working on The West Wing.
Was there an audition for West Wing?
I did audition for it. I really wanted it. I wasn’t always as ambitious about my acting career as maybe I could’ve and should’ve been, but this, I was really ambitious about this; I wanted to be a part of it and I just bugged and bugged and bugged my agent.
I couldn’t get an audition for it, and then finally, I did. I just feel so lucky to have been even a small part of it, really, really lucky.
I still feel lucky to this day, because some of the best people I’ve ever known, so many of the lessons that I learned working on that show and the kind of set that was created, was unlike any other television show, I think before or maybe since. The environment: that show is really a family.
Everybody was treated with respect and dignity. That comes from Martin Sheen and John Spencer; it comes from John wells and Aaron Sorkin and Tommy Schlamme; it comes from Warner Brothers and Peter Roth that created this environment where everyone is valued.
Now fifteen years later, you still interact with each other frequently?
We get together around service issues; the cast has come back together to help so much with the treatment court work that we’re doing. Martin [Sheen] is the reason I’m doing this work. Martin, my dad, and a couple other people are the reason that I was drawn to do this. Martin has been a treatment court champion since the early days of treatment courts, for over a quarter of a century. He lost a friend to addiction.
He invited me to come to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals (NADCP) national conference. He asked me to speak, and I did. He had come to many of them and spoken at many of them. I fell in love with the work that they were doing.
My dad had started a treatment court as a judge; he was one of the people who started the mental health court in Philadelphia many years ago. He was a true believer in the power and impact of these courts.
What do you think of the West Wing following now, with so many people still talking about it, being influenced by it, and make another round appearing on TV? Did you have some idea?
It was something special. I knew it was something special when I read the pilot script over a year before they shot the pilot. My now ex was auditioning for something; his agent had given him the script from that [and one from The West Wing]. He gave them to me to read.
He asked what I thought. I said Sports Night was brilliant. I also said The West Wing is going to be the best show ever on TV. I still stand by that statement.
Aaron and the team that they built in every department, every single role, they just really committed to excellence, and talented hardworking people who really wanted to put the best work that we all could together put out in the world. I feel very lucky.
There are so many space limits in print. We are out of space for this issue. Come back next month for Part II of the great inner view with Melissa.
The full interview could easily run five issues, but instead, the long form can be found on www.OhioIANews.com