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Hell or High Water — An Interview with Actress Margaret Bowman

With Hell or High Water nominated for a “best picture” Oscar, I was vindicated in naming it as my favorite movie of the year. Each time I saw it in theatres, my friends and I would talk about it. One character that always came up was the waitress. Who was this woman? Was she a real waitress, or the best character actress ever?

Then one day, the LA Times did a story about a few character actors from some of the nominated movies. I finally knew her name — Margaret Bowman.

A few weeks later, she was mentioned again in the Times. They have a segment in their entertainment section where they ask an actor what their favorite film of the year was. When they asked Michael McKean (who I recently told at the Critics’ Choice awards how much I loved Spinal Tap and Best in Show), he responded to the Times question: “We just saw ‘Hell or High Water,’ a thriller with Jeff Bridges — who is always amazing — and Chris Pine and Ben Foster. A really good supporting cast. Great script, beautifully photographed and directed. In it, they go to this place called the T-Bone Cafe, in a little Texas town and it’s one of the most hilarious scenes on film this year. There’s an actress named Margaret Bowman, who had a bit part in ‘Waiting for Guffman.’ But in this, she just nails the world’s worst dragon waitress. You just fall in love with her. She has one little scene and she kind of steals the picture.”

I couldn’t agree with McKean more. So, I tracked down this actress. I didn’t realize I had seen her in so many other films: Leap of Faith, Bernie, No Country For Old Men, and A Perfect World.

So, here’s the interview:

JOSH BOARD: You started acting classes in your 50s. Did you ever imagine it would lead to roles in movies, or did you just think it would be something interesting to pursue, even if that just meant doing small, community theatre productions?

MARGARET BOWMAN: I decided to re-invent myself in my late 50s. My first career, raising a family of six kids,  was drawing to a close. I had one 9-year-old left at home, my husband Jay was on a job in South Korea, I was grieving over a loss, so I had to find something to occupy my time. Did I mention that I hate housework? So dusting and vacuuming were really not appealing time occupiers. My sister said to me, “God is moving you on to the next level of your life.” She was so right. I saw a one paragraph article in the Houston Chronicle about acting classes at the YMCA.  Aha! I thought that might be interesting and fun. I never thought it would become a career with movies and touring company plays in my future, but that’s what happened. It was love at first line for me, and the teacher  recommended AADA. I auditioned and was accepted, called my husband in Korea and said “I’m going back to school”. He said, as he always did for my hair-brained ideas, “Go for it Babe.” I loaded my 9-year-old in my van and we were off to California for summer school. The rest is history.

JOSH BOARD: What was the best piece of advice you got when you were going to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts?

MARGARET BOWMAN: The best piece of advice I got at AADA was that I was valuable as an older actor. The second best was to not do amateur jobs but to start in professional theatre. The third was to “keep it real.”

JOSH BOARD: Who were you favorite actors growing up?

MARGARET BOWMAN: My favorite actress when growing up…would you believe Dorothy Lamour? She was the epitome of glamour to this small town, sand between my toes, Gulf Coast girl. Hedy Lamarr ranked right up there also.

JOSH BOARD: It’s got to be a thrill for your kids to see you on the big screen.

MARGARET BOWMAN: My kids, grand kids, and great grand kids are my biggest fans. I have two great grands who are in theatre arts in school and one of them wants to make acting her career. She’s good and has the support of her mom and dad, so she’ll make it. I might mention that my sisters and their families are the same in their support and pride.

JOSH BOARD: When was the first time you were recognized, and what was that experience like? Julia Roberts told me it was in a bathroom, and somebody slipped a piece of paper under the stall for an autograph. What was your moment of being recognized like?

MARGARET BOWMAN: The first time I was recognized was when I was working at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, TN, the Mother Church of country music, doing a show called Lost Highway, The Music and Legend of Hank Williams. It was in a restaurant when we were waiting in line for a table. My daughter had come over from Dallas to see the show and she noticed a group of people whispering and looking our way. I heard her say “Yep, that’s her.” I was thrilled but tried not to show that it was my first time to be recognized. It happened the next time a few days later at the mall when my granddaughter and her husband were visiting from Longview TX. They got to share the thrill.

JOSH BOARD: Who did you meet on a movie set that was a lot different than you thought they’d be?

MARGARET BOWMAN: Sissy Spacek, whom I love. She’s shy until she gets to know you, then she’s warm and friendly. Javier Bardem is a prankster, loving to pull jokes on people. The wonderful four men in Hell or High Water. Ben Foster is a dear man and won a place in my heart. Chris Pine loves to laugh. Gil Birmingham, that handsome man, is warm and friendly and then there’s Jeff Bridges, one of the most generous. He’s interested in other people. Warm, friendly men it’s been my good fortune to meet. I would love to be able to call all of those men, as well as Taylor Sheridan, the writer and David McKenzie, the director, friend. I have only had one really bad experience on a movie set and that was many years ago with an actor who thought he was much better than he really was. I’ve been privileged to work with some great directors, some of the top stars in Hollywood, and some of the best makeup artists, hair dressers, and costumers in the business, to say nothing of the cinematographers who make me look like the character I’m portraying.

JOSH BOARD: Movie critics and reporters have long commented on how tough an interview Tommy Lee Jones can be. He always seems grumpy, and is a man of few words. Yet Meryl Streep recently said how he said some encouraging things on the set. Any conversations you had with him that you can share from No Country For Old Men?

MARGARET BOWMAN: I had heard that Tommy Lee Jones is a bear to work with. He wasn’t that way with me. He co-wrote the screenplay to Elmer Kelton’s book The Good Old Boys. I played an old woman, Mrs. Faversham, whose mind has gone. He was friendly but focused on the business at hand. It was his first time to direct as well as star in a film. He used the word “exquisite” a lot, as in “exquisite Margaret” when I’d bring something to the character that he really liked.  Although it was early in my career it’s one of my favorite movies. He cast me from my first audition tape, back when we were still doing mostly live auditions. It was a beautiful TV movie for TNT. I liked working with Tommy Lee.

JOSH BOARD: As a teenager, my little sister had posters of Don Johnson on the wall. His TV show Miami Vice was the biggest thing in the world. You worked with him on The Hot Spot. Was he as good looking in person? Again, I’m asking for my sister.

MARGARET BOWMAN: Yep. He was good looking!

JOSH BOARD: Has there ever been the time on the set of a movie where you didn’t understand why the director wanted you to do something a certain way…and then when you saw the movie, you realized they were right, or that it worked better than you imagined?

MARGARET BOWMAN: In The Good Old Boys I wanted to sing harmony with Sissy, Francis McDormand, and a Mrs. Jones, who were singing a hymn while one brushed my hair. Tommy Lee said no. I still think he should’ve let me sing.

JOSH BOARD: Who have you been most excited to meet on set? You’ve been in movies with Steve Martin, Liam Neeson….

MARGARET BOWMAN: I’m always excited to get on the set. I’m excited to be working with that director, perhaps even more than working with that actor. Rick Linklater is one of my favorites as are the Coens. David M. of course. I was very excited to be in a couple of scenes with Glenn Ford. He was the epitome of a gentleman. Jack Fisk, Sissy Spacek’s husband, directed that one. I’ve done two films with Sissy and that was great.

JOSH BOARD: What do you think is the most underrated movie you’ve done. I really liked Leap of Faith (Steve Martin, Debra Winger, Liam Neeson, Meatloaf).

MARGARET BOWMAN: The Good Old Boys is without a doubt the most underrated film I’ve done. For some reason it hasn’t been shown much. What a cast — Tommy Lee, Sissy, Frances McDormand, Matt Damon, Sam Shepard, Wilford Brimley. I’ve done a couple or three bad films but they weren’t underrated, just bad. As for Steve Martin, he’s one of the least assuming actors I’ve come into contact with. He’s also totally focused on the task at hand and will work until he drops.

JOSH BOARD: Did you realize No Country for Old Men was as violent as it was? And, did you laugh at Javier Bardem’s haircut on set?

MARGARET BOWMAN: Yes, I realized that No Country was a very violent movie. I had read the script. Javier’s character was so scary and seemed simplistic at first glance but then you began to see that he had a code of conduct that he lived by. What made him the way he was? I found myself talking silently to the other characters because I knew what was coming even when reading the script. But what happens between him and the sheriff at the end? No I didn’t laugh at his haircut. I didn’t want a bolt through my head. We had a laugh because he said I gave him the evil eye. I guess that’s why I was allowed to live.

JOSH BOARD: Hell or High Water was my favorite movie of the year, and you’re one of many reasons this film was so terrific. You were incredible in your scene. I remember Bonnie Hunt once talking about how her first role was a waitress in Rain Man. She rehearsed her lines for days, and her first take, she did horrible. She screamed the lines and Barry Levinson (the director) had to tell her to merely act surprised, not angry. Sometimes with a small part, it seems it would be hard to rehearse lines, or understand exactly what the director wants. How many takes did you do? I had this impression you may have done a few, because I don’t know how Jeff Bridges or Gil could keep from laughing with you snapping at them like that.

MARGARET BOWMAN: Ah, we get to one of my very favorite roles. It’s been good for me. I prepared the same as I do any role I’m fortunate enough to get. I create a back story. A scene doesn’t begin when the director says action. That’s just when the cameras roll. A scene begins many years before. What’s your age, your marital background, your education, economic situation, why are you at this place at this time? I call the T-Bone waitress Maizie, because Maizie don’t take nothin offa nobody. Oddly enough we didn’t have to do many takes. David told me to take it and run with it. Gil and Jeff, being the generous and fine actors they are let me have the scene. Their reactions are priceless which made me look good. Generous men, as I said.

JOSH BOARD: Lastly, my wife wants to know…if you’re only asking the customers what they “don’t want,” why do you need a notepad to write their orders down?

MARGARET BOWMAN: I guess the props people need to look needed.