She’s played Juliet, Cleopatra, and Lady Macbeth. She’s also played Shylock, Prospero, King John, and Richard Nixon. In the 11 years since she was awarded a Stranger Magazine Genius Award, Seattle actor Amy Thone’s already remarkable career has taken an intriguing turn.
“As a woman, as a regional, stage-based actor—and I know it’s true in Los Angeles as well, especially for people doing film and television—you hit about 42 and you’re basically done,” Thone explains over coffee. It is hard to imagine Thone ever accepting that she is “basically done” and needs to go sit on the retired actor bench.
“At one point,” she goes on, “between like 38 or 39 for me, I don’t look like anybody’s grandma, but nobody wants to have sex with me now, so I’m in this no-man’s land. And you fall to the wayside.”
But she didn’t fall to the wayside. Instead, Thone, now 54, started playing men. Maybe she was able to pull it off because she is tall, wiry, has a big stage presence and a rich, deep voice. She says she feels “lucky and grateful” because “otherwise, I wouldn’t be working. I mean, I would work half as much. Maybe.”
“I have found tremendous freedom,” she continues. “It gives you a different kind of power. Men’s roles are written differently than women’s are. They’re more powerful as they age, and I think women are considered less powerful. Men have this sort of aging lion metaphor that rumbles around in their heart, and they can produce offspring until they’re 80, however grotesque it may be. So it’s been sort of fun to put on the pants, metaphorically and theatrically.”
Seeing Thone play Nixon in Strawberry Theatre Workshop’s recent all-female production of Frost/Nixon was an eerie and immersive experience—both metaphorically and theatrically—like a dream where everything is off-kilter but you can’t figure out why, and you vow you won’t wake up until you do. It’s the mid-1970s. Again. Nixon has resigned. No one is quite sure what to be obsessed about, now that the Watergate hearings are over. British TV personality David Frost thinks we might not be done talking about Nixon; he sees and seizes an opportunity, and proposes to the ex-president that they sit down for a series of lengthy TV conversations. Nixon sees the Frost interviews as an opportunity to redefine his reputation. He says yes.
If we’d seen Frost/Nixon put on by “a bunch of white men,” says Thone, we “would have thought, yeah, whatever. But when you see it through the different lens of gender—I think we’re starting to be interested in those different lenses and how we can revisit works and reexamine history.”
The play, by Peter Morgan, was first performed in London in 2006. Through the lens of either the #MeToo movement or the 2016 presidential election, 2006 now seems a long time ago. In 2018, an all-female production of a play about how the lust for power brought down a presidency resonates in a way it might not have then.
And Thone brought something to the role that few other actors could have. Just two weeks before Nixon resigned, Thone’s father, a Republican congressman (and later governor) from Nebraska and a Nixon protégé, was invited to bring his family to a reception at the White House. Thone was 10 years old when she shook President Nixon’s hand. She said her father thought Nixon’s downfall “was a tragedy and a frame-up, and still to his dying breath—and he wasn’t talking a lot during his dying breath, so that’s just a figure of speech—he always believed that Nixon got a teeny bit of a raw deal.” But as Thone prepared to play Nixon onstage, her own research confirmed her belief that “Nixon got the opposite of a raw deal. I mean Nixon was a corrupt, addicted, bullying, deceitful—” She pauses for an instant. “I think he opened the barn door to Donald Trump, actually.”
The challenge of playing against gender—especially an outsized personality like Nixon—is to find a way not to mimic or caricaturize but to “embody” a character. To play him not as a monster, but as a tragically flawed human being. Thone recalls learning this lesson when she played Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl years ago.
Riefenstahl “never ever took any responsibility for what she did. Never ever even signaled any awareness of complicity for the Third Reich. And I said, I can’t play this person, she’s a monster,” Thone says. “And my director said: There are no monsters. And so playing Dick Nixon, there are no monsters. Dick Nixon was, they’re fairly certain, fairly intensely physically beaten by his father, and two of his brothers died of tuberculosis, so there was lots of intensity and tragedy in that home, and so Dick Nixon came out distorted. My dad was very much cut from the same cloth. I think he perceived Dick Nixon as his mentor, so there was a lot of hero worship of Nixon in my family growing up. So it was fairly easy for me to not demonize him. He was a wounded, pugnacious, defensive, corrupt man.”
And that is the Richard Nixon that Thone thoroughly embodied.
Thone is married to former actor Hans Altwies, who retired from the stage about five years ago and now works full time as a contractor and carpenter, which he used to juggle with acting. Thone says she thrives on wearing many hats: She teaches at the University of Washington and Cornish College, she is the casting director at Seattle Shakespeare Company, and she has been a massage therapist for 25 years. She and Altwies have two daughters, ages 18 and 12. Their older daughter wants to become an environmental lawyer. The younger one? “An architect, a race car driver, or an actor.”
Thone took a long break from political involvement after her childhood in Washington, DC, and her teen years in the Nebraska governor’s mansion, when she was “very active, I think in response to my father’s perceived nefarious right-wing activities.” But these days, Thone and Altwies “go on the marches, and we sign petitions, and we give as much as we can.”
She’s even thought about running for office locally. But she’s not ready to give up teaching. Or acting. There are just too many good roles out there.
“In fact,” says Thone, on the opening night of Merchant of Venice—in which she played Shylock—“Mike Winters, who’s my favorite actor in town, came up and said, ‘So what’s next, kid? King Lear?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, why not?’”
Ann Hedreen is a writer, filmmaker, and the author of Her Beautiful Brain, winner of a 2016 Next Generation Indie book award. Ann and her husband, Rustin Thompson, own White Noise Productions and have made more than 150 short films and five feature documentaries together, including Quick Brown Fox: an Alzheimer’s Story. Their newest film, set in Peru and inspired by Ann’s great-uncle, is Zona Intangible.