Known for her roles as Janine in the “Ghostbusters” movies, Iona in the cult classic “Pretty in Pink,” and of course, Mary Jo Shively from the groundbreaking ’80s sitcom “Designing Women,” Annie Potts has graced households for over 40 years. Her career has brought her many great acting opportunities on television, film, and stage. All of Potts’s hard work was almost lost early on when she broke both of her legs in a horrific car accident, but she never gave up on her dreams. She continues to star in movies, sitcoms and Broadway shows, recently appearing on “The Fosters,” and popular franchise “Law and Order.” Potts currently stars in a recurring role on NBC’s “Chicago Med” playing Dr. Natalie Manning’s (Torrey Devitto) mother. Potts says she has to be doing something because just sitting is boring.
With the 30 year anniversary of “Designing Women” falling this year on September 29, we had the chance to speak with Annie Potts while she took a break during her busy day. Glad to be resting her feet for a few minutes, we talked about being encouraged to follow her talents, sexism and ageism in Hollywood, and her passion for helping children with special needs.
“If a woman reads this and is inspired by my story, that would make me really happy.” – Annie Potts
At what age do you remember wanting to be an actress?
When I was young, about 12. I grew up in rural Kentucky and there wasn’t a lot to do during summer breaks, so my parents would send us to sleep-away camps for the whole summer. The camp had a drama program and that’s where it all started. It was a very sweet place and I had a wonderful teacher, who I still am in contact with.
Was there a moment when you knew you were going to pursue it as a career?
At the end of the summer I had been in the play there and the teacher pulled me aside and said to me, “You know darlin’, you have a gift for this. You might want to pursue that.” No one had told me that I was good enough at something to do that. And I believed her. After that, it’s all I wanted to do.
Sometimes it just takes that encouragement. It’s nice to have that little push.
It is and we all pray that a teacher comes into our lives at a critical juncture in life to direct us down a path. That’s why teachers are so great.
Were you always supported by your family?
Absolutely! I’m one of three girls and because there weren’t any guys around, there was no deflection to “you won’t be able to do what your brother does.” We were always told, from the beginning, we could be and do whatever we wanted. Which is kind of great. Not everyone gets that.
In your varied career, have you seen or experienced sexism?
Of course, even to this day. Just the whole age difference thing that exists, that’s societal too. The whole debacle over when a woman reaches a point where she’s not “fuckable” anymore. Amy Schumer did that short with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tina Fey, and everybody — that came about because a 55 year old, unattractive, fat, — I can’t believe he’s a star but I guess he is — rejected a 38 year old actress that was cast to play his wife. All because he said she wasn’t “fuckable” anymore. At 38. He ended up with a 22 year old. Now, can you imagine if you inverted that. A 55 year old woman saying, “No, I don’t want the 38 year old. He’s too old for me!” It would be ridiculous. So, there’s that. We also don’t get paid as much as men do. I think if I had been paid what men were paid, I wouldn’t still have to work. But other than all that, it’s been awesome.
Early in your career, you were involved in a pretty serious car accident, how did you get through that time?
I guess I just wanted to put it behind me. I couldn’t have guessed my injuries were so great that my whole life I would have to battle to move forward, but in a weird way it was a good thing to happen. When you’re given an obstacle, generally, the spirit says “I’m going to get over that.” So, I just knew I was going to turn it around. I’m going to beat it. I was super motivated to move forward. And just two years ago I was doing a Broadway musical, hanging upside down from a trapeze with a guy from Cirque du Soleil with two broken legs. I never even dreamed of that being in the realm of possibilities. That for me was a great sign from the universe saying, “See, you can do it.” It was very satisfying.
Being a part of the original “Ghostbusters” cast, were you surprised by the backlash this years remake received?
No, but the point was made that little girls can enjoy what their counterparts did 30 years ago. Having those guys to look up to and dress up as, now little girls have that. It’s done a good thing.
This year marks the 30 year anniversary of “Designing Women,” how did you get involved with the series?
I had done an episode of another show that Linda Bloodworth had written , where Jean Smart and I played sisters as guests. It was clear she was a gifted writer and she said she was going to write something for us. It just happened to come at the right time in my life and career. I was on the road making movies, dragging my oldest son around with me and he wanted to settle for a while. I thought, “well, I better get a series or something.” So motherhood was a deciding factor in that. It worked out very well.
You appeared in every episode but one, were you expecting it to be such a success?
It was the kind of success you can only pray for. I thought it was awfully good and really groundbreaking. Then, of course, when Meshach Taylor was added to the cast it became even more interesting — four southern white women and a black man, who they treated as an equal. None of that had ever been seen before. It was just a winning combination. The five of us had amazing chemistry and it’s one of those one in a million things.
What keeps the fire going in you to continue acting?
I’ve just always loved the work and I still enjoy it. For me, being on set always feels like the first time. It keeps me active and curious. I also think acting has changed in a really fantastic way. It’s a much more natural thing and technologically you don’t get the great big lights that we used to have. There’s also much more freedom to record voice to film. There’s a lot of overlapping; you don’t always have to have your line in the clear. This lends itself to a more dynamic way of illustrating a relationship because people start to behave as they do in real life. That’s so interesting to see. Of course, stage is my first and great love, which still interests me. My children would have preferred me to get up at 4am to go to work and be home to tuck them in at night, rather than going to work just as they’re getting home from school; they didn’t like that. But I have that freedom now that my children are grown.
If you could travel back in time, what would you tell your younger self?
Oh, that’s a tough one. It would be something like, “Suck it up sister. The game here is that of endurance.”
What do you think you would be doing if you hadn’t pursued acting?
I’m not sure. I think I would have done something with children. I, of course, love my own children but I also love working with other children. I especially love working with kids with special needs. One of my sons was diagnosed with ADD as a kid, and it was really tricky finding the right schooling to succeed. So, going through that I found a love of helping people who are trying to find the right educational tools for their kid. I like to do that when I’m not acting. I also like to renovate houses. It’s all creative to me. I have a restless soul so I’m always having to do something creative.
Is your children’s book, “Kemarley from Anguilla,” one of those creative outlets?
Yes. Three years ago I met a little boy on the little island we’ve been vacationing on for 25 years. He ran up to me on the beach and wanted to borrow my goggles. So, I gave him my goggles and he took my hand –pulling me to the ocean with him to swim. It didn’t take me very long to realize he was nonverbal. I became involved with him and his family — it’s a small, poor island. The island has one small center that helps kids with special needs but he never had a diagnoses. His mother was just at her wits end trying to get help for him. But, long story short, I wrote and illustrated a children’s book about him called “Kemarley of Anguilla,” which is his name and where he’s from. The book sells on the island and all the proceeds go to special needs children, with the majority going to Kemarley to fund his education and medical care. Just in the last two week he and his family traveled to England, which is a protectorate of his island, to be diagnosed and treated. So, that’s been super satisfying for me.
It’s clear Annie Potts isn’t about to slow down.
To stay up to date with what Annie is up to follow her on Facebook @OfficialAnniePotts and watch her as Helen on NBC’s “Chicago Med” Thursdays 9/8c.