Why Betty Buckley Wanted to Make an Animated Film About a Mayfly | Playbill

Special Features Why Betty Buckley Wanted to Make an Animated Film About a Mayfly

The Tony-winning actor is keeping busy: a new horror film called Imaginary, an animated short, and concerts with her band at Joe's Pub.

Betty Buckley and a still from The Mayfly

Just a short time before COVID changed the world, Tony Award winner Betty Buckley attended a Judy Collins concert at the Café Carlyle, the intimate Manhattan venue where Buckley has spun her own special brand of magic on numerous occasions over the past few decades.

“During [Judy Collins’] show,” Buckley recently told Playbill by phone from her Texas ranch, “this little creature was flying over her head through the whole concert, doing these beautiful patterns in golden streams of light. And, I swear to God this happened, as the last chord was strummed on the guitar, [this mayfly] was suspended in space, and then just lightly, gracefully floated down like a little sailboat, and landed in Judy Collins’ voluptuous hair.”

Buckley said she was so moved by the experience that she started researching mayflies, only to discover that their brief existence on earth lasts only about three or four days. “They're just part of the ecosystem. That's all they do is come and breed more mayflies and live and die,” she says. The stage and screen star explained that in the days that followed, she kept hearing a little voice in her head imploring, “Write my story, write my story,” and originally thought this tale could make an ideal song for her own then-forthcoming Carlyle engagement. 

Her long-time musical director and piano accompanist, Christian Jacob, however, thought otherwise and bluntly said, “No, Betty, it’s not a song.”

As fate would have it, while Buckley was dining at New York’s Bond Street restaurant, she heard a Norwegian band over the sound system whose music she felt was a perfect fit for the tale of this eager mayfly, who she named Megalyn. “I went back to my hotel and found [the band’s] track. I read my story over their track and sent it to Christian, but Christian still ignored it,” Buckley laughs, adding, “The beauty of that was it was exactly six minutes long, which is exactly the length of my story. It fit like a glove. Then COVID hit, and in April, I kept haranguing Christian because he had scored two of Clint Eastwood's most recent movies. I said, ‘Christian, I understand that it's not a song, but score it like it's a movie.’ So he finally sent me five motifs, and there was one that sounded like the mayfly flying and dancing.”

Production still from The Mayfly

It was after Buckley and her various instrumentalists recorded their respective parts in their separate home studios that she had an epiphany, realizing the tale of this Mayfly was indeed not a song. Instead, it would be better as the subject for an animated short film. 

Buckley's somewhat autobiographical, moving, and magical animated tale, called The Mayfly, follows a lone mayfly who wants nothing more than to revel in music—despite the protestations of her father. And, like Buckley, she succeeds dramatically, winding her way from Central Park in a circuitous fashion that takes her to the famed Carlyle.

“She arrives at the Café Carlyle, and the first night is rehearsing in the dark above the paintings,” Buckley shares about the short film's narrative. “The third night of her life, she has the courage to dance over Judy Collins' head in the concert. Then she does that moment of suspension in the last chord, and she floats down and lands in her hair. Her spirit form hears the applause and figures it’s for her as well because she knows she's made a real contribution to the show. She spots me in the corner, and we have this moment of acknowledgment that I see her, and she leaves the club, goes back to Central Park, circles the White Rabbit statue, and flicks her tail at the clock, and then heads off into the moonlight.”

After finding a character designer (Eugene Salandra)—thanks to Super Pets' Sam Levine—and a director (Sue Perrotto), Buckley still needed to raise funds for the animated film. When several wealthy acquaintances declined, her longtime assistant, Cathy Brighenti, remembered “this incredible couple that live in Austin, Texas, Brad and Melissa Coolidge, and they produce independent films. We sent it to them, and they called back the next day in tears saying they would pay for the whole thing. I'll never forget it—we were dancing around my house so excited!”

Buckley and director Perrotto subsequently found an animation house in Poland, BluBlu Studios. Nearly three years later, The Mayfly—with narration by Buckley and music composed by Jacob—will make its world premiere March 24 at the American Documentary and Animated Short Festival in Palm Springs. 

“We're very excited about that,” Buckley says. “It's just this little thing that's like a love letter to music and honoring your own passion and dreams. And, it's also a love letter to New York City."

Betty Buckley in Imaginary Parrish Lewis for Lionsgate

While fans await the arrival of The Mayfly, they can enjoy a healthy dose of Buckley in the new film Imaginary, the latest horror film to benefit from the actor’s many talents. The movie concerns an evil teddy bear named Chauncey, who lures unsuspecting children into the "Never Ever" lurking behind the house walls. Following her dynamic work in Carrie (1976), The Happening (2008), and the blockbuster Split (2016), Buckley brings gravitas and a good dose of humor to the role of truth-teller Gloria.

Buckley says she first met film co-producer Jason Blum when she starred with James McAvoy and Anya Taylor-Joy in the M. Night Shyamalan film Split. “It was a Blumhouse production, and that was their biggest moneymaker and broke all records for any horror movie at that point…One night, we were at Hamilton at the same time, [Jason] and his wife were sitting right in front of us, and we all went backstage. And he had seen Hamilton, like, a dozen times and loved it. We were all like little kids meeting Lin-Manuel [Miranda], and I love that he loves musical theatre."

Photos: See Broadway Turn Out to Celebrate Tony Winner Betty Buckley

After Buckley ended her run in the 2019 Hello, Dolly! national tour, Blum asked if she would star in one of his films. She declined due to understandable exhaustion, but Blum was persistent, and he sent her the script for another film, Imaginary, in 2022. "Director Jeff Wadlow told me they cast me first in the movie, which was very flattering," says Buckley. "Then I went to New Orleans from May through June and shot the movie right before the strike hit. It was just so much fun."

Buckley has nothing but praise for her Imaginary co-stars, raving, “Our leading lady, DeWanda Wise, is fantastic and beautiful. Taegen Burns, who plays the 15-year-old teenager, she's an amazing young actress. The little girl, Pyper Braun, she's unbelievable in this movie—she was only nine when we shot it. And then Tom Payne, who has been in The Walking Dead, is a lovely actor.” 

She’s equally enthusiastic about the film’s designers, who, refreshingly, did not rely on CGI for the film’s elaborate underworld set. “The production designer and set designers on the film were amazing, and the monster makers and the puppeteers were just awesome,” Buckley says. “I was shocked [when I first saw the set]. They built it on this whole soundstage. It's like this piece of art. That whole world that [Jeff] conceived, they built it."

Betty Buckley pays tribute to late Hello, Dolly! composer Jerry Herman

For those craving a live fix of Buckley, there is good news. The Cats star—whose concert evenings not only display her superior skills as a singing actor but also confirm her status as one of the great storytellers—has several spring dates scheduled, including a return engagement to one of her many New York homes, Joe’s Pub. Before she arrives at that Public Theater nightspot, Buckley will join Kerry O’Malley, Liz Callaway, Aaron Lazar, and Alex Joseph Grayson for a tribute to Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber March 28 in Costa Mesa, California; offer a master class and concert at Pennsylvania’s Mercyhurst University April 19; and an evening with music director Jacob at New York’s Adelphi University May 11.

Buckley’s May 16–18 concerts at Joe’s Pub will feature her trio—Jacob on piano, Tony Marino on bass, and Jamey Haddad on percussion—newly joined by guitar player Adam Rogers. “I'm really excited to work with Adam because he's the guitarist for the Steely Dan tour,” Buckley shares. “I'm such a huge Steely Dan fan…And he's a brilliant guitar player and really nice guy. Both of his parents were in musical theatre. I was scared to call him because I thought he wouldn't know who I was because he's this elite guitar player,” Buckley adds with a laugh. “And he was like, ‘Oh, Betty, we all know you!’ He's so sweet. I can't wait to work with him."

Buckley, who is currently in negotiations for a summer film, says she will also be front and center in the audience when one of her biggest triumphs, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard, returns to Broadway this fall. “I can’t wait!,” Buckley enthuses. “I had really wanted to fly to London to see it, but I wasn’t able to. I love [director] Jamie Lloyd’s productions, so I can’t wait to see it.”

Betty Buckley in Sunset Boulevard

When asked whether there is a particular performance that stands out from her own time playing former silent-screen star Norma Desmond, Buckley answers, “It was just two of the greatest years of my life. It was just unbelievable. I mean, I had to work my ass off and be really super strong to do that show eight times a week. The result of working that hard on Broadway all these years is my left knee being replaced and my shoulder was replaced. And now I'm like a cyborg,” she laughs. “It's hilarious, and that's the price you pay.”

Heralded for her heartbreaking, Olivier-nominated—and thrillingly sung—performance on both sides of the Atlantic, Buckley also recalls her first Sunset performance at Broadway’s Minskoff Theatre.

“I've never experienced anything like that in my life,” she remembers, her voice filled with emotion. “The ovation after ‘With One Look’—I felt like I was swimming through love. It was just unbelievable.…The ovation was so big that I was looking down afterwards, but then I kind of just looked up at the audience because I couldn't believe the feelings that I was receiving from this audience.… And [music supervisor David] Caddick [was saying], 'Keep going, keep going!' as if I would stop, do you know what I mean? Hilarious! It was quite a two-year thing. I ran a mile-and-a-half every day, some days three miles. Then on a long day, I ran six miles and I worked out all the time, and I had a Pilates trainer as well. There was major physical maintenance to be able to do that show. It was amazing."

Buckley pauses and then adds, "I really am so grateful I had that experience.”

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