by Robin Chotzinoff • Photography by Kate LeSueur
At 3 p.m. on the afternoon of a 7 p.m. dinner party, actress Barbara Chisholm is as relaxed and informal as her dining table appears not to be. Not at first. Not with all that china and crystal inherited from her mother Gloria, whose 1930s portrait depicting her in full southern ingénue attire seems to supervise the table. “My mom was a great entertainer,” Chisholm says. “She believed in setting the table first, before you start cooking. As a kid, I used to love putting out all her fancy stuff. She had individual ashtrays at each setting, with ‘C’ for Chisholm engraved on them. Fancy!”
Fancy stuff didn’t guarantee a fancy life. The Chisholms—mother, father and six children—were a military family, constantly on the move, making new friends, inviting people for dinner. “No matter where we were stationed—Goose Bay freakin’ Labrador!—my mother would make enchiladas,” Chisholm says. “She’d have tortillas shipped in from Texas! The last eleven years of her life she lived with us, and every once in a while, she’d need her Mexican food fix and we’d go to Polvos.”
Gloria Chisholm died three years ago, but her cooking-for-company philosophy—fancy yes, fussy never—lives on. This afternoon, Barbara sets the table for four—herself, her husband (Austin Chronicle Arts Editor Robert Faires), plus husband and wife playwrights Steven Dietz and Allison Gregory. That accomplished, she gets to work on the menu: an appetizer of gougères, followed by roasted root vegetables, green salad and roast chicken, with profiteroles for dessert.
“And, of course, I’ll offer cocktails,” Chisholm adds. “When can we have a cocktail, by the way? I mean, look at these cocktail glasses—aren’t they too freakin’ much?” A gift from her husband, the vintage midcentury highball glasses are freakin’ perfect, as is the Don-Draper-era bar cart where they rest until called up for active duty. “I also got the sexiest refreezable ice cubes,” she remembers. “2014 was kind of a Cocktail Christmas. Hmmm…you know what else my mother advised? When you’re getting ready for a party, always have a ‘sink drink’ on hand.”
Gloria Chisholm defined a sink drink as an adult beverage consumed discreetly by a home chef, strictly to settle her nerves. “You don’t use a fancy glass. A coffee cup is good. And,” Chisholm adds, “it doesn’t count against your total for the night.” Not about to argue with tradition, Chisholm pours a shot of Deep Eddy Ruby Red Vodka over ice—topping it off with Topo Chico and a squeeze of lime. Re-energized, she dices onions, melts butter and trusses the chicken—all while leading a wide-ranging discussion about the creative process. “Doing your art strictly for money is horrible,” she pronounces. “It eats away at you. I always say: Me and Julia Roberts both get to pick what we want to do next—for exactly opposite reasons.”
Chisholm isn’t a movie star, in other words, but her 20-plus-year career in Austin, most notably at the Zach Theater, has been one of almost nonstop verve and substance. Whether portraying Molly Ivins in the one-woman “Red Hot Patriot” or spending 12 years filming a very visible supporting role in Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood,” she manages to be an Austin actress without being pigeonholed as local talent. At the moment, she’s between jobs. “This is rich to me, this fallow time,” she says. “I like having a personal life. I like balance. You need balance, right? I mean, we’re all cobbling together a living, and….” Her phone interrupts. “Everyone shut up! It’s my agent! Wow!” She ducks around the corner for a short, animated whisper. (Yes, she can do an animated whisper.) “Arrrgh, I can’t talk about it,” she says, when the call concludes. “Not yet. But it’s exciting. Very.”
And now back to the chicken, an exciting possibility in its own right. “Do I have a name for it? Sure,” she says. “How about ‘AWESOME?’ I would totally order this for my last dinner on Death Row.”
Epilogue A: With the chicken in the oven and the kitchen straightened up, Chisholm took her dog for a leisurely walk, because after all, the table was set, the vegetables were prepped, the sink drink was poured and she still had plenty of time. When her dinner guests arrived, she realized she’d forgotten to cook the roasted vegetable side dish. In the end, dinner was served an hour later than planned, but with the bar cart handy and the conversation sparkly, who cared?
Epilogue B: Chisholm got the role her agent called about—playing the late columnist Erma Bombeck in a one-woman show at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. The run begins October 2015. And she’s allowed to talk about it. And she’s excited. Very.