Monologist Spalding Gray's widow Kathleen Russo opens up about his suicide, the 7 years since, and Steven Soderbergh's new doc about his life. Amazingly resilient, she's our new hero!
After watching Steven Soderbergh’s new biographical documentary about the iconic monologist Spalding Gray—entitled And Everything is Going Fine—I invited Gray’s widow Kathleen Russo in to talk about the film. Given the tragic nature of Gray’s suicide almost seven years ago, I expected to meet someone still wrestling with grief, single motherhood, and betrayal.
Instead, Russo—who is also a producer on the film—is an amazingly resilient woman, whose pragmatic candor and optimism shine through every story she tells about her late husband, and about their two sons. Russo was also quite open about Gray’s suicide and the two months of uncertainty that followed. It was a lovely interview, as you’ll soon see.
Tribeca: I’ve been in New York for 20 years, and always remember seeing Spalding—he was such a fixture at literary and artistic events. It was wonderful to revisit his life through his own words. So how did this film come about? Whose idea was it—yours or Soderbergh’s?
Kathleen Russo: I wasn’t even thinking we had to do a film, because I was just dealing with coping with his death—and I didn’t know if I was ready.
Tribeca: Were Steven Soderbergh and Spalding good friends?
Kathleen Russo: They were. He first approached Spalding because he had read Impossible Vacation, and he wanted Spalding to be in [his feature] King of the Hill; he said, “This character is ruled by regret, and that’s what came out of Impossible Vacation, so I think you’re the perfect actor for this role.“ That began their relationship.
Then they stayed in touch, and Steven wanted to make [the film of another monologue] Gray’s Anatomy. I produced that, so that was the first time I worked with Steven. With Steven, essentially, that just means raising the money; you just let him do whatever he wants to do. Because he takes care of everything! He’s so detail-oriented.
So anyway, when he approached me about this film, we had lunch. It was a little less than a year after Spalding died, and I said, “I don’t know if I’m ready to do this, but I’m going through all this stuff.” I had all this film footage—literally a closet full of ¾-inch stuff that I’d never seen. I had to do something with it. He was like, “We should do the movie, and I should do it… I get the essence of Spalding Gray. And my first reaction is to get Spalding Gray to tell the story of Spalding Gray.”
Tribeca: Was that what you had in mind?
Kathleen Russo: You know, Spalding also had all these journals—over 300 journals—and the first thing Steven said was, “Let’s transcribe all of them.” Which was a huge gift to me, and to my kids, because Spalding’s handwriting depended on what kind of crisis he was going through at the time: sometimes it was easy to read, sometimes it was really difficult.
He also transcribed all the audiotapes of Spalding’s performances, which took two years. We’ve taken the archives now to the University of Texas in Austin, so we’ve made their job a lot easier. I wanted it all to be in a safe place after Steven was done with everything.
What was also great is that they transferred all my home movies, which I had taken on this old camcorder and kind of thrown in the closet and forgot about it. So now they are on DVD, and the kids and I have watched almost all of them—it’s priceless to have that!
So one of Steven’s first thoughts was that he would have people read journal entries over the film footage we had, but then he started to look at the footage, and he realized we didn’t need anything else but Spalding.
Tribeca: So how did Steven decide what story it was he wanted to tell? Did the footage dictate that? Or did he come to the project with that in mind?
Kathleen Russo: Well, the editor, Susan Littenberg, whittled it down from 120 hours to 12 hours—she knows Spalding better than I do after that! [laughs]—and that’s when Steven came in. He said it just was apparent from those 12 hours that we needed to tell his story chronologically, because it’s all there [in the monologues].
Tribeca: But the images of him telling those stories jump from era to era.
Kathleen Russo: Yeah, it kind of throws you, because you’re like, “Wait a minute, we’ve already seen him when [Russo] was in his life in the 90s, but now we’re going back to the 80s.” But it’s telling you the linear story of his life.
Tribeca: Do you think Spalding would have approved of this film—of the story you and Steven set out to tell?
Kathleen Russo: Absolutely. Yeah. And in fact, I’ll admit it now that I went to a psychic shortly after we started this project. And he goes, “He’s REALLY excited about the film.” And I hadn’t even mentioned it! So I was like, okay, this must somehow be working. [laughs]
Spalding did this interview with NPR about two months before he died, and he said, “You know, the biggest thing I fear about my death…” and there’s this long pause, “is that I won’t be around to talk about it.” And here he is; you get him for 90 minutes more. He would be so excited!
Tribeca: In the film, there is a lot of discussion about what is true, and how his memory shifts through storytelling. In documentaries, no matter what, there is always some sort of perspective, even if it’s in the way you shoot or edit. What do you think about the nature of documentary, and how does this fit into that canon?
Kathleen Russo: I think what you’re asking to is: How true were his monologues? The core of the truth of his material?
Tribeca: Well, or at what point does that become truth? You know what I mean?
Kathleen Russo: Everything he told in his monologues was true, but the order he would mix up if it made a better story. I think that 99.9% of his stories were true. We were together almost 15 years, and he never made anything up, but he would change the order around. And I got that—it made a better story.
Tribeca: Well… I don’t know how personal I can get here with my questions…
Kathleen Russo: Oh, I’m fine. With Spalding—we’re an open book!
Tribeca: The movie doesn’t go into his death.
Kathleen Russo: Yeah, people ask me about that. And I always say, “But there’s no footage!” That was a choice Steven made [not to acknowledge his death in the movie]. And I completely respect that; I don’t feel like there’s something missing from the movie not having that in there.
Tribeca: What was that time like for you? Did you have any inclination that suicide was a possibility?
Kathleen Russo: Oh, yeah. He tried many times. But he almost became like the boy who cried wolf; his attempts—not to diminish the seriousness of it—but after someone you’re with, and you’re trying to raise a family, keep your career going, and just live life—and he keeps doing this, like at least once a month, you’re like, how much more…?
Tribeca: When was the accident [in which Gray was seriously injured]?
Kathleen Russo: In June of 2001, we had the car accident in Ireland.
Tribeca: So it was less than 2½ years later. Was it the pain, do you think? From the accident?
Kathleen Russo: Well, in hindsight—because for the first year and a half after the car accident, we thought it was major depression; and I do think depression had something to do with it, because he was prone to depression—but now I am absolutely positive he had brain damage, after the car accident and the head surgery.
And then he disappeared January 10, 2004, and we didn’t find him for 2 months. That was horrible. When people ask, “What did you do during those 2 months?” I don’t even remember.
Tribeca: There was no note?
Kathleen Russo: No, and I did publicity to try to get people to tell us if they’d seen him that day. We got the craziest stories from people. I mean, someone from LA emailed me pictures of someone they thought was him, sitting in a café. I mean, they were just trying to be helpful.
I am fairly sure he killed himself that first night. He was definitely a man who was ruled by regret. And we always, the people that were close to him—I mean, we know he jumped and went, “Oh, shit! Oh, fuck! I don’t want to do this! I’ll be good. Kathie, help!” I just know he didn’t want to do it in the end.
Tribeca: So there was someone who saw him on the Staten Island Ferry?
Kathleen Russo: Yeah, there was one man who saw him. He wrote about it in the New York Times Magazine. We talked on the phone—he told me everything he could remember from that night. There were very few people on the Ferry, because it was one of the coldest, record-breaking cold nights, and he said Spalding said to this guy, “It’s too bad the back doors are roped together.” And the guy said, “Well they are roped together because it’s freezing and really windy, and they don’t want the wind coming into the cabin.” And Spalding said again, “It’s too bad they are roped together.”
And that was the last exchange. That was on the night of January 10. And there was also a phone call from the Staten Island terminal to our son, who was six at the time, in our loft—my daughter was there babysitting—that came in at 8:30. So that was the last record we have from Spalding.
When all the reports came in, there was this one that haunted me. There was this man—an ex-cop—who was up in a diner off the Taconic near Poughkeepsie (we have a house up in Brewster), and he said, “I have to tell you: I know I saw him come in.” He described the jacket he was wearing that night, and the hat—this poufy black-and-white checkered hat—he described it all. He said Spalding walked in in the afternoon, and he looked a little disheveled, and he asked the hostess for a table by the window. That was always Spalding—whenever we went into a restaurant in the middle of the day, he wanted a table by the window—and I was getting chills. This was like three days after he went missing. Then he sat down and ordered soup.
The man called me like three days later, because he saw something on TV. And my parents actually went up to the diner, and they ran through the day’s video—they had a surveillance camera—and no Spalding. Not even someone who matched that description.
Tribeca: Now I have chills.
Kathleen Russo: Yeah, it was really eerie. And that was three days after we think he died. Just the way that man described him—not knowing me, not knowing him. He was really certain. But he’s not on the tape.
Tribeca: Did the kids have a really hard time?
Kathleen Russo: Forrest the most. He was 11, which I think is such a critical time for a boy. Theo was six, and it didn’t really affect him as much, but Forrest went through years of therapy, and his music was his therapy too, I truly believe. And he can talk about it—he’s very quiet and reflective, so it takes some pulling out to converse with him sometimes—but he’s very open.
Tribeca: Well, you all sound very healthy. Can you talk a bit about Forrest’s musical contribution to the film? His music plays over the end credits.
Kathleen Russo: He’s 18 now, and he goes to Berklee College of Music in Boston, majoring in film scoring. The piece that’s in the film was from his senior project in high school: he composed a song for each year of his life. And Sunset is the song that represents his 17th year; it’s really fitting.
Steven didn’t know what he was going to do for music in the film. And when we started this process, Forrest had a band, called Too Busy Being Bored—it was a bunch of 13-year-olds. [laughs] And they actually won the Knitting Factory Battle of the Bands at 14! It was really exciting.
Steven said, “You know, I’d really like to hear his music. Maybe we can use it in the movie.” I was like, “You don’t have to do that.” And he said, “No, send me everything.” He didn’t go for the rock-n-roll stuff, but he went more for his compositions, which is Philip Glass-y, I think.
Kathleen Russo: Yep, and Theo’s 13. He’s the complete opposite of his brother: he’s a jock—baseball, basketball. It’s interesting, they don’t look alike, but you see them both look like their dad at different times in his life, as the movie goes along, which I love.
Tribeca: We will look out for that! What do you want audiences to remember or learn about Spalding?
Kathleen Russo: That he was a great writer. I think you learn about that in the movie—his process. I love the part where he goes, “Who ever wanted to be a writer? It sucks! It’s disgusting!” he says. [laughs] I think the movie highlights that—that he was not just this performer, but there was a lot of talent in his writing that always came before he was able to mount these monologues.
And also that he was so unique—he was one of a kind. I think it’s great that all these other people are trying to do autobiographical monologues on stage. Like Mike Daisey—who I just saw last night—he was completely inspired by Spalding.
Most monologists, the young ones, come to me and say, “I want you to come to my performance, because you were with Spalding,” and this and that. And I’m always honored; I think it’s great he inspired all these other people to try it. In different ways—I mean, Danny Hoch—his are more character driven, but yet he’s someone else who was inspired by Spalding. Margaret Cho, Julia Sweeney… Whoopi Goldberg! She said she idolized him, from his early days.
Tribeca [sheepishly]: I always remember Beaches too, from, like, 20+ years ago.
Kathleen Russo: Well, that was my introduction to him too! I really didn’t know his work. When my daughter Marisa was six months old, her father and I went to a friend’s wedding up in Stowe, Vermont; it was the first weekend we had by ourselves. And there after the reception, we came back to the hotel to change clothes for the party—it was all my college friends—and we were getting ready to go, and he said, “You know what? I really want to stay here and watch this HBO special. This guy Spalding Gray—I love his work, it’s called ‘Swimming to Cambodia,’ and I really want to stay here and watch it.”
I was like, “Okkaaaaaayyy. It’s our first weekend alone without the baby…” And I sat on the edge of the bed and watched the first five minutes, and I said, “This is BORING.” [laughs] And I got up and went to the party.
When I met Spalding, I told him that story, and he loved it.
Tribeca: Is that still Spalding’s wedding ring you are wearing?
Kathleen Russo: No, this is from my boyfriend. We’ve been together six years; I met him a year after Spalding died. He’s great—he didn’t have kids, he’s my age, he’s helped raise the boys, and he loves Spalding’s work. He’s so great, because I think it would be hard to be with someone whose [late] spouse was so, you know—but he’s so supportive: he goes to all the openings with me.
Tribeca: I’m glad you are happy. It’s a nice ending.
Kathleen Russo: You know, it’s like—horrible things happen to everyone. This was devastating, but there’s still good to be had. Especially if you have these kids… People that first year were like, “How do you get out of bed in the morning?” It’s not even a question! Of course I get out of bed—why wouldn’t I?