For most people, the process of aging is a linear one: time passes, you grow older, eventually you die. But for Charleston actress Samille Basler, her past year on stage has disrupted that process a bit. She's gone from playing Daisy, a privileged elderly woman, to Kimberly, a child of 16 trapped in the body of a 70-something-year-old. To Basler, it's been a wild and wonderful ride.
At 74, Basler is no stranger to the stage. "I've been acting since I was a little girl," she says as she sits in the sunny back room of her Mt. Pleasant home. The house is full of a lifetime's worth of experiences and memories, photographs and antiques. "My hometown of Washington, Ga., was one of those that sort of revered their children. We had constant things going on. We had Veterans Day. We had parades. We had May Day. We had revues. And always, from the time I was little, all I wanted to do was act."
So act she did, in high school, college, and beyond. Marriage and family ended her aspirations to perform on Broadway and instilled in her a love of community theater. "Being married and having a family, which is what I chose to do, community theater was the easier way to combine everything. I did win at one point in my life the Southeastern Theater Conference Award. That was my one claim to any kind of fame."
It may be safe to say, however, that in all those years of acting, she's never had back-to-back roles quite like Daisy and Kimberly. As Daisy Werthan, the wealthy Jewish widow in Driving Miss Daisy, a role that earned her a Best Actress in a Drama award at the recent Charleston Theatre Awards, she had only to look to her roots. "In Miss Daisy, it was like I recaptured my mother and my grandmother. I could take both of those women in the stages of their lives that I knew them best and transpose that onto the stage. And of course, being from the South, being from that part of the country, not that far from Atlanta, the accent I didn't have to worry about."
Still, there were challenges. Throughout the course of the play, Daisy has to age, starting from younger than Basler is now and ending in her 90s. At the time of production Basler's mother-in-law, in her 90s herself, was in the hospital, and Basler visited her often. While there, she was also able to research the way the elderly move. "When I would go see my mother-in-law, I would watch so many of those people — how they walked, how they sat down, because I don't sit down like they do. They're very careful, sitting down and finding their balance so they don't fall," she says. She demonstrates the difference, first sitting as herself, graceful and elegant, and then as Daisy. Her body language changes completely. Suddenly she is timid, careful. She slides a hand on the arm of the chair, another on the seat cushion, and carefully lowers herself down. The look on her face is of utter concern, discomfort. It's impressive.
Now, as Basler prepares to tackle Kimberly Akimbo's Kimberly Levaco, a 16-year-old girl with a condition that causes her body to age at four times the normal human rate, she faces a whole new set of challenges. "There are mannerisms of a 16-year-old that I'm having to work on. For example, one of my lines is to say 'Cool,' which isn't something I say. The other night, when I was saying it, I said, 'Oh, that's cool.' Kyle [Barnette, director of Kimberly Akimbo] said, 'That makes you sound old. Leave off the 'that.' No teenager says 'That's cool.'" She laughs a little before she continues, a laugh that sounds younger and more girlish than she probably realizes. "That, and rolling eyes. I've watched my grandchildren so I do have some experience of people rolling their eyes when I say something that they find a little stupid. That's been fun."
They've put her in a teenage costume — tights and a skimpy dress — which is what Basler feels is the most awkward part of the role. She certainly doesn't wear skimpy dresses in her real life. Then there's the kiss her character shares with co-star Anthony Masseratto. "He [Masseratto] played Oliver years ago and I had some small part in that. I remember thinking, 'What a cute little boy!' So it's really funny because now we have this little teenage kiss. It's funny to me because I'm like his grandmother. We haven't yet been able to do the kiss because I can't keep a straight face. I'm looking at these beautiful blue eyes, and it's like looking at one of my grandchildren," Basler says.
All laughs aside, though, Basler truly loves what she does, and enjoys the parallels between these two roles. "I'm aging again, but aging as a teenager, and that's hard, which is good. It's a good training for an actress, to have a role that really makes you work." And on acting at all well into her 70s, Basler says, "I'm very pleased that at the age I am, which is 74, I can still get up there, and I can still remember my lines. The most wonderful thing is that I work with such wonderful people." She's been surrounded by some of the best actors in the area, a fact she cherishes.
Though she's spent most of her life on stage, Samille Basler is nobody's diva. She's funny, kind, and has exactly the right kind of moxie to pull off the role of sweet, sassy, 16-year-old Kimberly Levaco. And as she talks about the end of the play, a mischievous grin crosses her lips. "Trust me," she says, the smile broadening. "It's really — cool."