She’s been on the comeback trail for a while now, starting with her appearances in Showtime’s The L Word, but it’s been some time since we’ve seen her take the lead. This month, screen veteran Cybill Shepherd takes the point in Mrs. Washington Goes to Smith, a Hallmark Channel original movie.
In the film, Shepherd plays Alice Washington, an empty nester whose husband has run off with a younger woman. In search of a rebirth, she enrolls in courses at Smith College, where she ends up rooming with a free-spirited music major. Although the dorm mates awkwardly fall in love with the same poetry professor, it soon becomes apparent that they need each other’s support if they’re going to become who they’re supposed to be.
According to Shepherd, when the role was pitched to her, it was a timely offering. “Somebody had said, ‘What are two of the things that you never have had a chance to do in your life, but sure would love to be able to do?'” she recalls. “One would be to go back and finish my degree in college. Another would be to play college basketball.”
Dreams came true early in life for Shepherd — whose win as Miss Teenage Memphis in 1966 eventually led to one of the most famously precipitous careers in Hollywood history — and they lifted her right out of her college years. “I really kind of skipped a whole developmental scene in my life,” she says. “I suddenly had to act like I was the most beautiful woman in the world and pretend that I knew everything I was doing, and function. And you know, I did — but … the one thing I knew about modeling as I went into it was No. 1, it would support me, and No. 2, that I did not want to be an actor — because every model I knew was going to acting school and wanted to be [an actor]. And I wanted to go to college. So that’s what I did instead of studying acting those first two years.”
Although Shepherd says that she still contemplates returning to the classroom for English literature, she admits to a feeling that she could also return in a more professorial role, drawing on her decades in the film industry to teach about the medium that has been both her boon and bane over the years. “I have this extraordinary film education,” she muses. “It really started with eight and a half years with Peter Bogdanovich — essentially what we did was watch movies. And I do have a kind of point of view on what I consider the classic movies, and I feel that so often, we’re not teaching at film schools the real classic ones that teach you how to tell a story. … A lot of films I see these days, I feel like a lot of people are missing some basics.”
But before she enters her own phase of academic rebirth, Shepherd will continue with the numerous projects she’s juggling and anticipating at the moment, which Shepherd describes as including an independent film, Desdemona Goes Shopping for the Fountain of Youth, as well as a possible cabaret act that would require a protracted stay in New York. But she says she remains open and optimistic regarding the project about which she gets asked most — the theoretical revival of Moonlighting. “I tried to get them to do a reunion,” she says. “I’d love to do Moonlighting — anything with Bruce Willis. … [But series creator] Glenn Gordon Caron told me personally, ‘I don’t know how to do it. If I did, I would.’ And I think it’s nigh on impossible to do Moonlighting without him.”
For the moment, Shepherd is just glad that her industry seems to be taking a shine to her once more, after the roughness of the cancellation of her Cybill show in the late ’90s. “I’m just like anybody else, happy to have a job,” she says, with the sort of humble wisdom that comes from having one’s ego bruised in the past. “With so many great shows now, with women of a certain age at the center of the stories, and you know, The Closer and Saving Grace … anyway, it’s really looking up. It’s really looking good. It’s a good time to be this age in Hollywood, now.”
Mrs. Washington Goes to Smith premieres on Hallmark Channel Aug. 1.