NEW YORK — Anabel Graetz was 77 when her big break came. After appearing in the 2019 action-comedy “Free Guy,” which starred Ryan Reynolds and grossed $330 million, Graetz paid off her debts for the first time in her life. She also went on to land roles in other films, including “The Greatest Beer Run Ever.”
“It’s a golden moment for me. I have age on my side. There just aren’t that many actors who can do what I do,” Graetz, now 80, said of her first role in a Hollywood blockbuster film.
Graetz was delighted when she got the call to audition for the role of “Cat Lady Phyllis” in “Free Guy.” Describing the day of the audition as “like a cattle call,” she said she tried not to think too much about it after she read her lines. When she got a callback she was happy, but a bit jittery.
“At the ‘Free Guy’ callbacks, when I walked out, I thought I had blown it, even though the director, Shawn Levy, worked with me for several minutes. As I was putting on my coat to leave, the woman who read after me came out and was already leaving,” she said.
It turned out Graetz hadn’t blown it. She soon found herself spending two weeks filming on location in Boston in the heat and humidity.
“The set was like a family. Ryan Reynolds is just so much fun to work with — with him, it’s really just like playing. He is also a very generous actor; whether or not the camera is on him, he’s in the moment, giving his partner the energy needed to make a scene really work,” she said.
Achieving later-in-life success is a bit heady, Graetz said. Aside from the two films, she also appeared in the HBO series “Olive Kitteridge” and Hulu’s “Difficult People.” The success has inspired her to pursue other film parts. If she has it her way, she’ll work until she’s 90.
“I began my career as a character actress and I’m still auditioning. It’s sort of fun,” Graetz said, in a Zoom interview from her home in Lexington, Massachusetts. “It’s great when things you once dreamed of doing become a reality, but the interesting thing is it doesn’t really change things that much. That said, it’s nice to peak late in life, at least as far as the public success thing goes.”
Always an entertainer
Born in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1942, Graetz grew up in a kosher home. Her family lived in a mixed Jewish and Christian neighborhood until she was in fourth grade, when they moved closer to the synagogue because her mother preferred walking to services. Every Shabbat and Passover seder, her parents hosted a few Jewish families from the nearby Offutt Airbase, which served as headquarters for the Strategic Air Command.
As a child, she loved to sit on the floor in her front hallway and play “Over the Rainbow” on a 78 RPM record, over and over again.
“I knew every word verbatim. Acting and singing was something I always wanted to do,” she said.
But as Graetz tells it, nurturing her interest was not easy. To start, her immediate family was neither musical nor theatrical.
Her father, who “had an incredible mind for numbers,” was a comptroller and then a treasurer for a chain of jewelry stores. Her mother was a housewife and a volunteer Braillist, helping prepare books and reading material for the visually impaired.
“My proclivity seemed to be a weird thing, but then I found out my great-great-grandfather was a hazzan [cantor] at the Portuguese Synagogue in New York,” she said.
Later, in the 1970s, while doing genealogical research, she learned she had family who fled Portugal in the 1400s and who apparently traveled through Europe as a troupe of minstrels before settling in Holland.
Throughout her childhood, Graetz participated in a local children’s theater group and took elocution classes. She also entered a competition doing a version of Shalom Aleichem’s “Bass Viol for Heaven,” and while she can’t recall if she won, she does distinctly remember riding the streetcar into town as often as possible so she could sneak into the movie theater.
When it came time for college she enrolled at Indiana University. Unhappy with the coursework she transferred to Boston University, where she majored in acting. She had wanted to go to the New York Actors Studio, but her parents wouldn’t allow it. Still, her career choice left them “horrified,” she said.
Upon graduation in 1966, she moved from Beantown to the Big Apple and joined one of the last casts of the off-off Broadway play, “The Drunkard,” which at that point had run for nearly a decade. Three years later she moved back to Massachusetts, where she’s lived ever since.
From bawdy to proper lady
Her career path has not been conventional, Graetz said. She decided against chasing film parts in Hollywood or theater roles in New York. Instead, she focused on her love of history and music and joined the Bawdy Ladies, a six-woman singing troupe that sang about sex from a female point of view.
Most recently she was part of Proper Ladies, a two-woman singing group that brings the story of the US suffrage movement alive with a cappella arrangements of Victorian-era music.
“We booked five gigs on our first night. Looking back, I think we were popular because we were heading into the millennium and people were nostalgic. Plus, we sounded really good,” Graetz said.
Although the singing jobs supplemented what she earned by giving singing lessons, Graetz never earned enough to comfortably pay the bills.
And so her career went, until, at the age of 62 she signed with Boston Casting, Inc., New England’s largest casting company. Graetz soon got her first film role. She was cast as “Doris” in a fire safety short “At Our Age,” with Tom Bosley, best known for his role as Howard Cunningham in the television series “Happy Days.”
Graetz’s friends and family were delighted when “Free Guy” was released, she said. And while her success hasn’t yet turned into the kind where people stop her on the street for an autograph, she is gratified.
“When I watched movies growing up, I always got a bit of a thrill when the lion roared or the searchlights came on at the beginning; I knew that it was what I wanted to do,” she said.
“The first time I watched ‘Free Guy’ and saw the searchlights, I was so excited — here was a dream come true,” Graetz said. “If my parents could see me now, they would see the investment paid off.”
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