Here are the facts, as I know them to be: Kathie Russo was married to Spalding Gray, renown monologist, legendary actor, and the subject of Steven Soderbergh’s “And Everything is Going Fine” — a remarkably unconventional documentary that relies solely on archival footage of Spalding himself to tell the story of, well, Spalding himself.
Kathie is the mother of his two sons, Forrest and Theo, and co-produced the film. In June 2001, while vacationing in Ireland, Spalding was involved in a car accident that left him handicapped and forced him to undergo brain surgery. Kathie discusses how the accident marks the beginning of Spalding’s decent into depression. In January 2004, Spalding went missing and a was found several months later in the East river. He had committed suicide by jumping off the Staten Island Ferry.
As an interviewer, you can’t walk on egg shells, but you certainly toe a fine line between getting good material and respecting someone’s personal space. Fortunately, as Kathie mentions, when you’re married to Spalding Gray — whose most intimate and personal moments become fodder for his artistic work — you learn to open your private life to the public. Kathie spoke to me candidly and with an ease that juxtaposed the often tragic nature of what she was speaking about.
BYT: When did Steven Soderburgh first connect with you about this project?
Kathie: About a year after Spalding died. He contacted me and we met for lunch and, you know, it didn’t take much convincing. He just expressed his interest in wanting to do this because he felt like after doing a movie with Spalding and after doing Gray’s Anatomy that he really got the essence of Spalding. Which he did.
BYT: did the film sort of become part of the grieving process?
Kathie: As in, was it therapeutic? I wasn’t involved in the day to day with the film. It’s essentially a great editing job. It was a collaboration between Susan [Luttenburg] and Steven so they didn’t need my two cents at all. I trusted their instincts from the get go. So I didn’t really see it till it was done.
BYT: Do you know then how the chronology of the story came about?
Kathie: I gave her 120 hours of footage and Susan went through all of them. Then she got it down to nine hours. I mean, the whole film took five years to make. And then what she started to do was she separate the footage and themes of Spalding’s life. That’s when Steven came in and started to look at it. And then Steven said, ‘You know i like what you’ve done with the themes, but what i think we need to do is put it in chronological order.’
BYT: So, you immediately knew from that first lunch that this wasn’t going to be your typical documentary?
Kathie: Oh of course. I loved that this was Steven’s first. which also made it intriguing.
BYT: Spalding’s mother’s suicide had a really pervasive influence on his creative life. Was that something that you found lingered in a more apparent way in his persona life as well?
Kathie: Not a ton when I met him. It was always there and it was always fodder for his monologues, so it was not something that went away. And unfortunately it’s going go away for my children, even if they don’t become performers. It’s something you learn to deal with and that was his way of processing it — by talking about it on stage.
BYT: I don’t know how personal i can get…
Kathie: I mean, i was married to Spalding Gray *laughs*
BYT: So personal is the nature of the beast. *pause* Something that comes up in the movie is this juggling act he was doing with you and another woman, Renee.
Kathie: Well, that was his wife. We were haveing the affair.
Kathie: About a year into the affair, they got married. And he had been with Renee for 12 years when i met him. And then a year after they got married, I got pregnant, so… it was pretty messy.
BYT: Did you or do you have any contact with Renee?
Kathie: No, but she lives here in Sag Harbor. She moved here i guess right before we had the car accident. And then she bought a house near me, then shortly after he died. But no, we don’t have contact. I wish it weren’t that way. I mean, we shared the same man for a long time.
BYT: Was that a tricky transition for Spalding? Leaving Renee when you had your first son, Forrest?
Kathie: It was hard. He talked about it in his journals. He missed Renee, but he was also embracing this family. He sums it up really well in “Slippery Slope,” his monologue, when he and I bump into each other in the street in New York. I’m carrying Forrest in the snuggly and Renee called him and said you have to get home now. And they were still together, and he said he was paralyzed. He saw himself with me and the baby and he saw himself comforting Renee. He was completely split by it.
BYT: Wow. In the last decade of his life, family takes on a significant role…
Kathie: It’s so bittersweet. I love, love the part [in the film] where after the accident he says, ‘The last five years have been the happiest years of my life.’ And it’s like oh my God, Spalding Gray was happy?! *laughs*. I feel enormous joy that i was able to help him create this family. Thank God I gave him five years that made him happy… And then, it’s really sad that he’s not here to enjoy the rest of the years with his family. He was an incredible father and I knew he would be, I knew it when I met him, and I would say that to him and he would say, ‘Don’t say that. I have no interest in being a dad. I don’t want to procreate.’ He was very honest about it. He was told he couldn’t have children. He was told he was infertile. So we were operating under that. He had never gotten anyone pregnant in 52 years.
BYT: was that an immediate transition? when he started hanging out with the baby?
Kathie: it was immidiate. he didnt see forrest until he was 8 months. and of course by the time theo came we were in a very committed relationship. we raising our family.
BYT: In the film, Spalding seems to become unhinged after the accident in Ireland.
Kathie: i think it becomes a little apparent, but I think it needs more explaining. I tell people he definitely had brain damage. It’s interesting with Gabby Gifford and what she’s going through. The Times reported one day that the doctors decided they weren’t going to go into her brain and get the bone chips out that were lodged in there from the bullet because they feel now that that might cause more damage than leaving them in there. And that’s what Spalding’s head surgery was about — getting the bone splinters out that were lodged in his brain. They just scared us. They all said you have to have an operation. You have to get them out of your brain. But he was never the same after that head operation. He was actually OK after the accident, and you can see the difference. You know when the dog is howling in the film? That footage there, he’s aware, he’s making jokes. Then after, when you see him with crutches, he just doesn’t look well.
BYT: Did he ever do another monologue?
Kathie: Yes, it’s called “life interrupted”. There was no footage. That’s why it doesn’t appear in the film. It was a work in progress and he performed it at a small space in New York called PS 122. It was about 40-minutes in length. It was about our car accident.
BYT: Again, if I’m getting too personal, stop me. But, if we could talk about the aftermath of his death. What was the period like after he vanished?
Kathie: It was horrible. We just didn’t know. I knew in my heart that he was dead because he wasn’t a cruel man. Even if he was disoriented, he would never make us think he was dead when he was alive. He… uh… um…. you know… I knew when he went missing he was dead. *pause* What i didn’t know was whether we’d be able to prove it. He was missing for two months.
BYT: He left no note?
Kathie: No note. Which was very strange. He went out that day and bought a yellow legal pad. I had never noticed it before, but on the legal pad it says: Evidence. He must have written, ‘Dear Kathie,” and ripped the page off because there was an imprint on the second page. There was nothing else after that. I think he didn’t feel like he needed to leave a note, because we would just assume.
BYT: Did you hear from people who had seen him? How did you piece things together?
Kathie: There was a lot of wacky phone calls. I don’t blame people for trying to help. I don’t think there intention was to sensationalize this, but to help me. *pause* There was this one guy… This is eerie. He was at a Kingston diner, close to our house upstate. This guy called me and said, ‘I saw your husband last night.’ He described exactly what he was wearing that night: a gray poofy, flannel hat. And he walks into the diner and said, ‘Can I have a table by the window,’ and Spalding would always do that. If there was daylight, he always wanted to sit where there was light. So, he ordered a bowl of soup. My parents actually went to the diner and they went through the surveillance tape. But there was no one that even looked like that.
Kathie: That was the eeriest. The man described him to a tee. Maybe it was him? Well, no… it would have been on the tape though? So I don’t know. It’s very strange. That one’s a mystery.
BYT: That’s… terrifying. *pause* I know that Spalding had seen Big Fish with the kids…
Kathie: That was, yeah, that was the day he died.
BYT: What sort of effect did that have on him?
Kathie: Um. I guess a lot. *laughs* My daughter said he was crying throughout the whole thing. My son actually got it for Christmas. We all love the movie. We were driving upstate to visit my parents and my son was playing it. And that ending — I can’t watch it without balling — when Billy Crudup takes his father into the river, and he says, ‘My father will be immortalized forever by the stories that he told.’ and, That’s Spalding.
BYT: And in a lot of ways, that’s really what And Everything Is Going Fine is about.
Kathie: Exactly. Exactly. I guess it’s my mission as his partner to see to it that his work remains alive. And this is one of the vehicles that we’re doing that with.
BYT: Well, it’s an incredible film. Congratulations.
Kathie: Thanks. And thank you for interviewing me.
BYT: My pleasure.