Q&A with Kathleen Chalfant

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Kathleen Chalfant and her husband, Henry. Chalfant family photos, courtesy of Kathleen Chalfant.

Can a Stanford-educated, Oakland-born actress whose career is peaking as she moves into her 70s find happiness with a Brooklyn Heights brownstone as her home base?

For Kathleen Chalfant, cast member of the Golden Globe-winning Showtime series “The Affair,” the answer is a resounding “Yes.”

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle recently sat down for an interview with Chalfant, who discussed her new Hicks Street home, her head-to-toe artistic family, her award-winning career and her longtime friendships.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle (BDE): After 20 years in the West Village, what urged you to sell your beloved home and move to Brooklyn Heights?

Kathleen Chalfant (KC): By the time we left the village, [it] had become kind of irredeemably the gold coast. We are beneficiaries of that, and it allowed us to move to this beautiful place, but it also changed the character of the neighborhood…

But to be honest, had the people not made us this astonishing offer for our house, we would probably have stayed at least for a while longer. We had a really lovely house and my husband’s cousin and his wife lived there with us. We had a kind of family commune…and I think we probably would have stayed as long as we could, though it was becoming economically more difficult to maintain the building.

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Henry Chalfant, Kathleen’s husband, is known for his photography and videography of subway graffiti art. Photo by Mercedes Rodriguez, courtesy of Kathleen Chalfant.

When we unexpectedly sold our house we didn’t know what to do. We looked everywhere at every possible place to live, but our daughter and her husband and their daughter live in Red Hook. So she said, “Why don’t you look in Brooklyn?” We decided to look in the Heights, and when we came around the corner [of this house] and walked in the front door we said, “This is it.”

What we have found is what a wonderful place [Brooklyn Heights] is to live, and how lucky we are that this has happened to us. It feels like a huge piece of luck all the way around — for family reasons, for financial reasons, for spiritual reasons — we were very, very lucky.

BDE: You mentioned your family living in Brooklyn as a factor for your decision to move. How has the family dynamic benefitted from your new home?

KC: Our son David was particularly happy that we moved to Brooklyn, because from the time he graduated from college until the time he went on the road with The Nields, he lived in Brooklyn in two apartments on Atlantic Avenue, about two blocks from here.

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Kathleen’s daughter, Andromache, a set designer, has a studio on the garden floor of Kathleen’s house in Brooklyn Heights. Andromache is pictured with her daughter (Kathleen’s granddaughter) Galatea.

Our daughter Andromache and her two associates have a studio on the garden floor of this house; they’re set designers for the theatre — and Henry and his assistant have their studio in the adjacent rooms.

A wonderful thing about this house is that for Christmas we had both of our children and all three grandchildren and a friend of our oldest granddaughter’s to stay. They spent the whole time thundering up and down the stairs. It felt like a house in a book or something. It was wonderful.

BDE: “The Affair” just won a Golden Globe for Best TV Drama — congratulations! And your daughter is a set designer and your son was in a rock band… Any more artistic family members? Oh yes, your husband, Henry Chalfant, is basically the pioneer for photography and videography of subway graffiti art.

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Amelia is Kathleen’s and Henry’s oldest granddaughter.

KC: We lived on the Upper West Side, and Henry had a studio in SoHo, so he rode the train to work every day. He began noticing astounding murals on the sides of the trains, that only lasted about one ride of the train, and then they’d be destroyed or washed off. And [at the time he was] a stone sculptor, which is lonely work, and he was beginning to have doubts. After he thought about it he decided it might be interesting for him to take pictures of these murals and save them before they were destroyed.

He was interested in the works and who did them, so he took to hanging out on the platforms and taking these pictures and he developed this kind of collage technique where he would take the pictures and put them together in order to reproduce the sense of the car. And for the graffiti artists, photography was the only record they had of the cars. And they took their own pictures, but after a year or two it was discovered that Henry took the best pictures.

This was around 1979 and 1980. It was one of those times when your life takes a complete left turn away from what you’re doing, and he was caught up in street art and filmmaking — and that’s been his life ever since.

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Kathleen’s and Henry’s son David with his wife Katryna.

Oh, and my son-in-law, John Bemelmans Marciano, he is Ludwig Bemelmans’ grandson, the man who wrote the “Madeline” books, and he has continued to write the “Madeline” books and has written a number of books on his own, the latest of which is called “Whatever Happened to the Metric System: How America Kept its Feet.”

BDE: As if having an overwhelmingly talented family isn’t enough, can you tell us about your friendship and past work experience with your new neighbor, John Doman?

KC: John and I were introduced by a woman named Susan Charlotte who runs a reading series called Food for Thought…they read one-act plays at lunch time. [Charlotte] cast John and me together in a play, maybe 10 years ago. And then in 2005 I was cast in “Honour” and there we both were, in beautiful Berkeley doing this play. We had a really wonderful time.

When you do a play you’re there for a really long time, so we got to be friends. And when we came back and I knew John and his wife Linda, we had dinner in each other’s houses a couple times, our paths sort of crossed, and then it was a great joy to discover that we were going to be husband and wife again on “The Affair.”

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Kathleen’s and Henry’s grandson, William.

It’s been complicated because it has been a terribly, terribly sad time for John (his wife Linda passed away last year) but it’s also time when friends help. So in a way, our friendship has grown and deepened around the show and being neighbors. And as it happens, John came to our house for Thanksgiving, and we did a political fundraiser for the Green Party and he came to that, and I just went to his birthday party…and then we just went to the Golden Globes!

It’s better to be friends with your coworker than not. You can manufacture a kind of artificial connection with somebody you loathe, but it’s harder. As it happens, oddly, in “The Affair” we seldom speak to each other because it’s not such a happy marriage. John has a great ability: It doesn’t matter to him whether his character is liked or not, and it makes it possible for him to give fierce and very funny and completely honest performances.

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Kathleen’s and Henry’s son-law, John Bemelmans Marciano, is the grandson of Ludwig Bemelmans’, the man who wrote the “Madeline” books, and he has continued to write the “Madeline” books.

BDE: Any more thoughts on your new home in the Heights that has brought you so much joy in the past six months?

KC: I have to say I have never loved a thing more in my life than I love this house and the whole life in it. I love the neighborhood; I love getting off the train at Borough Hall, the sense of being in a city. I love the great comfort. We were here all through the summer and I love the parade down Joralemon Street to the park which [includes] every possible kind of human being in the world. The real prize of America, that’s what it’s supposed to be. Because we’re a country of immigrants; nobody’s from here!

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