Samantha Mathis, Self-Isolating Downtown – The New York Times


The actor Samantha Mathis departed Los Angeles on a trial basis a decade ago, to see if she could make a life for herself in New York City. Or perhaps more to the point, to see if she could make a life for herself in the theater.

In short order, Ms. Mathis was cast as Jane Fonda’s daughter in the drama “33 Variations,” which ran for a few months on Broadway in 2009. The experience was validating. She had arrived, and she was sticking around.

A few years later, to underscore the point, she sold her house in the Hollywood Hills. “So now I’m really a New Yorker,” said Ms. Mathis, 49, who made her feature film debut in “Pump Up the Volume” and whose credits include the 1994 version of “Little Women” and “American Pastoral.” She has a recurring role as Sara Hammon, the chief operating officer of Taylor Mason Capital on the Showtime series “Billions.”

Reflexively, Ms. Mathis settled downtown (although there was a brief detour to the Upper West Side), moving from rental to rental, mostly — but not currently — on 10th Street.

“It’s the epicenter of where my friends are,” she said. “Coming from Los Angeles, where I felt a sense of isolation, I was looking forward to the vibrancy of living in New York and being close to everyone I knew.”

Occupation: Actor

It takes a (Greenwich) village: “My home in Los Angeles was beautiful. It had four bedrooms, and I could go hiking every day and smell the night-blooming jasmine. Now I’m renting a junior one-bedroom and paying through the nose. But I can walk with my dog to Washington Square Park, and I run into my friends all the time.”

Since late 2018, she has rented a junior one-bedroom in a postwar Greenwich Village co-op. Her timing couldn’t have been better: The apartment had just undergone a thorough and meticulous renovation, with a spanking new kitchen and bathroom, new floors and ample and well-conceived storage.

“And clean grout,” said Ms. Mathis, who seems to have had more than her share of experience with dirty grout. “I walked in, and I thought, ‘I have to live in this apartment, it’s so clean and new.”

The apartment has provided a soft landing for Ms. Mathis in the face of the coronavirus and the attendant career disruption. Hours before the first public performance of “Whisper House,” the musical she is starring in at 59E59 Theaters, the production was shut down and the opening postponed at least until early April.

“In this rapidly changing landscape, I find myself home in isolation,” Ms. Mathis said. “And though stir-crazy, I am so grateful to have my beautiful, light and tranquil home. It’s my little lady cloud.”

Ms. Mathis has furnished said “cloud” with a judiciousness that would make Marie Kondo proud. It holds only those things that delight her soul — vases and candlesticks; a few pieces from Puerto Rican Pottery; dinnerware from Heath Ceramics, in Sausalito, Calif.; an assortment of art books — or are practical solutions to limited square footage. These include a desk standing in for a dining table and a Lucite coffee table (topped with a Lucite tick-tack-toe game) to minimize visual clutter.

Then there is the clever repurposing: the deployment of curtain rods and drapes from a previous residence to fashion a canopy bed, rather than shelling out for the ready-made version from Restoration Hardware.

“The curtains are a little long for the space, but I don’t mind,” Ms. Mathis said. “They create a sense of separateness when someone is spending the night and sleeping on the couch.”

Ms. Mathis has a fondness for midcentury-modern pieces, like the chrome-and-leather Breuer Wassily chairs from the famed Rose Bowl flea market and the wood credenza. She also likes to mix high (antique nightstand) and low (a CB2 sofa that has withstood the depredations of Ms. Mathis’s dog, Frankie, now deceased, and her three-month-old mixed breed, Annie.

But her aesthetic is ever-evolving, Ms. Mathis said. She is influenced by stylish friends, one of whom bought a feather pendant light for her house upstate. Nice, thought Ms. Mathis, who decided to get one as well, to hang over her bed.

“It’s really quite dreamy at night,” she said.

Lately, she has been interested in recreating the décor of her 1970s childhood in California. Thus, the assemblage of potted plants, including succulents, on the windowsill.

As part of that effort to reconnect with the past, Ms. Mathis has surrounded herself with furniture, jewelry, ephemera and art that belonged to her actor mother, Bibi Besch, and her actor grandmother, Gusti Huber, both deceased.

There are several Abstract Expressionist works by Warren Davis, an artist friend of Ms. Besch’s, who painted on unprimed surfaces. “When I was growing up, I really didn’t understand them at all,” Ms Mathis said. “But now they’re my most favorite possessions. The colors and pigments have soaked into the canvases in a way I find so beautiful.”

Most poignantly, there is handwritten response from E.B. White to Ms. Mathis’s mother, then a 10-year-old, who wrote to Mr. White expressing devastation about the ending of his book “Charlotte’s Web.”

“It’s one of the sweetest things in the world,” Ms. Mathis said, quoting from the letter, which her grandmother, Ms. Huber, preserved in a double-sided frame: “‘When I’m writing a book and something sad starts happening I always think I should do something to prevent it, but it is not so easy as you might think.’”

As soon as Ms. Mathis moved back down to the Village after that short stint on the Upper West Side, the phone started ringing. This or that friend was just passing by her building, was around the corner or sitting in the coffee shop across the street: “Are you home? Would now be a convenient time to come visit?” Sure, come on up.

She is someone who enjoys being a host and conjuring a space that makes guests feel welcome. “My grandmother and my mother were very good at decorating and making a home, and I feel that’s something I’ve inherited from them,” Ms. Mathis said.

“I have a friend who once said to me, ‘If you were rich, your home would be amazing,’” she continued with a laugh. “And I didn’t know how to respond. ‘Thank you?’ Because I’m not rich, but I think you’re giving me a compliment.”

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By Joanne Kaufman

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