On a recent afternoon, while most British Columbians contend with rain or snow (or a combination of the two), Marlene Worrall delights in the dry heat of Palm Springs, California. For over a decade, this resort city is where Marlene has nested each winter: horseback riding in the desert valley, playing a round of tennis with friends, the massive slopes of the San Jacinto Mountains visible from the north. It’s a view that conjures wistful memories for Marlene, who was an actress in Los Angeles in the 1960s and would come on the weekends to escape the big city smog.
“When my mother was older, I asked if she had any regrets, and she thought for a while and said, ‘I guess the only regret I have is that I didn’t spend more time in Palm Springs.’” Marlene’s buoyant laugh marks the revelation; it’s clear that she made sure not to share in her mother’s contrition. When the weather is more compliant, she lives the rest of the year in Vancouver, closer to where she grew up in Surrey. An expansive lifestyle is one that Marlene’s accustomed to. Along with Vancouver and Los Angeles, she’s lived in New York and London. It’s a life that she knew early on was suited for her.
At five-years-old, a Photoplay magazine slung under her arm, she’d point out the grainy photos of the movie stars inside the pages and say to her parents, “I’m going to be an actress in Hollywood!” Their response was less assured, a nodding of heads, sure-you-will-sweetheart, thinking she’d give up on the dream before it had a chance to fester. However, her natural showmanship and talent for writing would only grow. In Grade 5, Marlene wrote a variety show that her teacher allowed her to perform during lunchtimes. She wrote a part for Maxine, who could tap dance, and included a role for a girl who could play instruments, but Marlene was the obvious star.
When her father set out to build a shed for the goats their family owned (they had two, a far cry from the Hollywood way of life), the unfinished project left a kind of stage on their property where Marlene would perform. With paper costumes and her latest sketch ready to go, she’d charge six cents to her neighbours to watch the show. You could say it was a fruitful start for Marlene’s young professional career that continued with starring roles in high school plays and then on to studying theatre at the University of British Columbia. While a student, she won the role of La Madrecita de los Perdidos in Tennessee Williams’, Camino Real, the only character who sings a cappella. Marlene’s voice struck her professor, Robert Gill, who suggested she become an opera singer. Although she didn’t become a singer, she has been praised for her three-octave range (and her ability to hold a note as long as anyone). Marlene was already booking shows as an undergraduate student, so she left before completing the program to find work elsewhere.
Marlene can still remember the first words to a story she wrote when she was in Grade 4: “She boarded a plane to Los Angeles.” That’s exactly what she did, proving to her parents her often stated belief was true: when you want something badly enough, you can make it happen.
During our conversation, Marlene slips into a Texan drawl and proper British accent as if it takes no effort. She has an ear for words and is as inquisitive about others’ lives as they are about hers. For almost every question asked, she wants a response in return. It’s evidence you can take the girl out of Canada, but you can’t take away that inherent politeness and warmth. When asked of her early days in Hollywood, she’s amused. “I haven’t thought about that in years,” she says, yet recounts them like she were just at 20th Century Fox doing a screen test.
Interest in Marlene came almost immediately upon landing in Los Angeles. Although by Marlene’s own admission, there were struggles to success. There was the time she was at the Beverly Hills Hotel in a black, spaghetti-strap dress when an otherwise ordinary looking man came up to ask her to dance. He wanted to know if she was an actress, and she replied, “Honey, isn’t everyone in this town?” The man happened to be from Universal Pictures, and he wanted her to test for the role of Jean Harlow. Despite her abilities as a performer, Marlene cites her own insecurities as a reason she ultimately didn’t go to the audition. She was in a relationship with a screenwriter, at the time, and he persuaded her against doing the audition. Her love for someone else, and perhaps a naiveté to her new setting, made her pass on the chance.
Another thwarted opportunity came when she was getting her hair done. A handsome actor approached and asked her to come with him to an acting class that was based on the techniques of Marlon Brando. She agreed, and this time did show up to the class, which resulted in an appointment to do the scene live for producers and directors at 20th Century Fox. A studio contract was in the offing, but that year, in 1963, the studio stopped doing them, and so she wasn’t given a deal.
A string of missed chances would be enough for anyone to reconsider their path, but Marlene has her faith to rely on, and a belief that the next great role is still ahead of her. She has had successes, playing Sharon Stone's mother in Intersection, and Molly Ringwald's mother in Malicious, but her persistence is the kind that knows there’s always more possibilities. Marlene cites Dustin Hoffman as inspiration, someone who was his own worst enemy, turning down roles he didn’t think would be any good that went on to be big successes.
“Despite those tough, earlier years, he still works and he’s amazing. I believe my best days are ahead of me. I really believe that.”
Her resolute faith is a large part of Marlene’s identity. As a Christian, her beliefs have guided her down unforeseen paths and helped to foster her confidence. She was a Medallion award-winning realtor in the Fraser Valley before leaving the industry in 2007 to write full-time. She has written both fiction and non-fiction, but regardless of genre, all of her work is imbued with aspects of her life. She says that for Angels in Shining Armour, the content was essentially spoken to her. The novel focuses on 19-year-old Ayita, a girl of Cherokee origin, who attempts to commit suicide before an angel intervenes and saves her. The book has received five-star reviews on Amazon, and Marlene is currently working on an audio book and screenplay to accompany it. The character’s journey parallels Marlene’s; finding light at the end of life’s winding tunnel, she comes to find her value.
Whether she enjoys acting or writing more, Marlene can’t choose. However, she says, as of late, writing has been joyful, “especially when it’s going well and people read it,” she laughs. She is currently at work on two novels, The Portrait and Kentucky Cowboy, though she still thinks she could be more disciplined. She’s hoping to find an acting agent in the Vancouver area. She jokes about never seeming to get enough rest, but her ambition doesn’t appear to be declining. If one path is blocked, Marlene simply moves on to the next one. Have an idea? Write it down. Explore it. If it doesn’t go anywhere, get a new one and go with that one. Her hope is to encourage others to stay curious and go down every avenue until they end up where they’re supposed to be.
Marlene speaks with optimism, and her belief that we can accomplish our goals if we work hard enough is contagious. It’s no small wonder she’s also a public speaker. She recalls hearing Carol Kent, a well-known author and motivational speaker, talk about her life at a conference, and the impression she made lingered. Marlene says, “She tells you how to be vulnerable, how to share the things you don’t want to share to encourage others. Everybody walks a different road, but we all have our tragedies and sorrows.”
Marlene remembers how Kent started her speech, by showing photos of her family and their life together, which Marlene admits she initially looked at with envy. “I thought, oh, here we go: you’re gorgeous, your husband and son are good-looking, your home is beautiful, where is this going?” Where it was going was Kent went on to share that her only son had been sentenced to life in prison for murder. The effect of her presentation pointed to how our perception of someone’s life is often so different to the reality. “Kent tells you to share your sorrows, because people will relate more to that than your successes.”
As Marlene looks back on her younger years, it may seem that her journey was upended by missed connections, but it’s clear she’s been gifted with talent and resolve. She remarks that the woman she’s staying with in Palm Springs, who’s 93, is currently out to brunch with her boyfriend. “Never mind what people say about your age,” she says. “Don’t even look at the number. Just decide. Do whatever it is that’s burning inside of you. It’s never too late.” It may sound like oversimplified advice, but it’s how Marlene now lives. With age, she feels more confident. She says she’s learned that “you can call things that are not as though they are.” Like the true performer she is, her advice recalls the common catchphrase “fake it ‘till you make it.” That is, if you’re in a situation that you don’t feel confident in, pretend you are until you garner the experience or tools necessary.
“As a child, you grow up and have an image of yourself based on what was painted by your parents, and it’s usually incorrect because they’re not always qualified to paint it. I thought I was an oddball because I was creative. I had to reprogram my thinking.” Deciding who you are, what you can do, and where you will go is an important part of our lives.
Whether it’s changing how she talks to herself or planning out her next novel, Marlene understands the power of words.
Snapshot with Marlene Worrall
If you were to meet your 20-year-old self, what advice would you give to her?
I would say value your youth, beauty, and intelligence and don't sell yourself short like I did due to self-esteem issues. Instead, believe you are the best, the brightest, and the most talented person out there.
Who or what has influenced you the most? And why?
Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, famous for his book, The Power of Positive Thinking. He said things like, "Throw your heart out over the fence and your body will follow," and, "What the mind can conceive and believe, the mind can achieve.”
What does courage mean to you?
Never settling for less than your dream. I wasted a lot of time selling real estate (although it was lucrative), but I also burned up some of the best years of my life when I could have and should have continued pursuing theatre and film work as an actress, as well as writing.
What does success mean to you?
I think it’s when your personal life is happy and you have a relationship with God.
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