Family Business

Ever Carradine ’96 came to Lewis & Clark to find her own path. In the end, her footsteps led back to the footlights of the family trade.

Ever Carradine ’96 came to Lewis & Clark to find her own path. In the end, her footsteps led back to the footlights of the family trade.

Ever Dawn Carradine–who explains her name by saying she was “born to hippy parents in the Hollywood Hills in 1974”–wasn’t the first Lewis & Clark student to wonder whether to follow in the family footsteps or strike off in some new direction. But she may be one of the first to play out that drama on the stage. For Ever the family business, of course, is acting.

She often thinks she could save time by wearing a T-shirt with “Yes” printed on the front and “Robert” on the back, in answer to the two questions she is asked endlessly: “Are you related to the famous Carradines?” and “Which one’s your dad?”

Carradine is an accomplished actress in her own right; she has landed roles in more than 15 films and nearly 20 television shows over her 10-year career. But she still fields lots of questions about her famous family.

Carradine’s father, Robert, has appeared in films as diverse as Mean Streets and Coming Home, but he made his name as Lewis Skolnick in the Revenge of the Nerds. Her uncle, Keith Carradine, worked with Robert Altman in McCabe & Mrs. Miller and the acclaimed Nashville, and has won both an Oscar and a Tony. Another uncle, David, is best known as Kwai Chang Caine on the 1970s TV series Kung Fu and more recently as the title character in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies.

But it was John Carradine, who was born in New York City in 1906, who founded the family franchise. He began his career in the 1920s as a Shakespearean actor, appeared in 10 films by the legendary John Ford, including The Grapes of Wrath, and made more than 200 movies over his long career.

Ever Carradine began her apprenticeship at age 9, when actor and family friend Dennis Quaid asked if she would play his daughter in the film The Right Stuff. For Carradine, who had grown up on her father’s film sets, it was no big deal.

“It didn’t seem like work back then,” Carradine says. “I really didn’t differentiate between being in the movie and visiting my dad on his film sets. [In The Right Stuff] I was playing the daughter of a good friend, so it was almost like just hanging out.”

But by the time she graduated from a high school in Los Angeles, she still wasn’t completely convinced that acting was for her, so she decided to go away to college and see what she might find. She was the first member of her famous family to pursue a college degree.

“After 18 years, I just thought it was time to get out of Dodge for a while,” she remembers, “so I looked at schools in Portland and Seattle, and a couple on the East Coast. My dad had spent a fair amount of time in the Pacific Northwest and always raved about it, so when I was accepted at Lewis & Clark, I thought I’d give it a go.”

The name only gets you in the door; once you’re in, it’s just you. If you can’t deliver, then it doesn’t matter what your last name is–you won’t get the role.

Carradine began college as a sociology/anthropology major and enjoyed “great classes and great professors.” But the smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the crowd were never far away. By her sophomore year, she was acting in her first play, Shirley Lauro’s A Piece of My Heart, in Fir Acres Theatre. The family business had put in a casting call.

“If you’re in the second or third generation of any family trade,” she explains, “whether your parent is a dentist or a lawyer or owns a business, I think you’re going to explore and try to forge your own path. I did that by going away to school. I could have easily stayed in L.A. and pursued an acting career without an education, but it was important to me to figure it all out.”

By the end of her sophomore year, Carradine had figured out that doing plays was great fun and that she could do a lot of them for credit by switching her major to theatre.

Stephen Weeks, professor of theatre and department chair, remembers Carradine as a down-to-earth, hard worker, who didn’t try to capitalize on the family name.

“Even now, 10 years later, I vividly remember some of the scenes she did as Liz Morden in Our Country’s Good, a play by Timberlake Wertenbaker set in an Australian penal colony,” says Weeks. “She had a big monologue in act two, where she had to sound like an 18th-century street person. The language was dense and difficult, but she worked hard on it and made it convincing. I’m not surprised she’s done so well in her career.”

By graduation, the die was cast–as was the actress–in Wendy Wasserstein’s The Sisters Rosensweig at Portland Repertory Theatre. Opening weekend coincided with graduation weekend, but Carradine managed to play her dueling roles as graduate and actress. She stayed in Portland for the run of the play, and the extra weeks came in handy.

“Coming off a professional theatre gig in Portland gave me confidence when I moved back to L.A.,” she says. “I got an agent quickly and started working.”

Carradine readily acknowledges that her name opened doors. Even better than that, it took a lot of the edge off the Hollywood knife. 

“The family name was certainly helpful to me, because I was always treated with a level of respect that I hadn’t quite yet earned. People were always responsive, kind, and inquisitive. But the name only gets you in the door; once you’re in, it’s just you. If you can’t deliver, then it doesn’t matter what your last name is–you won’t get the role.”

“I think people associate what I do with glamour and ease,” Carradine says over the phone from her Los Angeles home. She laughs, then apologizes for chewing. It’s 2:30 in the afternoon, and she has been doing phone interviews since 5 a.m. She’s just now grabbing some lunch.

In an interview situation, with Ever Carradine being Ever Carradine, she comes across as smart, funny, modest, and open–but in a careful sort of way.

“I’m a talker,” she says, “and a very open person. But when I’m giving interviews, I feel the need to maintain a certain level of privacy. It’s something a little bit foreign to me to say, ‘I’m sorry, I’m not going to answer that question,’ but there’s a limit.”

When asked if she’s sometimes tempted to just say something crazy in an interview to shake things up, she doesn’t hesitate: “Nope. I have friends like that, and I know actors who have done that, but it’s not my thing. I don’t want to say something sensational now, just to entertain myself, only to spend hours doing damage control later!”

Carradine’s most recent job of supposed glamour and ease began long before sunrise, when she headed for the set of her TV show: She played press secretary Kelly Ludlow on the Golden Globe-nominated series Commander in Chief, which starred Geena Davis as America’s first woman president. Production of a season of the hour-long show ran from July to May, with 60-hour weeks common. Mind you, she’s not complaining.

“It’s not like I’m working in a coal mine or something,” she emphasizes, “but it is hard work. It’s also highly rewarding and completely worth it. It’s fun hard work.”

And she can’t say she wasn’t warned. “My dad and my uncles cautioned me,” remembers Carradine. “They were protective. But I knew what I was getting into. I’d grown up on movie sets–I’d seen the ups and downs and the hard work. I felt prepared to have a go at it.” 

Soon after returning from Portland to L.A., Carradine was appearing on TV shows, including Tracey Takes On … with comic actress Tracey Ullman.

“Working with her was incredible,” Carradine says. “That was one of my first jobs, and I had no real [comedy] experience. After graduating from Lewis & Clark, I had planned to be [her voice goes Elizabethan] a ‘serious dramatic actor.’ But I kept landing comedies and getting great feedback. I couldn’t figure out why. I thought I was doing something wrong! But Tracey was kind and encouraging. She thought I was funny, which gave me the confidence to do a string of comedies after that.”

Carradine has made her share of TV pilots–comedy and drama–that didn’t fly, but she’s also appeared on many successful series, including Party of Five, Veronica’s Closet, 3rd Rock from the Sun,  and the Emmy-winning Once and Again. She’s made guest appearances on CSI, Will & Grace, House, and Grey’s Anatomy. And before Commander in Chief, she starred with John Corbett in a critically acclaimed poker-centered series that should have been a hit but instead lasted only one season: Lucky.

When I first began auditioning at 21, I didn’t feel like I really understood who I was yet. I often relied on the confidence of having a college education.

“I think that show was a year or two ahead of its time,” Carradine offers. “Poker hadn’t quite taken off yet. A little later and we would have been a big success!” 

Her recent show struggled in the ratings but scored with critics. Since this article was written, a second season was canceled. But Commander in Chief remains important to Carradine on several levels. First, many of the characters she played previously were earnest and sweet, but either slightly ditzy or slightly damaged. As the press secretary, Carradine got to play sharp and smart. She prepared for the role by researching Dee Dee Myers and other recent press secretaries, and she read Ari Fleischer’s book, Taking Heart: The President, the Press, and My Years in the White House.

“What I could take from all these people is that they shared a deep loyalty to their president–a love, really, for lack of a better word. That was the bottom line for my character: She’d do anything to protect and serve her president.”

Much like life–and unlike a play or a movie, where the actor knows the arc of the character going in–a TV series requires Carradine to be ready for unexpected twists and turns.

“Once, out of the blue, I found out my character had an ex-husband,” she says with a chuckle. “Every week when I picked up the script, I felt like I was playing roulette. You can structure an entire backstory for your character, but you have to be ready for the occasional monkey wrench, ready to use the fundamentals of the character to react to anything.”

Carradine is also proud of what the show said about the leadership capacity of women. “When we were shooting the pilot for Commander,” she says, “we didn’t know if the show was going to be picked up or not, but we really believed in the material and understood that it was a special project. We felt it was a show that could make a difference. Even if it had never seen the light of day, we would have been proud.”

Even with the famous name and the slightly eased entrée into the family business, Carradine believes that her career would have been different without Lewis & Clark.

“I might not have ended up where I am had I not gone to college,” the now-veteran actress says. “I think it was really important for me to learn how to audition for people, to learn how to properly break down a script and a scene. Those are things I learned at Lewis & Clark.”

Her education helped in other ways. “When I first began auditioning at 21, I didn’t feel like I really understood who I was yet,” she remembers. “I often relied on the confidence of having a college education.”

These days, Carradine knows exactly who she is–and what the summer holds: lots and lots of rest. For the first time in her career, with a movie coming out later this year (The Adventures of Beatle Boyin), she plans to take the summer off. Among actors, virtually all of whom secretly fear that they will never work again after each gig ends, that’s big-time confidence. She also plans to attend her 10-year reunion at Lewis & Clark this fall.

“I’m going to plant a vegetable garden and hang out with my husband,” says Carradine, who married rising singer-songwriter Coby Brown last year. “I’ll play with my dogs and make great dinners. And sleep in. Or maybe I’ll need to be auditioning like mad! I guess I can always have my own little farmer’s market. If you see me selling tomatoes by the side of the road, stop and buy one!”

Somehow, a change in the Carradine family business to small-scale agriculture doesn’t seem likely. 

Todd Schwartz is a Portland writer whose most recent TV appearance was in 1961 on The Addie Bobkins Show.