The latest Broadway incarnation of To Kill A Mockingbird is touring the country, and now the cast includes a familiar face from the old black-and-white movie.
"Isn't this stunning?" marveled 69-year-old Mary Badham, pausing in the lobby of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., as the show wrapped up its first leg. (As it happens, John F. Kennedy was president in 1962, when Badham was nominated for an Oscar at 10 for playing Scout, the daughter of Atticus Finch, a white small-town Southern lawyer who defends a Black man accused of rape.)
Child stardom was the last thing her family expected for Badham when Hollywood talent agents arrived in her hometown of Birmingham, Ala., searching for kids to play Scout and her older brother, Jem.
"They wanted children with real Southern accents. You can't teach that to a child in Los Angeles," Badham said. She said she got the role of a lifetime because she and Scout were so much alike.
"I was a tomboy, I was mouthy. I was an outdoors kid," she told NPR. "I'd rather be in my jeans and T-shirt than a dress, getting doodied up."
Following the movie's success, Badham appeared in a few small roles, but ended up living a relatively normal offscreen existence. She became a certified nursing assistant, sold makeup and learned to restore art. She married and had two children, one an adoptee from India. Now, she lives on a farm in Virginia and rocks a relaxed, coastal grandmother vibe with long flyaway hair. It was a surprise, she said, to get a call inviting her to New York City to see Aaron Sorkin's adaptation of the play — and do a table read.
"I guess it was an audition," she said, with a smile and a Scout-like shrug.
This spring, Badham joined the national tour playing a minor character who's the exact opposite of Scout Finch. Mrs. Henry Dubose is a racist, morphine-addicted neighbor who's rumored to keep a Confederate pistol under her shawl and mercilessly torments the Finch youngsters.
"Don't you say hey to me, you ugly girl!" she screams in the show. "Jeremy and Jean Louise Finch, you are the sassiest, stupidest mutts that ever passed my way!"
"She's wicked, oh God," Badham sighed. The actor, who had never before performed onstage, said she never feels possessive of the role she originated on screen. After all, she's spent decades attending countless schools and local productions to promote the message of Harper Lee's novel.
"I've seen so many little Scouts, and it's wonderful to see these characters come alive in another body," Badham said. "It's beautiful."
Badham said the character of Scout Finch has something to tell us about America today.
"I think Scout tells us not to give up," she said. "We have to keep after it. This is not a God-given right. We have to work at it if we want this country to survive."
That's been her job since she was little, Badham added. To keep To Kill A Mockingbird's story of progress, equality and democracy vibrantly, exuberantly alive.