Gregor Collins is a writer, actor and producer based in New York City. He was a caregiver to Holocaust Refugee Maria Altmann (portrayed by Helen Mirren in the current film Woman in Gold), noted for her decade-long fight to reclaim from the Government of Austria five family-owned paintings by the artist Gustav Klimt stolen by the Nazis during World War II.
The Playbill Collector (TPC): Did you go to school for acting or writing?
Gregor Collins (GC): Entertainment wasn’t in the picture at first. I went to three different colleges. In high school I was the #1 golfer on our team. It was a real passion. So my plan was to become a professional golfer. I got a golf grant to a little liberal arts school called Ohio Wesleyan University, and played for the team. After a semester I craved a larger school, in general to have more fun, so I transferred to Miami of Ohio, joined the team, but quickly decided I wasn’t interested in a career in golf. I joined a fraternity and did what a college student was supposed to do: party. I transferred yet again the following semester to Florida State University, and started taking Media Production classes. That’s when I became interested in entertainment.
TPC: After school did you stay in Florida?
GC: No. One of my Media Production teachers at FSU, Charles Sawyer, knew the guys who had started this new dating show called “Blind Date” in Los Angeles. He set up an interview for me. That was all I needed to pack everything I owned into my Geo Storm, with $1,000 to my name, and drive across country to start a new life. I ended up landing the job on “Blind Date” as a Production Assistant.
GC: I spent four years in reality (TV, that is) as a producer. But I always knew I had more to offer. I had all this creativity and self-expression bubbling inside of me. A friend suggested I try an acting class, so I did. I quickly caught the acting bug. I eventually moved into indie films. In late 2007 we were in post-production on a film called “Night Before the Wedding.” That’s when I got a call from my friend Tom about a job he recently took as a caregiver.
TPC: Is that how you transitioned into caring for Maria Altmann?
GC: Well, for a few weeks he encouraged me to come by the house and “hang out.” He (like I would soon be, little did I know) was practically in love with this woman. I had better things to do, but when he said they needed another caregiver and that I was the only one he thought of, I felt obligated to go and meet her. On January 30 2008, I met Maria. It was love at first sentence. We could have talked for hours. My life took a profoundly different course that morning in that kitchen. Tom had moved into her house and I would drive there during the week to take care of her. With major resistance at first, acting fell further and further down the priority list. Eventually I was sure that my purpose in life was to care for this woman until she was gone.
TPC: It’s clear you had a special bond with Maria. What did that look like?
GC: It sort of defied logic. She was 92 and I was 32. She was Jewish, a Holocaust survivor, from the other side of the world, and I’m this gentile, this self-absorbed actor running around Hollywood. What the heck would two people like this have in common? But we had this unexplainable love for each other. We just knew. When we were together we would both forget how old we were, it’s like we were in our 20’s. I saw for the first time in my life how love really is blind. This was the most special person I had ever met. It was like finding my soul mate.
TPC: Did she know you were writing a book?
GC: Yes. Very early on I started bringing a notepad to write down what we talked about during a shift, everything from a compelling historical anecdote to how she would make me have to run out of the room and cry in private. These were tears of joy, by the way. I was really falling for her and I wasn’t ready for her to see how much I was. At that time I was calling it “Conversations with Maria” and I would tell her about it, even have her read a few excerpts. She would always get a kick out of it. I think back and wonder if she thought I’d really follow through with a book after she died. Part of me wanted to finish it while she was still alive, so she could read it, but I realized that I couldn’t finish the book until she died. I was on such an intense, personal journey that the story wouldn’t end until her life ended. When she died in 2011, it was the first death of a loved one I had ever experienced. She always said “I want to take you to Vienna with me” but she couldn’t because she was too old. On her deathbed, the last conversation we had, she took my hand and she asked so sweetly: “Are you packed?” I told her I was, and that I had the taxi waiting for us out front, ready to go to Vienna together. She squeezed my hand and said “Good.” She was gone a few hours later. So I knew I needed to go to Vienna to finish the book.
TPC: When you went to Vienna, did you know places to visit?
GC: Yes, she told me all places she went to growing up, from her Uncle Ferdinand’s mansion to the park path she used to walk down with her father to buy roasted chestnuts. It was a magical, deeply emotional trip for me.
TPC: You finished your book in 2012. When did you decide to make it into a play?
GC: People would always tell me, even from the beginning, I should turn it into a screenplay or a stageplay. During the Summer of 2014 I wrote both scripts, and decided I’d do the play first.
TPC: Where did it open?
GC: I packed everything I owned, but this time in my Toyota Scion, and drove to New York City. All I had was a script, and I ended up getting into a festival at the Robert Moss Theater in East Village. Originally when I opened the show in January of 2015, it was a cast of nine. In June I was invited by the Austrian Cultural Forum to do a special staged reading of it, where I cut it down to a cast of two. This is something I always wanted to figure out, how to make it a two-person play. The audience literally laughed and cried, so I think I’ve figured out how to make it a two-hander. But the main thing is once I find the next opportunity to perform it I’d like to be able to sit down with the director and the producer and figure all that out.
TPC: What’s the next step?
GC: Well, like every independent artist out there who doesn’t have the luxury of people in suits finding them money all the time, I’m in need of a champion, a producer, who can help get it to the next level of exposure. I have a lovely, brilliant director in the UK named Alice Kornitzer, who flew to New York from London to direct the play in January. She continues to be a patron saint for the story. I’ve driven the book to a bestseller on Amazon, I’ve been able to fill houses with people who connect to the story, but I feel I’ve done nearly as much as I can do alone. Aside from another stage run my goal this year is to get the movie in development. It’s sort of a “Modern-day Version of Harold and Maude.” From the beginning my main motivation in evangelizing this story has been to share with more of the world this incredible lady, that someone like her actually existed. Maria was like a character out of a novel. I’ve often described her as a cross between Mary Poppins and Julia Child.
For more information about Gregor, his book and play check out these links:
Book teaser: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JSCXfw7l9yQ