When the fruit salad Lynn Cohen orders at an Upper West Side café arrives, she is tickled by the very tiny pieces and the artistry. She files the image away, and says that someday she’ll play the kind of woman who would want things chopped so finely. “I’ll use it,” she says.
Always it seems, heads turn to look at the petite Cohen, with her commanding presence. They may recognize her, but perhaps don’t immediately place her. The women at the next table quickly catch on that she played Magda, the nanny in “Sex and the City.”
Over a career of six decades, Cohen has performed in theaters around the country and in Europe, in many films and on television. In the last months, the 83-year-old actress has been working on four films. Her latest, the comedy “The Pickle Recipe,” opens Nov. 4.
Cohen plays the feisty, independent-minded Rose, who runs Irv’s Deli, the restaurant she and her late husband Irv founded in Detroit. There’s more than a bit of the tough-minded Golda Meir in Rose, Cohen admits (she played the Israeli prime minister in Steven Spielberg’s “Munich”), and also her own strong, intelligent mother and her Ukrainian-born grandmother, who worked until the day she died at a manufacturing job. She remembers sleeping over her grandmother’s house as a child, and waking up to find her painting the radiators.
“Rose doesn’t act like an old lady at all,” Cohen says. “She has too much to do.”
Cohen is at the center of the film, and she steals it. The plot unfolds as Rose’s grandson loses the musical equipment for his disc jockey business in a fire just weeks before his daughter’s bat mitzvah. To raise cash, he agrees to help his uncle, the brother of his late mother, scheme to steal the closely guarded pickle recipe that Rose seems destined to carry with her to the next world.
“Before she leaves this earth,” Cohen says, “Rose wants to leave the world a better place, with a couple of people who are good.”
There’s a scene when Rose makes her weekly visit to an old age home, bringing deli to the residents. Pausing at the bed of her old friend Arnie, who worked at Irv’s Deli for years, she speaks to him tenderly. He is played by Ron Cohen, the actress’ husband.
To portray Rose, who survived concentration camps, Cohen speaks with a Polish accent. She has played Ukrainian, Irish, Italian and other Polish women. For Golda Meir, who grew up in Milwaukee, Cohen’s own Midwestern accent worked. So did her grandmother’s habit of never leaving her handbag out of reach.
Cohen grew up in Kansas City, one of three Jews in her elementary school. She studied acting at Northwestern University and returned to Kansas City, where she got great training through a repertory company and also performed in a lot of regional theater.
On stage in New York, she played in Tina Crowe’s “Chasing Manet,” “Hamlet” with Kevin Kline and “Orpheus Descending” with Vanessa Redgrave. She played in Louis Malle’s “Vanya on 42nd Street” and Woody Allen’s “Manhattan Murder Mystery,” and more recently played Mags in “The Hunger Games.”
In taking on roles, she says, “There has to be something that draws me to that human being. I like strong women.” She adds, “When you’re my age, everything you read is about people who are old and dying in nursing homes. I don’t want to think about that.”
I ask her about the secrets to staying young and vibrant, and she attributes it to her very happy marriage and to loving what she does. “I’m able to work, go home, chop onions, listen to NPR. I’m a very lucky woman.’
“If I understand the role, I’m not interested in the age or the sex, I’d like a shot at it. I think everybody has a gift. I was given the ability to say things, to be people that say things good or bad, that make other people feel something, get mad, get happy.”
Again channeling her grandmother who said, “you don’t waste food in life,” she takes the fruit salad home. “I’ll make it into something wonderful.” More heads turn as she exits.