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How did you get involved with acting?
Over a dozen years ago I was making a movie with Albert Finney, and this question came up at dinner one night. Everyone took their turn, and when mine came up, Mr. Finney raised an eyebrow, looked me over and said, “And you, Robert: you weren’t good at sport.”
He was partly right, and in my high school drama department, I found, in doing plays, the joy of being part of a collective, something that I had otherwise denied myself, since I had neither the interest in nor the aptitude for team sports.
There were heroes who made me want to perform: I loved watching Dick Van Dyke’s old show in reruns (I’d malinger from school twice yearly, a week at a time, to catch a run of them on Channel 5); Monty Python; when I was 12, I twice saw Fred Gwynne play Big Daddy in Michael Kahn’s production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Kennedy Center. I remember thinking, as I watched him completely transform himself, “I want to do THAT.” So I worked on Big Daddy in my 9th grade drama class at Woodson High School, with my wonderful teacher, Joan Bedinger. I can’t imagine what I was thinking, but she let me do it!
Years later, Simon McBurney wrote me a note on the opening night of Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui off-Broadway: “You bring great joy to the collective.” It was a mid-career reminder of why I started doing plays in the first place: I really love working together with a group of people to make something larger than myself.
What’s the difference between stage and film acting?
The major difference is that, in the theatre, you have an audience.
Acting school prepared me for working in the theatre, but it took me a long time working on film sets to figure out on my own how to be comfortable on one: to take my space, to be relaxed, to learn how to prepare a role shot out of sequence. To be sufficiently prepared, but also to free my imagination enough and be loose enough to be ready for anything, to act on my own in a scene, if, say, the star should “turn into a pumpkin” after he’d put in his eight hours (one tremendous actor I worked with had a heart condition, and went home after we’d shot his close up, and before I’d shot mine, so, when the camera turned around for my close-up, I found myself acting with an x of red gaffer’s tape on the camera, by the lens).
On a film set, a lot of people work very hard at great expense to capture a moment: your performance. You might have a few opportunities to deliver, if they do multiple takes–I was on one small indie where we only got one take–but then they’re checking the gate, and you’re on to the next set-up. That moment’s gone, and you’re on to the next one. You don’t get to do it again the next night.
Like putting on a play, making a movie is a collective experience. As in the theatre, you often find yourself working on different projects with the same artists and technicians, which can be really nice. And, if you’re lucky enough to shoot on location, it can be an experience of total immersion in another culture, as you work very long hours for months with a foreign crew: I love those experiences.
But in the theatre, you have an audience to play for, to and with, and an audience brings an electric jolt of focus, and, in giving their attention, they become another scene partner, and an essential part of the process of an actor’s understanding of the play. My friend, the French playwright and director Joël Pommerat, has said, “The audience is not an intruder, they’re the ones who complete the gesture and the word. They make them exist. They finish the process of creating the reality. They finish the process of revealing the moment. We are in a theater. We must never forget it. We rehearse in theaters, in empty spaces, in architecture that was conceived to house eyes, bodies, impatience, desires, sensations, feelings. It’s all this living matter that’s going to finish creating this reality. We cannot make theater without being watched by someone. It is beautiful and impure at the same time.”
What’s your favorite part of the Strange Interlude process so far?
I love working with Michael Kahn. He was my teacher at NYU, but I’ve never worked with him as a director. Not only does he watch everything, he *sees* everything. And he asks all the right, challenging questions. I get the feeling so far, too, that he’s enjoying himself. It’s been delightful.
What has been your favorite role to play and why?
It’s very hard to pick one. So here are four. My favorite role…are…
Charles Marsden is up there. I’ll let you know when we finish the run, but so far I’m loving him. I so admire his wit, his facility with language, and his extreme sensitivity to everyone around him. And I have a lot of empathy for him: his fear of life breaks my heart.
Don in The Universal Language was one of roles I played in the premiere of All in the Timing, which was the culmination of a five year collaboration with the playwright, David Ives. Don is a con man, the inventor of, teacher of, and sole speaker of the language Unamunda, an improvised pop-Esperanto made up of homonyms, celebrities, and brand names, and he’s conning a terribly shy girl with a stutter, with whom he falls in love…and whom he cures! There was a real challenge in timing the laughs in this hilarious play, because the audience was translating–a lot of slow-rollers in that one–and the love story was very poignant. It drove people crazy and then touched them. It was beautifully directed by Jason Buzas, and Wendy Lawless was so sweet and touching as my mark, Dawn. That play really landed.
I joined the resident company of Robert Brustein’s American Repertory Theatre to play Aguecheek in Andrei Serban’s production of Twelfth Night, and I was exhilarated by his mad process–our first run-through was our first preview, not for the faint of heart–and I loved his bleak and Beckettian take on the clowns, who would suddenly pause in the middle of a scene to watch cartoons on television: their corner of Illyria was a true spiritual wasteland. And every character’s sexuality was completely up for grabs in his version. I often felt Andrei’s aesthetic was sheer perversity: whatever he could do to defy an audience’s expectation, to lead them to a different understanding of the play, he would do, and trying to realize his vision was mind-expanding.
Also, with my friend Daniel Jenkins, I co-wrote a two-man show called Love Child, in which we played a dozen roles between us, in a real-time farce in which a lot of the characters were in the room at the same time, and we transformed between them without benefit of costume changes: we did all we could to make it hard for ourselves and also engage the audience as collaborators in creating the world and the people in it. We wrote ourselves some fun and juicy parts, but my favorite was an absolute terror of a would-be actress, Maggie, a Virginia-born, RADA-trained anorexic with a faux-English accent, filled with rage and, beneath it, a rather soft center. We first came up with the idea of doing a show together when we were thirty, and, what with busy lives and careers, didn’t get around to finally performing it off-Broadway until we were forty-six. All that, and we’re still speaking. I’m very proud of that.