The Books: Actors At Work, by Rosemarie Tichler and Barry Jay Kaplan

Daily Book Excerpt: Theatre

Next book on the acting/theatre shelf is Actors at Work, by Rosemarie Tichler and Barry Jay Kaplan

This is a compilation of in-depth interviews with some of the biggest stars of the day. Interviews with Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Philip Seymour Hoffman … all of whom are movie stars, of course, but the book is also wonderful because it is mainly a theatre book, so people like Marian Seldes and Patti Lupone and Mandy Patinkin are also interviewed. It’s a great mix. All of them are asked about their theatre work, the famous productions they were all a part of. So you have an interview with S. Epatha Merkerson, about Law and Order but also about the production of Come Back, Little Sheba that she did. It’s the most lengthy interview with Merkerson I’ve ever read. Frances Conroy, Billy Crudup, John Lithgow, Estelle Parsons … It’s an odd grouping of people which gives the book a real individuality. The acting is the thing here. Stardom is nice and all, but these people are famous to varying degrees because of the quality of their work. The questions have to do with rehearsal process, and struggles they may have had in this or that production, with this or that director.

Rosemarie Tilcher and Barry Kaplan (a casting director and a playwright) ask the good questions, the questions that any acting fanatic will want asked. The questions almost never asked on red carpets, or fluff pieces, or “celebrity interview” setups. The concerns of this book are different.

How does Mandy Patinkin prepare for a role? What is his Achilles heel? How does he deal with adrenaline and nerves? What is the difference between stage and television? How does he change his process in different mediums?

The interviews are provided in full with no editorial input. You hear the questions, you hear the answers.

And so voices emerge. You hear the humor, you hear the struggle to say something clearly, you hear the self-deprecation. But each interview is revealing in its own individual way. Every actor is different. The interviews often contradict one another, and that is as it should be. Acting is not a cookie-cutter profession. There is no “one way” to do it. What works for Patti Lupone doesn’t work for Mandy Patinkin, and vice versa.

The interview with Dianne Wiest is fascinating, because she is so open about the struggles she had to become a better actress. She tells a horrifying story about being cast in something as a young woman, and feeling totally lost during rehearsals – she had no technique at all and so could not repeat ANYthing – and the director exploded at her once saying, “If I had had any idea how BAD you really were, I never would have cast you!” A comment like that would sink a normal person with a normal-sized ego. But Dianne Wiest knew he was right. She WAS bad. She was in a panic. She couldn’t get technique overnight. She had no idea “how” to act, although she obviously had a natural talent. Other more experienced actors in that show were helpful, giving her tips, tips on how to prepare, how to get into the right creative space so that you could repeat an action or an emotion … but she had a lot of stress (it sounds like) in the beginning of her career. Now, she may be self-deprecating to a neurotic degree. Wiest got important jobs almost immediately as an actress. She was working in very good places, and made a name for herself in New York early. But that’s the public side of it. We all know the facts. What is great in this book is we get the behind-the-scenes stories from the person herself.

And that’s why I love interviews such as these. I love Rosemarie Tilcher and Barry Kaplan for asking the questions in a non-sycophantic way so that the big star in question can then open up.

I remember sitting in the audience at one of the Inside the Actors Studio interviews (I was in the audience for most of them. Look for three closeups of me in a black beret listening to Tommy Lee Jones! I got a call from Michael after it first aired. He left me a message: “Are you dating a cameraman or something? There were as many shots of you as of Tommy Lee Jones. Someone’s in love with you on that crew. I think you need to look into it.”): but anyway, I will never forget the interview with Meryl Streep. She showed up a bit tipsy, she had had a couple of glasses of wine beforehand. She was a RIOT. She riverdanced for us. She joked about menopause. She was vaguely inarticulate about acting itself (“to me acting is like when I’m in church praying. I could never tell you what was ‘going on for me’ in church when I pray.”), but hugely entertaining in telling the stories of some of her famous films. And I’ll never forget: Jim Lipton asked about French Lieutenant’s Woman and, of course, he said the title of the movie in a whisper of awe and admiration. As though we all understood how great she was, and let us bow before her. But then Meryl pulled the rug out from under us saying, bluntly, “I was not happy with myself in that one.” My ears pricked up. Ooh, I want to hear THIS. Yes, Meryl Streep is brilliant, but I want to hear about her STRUGGLES. Jim Lipton acted surprised and said, “I thought you were brilliant.” Dude, let us hear her struggles. PLEASE. She’s Meryl Streep, she knows she’s awesome, you don’t have to protect her from anything. She went on, “No, I just felt lost while filming that one. I felt like I let it be all about the costume or something …” (Like I said: she was not articulate about acting itself.) But then she said, and this was the most interesting comment of the night: “I couldn’t locate myself in that part.” I have read a million interviews with Meryl Streep and I have never ever heard such a comment from her. The moment trembled in the balance. I wanted to hear her talk more. My feelings about her in French Lieutenant’s Woman are irrelevant: I want to hear what SHE felt about it. No one has ever gotten Meryl Streep to say such a comment before. Unfortunately, Jim Lipton did not follow up, and just reiterated, “I thought you were brilliant.” The moment passed. What a lost opportunity.

“I couldn’t locate myself in the part” ????? I wanted to shout from the audience, “TALK MORE ABOUT THAT, MERYL.”

When you’re a young unknown actor, it is so important to hear the struggles of those who have climbed the ladder. It is so heartening to know that Meryl Streep struggled with something. (Her stories, too, about the bossy dialect coach on Dancing at Lughnasa were awesome. The guy was so critical of her accent that Meryl Streep finally had a realization in despair one night: “I do not know how to act. I have never known how to act. I am a terrible terrible actress.” He finally was banned from the set, because the whole cast felt that way. They were all concentrating on getting their inflections right to please HIM and everyone suffered.)

The interviews here in this book are wonderful because the famous actors are given great space and safety to talk about their insecurities and early struggles (or even late struggles, as we will see in the excerpt below).

You’re never “done” with acting. Every part is a new challenge. Every part deserves your full attention. You can ALWAYS screw something up, even if you’re Laurence Olivier. You must devote yourself to your work. You’re never done, you’ve never made it.

Here is an excerpt with Dianne Wiest and I love especially her panic when she started Bullets Over Broadway and Woody Allen’s inability (at first) to help her. He cast her. That was all the help he would give. And at a certain level, that’s right. You don’t work with amateurs. You cast well, and then get out of the way. But Dianne Wiest was obviously struggling mightily and even asked Woody to fire her. Then he says to her one thing … one simple technical suggestion … almost in a throwaway moment … which came from his own despair at their situation … that turned the whole thing around for her.

And, of course, she won her second Oscar for her performance in Bullets Over Broadway.

Amazing!!

Excerpt from Actors at Work, by Rosemarie Tichler and Barry Jay Kaplan

I know that each role is different, but is there any fear that you’ll never find it, or fear that you’ll lose it altogether? Or is that fear gone?

Not entirely. No. It’s not entirely gone.

How was it to work on roles day and night at the Arena Stage? Did you feel —

Elated.

Elated.

Elated.

But at this point, you must have had confidence in what you were doing.

I did.

And that came through the doing.

It’s that repetition … Oh, year after year – four years of major roles. But what happened after a couple of years as I found myself beginning to get sloppier, exhausted, drained, not sharp, not knowing how to get sharp. I saw it all begin to drift away.

How did you make your performances happen when the person over there or over there or even the director was just not up to what you knew?

Yeah, there was a lot of that also.

How did you survive?

It’s very difficult because I’m a very reactive actor. So that if something’s going on and if I’m not getting something back, I think I usually sort of twist it. It’s like, I need to love you and I can’t, because I see you’re not even there. So I’ll twist it, and go how I hate, hate you so. I’ll put all of that feeling of dislike and disregard and disrespect into the words of love. And I know the difference but nobody else does. [She laughs and laughs.]

They just hear —

They see passion.

And they hear the words of love.

And I’m going, you know, motherfucker. Not really. But you – you flip it. I haven’t had to do that for years and years and years. But I have had to do that.

Well, yes, I would think, as you were coming up, there would have been a mixed bag of actors.

Oh yes.

And have you had the same sort of experience with directors?

Yeah, directors – I just out and out fight with them.

How do you fight with them?

A part of me shuts down because they seem to me so emotionally illiterate. They don’t know what the hell is going on. I mean, never mind what’s going on in your character, they don’t know what’s going on in the play. And a part of me just shuts them off. I don’t let them in. And the other part of me is … if I’m being forced to do something, I try very politely to explain why I think it might be better done this way or that way, or that this what I’m thinking or feeling, to try to convince them, which you can’t always do. And then, I think, in the end, when I realize I’m being forced to do something I really don’t truly believe I’m doing well, I have to go through this sort of – it’s almost like an onstage pout. You know, I’m out there, and I’m thinking, This is awful. I’m not going to do it. And of course I have to do it, and this where I’m a bad actor with my fellow actors, because I just can’t do it this way. And then, you know, you have to get over that pretty quickly and then just go and do it your way.

When Woody Allen cast you as the grande dame actress in Bullets Over Broadway, I believe that you said you couldn’t do it.

Yes, I did.

So how did you get to do it?

Well, this is what happened. Woody sent me the script and said I’d be perfect for the part. That is so dear of him. So I read it, and I thought, What the hell is he dreaming of? This isn’t for me. I had no idea what he was thinking. So I put on these beautiful costumes, and the first day of shooting comes and goes, and Woody says, “Come to the cutting room.” He said, “Look at this,” and I looked at the dailies, and it was awful. I mean awful, just a stupid woman saying these meaningless lines, trying to seduce beautiful John Cusack. And I said, “I don’t know what to do, Woody.” And he said, “Well, think of something.” I said, “I really don’t know what to do.” He said, “Well, you’ve got to think of something.” I said, “I think you should replace me.” That’s as best as I could come up with.

What did you think you were doing?

Nothing. I didn’t know what to do. I really didn’t know what to do. Because the whole thing about film is you have to be as truthful and as much sort of there as you can be. You just have to be there. So this character of a wild actress, that’s as best as I could do, this wild actress. Just sort of be this wild actress. Well, you know me. I’m not a wild actress. Well, I forgot about “acting”. And so the next day, we were sitting on the set, both of us in despair, saying this is truly awful. And I said, “I think you have to replace me. You have to fire me and get somebody who can do this.” And he said, very loyally, “No, I think it’s something to do with your voice.” And I remember coming toward panic that morning, determined that I would lower my voice, but really not knowing what the hell I was going to do. So we went back and reshot the same scene, and I was determined, and I lowered my voice, and suddenly, with this “fake” voice, I could do anything. Anything.

Like the accent in The Hostage.

Exactly. It freed me. It freed me.

So you went down to this lower register.

I went to this lower register. It had nothing to with any truthfulness, anything at all in me. I became this wild actress. It freed me to be outrageous, like Winnie – and I seduced this guy.

I thought the same thing about you when I saw In the Summer House – because of the voice.

I didn’t feel good about my work in Summer House. I had stayed off the stage for at least two or three years. But I had Joanne Akalaitis as director, who, although she’s not an actor’s director, has a terrific sense of staging. And she had Catherine Fitzmaurice, who is this great voice teacher. So I was working with Catherine, but I felt that I could get the character if I’d had another month of preparation before I even met them …

What do you feel you didn’t get? What part of the character?

I wasn’t in command the way I thought I could be. I couldn’t make a choice and stay with it. On that balcony, when I open the show, it would be like in rehearsal: I would get an idea. Say I was thinking of being able to have Hitler locked up in a prison. I had a million ideas, a different idea every day. Well, gee, that’s all well and fine, but eventually you have to perform night after night the same choice. And because I kept drawing away. my choices would never abide by anything throughout the whole play, and it was a long play. And Jane Bowles is a great writer, but she’s not a playwright at all. You had to sort of drag the play around, and I never could get on top of it in the way I saw Frances Conroy get on top of it, the way I saw Liev Schreiber get on top of it. Those were flawless, brilliant performances. Mine was not.

I agree with you, Dianne. You were wonderful, but you didn’t have command, and I didn’t feel safe with you, as I have felt.

Exactly. I wasn’t safe.

It was always alive, and you’re always interesting to watch. But I just didn’t feel safe.

Exactly right. Exactly right. I remember Joe Papp saying that to me after some audition that I didn’t get, which seemed to be so true, but he ended up saying, “You’re always interesting.”

It’s more than that.

No, but that’s thinking that he couldn’t give me the role, because I’m not in command. And this is where all that lack of training comes in. And I think college is a rite of passage that gives you confidence. I think all of that comes back and gets me. It got me there in Summer House. But then you start working again, and then you have your confidence, and god knows I have learned some things by now.

Does comedy still seem easier to you? More natural?

It’s been a while since I’ve done anything really funny. It also depends on the type of comedy. It has to be a character. It’s got to come from a physicality. I’m not a wit. You wouldn’t want to put me in a Noel Coward play.

But you could be in a Noel Coward play, because you bring the bottom to the character. Everyone’s sharp, but people who often do Coward don’t have something supporting it.

Yeah, yeah. Maybe I don’t even know why I even said that; I can’t remember even seeing a Noel Coward play. Anyway, it seems like a nice name to drop. But – like the character in The Art of Dining, where she was clumsy, shy. That was effortless. She was such a wonderful character. But I remember being in the middle of that woman – who is dropping things, embarrassing herself – and thinking, These people are laughing at me; this isn’t funny. Because of course she didn’t feel funny at all. She was in huge humiliation and pain.

They were laughing at you and loving you at the same time.

Yes. But you still do feel you’re being laughed at, which is a little sad.

Do you think training would change that?

I don’t think Noel Coward people mind that you laugh at them. Whereas the characters I do that are funny, even in Bullets Over Broadway, you’re kind of ashamed you laughed at her. I don’t know how to explain it more than that. But she is inside and she’s just trying her best. I don’t know why it comes out funny. I mean I do know. In The Art of Dining, you’ve dropped the lipstick in your soup. But the laugh … it doesn’t feel funny.

But do you know as you’re doing it that you’re doing comedy?

I absolutely know I am doing comedy. I absolutely know, and I know that there’s a huge 180-degree switch between approaching something like Bullets or The Art of Dining and, you know, approaching O’Neill.

Well it’s the context, because there could be a scene in a very serious play in which the character drops her lipstick and spills the soup, and the audience could be in tears.

Absolutely.

Since you’re a very truthful actress, and call on yourself, are there some things you wouldn’t want somebody to see? Or do you see acting as the vehicle to show everything you know?

No, I don’t. A lot of what you know emotionally is tedious and boring. What I’m feeling emotionally is not what you want. What the audience wants is what is written that I bring myself to, and whatever that communion is. It’s not me with my emotions overpowering the writing, saying, You know, this is so tragic or so funny. This is what you should look at. It’s me feeling for whatever the scribbles on the page are and bringing what knowledge of human nature and myself I have to bear. But myself is a very limited topic. It’s what I’ve read and seen and experienced of other people.

There was a moment in The Goddess with Kim Stanley when she picks up her crying baby, and it was really frightening, because she was so angry I thought she was going to hurt the baby. And I wondered, Who is this woman – meaning the actress Kim Stanley – that she knows this murderous hatred?

You can imagine all kinds of things. This is what we do all the time. We imagine what it would be like to be in that situation and capable of doing anything that human nature is capable of.

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4 Responses to The Books: Actors At Work, by Rosemarie Tichler and Barry Jay Kaplan

  1. Robert says:

    What’s exasperating and exhilarating about the Woody story is how it underscores (as did the recent American Masters profile) just to what level he doesn’t seem to really know what he’s doing. And yet he churns out film after film, many of them gems, many of them masterpieces. I’ve tried this “falling ass backwards” method in my own stuff, with nothing like his kind of success.

    Wiest is fairly well amazing in everything of his she’s been in. Her jittery neediness in Hannah & Her Sisters never fails to make me squirm.

  2. sheila says:

    I love Dianne Wiest so much, too!!

    And in re: Woody: I beg to differ: He said the one thing, the one thing, that set her free. But yes: it’s amazing to see how baffled HE was at the situation – and basically just said, “You really have to think of something.”

    Scary!!

    A lot of directors have no idea how to help actors with problems. Especially at that level, when you aren’t working with amateurs.

  3. Kent says:

    Woody Allen knows how to evoke a great performance from his actors, not dictate one. This is why he is a great director, and beloved among actors, and the point of Wiest’s story. Even his solution was suggested as a possibility. It was up to her to find the voice. I think he knows what he is doing, and always has… the act is just a smokescreen. Like his name. “Honey, let’s go see Annie Hall… the new Allan Konigsberg movie…”

  4. sheila says:

    Kent – and he didn’t say too much! He didn’t talk to her about character or motivation – that is not his realm. It was completely technical, completely results-oriented, and something Wiest could DO. He also knew that the problem was in the voice.

    They were also good friends, so they had an openness with one another – Wiest trusted him enough to just give it a shot, under the gun, as the cameras were rolling. Terrifying!

    But it was the key! Yes: great story!!

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