Interview from the book Actors On Acting
by Joanmarie Kalter - Sterling Pub., 1979
Laurence Luckinbill is, as he says, “always stirring things up.” In 1961, as a drama specialist for the State Department, he was sent to Khartoum to produce and direct plays at the National Theatre of Sudan. For his first production, he chose George Bernard Shaw’s pacifist play, Arms and the Man—a choice the authorities in that military dictatorship greeted with less than enthusiasm. Mr. Luckinbill was quickly transferred to Rome.
In 1970, he did it again with an article he wrote for The New York Times entitled, “The Irrelevance of Being an Actor.” He had, at that time, spent more years training for his work than many doctors do, had been in seven Off-Broadway plays, including the·very successful Boys in the Band, two Broadway plays, had spent a year touring with A Man for All Seasons, had appeared at Lincoln Center in Tartuffe—and had made in ten years as a working actor an average of $3,700 a year. The article spoke also of his disenchantment with the small size of the theatre audience in this country, and the fact that, to the great majority of the American population, “the theatre never speaks and [they] couldn’t care less if it did.” Acting, he concluded, is neither economically feasible nor relevant to society. His comments remain, to this day, a subject of heated discussion among actors. . When the piece was written, Mr. Luckinbill was starring Off- Broadway in What the Butler Saw, a comedy by the late Joe Orton. He has since collaborated with Herbert Berghof on the translation from the German of Czech playwright Pavel Kohout’s Poor Murderer, and has acted the lead on Broadway. Though the play’s show run was a major disappointment, his subsequent role, in Michael Cristofer ’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Shadow Box, was a triumph. As Brian, a an who reacts to his terminal illness with a manic redoubling of creative energy, Mr. Luckinbill performed with what one reviewer called "a passionate intensity." He later founded the New York Actor’s Theatre and played the title role in their production of Brecht’s Galileo; several months after this interview, he and his wife Robin Strasser took over the leads, in Neil Simon’s Broadway hit, Chapter Two.
In addition to his stage work, Mr. Luckinbill has appeared in the film version of Boys in the Band as Hank, the married lvy League homosexual whom he portrayed in the original Off-Broadway play. He has co-starred with Dyan Cannon in Otto Preminger’s Such Good Friends, and has appeared with Kathleen Quinlan in The Promise. His TV work includes a stint as Frank Carver on the daytime soap, “Secret Storm,", and a starring role in the nighttime series, "The Delphi Bureau.”
Mr. Luckinbill, who was born on November 21, 1934 in Fort Smith, Arkansas, now lives in a townhouse on Manhattan’s Upper East Side with his wife and two children. On the day of this interview, a hot summer afternoon, Mr. Luckinbill was relaxing comfortably at home in polo shirt and gym shorts. His living room appeared furnished with eye to being child-proof: scattered toys, a big dog, and a lazing cat were the only easy movables.
Mr. Luckinbill is warm, casual and, like Brian in The Shadow Box, he takes great pleasure in the flow of ideas. He is, however, without his, character’s desperation, and instead is straightforward and honest, able to speak with equal ease about his limitations as about his ambitions. Of the latter there are many—"so much to do in one’s life,” he says—and they lead him to voice some surprising (therefore Luckinbillian) feelings about acting.
It is interesting that someone who planned a career in science ended up in the arts. You had wanted to study medicine, then you switched to dentistry. How did you ever get into acting?
I flunked my premedical school application and though I could have gotten into dental school, I decided that I didn’t want to do that. I was two years into college and my mother thought I should find out what I wanted to do with my life; it was critically important for up—from-under poor people like us that I find out. Now, this was the 1950s, the age of aptitude tests, when people thought that the key to human existence could be found through rat psychology. So my mother insisted that I take a series of these tests. We went to the University of California and took an eight-hour (or was it an eight-day?) battery of exams and when we came back a few weeks later, the evaluator said, "Well, I have to be frank with you. These tests indicate that you have no taste at all in the normal sense of the word, or else you have the worst taste that I’ve ever encountered.” What he meant was that I didn’t conform to any of the possible categories; my choices had been entirely an enigma to him. And he said, “I really recommend that you get into the performing arts.”
Where all the weirdos go.
That’s right—the loony bin, the chute to oblivion. My mother took all that information in and was stunned; she could hardly believe it. Yet for me, it clicked; I said, “Yeah, okay.”
Had you done any performing at that point?
I had not been a performer at all. I had absolutely no dream of myself as an actor, knew nothing about the stage or how you went about it. And in the period of time that I’d been at the university, I don’t think I’d seen even one play.
Nevertheless, I went back to college and switched my major on the strength of that aptitude test. I took all of the drama courses that were offered—about forty of them—in a year and a half. I had found where I ought to be. It was amazing. I was in every Play after that; I took any and every part that came along. If people said they wanted to do a reading in class, I was the one who did it. In the space of two years, I became very well known at college.
That was another incentive, you see, because before all this, I, had been an absolute nonentity. Worse than that—I had been a failing nonentity. I was the one who had to ask my friends for help working the slide rule. Everybody knew I was hopeless; they were all sorry for me and very kind. But do you know how it feels when you’re the one who has to ask for help, when you’ve got to; grab the sleeves of people going by in the Student Union and say, "Please explain this assignment because I have no idea of how to do it all”? Now, of course, from the vantage point of many years later, I can look back and say, “What the hell difference did it make if I didn’t know physics?” I would have been a good doctor, I have all the attributes: I’m cautious, very conservative, meticulous, I care very much about people, and diagnoses of any kind; interest me—whether they concern cooking, character studies; or diseases. But at the time, I agreed with them. I thought, okay, it must just be the white coat that I’m after; I like the drama of being a doctor.
lt’s such a marvelous accident that people become what they become. I’m at the point in my life where I feel I could be anything tomorrow; I could drop all this acting and go on to something else. (And an actor never feels that more than when he’s doing television!)
What was it about that early acting training you had as an undergraduate that clicked? Was it just the recognition you got from your fellow students, the thrill of doing something well that transformed you, or was it something beyond that?
I grew up in a very small Southern town, sort of a Faulkneresque redneck town, and there was no scope for imagination, at least not for the kind of imagination that I had, being a dreamy sort of person. The only way out of that environment was if you were lucky enough to find something like the theatre which put you in contact with great ideas—and by "great,” I mean the fundamental, wheel-turning ideas of our culture. The contact that I got with dramatic literature, with Shakespeare and the Greeks, left it up; to me whether or not I advanced culturally. I got the chance to become a civilized person, somebody capable of relating to own children, and I became concerned with how they should be as human beings. All of that is very important to me. And so in a way I’ve always considered the theatre a kind of sideline; it’s a detour on the road to becoming a civilized person.
I take it then that you’re not altogether happy with being an actor, that you think there’s something greater you could be doing.
I frequently have the same reaction that a lot of people do—that acting is not a fittin’ occupation for a grown man. Not the theatre so much, but particularly television and film. The theatre is so demanding that it does seem a proper occupation, although I do think that it would be better if we could limit it to a festival once a year, something that had a kind of religious connotation.
That’s the way theatre was in ancient Greece, wasn’t it? And why we still use the expression, “the theatre season.”
Yes, and it meant something more than it does now. We would be able to train for that festival all year and then doing it would be like a great climax. When it was over, we could go back and start training again or just go live our lives for a while. To me that’s the correct idea. I mean, it’s not so correct to get yourself into a holy state of mind for the benefit of the Shuberts, but that’s the nature of being an actor today in the commercial theatre.
I’m still a bit puzzled about why you say acting is a detour for you.
It’s a detour away from my ultimate goal, which is to create, to really do something that is mine. I’m not the sort of actor who is totally happy reading other people’s lines. And it’s the nature of the business that a play has to run a certain amount of time to make its money back; and so if you’re real going to be a Broadway actor, you have to resign yourself committing several months a year to a given play (if it’s a success you have to commit yourself to six or eight months at the least. Most people like to get a play and stay a year or two, but I find that to be totally un-congenial. I can do it fairly successfully, but there’s something about it that’s so mechanical after a while.
I’m unhappy with the fact that the best you can be as an actor is a combination between a very personal and very objective interpreter. If you go too far out of the general understanding of what the part should be or what the words mean, you’re wrong. You may entertain a lot of people, as Zero Mostel did in Fiddler on the Roof. When I saw him do that, I was absolutely astonished I and delighted; but I saw Zero, I didn’t see Tevye. I was familiar with the Tevye stories and they were very different from what I saw Zero do. Yet Zero’s light was incandescent; he was like a thousand-watt bulb on stage, and I no longer cared who Tevye was, I just loved who Zero was. But I’m not a performer like that. I’m the sort of performer who likes to do what the role is; I like to be very specific and analyze very closely what the play really says and then do that.
There’s a limited amount that comes back to you after you’ve done a play for a while. There may be an infinite variety of audiences, but there’s a certain pattern that develops between you and them; you know that tonight is going to be such and such a type of audience, and so your performance moves in that direction; it becomes a pattern, an imprint, and that’s when I start to go crazy. I always devise ways and means to get sick; I am hypochondriacal, I leave shows, I quit—and I know this about myself. So I think that maybe the way out is to become closer to myself as a writer.
Writers, though, operate under all sorts of commercial pressures, too.
I know. All of my writer friends laugh at this idea of mine because they have exactly the same commercial pressures and problems. When you are in the publishing world, it’s: “When will you do this? Will you sign this book cover? Will you do this review? We need a book on a certain subject, can you do it in this amount of time?" And you say to yourself, "Well, I’m really working on the big novel, but I’ll take three months or six or eight and I’ll produce something to order.” So writing becomes the same game as acting. It’s a rare life that is lived in complete self—expression. People laugh now and say Picasso was a factory, but he had that rare combination: he believed that what the world needed, what the, gallery dealers needed, was what he in fact produced, what he wanted to produce. And the most successful theatre artists are those people who really have an absolute need to do what the public absolutely wants. l mean people like George Kelly and Stephen Sondheim—they’re totally on a track with the audience. There’s no falling off into lack of art because they are expressing exactly what they are; and it’s brilliant.
To be a first-rate actor, does one have to be born with the talent? Is it something that can be taught or learned through experience?
To be a first—rate actor takes a combination of training and talent. You must be born with a certain perception of life but also born into an environment which forces you, drives you, to be the best there is.
Much of this being first-rate is a matter of the role. I think Barnard Hughes feels that, though he’s been an actor for forty five years, he’s only now first rate, and it’s because he’s finally got a role in Da with which he can connect, as you say, in that balance of personal and objective interpretation.
Yes, it does depend about half on the role and the other half on the fact that a guy like Barney Hughes has been first rate to the rest of us all along, just maybe not to himself. It’s true, though, you can’t do it without the words and the play and the successful production. It’s got to be a hit, you see; no absolutely glorious critical successes will do if it’s a commercial failure. I’ve had lots of those; people say, "This will be long remembered," but it is long remembered by about four people.
It’s part of the nature of the theatre, and it’s what drives everybody mad, but it is a mass art, a mass craft. We come together in a group to develop something that must look unified in the end; there may be thirty of us or there may be two of us in the cast, but we’re still a group. It’s not just one guy musing with his pad and pencil, or his paints, sitting on a hillside Arles.
That brings us back to theatre as a religious festival—as in a mass—where an entire group of people act together; they take the communion as one body.
Yes, there must be that shared perception; that’s what it’s all about. I suppose I’m not quite serious when I say it’s a detour, because it’s one that’s been going on now for thirty years. It would be a great relief to me to finally be able to say, as Olivier said in an interview recently, that at the age of seventy he finally; considers himself an actor because there’s nothing else he can do—it’s too late, he’s passed too many options by. There would be a great happiness in my saying I’m an actor, in coming to that unity with myself, but I’m not quite there yet. I feel there are too many other things I want to do: I want to produce, I want to write; I want to develop television news shows ....
What is the impulse behind all those yearnings? What is the common denominator to your various ambitions?
Everything I want to do involves reaching out to other people, finding out what they think and telling them what I think. Some of the best theatre in my life has been a conversation with one person in a room, and yet it’s curious because I’ve always been a loner, and I’m still a very alone person. It’s a paradox, as everything in life is a paradox. I’m not needful of other people, but, I can’t get along without them. The best in me does not come out me, it only comes out to other people. If you can give an answer to someone who asks the right question, that person doubles and you double, you amplify yourselves. And that, in a sense, is what a great performance should do: it should leave open ends.
Is that something you can consciously strive to do, to leave unanswered questions in the minds of the audience? How does an actor manage to leave those ends open?
You can only do it by not going into a performance having calculated everything. The best performing I’ve ever done was when I just put on the clothes and went on stage. In effect, I did not rehearse. When people asked me what I did, how I got this effect or that effect, I wanted to say, “Shut up, get away, I don’t want to talk about it.” I am aware that if I try to hang on to the role too strongly, I will strangle it.
For instance, I had a running difference with the playwright when I acted Brian in The Shadow Box. He saw the character differently than I did, and in that division of opinion was the electricity that made the character work. But he kept saying to me that Brian was a bad writer and I kept saying, no. You see, if I had said, yes, Brian is a bad writer, that would have been a comment upon Brian from me, the actor. Yet for me to insist that Brian was a good writer meant that I was Brian, and was incapable of standing apart from him in judgment.
An actor then who does not make comments on his character is more likely to create questions in the audience because he leaves those judgments up to them.
Yes. And the biggest questions in life, the ones that relate most to successful theatre are the unanswerable ones, the ones that come from the family. Those are the questions we all ask: Why did Daddy do that? Why is Mama like that? You can never answer those questions, and they are more serious for the older people· who largely make up theatre audiences because Mom and Daddy are dead, or they’re too old to tell you. A play like Oedipus is a perfect example. It’s a story that interests people less today because they perceive it as being a play about incest - which indeed it is. I think we’re out of touch with our own incestuous needs and desires. Yet it’s impossible not to identify with a man like Oedipus who doesn’t know what a horrible mistake he’s made- particularly when the man is powerful, arrogant, but also very vulnerable and hopeful and handsome and in love with his wife. All those things are woven so powerfully into the fabric of that play; it’s the clearest play in the world, and yet every statement it makes raises at least ten questions.
How do you feel about the kind of theatre then that someone like Robert Wilson does—Einstein on the Beach, etcetera?
I happen to like Robert Wilson, on the other hand, I don’t think what he does has anything to do with theatre. It just doesn’t reach me; it "pings” like those television games; you can feel rhythms, you can hit a point and make a score, but the audience does not ever once come together and say as a whole, "Wow, I understand," or even, “l don’t understand.” That has to happen in the theatre; the audience has to come together, they have to feel something in unison.
You worked for a while with the Open Theatre. Don’t they work it along a different philosophy of what theatre is all about?
Yes, but that was in the ’60s, when everybody was distrusting what the traditional theatre could do, and that, of course, is a very healthy thing. We just were not interested in traditional stories anymore. And the Open Theatre was a very creative thing to work with because the actors were providing so much of the improvisational juice for it. We were making up the pieces, using our own bodies, voices, minds. The interaction of the actors was the most important part of the evening. But that’s why the Open Theatre work seemed to me a bit closed. lt was much more for the actors than for the audience.
At one point, I was teaching at Queens Community College and I got the Theatre a gig to go out there. The audience was made up of people who hardly ever got to the theatre. They didn’t understand what was going on. They watched the movements, heard the sounds—the “arghs"- and afterwards they asked a lot of stupid but legitimate questions. “Why do you make those ugly sounds? What the hell do you think you’re trying to accomplish?” They weren’t hostile about it, yet everybody in the workshop was hostile; they responded with, “Leave us alone; what right do you have to ask these questions?; what you see is what you get; it doesn’t have to mean anything .... " Those were all the answers of conceptual artists, which indeed the Open Theatre actors were. But that’s a dead end. It’s a dead end for actors to work only for other actors and to develop techniques that don’t include the audience. I came away feeling that I had had enough.
Is there a difference in audiences, say between a New York and London audience?
I think quite honestly that the New York audience is simply the best theatre audience in the world. The London audience is awfully good, but the New York audience is less parochial. We don’t have our Sirs and our Dames who can appear in anything and still get an appreciative crowd. There’s no actor in America who can appear in anything and still get an audience. It’s very democratic in that way. If George C. Scott’s in a turkey, people will say, "George C. Scott’s in a turkey—goodbye." But in London, Gielgud can run in a turkey for six or seven months; people will Say, "The play’s awful, but how many times are we going to be able to see Sir John before he dies?” That’s lovely too, of course, but I prefer the slightly more a priori attitude of New Yorkers.
You do, though, get bored with a play even though the audiences are responsive?
Well, for about three months you can continue to be surprised by the audiences themselves. You can sense the differences in each audience every night. You’re like a lion tamer who senses a different mood in the beast, and so each night it’s a different beast to you. In a comedy sketch, the beast will not laugh at certain lines that the one last night laughed at, that every night for the previous two and a half months got a laugh, so you say, “My God, exactly what kind of beast is this?” You start to categorize them and though that’s not correct, unfortunately, that’s what we are as human beings; the combinations are infinite, but our capacity to absorb them, to relate to them and deal with them isn’t.
You’ve described yourself as being relatively loose when you play a character; you try not to calculate everything or rehearse the part too much. Does that mean you have little work to do in preparing for most of your roles, or is this only for a scattered few?
It’s an interesting thing, but you get to a certain level of competence and you can open a play (and naturally, you start to look for those plays) where you can read ten pages and say, “Okay, I know who this is, let’s just do it, let’s get rid of all this stuff like rehearsals, let’s just get to opening night. I know what I want to do.” You forget how long it took you to arrive at that point, but you know technically what you can do. You don’t even have to think about your voice, your body; you just know how this character looks and you can automatically go ahead and do it. Now, that’s a high level of competence; you don’t have to worry about What to do with your hands or what you going to sound like or whether you’re going to sit down, stand up, cross the room-none of that is important. Yet there are other parts that you don’t feel such a connection with, where all of that is terribly important, and where the mechanics of the part have to be worked out precisely because you’re fighting to create an illusion.
The parts I’ve done most successfully have been those that were not an illusion; they have been the parts where I felt immadiately that I was that person. For the two hours of The Shadow Box, for instance, if you were to talk to me as Larry, I wouldn’t, know who you were talking to—I was Brian. That’s an exaggeration to a degree, but in a way it’s not. You do take on aspects of the character and carry them into your life.
This is a trade truism, of course, but you would hesitate to play a Macbeth for too long if you were in the mode of Macbeth, in other words, if Macbeth came easily to you. Not that it would make you go out and murder someone, but it would bring out the characteristics of an emotionally plunging person, which Macbeth was, and that’s a dangerous state of mind to be in. So all you can hope for when you do play a character with whom you identify closely is that the person’s a good person and relatively easy to be around. Otherwise, it can be uncomfortable.
Did the fact that Brian was a terminal-cancer patient take an emotional toll on you, even though your identification with him was so easy and complete?
Yes, it did. It was just very depressing to play over a long period of time. The play was uplifting for the audience, and the ending resolved matters for them, but for the actors, it did not. We went away with that tension, those indigestible feelings of fear that the characters have. Nevertheless, I liked Brian the best of all the characters, and if I could choose a way to die, it would be Brian’s way. He was the silliest; he just went on and on, making a joke of everything. His sense of self was the same as mine: I thought he was an absolutely marvelous, entertaining, unimportant human being.
You acted the role of Galileo in Brecht’s play, and there, the playwright wants you to feel distanced from the character, doesn’t he? That way, the actors and the audience can have a critical, political reaction to the drama.
Yes, Galileo is somebody who fascinates me and as Brecht writes him, I feel very connected with him, but at the same time, very objective about him. He makes certain errors that I tend to think of myself as not making, and yet there’s an enormous childlike fun in showing this guy make his mistakes; you feel yourself saying, "See what he did!" In Brecht, you must retain that objectivity about the character because it helps you be clear to the audience about exactly where the guy goes wrong; and in every Brecht play there’s that situation.
What about the characters with whom you feel little in common? Do you try to stay away from those parts, or are the differences between you ever an attraction?
Well, speaking as a professional actor, you can and very often you do perform roles with which you have no connection at all. You do it for the money and because it’s your life; you need work. If it’s work that you’re serious about, you have to have some sort of hook and if you don’t have something to identify with, then you’d better stay away from it, because you’re not going to be happy acting it and you’re not going to do a very good job.
You played an insane actor in Poor Murderer. What kind of a connection did you feel there?
Actually, that was a curious play because the real basis of that play was not the plot or characters, but the fact that it was a metaphor for the political state of Czechoslovakia in 1968. It was too dangerous a statement for the playwright to do as anything but a very covered metaphor, so while it was a very clever play, it was not as immediate or direct as it should have been to be effective. I couldn’t ever feel that I was getting out of myself what was there inside.
You were making an intellectual identification with the role rather than an emotional one?
Yes, that’s all I could do. And certainly the same was true of the audience. Although we we reaching a group of highly intelligent people, people concerned wit the suppression of freedoms in Eastern Europe, the story was not as moving as it could have been. They felt removed from it, and so did I; but there wasn’t much I could do but play the play.
The people who went to see it were those already concerned about the situation in Czechoslovakia. That’s similar to what you said in your New York Times article a few years back, that the people if who go to the theatre are those who already care about the theatre, and that acting in the theatre is therefore like a group of people trapped in a closet, shouting at each other. Do you feel the same way now?
Well, I think that theatre audiences have expanded enormously in the last few years. All of a sudden tickets are available cheaply the day of the performance, so people who used to be entirely outside of the theatre have had an opportunity to start caring. In the years since that article, television has become rather declassé and very few movies make it these days, so that adds to the glamour of Broadway.
Ever since Hair and Boys in the Band, a whole new group of people have been brought into the theatre—the kids. Kids went see Hair who normally wouldn’t go to the theatre, and because a lot of people came out of the closet to see Boys, there has been a splintering of the market. Today, even a play about two West Indian lesbians will have a market; it can run awhile somewhere,someplace. But five or ten years ago, that sort of play would have been done for a couple of nights at the most—in somebody’s loft. Now there’s an audience, and people will be standing out in the street to see it if you get the word out.
In other words, because of those plays in the late ’60s, people see the theatre as being more relevant?
Yes, yes. Somebody told me, “You must come and see a play about Modigliani,” and we went down to some gallery on Grove Street or somewhere, and it was jammed, just jammed! Here were all sorts of people interested in a play about Modigliani destroying himself. I mean, that’s a subject that a lot of people couldn’t care less about, and yet it ran very successfully; it was an okay play, not that great, but I was astonished. So really, I no longer have that feeling I once expressed that it’s only four per cent of the upper middle class who goes to the theatre. I believe the audience has expanded.
And yet even with the greater interest in theatre these days, acting remains a very insecure profession for you.
It’s insecure because you’re selling yourself all the time, and who the hell are you? Just what is it you’re selling? You open your sample case some days and there’s nothing in there. And most of the time, you open it and they ain’t buying what you really are. So you fix up your case to have all the shiny wares on top, and underneath you put the bugs——your good, true stuff. If they buy the shiny layer, you feel slightly violated. If they don’t buy the shiny layer and you can’t show them the other stuff, then you don’t know what to do. You feel totally rejected. That makes you insecure.
Even if someone hires you for a play that utilizes your true talents you may not be able to support yourself from it—is that still the case?
The economic situation still, today, is that you can be a Broadway star and not earn enough to support yourself; the only way to survive is to do commercials, television, and films. I myself would prefer to be able to devote my time to the theatre because I’m best at it, and because it’s deserving of my best-—it’s a place that is still an open forum, one in which you can say anything you want to say—but I can’t. Most of my time is spent hustling around, trying to earn the money to be able to be in the theatre. Now, I’m lucky because I have a certain commercial viability in other areas, so I can make it. But there are many people who are not commercially viable and who still cling to the theatre——those people are the bravest souls around. I was just talking to a friend who works in a garage parking cars; he was in Galileo, and he’s a very good actor but he is not a commercial type, so he has absolutely no money. Now that’s an absurd situation. It’s waste; it’s the sort of casual waste that is typical of America. We say, “Well, there’ll be ten more of those tomorrow, so throw that one away.” But it’s a false premise and gradually, we’re going to learn, to our cost and our discredit, that there aren’t enough talented, valuable people around that we can afford to throw any of them away.
These are the problems being an artist in a capitalist economy. Yet given the fact that we don’t want a state-run theatre system, what are the solutions?
I think the people who control the theatre have been very profligate in the very fact that they don’t do market research, they don’t continually strive to set up means of expanding the audience and lowering the price of tickets—those should always be their goals. They’re really responsible and there shouldn’t be these problems; the theatre should be possible in a capitalist mode. l think, for example, there could be a value tax added to ticket prices that would go into a general fund for the development of the theatre.
Wouldn’t that added cost of the tickets discourage audiences?
No, because it would only be ten percent, or five percent. There’s if nothing wrong to me with the idea of hit shows supporting other kinds of theatre. It’s just smart capitalism. The theatre is an industry like timber; if you take an option on ten thousand acres, cut it all down and don’t reforest, you’re in trouble. People like the Shuberts should be smart enough to know that they’ve got to reforest now, they’ve got to open up avenues for new people; they’ve got to build new audiences.
You see actors as a sort of conservative force, don’t you? You’ve said they’re “in the preserving business, they’re holding back and building hedges.” Would you explain that?
Well, actors are conservationists because most of us, in this generation of actors, studied the classics. We got our training from digging into the best of the past, trying to reinterpret it for now, and as you do that, you begin to carry the baggage of the past with you wherever you go. And you tend, like people who understand history, to want not to repeat it, not to make the same mistakes. That makes you a conservative, a cultural right-winger.
There are certainly a lot of actors who consider themselves left-wingers out there trying to make their impression on the cultural world, trying to change it as the Open Theatre tried to change it in the ’60s. How do you react to them?
I think it’s very healthy when there are left-wingers out there who want to break things up, who say, “Now wait a minute, it’s all very well to do a season of Shakespeare, but let’s also re-examine the relationship between the audience and the actors and the playwright and director. What can we be doing? Can we be learning new things?” That’s the process; that’s how the theatre becomes richer. We are richer for having had an Open Theatre, for having had a Living Theatre, and now we understand how to do those things. We can now go in and create an Open Theatre situation in rehearsal, and teach those techniques to new actors who are always eager to learn what has been developed before them.
The more things change in the theatre, the more they stay the same; the ultimate goals remain constant.
Yes, because the ultimate goal is always, and has always been, to expose an emotional vein of human relationships; to show one person to the other, us to them, them to us - that is unchanging. But that goal is the opposite of anarchy, you see. You can’t have anarchy in the theatre. You can’t have fourteen people working in fourteen different styles and arrangements. When the playwright gives you the work and you sit down around a table to read it, there’s got to be a unity of purpose.
But a particular role can be interpreted by the actor and perceived by the audience in any number of ways. One line can be almost like a Rorschach test in the variety of its meaning to different people.
I disagree. I believe there’s an absolute meaning to things, that in a given scene of a play there’s an irreducible meaning. Being an actor is a matter of finding that irreducible meaning and then presenting it clearly. And if the play is great, if the writing is great and the acting is clear enough, that meaning will reverberate and resonate and move everybody to get on their feet. It’s like a line of music: it’s irreducible that that note is a C-flat, that it goes on for six measures. You’ve just got to play it and play it right. Now, there are a whole lot of ways to get into the playing of the note; there’s the playing itself, and there are any number of ways to finish it off. All those variations can leave the audience saying, "lt’s never been done that way before,” even though it’s been done a thousand times, a million times. And somewhere within that process of getting in, doing it, and getting out lies the art to me. In two lines of dialogue in a scene by Moliere, there is a relationship built between two characters; you can’t say, “It means this or this or that.” lt’s not infinite. You have to say, “He wrote what he meant, now let’s find out what it is.”
How do you find that true meaning then? How do you approach the task of deciding how you’ll play a part? Do you rely on research about the type of character you’re playing, about the author of the play and what his or her intentions were?
When I find myself doing research, I know I’m in trouble. N0, I don’t. Research is objectivizing. Oh, it’s nice to know that somebody wore cork-soled shoes, and okay, if you go get me some cork-soled shoes, I’ll find out how to walk in them. That may take me a day or two or maybe a month—but it’s all technical stuff, you see. You have to find what you need from inside; you have to find what the role means to you. You have to connect with what you think each line really says, and then simply develop a technique for getting it back every night. That’s the research I do- it’s finding the character in myself.
But how do you go about making your soul accessible in that way? How do you develop that capacity?
I have inside myself an unchanging, undying need to be somebody else—that’s being born to be an actor and maybe that’s being born to be an artist in general. That, however, is paradoxically coupled with the unchanging desire to express myself. So while I want to be somebody else, I also want to give voice to who I am; while I am only myself, I am also other people, and somewhere in the dim relation between those statements is my understanding of others and my capacity to act them. An actor qualifies everything he sees with that understanding. He says, “Well, yes, I could have been Hitler.” It’s the there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I syndrome. You start asking yourself all those questions that you can legitimately ask any human being. "Well, could I have been Hitler? Could I kill people? Maybe Hitler didn’t think he was killing people; maybe he thought they weren’t really people.” You might ask yourself, ‘What would it be like to be a paraplegic? Maybe I’d get off on the idea that people would always be kind to me .... ” Suddenly you find you have whole new modes to deal in, whole new keys to play.
This is different from the Actors Studio approach, it seems, because you’re not developing your own personal emotional responses as much as you’re developing your imagination.
Again, it’s connected with that need to be other people that goes through your life all the time, daily. You are asking yourself: "Would I do what that bus driver just did when he kicked that old lady down the steps? Yeah, I might. But would I really?” I go through life asking myself those questions all the time. Einstein once claimed that he thought of the theory of relativity because he was so slow to grow up—he didn’t even speak until he was three. He said that other people gave up thinking about why things moved; they matured and started to deal pragmatically with objects as tools; they accepted the fact that, yes, that moves, that’s X. Yet he kept thinking, why X? Why does it do that? Like a child, he never gave up asking those questions and following up the answers with still more.
So you think artists are children in that way, too?
Definitely, yes. By that I mean in the Christian sense: you must become as a little child again. You must become very wise, very direct, very Zen. It’s the`difference between being childish and childlike, I think; it’s what people mean when they refer to the greater thing that a child is. It’s never having given up asking the basic questions. Why am I a man? What would it be like if I dressed completely differently and ran a vegetable store or tried walking backwards or talking another language that didn’t mean anything to me? I do things like that and other people who are actors do, too. It’s not peripheral to us; it’s fundamental. It’s what life is; what it’s all about. It’s that kind of experimentation, and it’s not with self so much as it is with others. lt’s always trying to reach other people.
Some call it the need to be loved.
One psychiatrist said it’s the need to cover your fear all the time; being an actor is like being a tightrope walker, the audience is so terrifying.
The actor has a fear of the audience, but the audience has a fear of the actor, too. You people on stage have a great power over us; you can show us parts of ourselves we’d rather not see.
Yes, and people will cover their fear with a kind of contempt. People treat actors very well, but often it’s just a way of dealing with that contempt. It’s a little pat on the head. It’s like saying, ' "I’m not really interested in what you do; it’s not really relevant; to my company of eight million shares of Katangese Copper .... ” And yet it’s wonderful to walk out of Boys in the Band as I did one night, and find a guy clinging to the railing of the steps while his wife was trying to drag him to a taxi. He was wearing a four- hundred-dollar suit and she was wearing a three-thousand-dollar mink coat, and he was saying, "I can’t move, I’m terrified, terrified .... ” I stopped because I thought maybe he was having a heart attack and needed help, but then I realized that we in the play had terrified him. We had scared him out of his wits with questions about life; we had opened something up for him. Yes, there are a lot of people who don’t take kindly to having their eyes opened that way and they don’t want actors taking credit for doing that.
In what sense is what an actor does “play"? When is it “work”?
Oh, it is play. If it’s successful, then it’s play; if not, then it’s work.
What was the value of doing soap operas to you? Did you get much out of it beyond the financial rewards ?
It had a terrific value. First of all, I got to see myself in instant re-play. I could compare what I thought I was accomplishing with what I really was accomplishing. I could see my body and my; face and my voice and my general attitude toward life as it was projected on screen. I could measure that against the character which, in my heart and my head, l had thought I was presenting. I could see how my personality had shaped that character. And I started to see that, well, I’m not too good at this kind of a scene, but I’m really good at that kind. lt’s great for actors to see who they are, who their public selves are. The action of soaps is so furious that very often you don’t have the time to learn your part properly; the bigger the role, the more you are at a disadvantage. But ironically, that gives you a better chance to learn: you fail more often to accomplish what they want you to accomplish, and you see what you really do with your face and body.
I would imagine that just being employed as an actor would have its psychological benefits . . . it gives you a certain credibility, makes you feel that you are a “real" actor.
That is a great plus. It makes you into a successful actor right away. From nothing to success is very heady and very nice; you go from no money to a steady salary, from no job or the prospect of only a series of weird jobs, to one with a routine. And it is acting-it’s the real stuff. Generally speaking, the scripts are not too horrifyingly bad. The worst, part of it is the repetition - you have to repeat scenes so many times in various ways in order to keep people up on it.
Would you say that acting in soaps is difficult work?
Very. Technically it’s very hard to learn and memorize continuously like that. And it becomes destructive in a way because you start to treat all material like that—as easily memorizable but easily forgettable. Your mind becomes a bit of a sponge, a sieve; you develop colander - brain. But if somebody wrote me a great part, I’d certainly do a soap again.
How did you feel about the filming of Boys in the Band after you’d originated the part on stage?
I felt good because l made a lot of money. It was wonderful—but it was also very strange. We all thought it was going to make us major motion picture stars and it didn’t happen that way, so it was a head—wrecker for a lot of people. But it was great to be able to do as your first movie a play that you knew inside and out; you knew what every character thought and felt at any moment. The camera could come to me at any time and I would know exactly what I should be doing; I would never have to search for it. With most movies, you get the script and you may have some time to read it, but it’s by yourself. Movie acting is you and the camera. It`s not even a question of missing an audience because there isn`t even any reciprocity between you and the other actors. You can’t develop the drama as a whole—work your roles in with each other—because you don’t have time. You arrive on the set; you have had the script for two months or more likely you’ve had it for ten days; and as soon as you get there, the director says, “Okay, get on top of her now and make love to her.” Or, "Kill her,” or “Drive the van over the bridge.” You have to stretch for the emotions; you have to push to get the part. There are great movie actors who can absolutely analyze a script and figure out what the audience needs to see on their face in any given scene, and then absolutely do it. That”s a technique I haven’t learned yet, but I admire it enormously. Pacino’s like that; he’s learned it. Then too, a lot of people handle movies by doing nothing, by just letting what they are be photographed. But that’s the safe way out. I like performers who dare to take chances with themselves—like Dyan Cannon. She’s taking enormous risks now, she’s terrific; it’s nice to see someone go just a little overboard like that.
How do you react to seeing yourself on the Big Screen?
Oh, I don’t like the way I look very much, but it’s curious, you begin to isolate your characteristics. I like my left profile. I don’t I like myself in tight close-ups, fullface, because I have a full face and I tend to look a little bit like the moon. But the camera lies all if the time, you know, especially about really seeing deeply. What it can see, though, is a spirit in your eyes, and you’ve just got to keep yourself fluid enough to let that spirit shine clear. An Indian friend of mine just did The Chess Players and when he told me, “All I did was try to keep it fluid,” I knew exactly what he meant. There may be two weeks between shot A and shot B, but in the final film they’re absolutely continuous. You can’t plan for that. You shouldn’t try to repeat what you thought you felt, you shouldn’t try to rebuild it. It’s completely different from the theatre where you must rebuild the same thing constantly.
Is the theatre, in your opinion, more true to life than films?
Well, films are both very true and very false. They tend to enhance the idea that life is a series of unconnected moments; and what we see on the screen draws us in very powerfully because we ourselves have that same sense. We think of life as relatively unconnected fragments because we don’t understand how to connect them. But the theatre is really more like life. This scene of our talking right here has an art to it; it has an exterior and an interior; the arcs of our lives are intersecting, and that has significance. Movies can only enhance the glamour of the moment. You know, the gigantic head goes down to meet the other gigantic head and the two of them have a gigantic moment of gigantic kissing which is all made so gigantic that you feel the moment must have meaning. Whether or not it has meaning, or whether or not it has the kind of gigantic meaning that it inevitably has on a movie screen is another matter.
Do you agree with Susan Sontag’s thesis on photography?
Yes. Photographs are fragments of reality and therefore no reality. Life has a continuity, a flow, and that flow is the reality; the pattern is the reality, not the individual moments.
You said that you are best on screen when you are able to project your humor. I take it then that you prefer doing comedy to more serious things?
I like to do a role that’s serious because it’s funny - a comedy- drama, and there are very few of them around. When a character is making very serious points in a comedy, the points are being communicated without his having to make them. Macbeth is a very serious play so it’s not really in the same category, but I recently saw Albert Finney play the part at the National Theatre, and there was a moment that relates to this. His Macbeth was not a success; it was the first preview, a dreadful night, he just wasn’t cutting it; but he knew it. When he came to “Tomorrow and to- morrow and tomorrow . . ." he laughed all the way through it, and I got a glimmer of brilliance! It suddenly dawned on him that Macbeth is a man who makes a choice for total evil; he knows it’s wrong and yet he goes ahead. So what other reaction could he have, seeing his own low estimate of himself justified at the end, and speaking falsely when he says, you see what we are, we’re worse than nothing, we stink. There’s such a deep bitterness about it that it becomes terribly funny in a very cynical way. It was wonderful! But the reaction in the audience was uneasy because Finney didn’t go all the way with it, and his laughter was coming from a different source. Had he been consistent with it, it would have really been funny.
Do you like a strong director to guide you when you work, or do you prefer to figure things out on your own?
I like to work things out on my own, and I do not like directors- period. But the worst kind of directors are those who come in with something all laid out for me; I can’t work with them anymore. I’m getting to the point where I fight with them so continuously that it isn’t even fun to do. There are also lots of very good directors around. Bob Moore, who directed Boys in the Band, is a fabulous director. He did have a very concise plan, but it wasn’t about what people felt or thought; it was only about what people were picking up and putting down. That’s a different matter. Most really good directors trust the actors enormously; there’s a certain humility in that, though it’s a false humility, because a director knows that the actors will solve his problems. I haven’t had that many good movie parts, though I just had a good one in a film called The Promise. I felt that the director was really looking to me to find out what the character could be. His attitude was, Who is this person? Let`s find out. A few times I thought I went wrong. I told him and he agreed; he said he wouldn’t use those parts. There’s a danger, you see, in trying to stay fluid, too. You make mistakes, you do something that the character really shouldn’t be seen doing because you weren’t totally concentrated that day.
You spent three years in Hollywood. What would you say are the differences in opportunities between New York and Hollywood?
Well, the difference is that in New York due is given for work done. You can do a play in a loft downtown and if you’re successful at it, you will get better offers. You can progress. Therefore, your motives for doing any kind of showcase are rather impure: you expect it will advance you. And yet out of that impure motive comes the best work. In California, you can do theatre with the purest motives because there’s no other way to do it: it means nothing, it gets you nowhere. As someone once said, “You can play Hedda Gabler across the street from Universal and get fabulous reviews, but it won’t get you into a television sitcom.” There’s no connection between the two. And in California, you can be a much more successful actor by working less, by reserving yourself.
You make yourself a commodity for which there’s little supply and hopefully, much demand?
You make yourself hard-to-get, whereas in New York, the more work you do, the better off you are. The more you plunge in and take chances and be seen and be hungry, be amenable, be juicy, the better off you are, the more happens to you. In California, it’s the opposite. The less happens to you, the more valuable you become. It’s a perverse place. They like you to be “laid back”; to be “laid back" is to be a good human being. I think that’s a normal and probably a rather good reaction to the hunger of ambition- but everybody there has that hunger deeply and desperately. They’re all ambitious, they’re killers, and so in order to deal with that personally, they lie back; they lie back further and further and further. In effect, it’s a good human impulse to say, “I’m not as hungry and ambitious as I really am.” But obviously, it can be terribly dishonest. It’s like saying, "Please don’t think I’m so awful as to be here only because you’re here; I need you to see me and sleep with me and do whatever in order to get a part, but it’s okay because I really like you.” Now that’s perverse. Here in New York, it’s okay to be hot, to be like that character in the I Can’t Hear You When the Water’s Running routine: You want me to be short? Tall? I’ll take off my hat. I’ll take off my clothes. I can be fat, thin, I can be this, that .... Here, people acknowledge the fact that opportunities are slim and that the best actors are the kind of all-out, "Here I come! Take notice!” type of people.
Yet the theatre jobs in New York are not as well paid as the television work in California. The price of living here is high, and actors often end up living in very difficult conditions.
Yes. Theatre people are generally subletting illegally and driving a broken-down old car that they park in somebody’s lot in Jersey; they’re scrambling, scuffling. Yet I know that I could not leave this city; it feeds me.
What do you had most difficult about being an actor?
The most difficult thing for me is feeling that I’m not in control, in charge, not being the primary artist.
Being an interpretive rather than a creative artist?
Yeah. I have very strong impulses to be the prime mover and an actor, no matter how successful, is almost never in that position.
With Galileo, you founded your own company and produced it yourself. Do you think that’s becoming a trend for actors?
Yes, it is. It’s become that way for a number of reasons. Actors are better educated than they used to be, they generally understand money better. And the field is wide open; producers are not producing, they’ve dropped out. But being a producer is largely recognizing a property and getting hold of it, and actors are beginning to think that they could do that as well as other people. It’s a good idea, the actor-manager.
Did you feel that acting the role of Galileo was more fulfilling because you did have that control?
No, I felt that I did the role less well, that I wasn’t as fully in it as I should have been.
Because your concentration was scattered?
Right. If I ever acted again with the company, I would cut myself out of the production process much earlier. I mean, for the first two weeks of rehearsals in Galileo, I was writing an article for The New York Times about the company; that was much more important to me because it was primary, you know, I was writing, and so I couldn’t give total time to the part. But you do what you can, that’s all.
Yet you must feel that founding a company has brought you closer to your goals now?
Closer, yes. My friend who was in Galileo told me that when he was at the Equity office the other day, people would grab him; they were thinking that our company was going to be the next A.P.A. [Association of Producing Artists], and there’s a kind of delicious responsibility in having stirred up so much. Yet I stirred it up like I do everything else, just blindly, because I’ve got to be busy—and because l do so enjoy the stirring!