Ted Sod: Where were you born and educated? How did you become an actor and a director in the theatre? Did you have any teachers who had a profound influence on you?
Terry Kinney: I grew up in a town called Lincoln, Illinois, which is in central Illinois near the state capitol of Springfield. There was not much exposure to theatre in Lincoln. I was peripherally involved in theatre until I went to Illinois State. I went in as a psychology major. But on the first day of school, someone told me they were handing out tuition waivers if you had an audition piece. I had one monologue semi-memorized from my speech team days, so I went to the tryouts and I got in. This was a fairly new department at the time. It had about 280 undergrads and 100 graduate students. They were all very serious about theatre, and that’s where I met John Malkovich, Laurie Metcalf and Jeff Perry. The training there was really just doing plays. They kept the theatre open 24 hours a day and you could rehearse and put on shows on the weekend, which became the impetus for us starting Steppenwolf Theatre after we graduated. The teachers there were all remarkable and had a great influence on me. Most notably, Calvin Pritner taught me a lot about acting and spoke not only about objectives, but also really stressed “given circumstances.” He had a very straightforward approach toward it. He used a lot of baseball metaphors. I had a directing teacher named Don LaCasse, who was integral in helping me understand how to take apart a play before I started working on it. He also taught me how to do a deep analysis of the architecture of a play and common sense blocking.
TS: Why did you choose to direct Arthur Miller’s The Price? Does the play have personal resonance for you?
TK: Miller has always been my favorite American playwright, and The Price has always been very special to me since the first time I read it. I thought it was so different from many of Miller’s other plays. It seemed more personal. It felt like he was writing about his own life. I had no evidence of that, and in fact Miller has denied it, but it’s what I felt. Having a brother and older parents, the play has become more and more important to me. Every time I read it, it still moves me deeply. It makes me wonder about the aspects of our memories, and how we fashion ourselves into the protagonists of our own life stories. How we assign villains in our lives. How things that we can’t take responsibility for, we assign to others. That metaphor resonates with me greatly and always has.
TS: How did you prepare to direct this play? Can you give us some insight into your process?
TK: When actors get in a rehearsal room, everything changes, and I like to allow for that. I really want ideas to flow, and that will dictate the direction of where we take the story. On the other hand, I prepare a lot. I try to do exhaustive research, you know, the time period, all that entails. I might let go of some of my preparation once we’re all together, but I’ll hang on to some of it. I inform myself by reading the play obsessively. I read it over and over to the point where I really know what’s going to be on the next page. I don’t pre-block a great deal because I don’t want to lay that on the actors. I usually have a clear notion of how I want to stage it, but the marriage of my ideas and the actors’ impulses is what make a production far more nuanced and richer. The design elements — the set, the lights, the sound and composition of music — all of that goes into the preparation of any piece I direct. I would say the preparation I do is thorough, but it’s also open. It’s open to changes that will naturally develop.
TS: How do you understand the relationship between Victor and his brother Walter?
TK: It’s like a lot of sibling relationships. Their perceptions of how their family operated and how they fit into that family — who they were to each other — has a lot of personal stinging truth and also a lot of fabrication. I’m talking about the kind of memories that you fabricate to protect yourself from your own responsibilities. These two guys are estranged because neither of them have the courage to face what really happened to their family. It was awful, and they had opposite impulses of how to deal with it. Victor martyred himself and has never been able to admit that he did it because of how he felt about himself. He was convinced it was his destiny. He sees himself as a loser. Walter, on the other hand, had a great deal of ambition. He wanted to feel free to make his own choices, and he wanted to be free from responsibility for his father and brother. Everything in that part of Walter’s nature aided him until he broke down. After his breakdown, he continues to struggle with his old nature and has a great deal of anxiety because of it.
TS: I also want to ask about the marriage between Esther and Victor. Do you think that it’s a healthy marriage?
TK: I think it’s a complicated marriage as so many marriages are. It’s been a long-term marriage with not a lot of money, and you know how that is. Esther has wanted enough money to feel comfortable and happy, the way she imagines others feel. She thinks that money will fix things, and she’s turned to alcohol to assuage her disappointments. They love each other a lot, and they don’t communicate very effectively anymore because they see the world quite differently. They put a lot of energy into their son, Richard, but now that he’s gone out of the house, what Esther would love is to reform Victor into someone that he had the potential to be before he turned to the police force. Victor thinks it’s just too late. Do I think they are in deep trouble as a married couple? I can’t say. I think the actors will have a better idea of that. I think the way we want to play this relationship is that there is a great deal of love between them and they still wow each other when they look at each other. They still are very attracted to each other.
TS: What about the character of Solomon — do you think he’s in the play to remind the Franz brothers and Esther of where they came from?
TK: That’s very interesting. I hadn’t thought of it that way. I think that what Miller’s doing with Solomon — and his name is no mistake — is to bring into the conflict a person who’s seen it all, who has survived it all, who keeps going, and who sees both sides. When you see both sides of an argument, you realize there is absolutely no right or no wrong. It’s all a gray area. I think Solomon knows that. I’m excited about what Danny DeVito will bring to the role.
TS: What type of actors did you need for the rest of this cast?
TK: With Victor, I wanted someone with a quiet intensity who was compelling even when he wasn’t saying anything. A man who makes you want to know what he is thinking. I wanted a good listener and someone with gravitas. I wanted a man who understands personal pain and cost. That’s a tall order, and we are so lucky to have Mark Ruffalo in the role. Walter is a character who walks in and the audience has heard so much about him that they are prepared to dislike him. Well, that’s not the way Miller saw it — he wanted both arguments to be given equal weight. I needed someone who is charming and who can access a deep well of feelings. A person who is gentle and can explain why we choose the life we choose. Tony Shalhoub has all of that depth of feeling. The character of Esther, which sometimes gets short shrift in the analysis of the play, is a woman who is patient and understanding, and yet she bristles against all the misogyny in her world. She is angered by the men in society who parse out wealth to the few that they feel deserve it. She’s a loving woman and yet very frustrated by her plight, and it requires an actress with a great deal of heart and skill. That’s why I’ve asked Jessica Hecht to play it.
TS: Do you have any advice for young people who say they want to direct for the theatre?
TK: My advice is don’t let anybody talk you out of it. Hopefully, you are aware that you aren’t going to make money. Making money is not why you should be doing theatre to begin with. If you want to direct, go out and find friends and a room to do it in and direct. Nobody can really stop you from doing that. That’s how Steppenwolf Theatre was born. What we wanted was to just make art together. We were in the church basement, and nobody gave a shit.
TS: What keeps you inspired as an artist?
TK: I like truth. I like things that take me unaware, things that don’t reflect my daily life but shed light on it through metaphor and image. I’m inspired by music all the time, and I listen to a lot of it. When I work on a play, I listen to music constantly. There’s a musicality to language that’s essential to every play that I direct, and I like to find that musicality in the music I listen to. I’m inspired by everybody who is brave enough to make art because I think it requires a great deal of bravery. Every time I go to see something — whether it be theatre, opera, or the Philharmonic — I constantly find myself filled with the same wonder that I had the first time I ever saw any kind of art. I’m in awe of how they do it. I’m not the least bit jaded when I go to theatre. I’m not overly critical. I am a perpetual amateur. It serves me well to retain that status because I still find wonder in each moment that we build together as artists. When you build something and it works and everybody in the room knows it’s working — that’s just an incredible feeling.
Arthur Miller's The Price is now playing at the American Airlines Theatre. Visit our website for tickets and more information.
2016-2017 Season, Arthur Miller's The Price, Education @ Roundabout, Upstage