Why did you choose to do this play and the role of Gregor Antonescu?
Because there is really no more rewarding character to play than the monster. And I have played quite a few of them. If you look back from Richard Nixon to Count Dracula to the character in Fortune’s Fool to Strindberg’s The Father, even some characters in movies, Clare Quilty in Lolita. These men attract me and they are staggeringly exciting to play. They are delicious. And this is a man who will probably sit on the top of the list of monsters I’ve played. He’s conscienceless. He’s a man with zero conscience. He’s a sociopath and is fighting for his life in the last pages.
What kind of preparation do you have to do for a role like this? I know the obvious thing is the accent because he’s an immigrant if you will.
I don’t pay much attention to that sort of thing until I find the heart and soul of the character. He may turn out being very British or European, I haven’t even decided that, haven’t even thought about it. Some actors think of that first thing, I really don’t. I just think “What’s going on inside of him?” and a noise eventually comes out. With Nixon I never came close to finding a sound for him until I was three weeks into rehearsal. My major thought is “What does he want? Who is he? What’s churning around inside of him?” So I don’t pay attention to how I sound for a while. I prepare in a wilderness and I’ve come to understand that for me that’s where I’m supposed to be. I’m not supposed to know anything. I’m not supposed to be absolutely certain that he must sound like some middle European voice or that he must absolutely have a beard or not have a beard or walk a certain way. That sort of firm belief, even though it sounds counterproductive to the process, is really limiting. If you go for weeks and weeks with the idea that “I’ve decided that this is it” , you sometimes get stuck there and you forget that you didn’t really have to do it that way, you just decided to. The older I get, the more of a wilderness I’m in for a longer period of time in rehearsal, until something I’ve learned to trust begins to boil up and I think, “Oh, ok. I’m just beginning to find it.” And often I don’t find it until middle previews, sometimes late in the run.
Earlier you said that Gregor has no conscience – will you elaborate?
He has a son, Basil, and his son is his conscience. Listen, the heart of this play is the battle between a conscienceless man and a boy who is all conscience. This play is about a father who cannot show how much he loves his son and a boy who loves his father despite all the evidence that he doesn’t deserve love. And what’s tragic and really brilliant about the relationship is both the power of love and the power of denial. The boy cannot help himself. He loves his father no matter what and the father cannot face his emotions and feelings, he just can’t. He’s too far down the road of denial.
Do you sense what the most difficult aspect of this role is?
Yes—the concerted effort to avoid sentimentality or self knowledge in the way modern men tend to do. There are people who live on this planet who simply do not question what they’re doing, question their motives, question who they are, or question what they want. They get up every day and they move forward inextricably towards a goal. They have no understanding as to why it is there in front of them. They just go there. This is one of those men.
Have you ever met a man like this?
Oh yes, I have. I would say I go to dinner parties with men and women like this once, twice a month -- extraordinarily successful people. I was at a dinner party last year around Christmas time and the hostess went around the table and asked “What’s everybody feeling about the final two decades, whatever time you have left?” People said various things and one enormously successful man said: “I intend to make a billion before I go.” And I felt so sorry for him. I thought, You’re seventy-five years old and that’s what you’re still trying to do? That empty loveless achievement.
It seems we are in a period of profound greed. Everybody seems so rapacious and I see this greed being played out in Man and Boy.
I agree. Unfortunately, people like Gregor are getting to be less and less a rarity. Everybody’s doing it to everybody else now in minor ways. Gregor does it in multi-billions, but people are doing it everywhere now no matter what their financial situation.
I was wondering if you have any thoughts about Rattigan as a writer?
I think he’s an exceptionally good writer. I’m reading his biography now because Maria Aitken, the director, gave us a great many books and I took the Rattigan book home to read the section on Man and Boy, but then I became fascinated by his life and his hypochondria, his homosexuality, his obsession in a lot of his plays with a cruel, vindictive and unfeeling father and a supremely sensitive boy. That’s a theme that runs through a number of his plays. And he lived a life of constant fear of illness. He lived on, he didn’t die young, even though there were several times he thought he was going to.
I think this play was written towards the end of his life.
Yes and it was a failure. It was also rejected by one of my heroes. I’ve always loved Rex Harrison as an actor. I grew up watching his films. He’s not a great Shakespearean actor at all, he wasn’t classically trained, but one of the most gifted stage actors there ever was. Rex could do more with the raise of an eyebrow and one word than most actors can do with full monologues. And he turned the play down because he didn’t want to be associated with its homosexual element. It went to Olivier after Rex, who also turned it down and there’s a letter from Olivier to Rattigan saying why he couldn’t do it, “They’ll hate me, dear, they’ll hate me.”
I was wondering if you thought Man and Boy would make a compelling film the way that Frost/Nixon did.
Yes, I’d like to make a film of it. I’d very much like to make a film of it.
Will you talk about collaborating with director Maria Aitken? Have you worked with female directors often?
Oddly enough this year I just worked with Kathryn Bigelow on a series for HBO that didn’t get picked up and had a wonderful time. I like to work with women very, very much. There’s nothing sexist in this remark. I actually would enjoy working with more women. They really do listen and take into consideration what your points and needs are. Maria’s a wonderful collaborator and we found a very good rapport. I’m very comfortable with her.
Have you had any great teachers that have influenced you over the years?
Well I had one and it was in college, his name was Professor Sawyer Falk at Syracuse University. He instilled in me at seventeen, eighteen years old, what integrity in the theatre means, what it stands for. And he put me into Greek dramas and Ionesco dramas and Shaw and opened me up to all the great writers and to my love of Racine and Moliere. I did a Moliere play with him when I was seventeen years old—what could be better? And he nurtured an appreciation that I had for these kinds of artists which I’ve had ever since I started.
I read that you were born in Bayonne, New Jersey. Do you feel like a Jersey boy?
Well I got out early. I’ve actually written a book entitled Dropped Names and it’s going to be published in March by Harper Collins. It’s not a biography at all; it’s a memoir of the great people I’ve come in contact with over the last fifty years. In the very first chapter of that book I talk about what it was that was propelling me to leave New Jersey and come to New York.
You’ve had a stellar career. What does it take to maintain a career like yours?
Balls. More than anything else. It’s not the failures or the successes or the awards or anything like that that sustains you. What sustains you is constantly pitting yourself up against things you just believe you can’t do. Constantly making yourself jump into arenas where you feel uncomfortable, scared and not certain of whether or not you’re going to be able to pull it off. I want my colleagues and the audiences who come to see me to know that I’m going to dare to try to give them my very best every single time I get up to bat.
Man and Boy is playing at the American Airlines Theatre through November 27, 2011. For more information about the show or how to purchase tickets, click here.
2011-2012 Season, A Conversation with, Education @ Roundabout, Man and Boy