Ted Sod talks to Reed Birney and his role as Erik Blake in The Humans.
TED SOD: Why did you choose to play the role of Erik Blake in The Humans?
REED BIRNEY: First of all, it’s a beautiful play. I have never played anything like this role. I’ve never played a blue-collar character. I think because I look the way I do, I’ve made a career of playing privileged, entitled intellectuals – a lot of upper-middle-class people -- and Erik is a janitor from Scranton, Pennsylvania. What I find so moving about Erik, and what I relate to, is his being a certain age and dealing with regrets in his life. You see him make certain decisions, and there’s a point where he realizes, oh, this is it. There’re no “do overs.” He has really come to grips with what it means to be entering the last chapter of his life.
TS: One of the things that intrigued me about Erik is the idea of his recurring dreams. Is that important to you as the actor playing the character?
RB: I have had some recurring dreams myself, and I’ve never seen that idea manifested in a play quite this way, where recurring dreams or nightmares are discussed in such honest, truthful terms.
TS: Will you talk about how you perceive the relationship between Erik and his wife, Deirdre?
RB: I think it’s a wonderful love story. They really adore each other. Erik loves Deirdre and really does love his family. It’s the stuff he does, without thinking it through, that makes him realize he may have really screwed up his relationship to his wife and daughters. That’s something almost all of us can relate to.
TS: Erik seems to have misgivings that his daughter Brigid lives in NYC.
RB: Erik didn’t grow up in New York City. His mother did and worked desperately to get out. Erik was raised by a mother saying, “I hated New York. I had to get out of there.” And so that’s in his DNA. His daughter, Brigid, has decided New York is where she wants to be. He probably does have enormous fear about her being in the city, especially since he happened to be in New York and at the World Trade Center on 9/11. Why wouldn’t he think, oh, it’s an obvious target? They hit her once; why wouldn’t they hit again? He has the fears that many non-New Yorkers have. Maybe the lack of fear most of us who live here have is really just intense denial -- that you can live in the city and just blithely go around. I think it’s a miracle that no one has ever blown up the 104 bus. They blow up buses everywhere else all the time. Why wouldn’t they blow up the 104 bus? What’s to stop them?
TS: This play takes place during a Thanksgiving dinner. I’m curious if you think families coming together for holidays are loaded events?
RB: There’s certainly enough anecdotal evidence to support the idea that people lose their minds on the holidays. It probably has a lot to do with if your family is at all dysfunctional, if there’s any kind of trouble lying beneath the surface. Usually, you’ve got children who have left home and are coming back into the house they were raised in, and then they’re expected to behave in the way they did when they lived there. On top of that, in this play, Erik, his wife and mother are visiting a city that creates a bit of fear in them and puts them on edge. And usually on holidays, there’s self-medicating; people who don’t want to confront the actual issues start drinking. There’s all this pressure for the day to be “wonderful!” People think, it’s just a weekend; it’s just a day, let it go. But under the surface it makes most people crazy, so they decide to have a few more glasses of wine or whiskey or whatever.
TS: I sense that Erik is testing Brigid’s new boyfriend, Richard, who is co-hosting the holiday dinner. Do you see it that way?
RB: It makes complete sense that he would. In his mind, the relationship between Brigid and Richard is the only chance for him to have grandchildren. I don’t think he necessarily thinks that there may be grandkids from Aimee and her ex. Of course, there could be, but the world is changing too fast for him, and he’s trying to make sense of it all. The fact that Richard comes from a moneyed family probably also makes him suspicious. I think Erik’s got all kinds of questions, as any father would, about whether Richard is going to be the guy who makes his daughter happy.
TS: The other thing that permeates the play is Catholicism. What do you make of that aspect of the story?
RB: Erik’s an Irish Catholic guy who hasn’t ever really thought that much about it, in terms of questioning. He grew up in the church and still goes to church, and I think for a lot of folks, their faith is unshakable because they were raised with it. Erik’s faith helps him in some ways and doesn’t help him in others. He’s feeling pain right now based on what he’s done – who knows what it would be like without his faith? He certainly is a confused guy at the moment, and it seems he doesn’t have the right tools to figure it out. I think one of the reasons Erik’s gotten into trouble is because he hasn’t led a particularly examined life. I think the idea of an examined life is, in many ways, a real luxury. Men like Erik have to support their families, and they work hard – they’re at work from 6:30am until 9:00pm, and they’re putting out fires all day long. There’s no time for contemplating how life could be better in Erik’s world.
TS: What do you look for from a director when you’re creating a role like this?
RB: Mostly what I look for is feeling safe in the room and that’s a pretty big thing. And then I look for somebody who’s a great collaborator. I love to have some laughs in the room. That’s an important thing to me. We’re putting on a play. Let’s not get confused about what we’re working on. I think one of the things that is so thrilling about Joe Mantello is his unbelievable meticulousness and attention to detail and his relentless striving for the truth. We worked together on Casa Valentina, and we used every second we could working on that play. I think we all loved it and we wanted it to hit right. Whereas other directors would have walked away once previews started, he spent every possible rehearsal hour he could, refining it. I remember one day we were in previews, and Joe said to me, “Reed, it’s got to be more personal.” And I said, “Joe, I feel like I’m doing that already. I don’t know what else I could possibly do to make it more personal.” He said, “Nope. You’re not.” So I went out onstage that night and really gave myself the task of making it more personal, not really even knowing what that would look like, and he was absolutely right.
TS: Will you talk about what it’s like to have the playwright in the room with you working on a new play?
RB: I love it when a playwright is there, because it’s his story -- it’s the story he wants to tell -- and to be able to pick his brain – making sure that we’re on the right track – I just love that so much.
TS: Having been part of this play’s development process, do you feel like that has informed how you’re playing the role? Has your take on the role evolved?
RB: I think it has to. It evolves for everybody. It evolves for the playwright, too. Most great playwrights will, at one point, say, “The character is yours now. You know him better now than I do.” There are great collaborator playwrights and there are playwrights who aren’t, who really feel like the play is done. They’re really not interested in hearing from an actor so much. I love collaborating on a new play with that first kind of playwright because you feel like your contribution has been valuable.
TS: Where did you get your training, and did you have any teachers who had a profound influence on you?
RB: I went to Boston University, undergraduate, the School of Fine Arts, and left after two years. I was feeling restless and ambitious, and so I moved to New York and went to Circle in the Square. I got my Equity card after three months in New York doing terrible children’s theatre out on the road. But when I came back from that, I got into a class that was sponsored by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences and, miraculously, it was free. I still, to this day, don’t understand how that was or why it was. It was run by a man named Tad Danielewski, who was a Polish refugee and rebel in World War II. He was this very strange, mysterious man, but brilliant with his observations about acting, and after a couple of years, he left to teach at Brigham Young University, and we found another remarkable teacher named Gene Lasko, who was Arthur Penn’s right hand. I studied in this class for about seven years; and I really credit Gene— and Tad—with teaching me everything I know and believe about acting. I think Gene’s philosophy was summed up in just one sentence: Tell the truth. Always tell the truth but in the most interesting way possible.
TS: Do you have any advice for a young person who wants to pursue an acting career?
RB: I would say two things: have a rich life outside of theatre, so that acting isn’t everything. That way when you don’t get the job or you get a bad review, it’s not the end of the world. And, you have to decide if you’re a lifer; and if you’re a lifer, then you have to be willing to spend the time and persevere because the business is designed to discourage you. They smell that despair when you walk into an audition. It’s your full-time job not to be discouraged.
The Humans begins previews September 30 at the Laura Pels Theatre. For more information and tickets, please visit our website.
2015-2016 Season, The Humans