Jul 18, 2013

Two Characters

Most good actors, in my experience, manage a delicate balancing act between being vulnerable, emotionally available, with feelings closer to the surface than seems altogether healthy on the one hand, and on the other hand being pragmatic, protective, even businesslike about their uniquely individual craft. It's genuinely hard, I think, for actors worth their salt not to take things personally, because their personnot only their body and voice and face but in some real sense their very spirit, their essenceis literally their working canvas, their toolbox, their workshop, in a way that few of the rest of us can begin to understand.

So I tend to cut actors a lot of slack for behavior that may seem to others narcissistic, paranoid, oddly out of tune with social cues, or downright standoffish or arrogant. I can report that my recent lunch at Joe Allen's with Amanda Plummer and Brad Dourif, who star in the current Off-Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams' nearly impenetrable The Two-Character Play, did not disappoint in the oddness department. Plummer, for one, was dressed in a biker's cap and a mismatched, pajama-like combo of long striped coat, plaid top, and striped pants; at one point she asked me to repeat a line from the play back to her just to hear me say it; at another point she got up and walked around the lunch table and delivered a somewhat inscrutable monologue about the impact of the Carol Reed film Odd Man Out on her life (some of the monologue, at least, made it into my Q&A in the New York Times). And Dourif, though dressed conservatively and less prone to non-sequiturs, still manages to give off the look of a very serious and slightly scared man-childan actor one Guardian critic compared, I think aptly, to Tony Perkins.

But if I was expecting them to be defensive or strange or mistrustfuland I'll confess it may have crossed my mind that things might get weirdI was proven wrong. These two seasoned eccentrics were gracious and expansive to a fault. And they gave me lots of gems I couldn't fit into my Times piece, which I'm happy to share here.
  • Sanford Meisner forbade Dourif from appearing in Lanford Wilson's The Hot L Baltimore, though Dourif was a Circle Rep founding member. (Dourif also happened to note that Hot L was clearly structured as a kind of symphony without music; hmmm, where have I heard that before?)
  • That Amanda Plummer infamously dropped out of the Off-Broadway premiere of Bug because she and director Dexter Bullard couldn't stand each other: "I adore Tracy Letts, and I wanted to do that play like crazy. On the record, the director didn't get along with me, and I not with him. And it was really evident."
  • Dourif ruthlessly treats acting as a business, and is often the one telling his agent to take the higher-paying gig over the prestige role. It's one reason he almost turned down a brilliant role on Deadwood: "The original offer was awful, and I wasn't going to do it. My girlfriend got on the phone and called up the agent and said, 'I've been praying for this for him, don't fuck this up. You go and make this work.' He called [David] Milch and they straightened everything out. HBO doesn't pay a whole lot, but it got really doable. And I was really happy I did." Yeah, so are we.
  • Plummer participated in a workshop of Waiting for Godot with Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave at the Ulysses Theatre in Croatia in 2004; of course, the Beckett estate's notorious ban on gender-bent productions prevented it from reaching a paying audience. Oh, and who did Plummer play? Lucky, natch.
And lucky is what I count myself sometimes to bear witness to the lively arts and their wildest and woolliest practitioners.

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