Saturday, May 21, 2011

Interview with Gary Cole

An actor's actor Gary Cole, who made a big splash as Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald in TV's Fatal Vision in 1984 and has never stopped working since, will soon open at the Geffen in Tracy Letts' Superior Donuts. Whether it be drama like In the Line of Fire on screen, the TV series Midnight Caller (1988-91) or Letts' August Osage County on stage or comedy as in the theatrical film The Brady Bunch, Cole is comfortable in every medium and makes the work look easy. Usually cast as a psycho or abusive husband, in Donuts he plays the aging Chicago shop owner, a role which brings him closer to his roots in Chicago. He was an original member of the Steppenwolf Theatre, along with John Malkovich, Laurie Metcalf and Gary Sinise. In our chat, Cole talks about the play, his favorite roles and the process of acting. 

Tell me about Superior Donuts and the character you are playing.

It takes place in Chicago in a neighborhood called Uptown, that's been up and down in transition. Superior Donuts is the name of the shop that it takes place in. I play the store owner. He's kind of a dinosaur. Arthur's this aging hippie and the donut shop is from another era. It's getting pushed out by the Starbuck's culture that's creeping into the neighborhood. There's 8 characters total, a couple of cops; there's a homeless woman who frequents the donut shop, and then there's a young man by the name of Franco from the neighborhood who's working there. The center of the story is his relationship to Arthur and what we start to find out about both of them as the story moves on.

Is your character a shady man or one with devious intentions?

No...Arthur's a draft dodger and really hasn't changed much since 1968, except he's an old man. Well not old, but he's pushing 60. There are shady characters who are involved with the numbers racket in Chicago and that's part of the plot. I won't reveal that. If there's a darker element in the play it's basically those two characters.

You do so well playing the bad guy. Is Arthur a stretch for you?

It's a good fit for me. It's a complex part; there's a lot to it. It's very textured, so, yes, it's a challenge for me, for sure, but it's not something that isn't identifiable for me. I'm from Chicago as well, and I spent time in that neighborhood Uptown. I'm slightly younger than Arthur is scripted, but not by much. I mean a lot of the stuff that he's dealing with I saw it through the eyes of a younger, almost adolescent. But it's still pretty vivid to me. And after looking at it, studying it...that period of time still interests me. I've read a lot about it. It's a great part...and like most of Tracy's (Letts) plays, it's really solid but very different from anything else he's done. I think the trademark of Tracy is that all of his plays don't seem to be coming from the same person. They're very different from one another. The last time I was onstage, I did August Osage County... in London, and then last fall in Australia, which was good. That was very different from this.

Talk about Steppenwolf, from which you and these plays have emerged so successfully. Do you still go back and perform there?

Well, sure. Basically, even though the August production was on tour, it was a Steppenwolf production.
It was all Steppenwolf people that I've known forever, for 30 years. I haven't done a play at the theatre in a while. It's been a decade. But that's just logistics and schedules and finances and all that other stuff. I still maintain a relationship with the theatre; I still see people. I actually just did a project co-produced by Steppenwolf films. Now they have a little bit of a film division; they've produced a few things. This last one stars Dennis Farina and it's called The Last Rites of Joe May; it was just at the Tribeca Film Festival. So, even though I haven't done a play in the building, my relationship is still close with the company.

Do you have a favorite play that you've done?

August Osage County was pretty special for me. And I'd have to say, and that may be because it was so recent, but being in that play, touring it in a couple of other countries, but particularly sitting around that dinner table and looking around the table and realizing  that most of the people at that table I've known over 30 years...being able to share that and being onstage doing that and having audiences react to the play like they did...also the fact that it's a brilliant play. I have to call that a highlight. If you talk about ensemble...and that's what Steppenwolf is noted for...there's nothing more ensemble than a scene like that. That's a group in chaos, but it's directed so well (Anna D. Shapiro) and put together so well by Tracy, I always enjoyed the audience could just feel the crowd leaning forward in their seats, and as the lights went down, there was a pretty universal "Oh my God, I can't wait to get back for the third act."

Do you have a favorite playwright like Williams or Mamet?

I did a lot of Williams in college and I've done Mamet's American Buffalo and Speed the Plow at Remains Theatre in Chicago. During my college years Sam Shepard was even more established than David Mamet. We were kind of weaned on Sam Shepard. He was the playwright at the time for college students to study. I also did many of his plays at Remains.

You did True West, correct?

I did it in New York. I played Austin and Jim Belushi played Lee.

True West in New York in 1983 with Jim Belushi

Interesting combo! I wish I had seen that! Do you have any acting mentors? Someone above anyone else that you look up to?

When I look back to when I first started coming up in Chicago, in terms of learning a lot and experiences, I always think of Gary Sinise. True West had been open for a while, and it was the first time I had done a play longer than 8 weeks. I did it almost five months. Working with Gary (the director), he was the one who really came up with the structure, which made it into the success that it was. He brought the best out of that play; he brought more comedy out of it than I think most people had before. Another play I did that I think he elevated was Orphans. I also did that in New York for several months, and you learn a lot when you have to do a play that long and try to keep it fresh for the audience, fresh for yourself. I was able to do that because of the way Gary directed both plays...moments and characters and the logic between them...I've always felt that he was a really great teacher of theatre and acting and the way to attack things.

Do you feel comedy is harder to do than drama?

I don't know that it's harder to do. What is harder is to disguise it (laughs), if it doesn't work. If it's supposed to be funny and it's not, it's deathly. If it's supposed to be dramatic, and we're not sure if it is or not, you can kind of hide behind the fact that it's a murky play or something. I've never felt that the job is different. You're playing a character, and whatever the material is supposed to result in...if it's supposed to result in people laughing, then the last thing you want to do is try and be funny. That's another curse. I've never looked at it as doing it differently. If there's something in a comedy that's not funny, people are trapped in their seats and want to kill themselves.

Anything changing, evolving in theatre today?

The people sitting in the seats,  whole culture is changing. Technology and instant information and attention spans...all of that stuff, the content of what's being written, it changes a lot of things. I think playwrights, and actors and everybody else adapt with that. I don't think it's anything new, but the culture changes greater than it used to...I think it's pretty healthy. I think if you put a good product out there, that engages people, then they come see it. If it's lame, or stale, and people have seen it before, they may not make their way there. They want to know what's out there and if it's something thats got buzz, they'll go see it. If it's not, theatres and marketing have got to adapt to all that.

What's up for you in TV and film?

with Christine Baranski in The Good Wife

I did a few episodes of The Good Wife. I have no idea if I'm coming back. Based on the last scene I did, it seems like a bit of a swan song. I'm in the opening of True Blood and also Curb Your Enthusiasm
a couple of weeks later on July 10.

I loved American Gothic. That was a favorite of mine.

In terms of playing a character every week, if not my favorite character, that was certainly at the top of the list. American Gothic was ahead of its time. Audiences were asked to root for the devil, a dark and sinister hero. Now there's nothing but anti-social, bad lead characters. Back then in the mid-90s we were always getting notes from the network about its being "interesting, but how do we root for this character?" 

as Lucas Buck in American Gothic

What is your mission as an actor?

Whatever I'm doing at the moment to make it work, so that when people see it, whether they're moved or not I don't know, but hopefully they're compelled to see it through to the end. That's my mission... to engage whatever the material is so that people will get something out of it. To make stuff work!

Any role that you haven't played that peaks your interest for the future? Any of the classics?

I'm not a big classics guy. I never had a big talent for it, but I'm not one of those actors that goes "Oh, Shakespeare is the best." I don't really feel that way. I feel there's about 12 people in the world who do it well, and everybody else is just spinning their wheels. At this point, I don't have any ambition for it.

What about contemporary classic plays?

 Sure. If those opportunities came up. We'll see. You just have to kind of go with life. I've got to look at reality, at what's going to be available. There's only so much shelf life you have on TV. If theatre becomes bigger later in my career, and I kind of imagine that it will, maybe I'll look at it. I don't really think about it that much. I just react to what happens.

You always make the work look easy. I never see the work.

Thank you. You want people to pay attention to the story, and not what you happen to be doing as an actor.

A fine actor who really loves the craft! See Gary Cole in Superior Donuts by Tracy Letts. Previews begin Tuesday, May 31, with opening weekend set for June 8-12.

1 comment:

John K said...

Great interview! I saw SUPERIOR DONUTS last night and it really blew me away. I know some people are calling it "breezier" than Letts' other plays but it really hit me on an emotional level with it's themes of fear, regret and hope/hopelessness. Such a great show!