What's New on the Rialto
Interview with Frederick Weller
of Glengarry Glen Ross
By Beth Herstein
Recently, I met with Frederick Weller, the gifted actor who plays office manager John Williamson in the show. Along with publicist Adam Farabee, we sat in what Weller referred to as the show's Green Room: an area in the corner of the sprawling basement which was fitted with a coffee pot and snack table, a dining table and a few chairs. Offstage, Weller is the antithesis of John Williamson, a rather unpleasant character. Weller who (like me) grew up in the New Orleans area is warm, friendly and easygoing. He greeted all of the various cast and crew members as they passed us on their way upstairs, and he immediately put me at my ease as we began our conversation.
Beth Herstein: You grew up in New Orleans ...
Frederick Weller: With a father from Wisconsin. My mom is from New Orleans.
BH: Did you study acting in New Orleans?
FW: No, but I did perform there. I did plays at my high school and I performed at Le Petit Theatre [du Vieux Carre, the oldest community theater in the country], which was great. I was talking about that the other day. That was the nicest Green Room I've ever been at.
BH: It's supposedly haunted, isn't it? Did you ever have a sighting?
FW: I was walking up the stairs once, into the attic where the costumes are. That's where an actor who haunts the Green Room supposedly killed himself. I thought I passed someone on the stairs, and I said, "Excuse me." But, when I turned around, there was no one there. I am a daydreamer, though, so I'm not willing to commit to the idea that it was the ghost. Still, it was always in the back of my mind.
BH: Then you went to Juilliard?
FW: Yeah. There were a lot of good actors in my class. Michael Stuhlbarg, one of the best, just won a best supporting actor Drama Desk award [for The Pillowman]. It was very moving when he accepted the award. He's a very humble guy, and he was obviously very surprised and moved. It was one of the highlights of the evening. I'm hoping that the show continues past our closing date so I can see it.
BH: He is wonderful in that show. The entire cast is really great, I think. It's an excellent show.
FW: It's a great season right now.
BH: Were you an understudy or a standby in Six Degrees of Separation?
FW: I understudied four characters, and it was toward the end of the Six Degrees run. All the actors at that point were very relaxed about letting me go on. So, I got to go on for everyone I understudied at least three times. It was a good circumstance under which to be an understudy.
BH: Was that your first big acting job?
FW: Yes. It was my first New York theater job.
BH: What was it like to be part of that production?
FW: It was a blast. It's very different from opening in a play - joining a play when it's already been a hit for over a year. Things were much more relaxed in a way, and it was a lot easier to start out doing something like that and not have to deal with the excitement but also the challenge of opening with a show.
BH: You've worked with Stockard Channing a few times.
FW: I acted with Stockard again in Little Foxes. I also did a movie [the 2001 release, The Business of Strangers] with her.
BH: The Little Foxes was a very good show.
FW: You saw Little Foxes? I thought that was a great production. Jack O'Brien directed that. I thought that production received short shrift. I loved doing that show.
BH: Brian Murray was also in that with you.
FW: He was terrific. He was nominated for a Tony for it. And, Frances Conroy, who's now in Six Feet Under, was Birdie. She was great in it.
BH: You also worked with the New Group, in the show Curtains.
FW: That show really kind of started my New York theater career because I wasn't an understudy. It was my first regular hire, although I replaced someone, Tim Guinee. He lost his voice, and I went in about a week and a half before the first preview. That was with Scott Elliot directing.
BH: I recently interviewed him for the website also. He's a lovely person.
FW: Great guy. I still have to go see Hurlyburly. Have you seen it?
BH: Yes, it's a wonderful production, great acting. And, it's a really good play.
FW: It's a hard play, too.
BH: Glengarry seems like it would be a difficult play also. It's so dialogue driven.
FW: I think this play is hard to screw up, though. Also, Joe [Mantello] has maximized its values and really created a wonderfully fluid production. When I took this job, I was very excited - first of all to be working with Joe again, but also because I think the play is a very tight play. Hurlyburly is more well, hurlyburly. It's a sprawling piece. This play is very spare. There's not a word wasted. Not that words are wasted in Hurlyburly, just that you've got a lot of words, a lot of subtext.
Scott actually called me to see whether I was interested in doing Hurlyburly. But I would have had to commit to any extensions - which meant I would have had to pass on this, which I had already agreed to do and really wanted to do. It's unfortunate, because Hurlyburly is also a great play and I wish I could have done both.
BH: You also acted in one of my favorite shows, Take Me Out. That also had a another wonderful ensemble including Denis O'Hare, who is so great.
FW: He just won another Drama Desk award [for best supporting actor in a musical, for his work in Sweet Charity.] That was another one of the high points of the ceremony. He's just a brilliant actor.
BH: What was it like doing that show?
FW: It was unbelievable. We went from London to Off-Broadway to Broadway. So, it was kind of a full spectrum of theater experiences. I'd done something similar with [Neil LaBute's] The Shape of Things. We went from London to Off-Broadway to a film, which was also really cool. The character I played in Take Me Out was so rich, and so interesting and sad. It's going to take me a while before I forget that character.
BH: When people write about or act in a play like Glengarry Glen Ross, one they already have strong impressions about, it's hard to get a fresh review or a fresh look. Had you seen the play or the movie before? What did you bring to the show?
FW: I'd seen the movie about twelve times, and I'd seen the tape of the original production at the Lincoln Center archives [at the Performing Arts Library], which is an amazing facility. It was one of the first plays I'd watched there. It's such a great play. I just love it. It's structurally incredible, funny and heartbreaking. I assumed that everyone in the audience would be familiar with it too. So, it was a pleasant surprise to hear people gasping at the big revelation [near the end]. I had not expected people to do that.
But, I think this production works for people who are familiar with it, too. Of course, I have not seen this production, but I have seen the parts of it that I'm not in. I think it improves on the original, because Joe loves movement and fluidity. There's a fluidity to this production that the original didn't have. It didn't need it because the play's so terrific. But, I think it's juicier with it.
BH: How did you develop your character, John Williamson? Did you work with any of the cast members or with Joe Mantello?
FW: Mostly with Joe, when I had questions about the character. He had great ideas about [Williamson]. My original conception of the character because I'd seen the film so many times was of a guy who bullies the weak and is a sycophant with the strong. There certainly was support for that interpretation in the text. Joe said, "No, I don't think so. You dislike all these guys, and you stand up to all of them." I'm just trying to get my job done and there's this friction with all of these guys. I thought of this image of a lion tamer who has to be tough to show the lions who's boss or else they'll eat him. That made it much more enjoyable than to play this total worm who kisses ass to the guys at the top of the board. I thought that it would be thematically right.
Also, it was a real learning experience for me, because it reminded me that I should try to make those choices that make the character the most fun for me first. If the director wants to direct me in the direction of theme, then he can do so. But, if I should start out playing the character in a way that is less enjoyable for me ... because I think I have to do it because of the theme restrictions then I'm being overly intellectual. And, if it takes the juice out of it for me, it might take the juice out of it for the audience. That's one of the great things about working with a great director. There's this safety net that makes you feel that you're going to be ok, that he's going to help you be as good as you could be.
BH: In another interview, you said that one of John Williamson's main motivations, and one of the motivations of all the characters, was to put food on the table for their families. I found that interesting because it doesn't strike me well, people don't leave the theater saying, "This is a show about people who love their kids." [laughter] But, it shows that you're looking deeper into your character to try to find the humanity in him.
FW: That's right.
BH: Do you do that with all your parts?
FW: Always. You have to try to sympathize with your character, I think.
BH: You have also compared Mamet's writing to Shakespeare, in contemporary language. I thought that was interesting. One writer wrote that Liev Schreiber has shown his range by going from Shakespeare to Mamet. He is a wonderful actor with a great range, but I think he showed more range by going from the Scream movies which I enjoyed, actually to Mamet and Shakespeare. I imagine that you have to adapt to the different style of language of one of Shakespeare's plays, but that it's a more translatable skill when you know how to work with certain kinds of rhythms.
FW: That's exactly right. That's the similarity, the sense of rhythm. Jordan Lage, who plays Baylen, the cop, knows Mamet and studied acting with him. Either Mamet told him or Jordan actually witnessed this but, when writing, Mamet would tap out the rhythm and try at times all other things being equal to infuse his work with an iambic pentameter. I've noticed several lines that have a distinct iambic pentameter. There's one of my lines that goes, "The only thing remarkable is who you made it to." It's impossible not to say that in iambic pentameter. Of course, you'd be an idiot to stand out there and stress the stressed syllables as you would be if you did that with Shakespeare. Toward the end, Liev's character [Richard Roma] is talking about the world, and how men are a dying breed. He has a line which goes, "There's no adventure to it. Dying breed." In the script, "to" is italicized, which makes the line iambic. So, there's more in common with Shakespeare than people think.
BH: Can you talk a little about working with these wonderful performers?
FW: It's been terrific. They're all very professional, great actors. Alan Alda is the nicest guy in the world. Sweetest, most humble man. Jeffrey Tambor is very funny in a caustic way. I've learned a lot from Liev. What he brings to the part. His ability to maximize what's in the text but also to be inventive, to bring what's not necessarily in the text, though it doesn't fight with the text. Very impressive. And, they're all terrific.
Alan Alda had us all to dinner the other night, us and our significant others. He served a great port. After we'd had many glasses of burgundy and port, Gordon Clapp asked Tom Wopat to give us a little sampling of "The Star Spangled Banner" because Tom was going to sing it the next night at a Brewers' game. So, he started singing it, and then Gordon joined in, and soon all twelve of us were singing it at the top of our drunken lungs. Wopat and Alan have really strong voices. Just the two of them could have blown the ceiling off. But, with all twelve of us I can't imagine that there were any neighbors in any direction who weren't ... mystified. [laughs] Or stirred.
BH: Karaoke night at the Aldas.
BH: How hard is it to balance all the personalities as actors and keep a tight ensemble? It feels like you're all very unselfish up there.
FW: You have to have a strong hand on the tiller. I guess. I've never been in a situation like this before. The other three actors in Neil LaBute's show [Gretchen Mol, Rachel Weisz and Paul Rudd] were movie stars, but it was a small group. This seems more sprawling. There are seven of us, and five are celebrities. But, Joe Mantello is so strong and so clearly in charge right off the bat. Everyone knew who the boss was. And, he made sure that it was a very balanced production. Also, they're all nice guys. So, that wasn't a problem. I've never worked with a celebrity whom I thought was being a diva. I've heard stories. But, I've been very lucky.
BH: You've done all the Law & Orders but the new one. Being a theater fan, I am glad for them because they support New York actors. What were those experiences like?
FW: In the first one I did, I actually worked with David Mamet's ex, Lindsay Crouse. That was when Ed Sherin was running that operation. I think he's still there, but he directed that episode. That was a great experience. He's an old theater director, and it was like an acting lesson. He stressed that you need genuine emotion, always, when you're on especially if you're in television and films. A lot of the producers and directors come from theater, and that makes it a good working environment.
BH: Last summer, you were in an expanded version of Edward Albee's The Zoo Story [called Peter and Jerry]. Is that going to come to New York?
FW: Oh, God, I hope so.
BH: You co-starred in that play with Frank Wood, who's also wonderful.
FW: Brilliant, brilliant actor. We had a great time. It was up in Hartford. Originally we had been scheduled to go with Glengarry Glen Ross in the fall, but there were some scheduling difficulties with some of the cast members. And, actually, when it was postponed, I was relieved because I was doing Peter and Jerry, the Albee play, up in Hartford in the summer. They wanted to bring it to New York in the fall. I thought, "I'm going to have my cake and eat it too." Then, it lost its funding, unfortunately; or, another rumor was that they didn't want it to have an adverse effect on Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. I don't know which is true. But, I went to Edward Albee's Christmas party and I overheard him talking to some friend asking him what was next and he said Peter and Jerry. So, I hope that will happen this fall. I thought it was a great evening of theater.
BH: How closely involved was Edward Albee in the production?
FW: Very close. It was exciting. One of the living greats, you know.
BH: You've got to go get ready for the play. Anything else you want to mention? I read that you have some movies coming out.
FW: The DVD of a James Toback film I did came out. It's called, When Will I Be Loved? [laughs] Since nobody saw it in the theater, maybe they'll watch the DVD. I did a few films that were at recent festivals. One was at Gen Arts [in New York, in April 2005]. It's a comedy with Anna Faris called Southern Belles. The other is a drama that was at the Tribeca Film Festival, with Reg Rogers, and it's called Four Lane Highway. Any distributors read this? They might want to give them a look. They're both good films though.
BH: Thanks so much for your time.
FW: Thank you.
Glengarry Glen Ross continues at Jacobs Theatre
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