What's New on the Rialto
Interview with Michael McKean
The HomecomingBy Beth Herstein
I recently interviewed the eclectic performer by phone about his career in general and his current work in The Homecoming.
Beth Herstein: Congratulations on The Homecoming. It's an excellent production.
Michael McKean: I didn't realize how much I was looking forward to doing this until it finally happened. I sort of ping pong in what I do. I've been working in mostly comedy and working in London and various other places. Then suddenly out of the woodwork pops this play. I've always known about it, never seen another production of it. I had read it, and thought it was an amazing play. People I know who'd seen the original Broadway production still talk about it. I thought, this one seems like it's still got legs. Sure enough, 43 years after its London debut, it still packs a punch, and it's still very very funny. Not one punctuation mark was moved. It didn't need it. It's a classic that's streamlined and unique. You don't have to go fooling with it.
BH: It also helps that everyone in the cast is so strong. What has it been like working with them?
BH: In the press packet, there is a lot of literature about how frustrating and difficult the show can be for the audience, for people who are trying to find a definite meaning.
MM: I don't think it's difficult to understand. What might be difficult is what feeling you're supposed to come away from it with. That's up to the audience.
An actor friend of mine came to see the show the other night, and he came to the stage door afterward. We walked a while, and - this happens every time, everyone wants to talk about the play. "You guys are great. Ok, now what's Teddy [James Frain] about here? What's going on with him? Why does Ruth [Eve Best] do what she does?" My wife says it boils down to the real question of just which of these loonies are the craziest. That's anybody's guess. They're all wildly bent. It's a bunch of human bonsai trees up there. That's the fun of it. That's the monkey puzzle.
BH: I think that's part of what's helped it to keep its legs for all these decades. It's not easily definable.
MM: Yeah. It's not solved. I agree.
BH: I want to back up a bit and ask you about your roots and your career. You're from New York ...
MM: I was born in Manhattan and grew up on Long Island. Sea Cliff, on the north shore.
BH: Did you get into New York City to see theater much, growing up?
MM: When we moved to Sea Cliff I was seven years old, and there was a summer theater there. I saw one musical, Wonderful Town there, and I thought, "This is great. I can go see all these plays." I'd heard that Basil Rathbone was going to come and do Sherlock Holmes. And then it burnt down. After that I would occasionally go into the city, though I was really into movies more than I was plays.
When I was about 11 years old, my father took me to Stanley Holloway's one-man show called Laughs and Other Events. Stanley Holloway had become a star in My Fair Lady and this was his evening of music hall songs. When I saw him, that was the night I thought it could be a great job, to do this.
When I was in high school we had a drama teacher who was also our English teacher. He would commandeer these buses and get them to take us into New York to see theater, and it was great. I saw a lot of amazing stuff in the early and mid-sixties. Then, in the later sixties, I was going to school here, to NYU. So I did grow up seeing plays and reading plays and doing plays.
BH: I read that when you were at Carnegie Mellon you met David Lander [who played Squiggy on "Laverne and Shirley," opposite McKean's Lenny]. Then, at NYU you met Christopher Guest, with whom you've worked numerous times over the years. You have a lot of really longstanding collaborative relationships.
MM: Oh, yes. College isn't only about what you learn, it's about who you encounter. I met a lot of people during those years. My friend [musician and songwriter] Loudon Wainwright [III] was also at Carnegie, and also George Gerdes, an actor, singer-songwriter pal of mine. People I've known forever. From NYU, there's [writer/producer] Tom Leopold and one or two others. It's nice.
BH: One of your early big breaks was "Laverne and Shirley." Do people still talk to you about that?
MM: This guy in the Duane Reade today wanted to talk to me about it. People are very nice, because people who are of a certain age were little kids when they watched that show. It made an impression on them.
BH: That and Spinal Tap both made big impressions on our culture.
MM: I think so. It's nice. [My career has] been interesting. I've also worked on a lot of my favorite TV shows. I've done a couple of "Simpsons," I did "X Files," I did "Alias." All of these shows I really liked anyway. So that's been kind of nice. It's fun to be an actual fan. "Law & Order," of course, I've done some of those. For a New York actor, there's nothing cooler.
BH: You got to be in one of the "Law & Order" series with your wife.
MM: It was "Law & Order." That episode was written by our friend Lynn Mamet, who is a writer on the TV show "The Unit." She wrote the characters for us. She wanted us to do an evil couple.
BH: You also worked with Larry David on "Curb Your Enthusiasm."
MM: I've known Larry for many, many years. I also did the "Fridays" show, which was his series. He was writing on "SNL" when I hosted there in '84. He wrote a very funny sketch that we couldn't quite get on. He's an interesting guy, and I thought the show was fun. It was also fun to get to hang around with Richard Lewis [on "Curb"]. That's always a pleasure. He's a very intelligent man.
BH: You've done a lot of work on film and TV where there's a lot of room to improvise. How does that compare to working on the stage?
MM: It's two different jobs. In one job they supply you the words; in the other, you make up your own. That's literally the only difference. Things are going to the shape of the script and the shape of the blocking, where, if you're winging it, you have a certain amount of freedom in how you move but mostly it's about what you say.
Also, film is different from theater. What Christopher does and what Rob [Reiner] did in directing This is Spinal Tap - you do the behavior and you do the improvising and you shoot it twice or maybe three times from different angles and you get basically - people say largely the same thing they did on the same pass, but they also find other ways to interact, and stuff only happens once and you happen to catch it or not. It's more free form in the shoot, and then the formality is placed on it in the cutting room.
Improvising on stage, I've done some of that, but not for a long, long time. When I was going to NYU we had a company that was pretty strong, and I worked with a guy named Roger Bowen, a very funny improvisational actor from the original Second City, and his improv group in the mid '70s.
I feel because it's the age of comedy sports, it's become the wrong thing for me. It's become this competitive thing, which is not really what it's supposed to be. It's supposed to be interaction on a more equal basis. The whole purpose of an improvisation is a) for the entertainment of the audience, but also b) to maintain this kind of equilibrium. The equilibrium's been lost.
BH: You won a Theater World Award [in 1990, for appearing in Accomplice on Broadway], but then didn't appear on the New York stage again for quite a while. Why was the timing right for you to come back for Hairspray and the string of shows you've been doing since then?
MM: It's just the way things shook out. In the early '90s, a lot of things happened. We made a Spinal Tap album and we took it out on the road. We made a TV special. In 1994 I joined the cast of "Saturday Night Live" and did that for a year and a half. It's the way those years laid out for me.
I have an agent, David Kalodner at William Morris, who always thought I would make a good stage actor. He would occasionally send me stuff, but the timing was never right. Then, one day it was. Somebody had the bright idea over at Hairspray that I should replace Harvey for the first stretch. So, I came out and auditioned for Marc [Shaiman] and Scott [Wittman] and the whole gang, and then I went back to L.A. and did another little pass at it for Jack O'Brien. He was on my side anyway, because he loves my wife. I was not sure I could do it. I was 57 years old. Did I really want to be dancing on Broadway at that age? It turned out to be an enormous amount of fun. And since then, the lovely people who cast New York productions, they've been very nice to me. It's fun, and it's fun to do things that you've never done before.
[ The Homecoming] is the case in point. I'm definitely not the comic relief in this play. Emotionally, it's kind of a big one. I really love every night, every performance. We still talk about the play at the end of every show. We'll say, "Well that was an interesting one." Or, "Did you notice that?" Raúl [Esparza, who plays Lenny] just came back the other day and said, "I just realized what I was saying [in a particular scene] all this time." His interpretation was something I had never thought of, but I thought it was a good alternative view of it. We're still doing that, finding alternatives to what has been written in stone, without changing the play as far as the spectators go.
BH: I also saw you in Woody Allen's play, A Second Hand Memory, at the Atlantic Theater. What was it like working at the Atlantic Theater?
MM: I love the Atlantic. I've seen a bunch of stuff there since then. I had a very nice time, and made some friends I still have. It's like the college thing. It's not just what you do, it's who you meet.
BH: What was it like working with Woody Allen, who also directed that show?
MM: He approached it very pragmatically. It was a real straight assemblage of the play. I can't say, and I don't think he would either, that he knew how to break down a moment if we were having a problem with it. It's just not the way he works. I know it was a very personal play for him, and we all kind of found our way as much as we did.
BH: You have a movie coming out, Adventures of Power.
MM: Yes, it just had a nice out of competition but high profile opening at Sundance. It's by this kid Ari Gold - not the character from Entourage, but that's where the name comes from. Adrian [Grenier, from Entourage, who also has a part in the film] is a friend of his. Ari is this oddball director, and I play his dad in the movie. It's about the competitive world of air drumming and labor troubles in the copper mining industry. Those are two themes you don't often find in film.
I have another film coming out called The Grand. It's about the grand poker championship in Las Vegas. It's with Woody Harrelson and Ray Romano and Cheryl Hines and David Cross, a really great cast. And Gabe Kaplan, who is amazing. It's a really cool movie. It was improvised. It was co-written and directed by Zak Penn. He's kind of a Jekyll-Hyde guy. He does these independent movies on his own with no budget. He also does rewrites on X-Men and Fantastic Four - he is the script doctor for these mega-things, and then he makes these odd little comedies. [The movie is] quite funny. We saw it in Vegas recently.
BH: Your wife is going to be in The Seagull at Classic Stage Company with Dianne Wiest and Alan Cumming.
MM: Yeah. She just got back from rehearsal.
BH: That should be a great production.
MM: She loves the director [Russian director and Chekhovian scholar Viacheslav Dolgachev]. She thinks he's just wonderful. If this guy doesn't know Chekhov, nobody does. He's channeling Chekhov. She's just delighted. She's having a wonderful time.
BH: Anything else you want to add? I know you have a busy schedule.
MM: We're having a lovely time in New York. I'm always reminded in the winter of why I moved to Los Angeles in the first place. It gets cold here. But, as I get older and I don't play out in the snow so much, it's not so bad. It's an amazing town. It gets bigger, it gets better, and there's no place like it.
Photos: Scott Landis
The Homecoming by Harold Pinter at the Cort Theatre through April 13. Featuring Ian McShane, Raúl Esparza, Eve Best, Michael McKean, James Frain, Gareth Saxe. For tickets and schedule, visit Telecharge.com.
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