What's New on the Rialto
Brian J. Smith
The Glass Menagerie
by Beth Herstein
The performance of Brian J. Smithas Jim, The Gentleman Caller upon whom the Wingfields place their hopesalso has been critically acclaimed. According to Entertainment Weekly, he "hits just the right notes of vanity and vulnerability." Elysa Gardner of USA Today calls him "perfectly cast." He also has been lauded for finding new depths, and new dignity, in the character.
Smith, a native Texan, is relishing the moment. After attending Juilliard and doing "the New York actor/starving artist thing," as he puts it, working in small parts on and off Broadway and on television, he was cast as a regular in the two-season SyFy series "Stargate Universe." More recently, Smith has returned to the stage. He appeared in the 2012 Broadway play The Columnist and earlier this year in the American Repertory Theatre production of The Glass Menagerie in Cambridge. After the A.R.T. production received virtually unanimous praise, the show planned a transfer to Broadway, its stellar cast intact.
A few days before opening night, I talked to Smith by phone about his career and his work in The Glass Menagerie.
Beth Herstein: Can you talk a little about Juilliard?
Brian J. Smith: It's not one of those experiences you want to repeat. Although maybe in some sense you do, because that school really brings out the best in people in a lot of ways. At the same time, it's such a pressure cooker environment. You're always striving to do the absolute best you can do, and to grow. You're also looking at all your skeletons in the closet, at the really uncomfortable parts of yourself. After a while, you can start to feel like an uncomfortable collection of problems, this potential artist. You have to have a talent for Juilliard itself. Some people had it, navigating that experience and keeping themselves sane. Some people didn't.
It took me a while [to adapt]. I definitely had some rough experiences at school, but it was good to have those experiences there as opposed to out in the real world. There are a lot of young, young people there. The faculty ... understands this. I found them, in retrospect, to be very patient and generous with how they treated us. I wouldn't give it up for the world. In a lot of ways it's made me the actor and the man that I am today. That process is never easy, and it shouldn't be. There's no sense to send you unprepared in a profession that is going to expect a lot from you ... I'm only now putting together some things I learned at Juilliard. Sanford Meissner famously said that it takes 20 years to make an actor. I think he's right. [Laughs] So, in 5 more years or so, I hope I'll get to say that I'm an actor.
BH: "Stargate Universe" brought you a whole following, and a family of people to work with.
BJS: It definitely started a really good relationship with Syfy, and I'm grateful for it ... The show had these great fans, most of whom are really supportive. There also is an ugly darker side of fandom that was difficult for me to deal with. There are whole websites that are devoted to getting your character killed ... I've had some rough exchanges with people who confused me with the character, tell me that I'm going to hell because I got a girl pregnant.
BH: That's unnerving.
BJS: It is. But the bright side of fandom is wonderful. There are amazing people I've gotten to meet, and it's nice to know the show meant so much to them. Even now, even though we're canceled ... It's been eight years since the show, and it's great seeing how many people have been introduced to it through Netflix and Hulu. It's a new generation of "Stargate" fans.
BH: You were in just two scenes of The Columnist, your Broadway debut, but it was a memorable role.
BJS: Yes, I bookended the show, at the beginning and end. It was a lovely character for me because I love anything I get to disappear behind a little bit. To play this kid in 1950s communist Russia, and to use this thick Russian accent. Working with John Lithgow was such a treat, and such a thrill. I learned so much from him, and he was so generous and such a great captain for our team. Stephen Kunken is still a friend, and such a terrific actor. Everyone was so amazing in that show ... Also, it was a great thing for me becauseit's pure ego of coursebut I'd like to think that I can do anything. There I was playing a Russian spy, and now I'm The Gentleman Caller. You can't get more different!
BH: In other interviews you've mentioned how much you loved Doubt, and what a fan you are of Cherry Jones. When you saw Doubt, you knew that you had to work with her someday. How does it feel to realize that dream?
BJS: It's one of the little things that happens every once in a while when you're an actor. You find yourself working with your heroes. I highly recommend it! Especially when it's someone like Cherry Jones. She's everything you've ever heard about her and then some. She's a very, very special human being. When you're with her, she's just Cherry, she's your friend and your colleague. You half forget who she is and what she does. Then she gets on stage and every night gives such a magical performance. It bowls you over.
I don't know, I just start speaking in cliches when I talk about her. She's just wonderful. There's something Buddhist about her. She's one of those people who looks at you and you know that she's completely interested in who you are. I think that's very much tied in with her talent.
BH: You listen to period music at the theater to get ready for the show.
BJS: I have a play list with musicians like Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, and Duke Ellington. It's hard for me to walk on stage in a play like this and be in the 21st century, with my iPhone and Twitter. It's very helpful in any way you can to get yourself into the rhythm and the mindset of the character, so that you're not walking on stage but hopefully walking into an imaginary world and sharing that world with the audience.
BH: Zachary Quinto mentioned in The New York Times that Tennessee Williams had become very important to him.
BJS: We all became obsessed with Tennessee Williams. We could get degrees in Tennessee Williams at this point. We read the notebooks, the memoirs, the Lyle Leverich biography. When we were at Cambridge and pretty insulated from the world, we'd meet after the show every night and have some bourbon, and we'd have a little picture of Tennessee Williams there.
BH: I was lucky enough to see him interviewed in New Orleans when I was young. I wish I remembered more of it. He had such an enchanting presence. I was shocked, as a kid, by how much he drank during the interview.
BJS: The Glass Menagerie was his first major artistic statement. We argue that this is his greatest play. He wrote it before the pills and the drinking started to take their toll. The sexual carousing and all of that. He pretty much wrote his future in that final monologue in the play, about traveling from town to town, not able to stay still, and going from bar to bar. It was a very prescient, almost eerie prediction of what would happen to him. That's part of what makes that final monologue so haunting.
BH: It does seem he had a fear of that happening to him, and he also felt it was inevitable.
BJS: Yes, he saw himself heading toward that without being able to stop it.
BH: This production takes an old chestnut that's been performed so often, and makes it new and vital. It also brings a richer sense of humanity, I think, to every character. They're not the easiest group of people, but you can feel their other side.
BJS: Well, none of us are really easy people. Jim's got a great line, it's so simple, it's almost a cliche, but it's also one of the truest lines in the whole play. He says to Laura, "people are not so dreadful once you get to know them." What John [Tiffany, director] wanted to do with this production is to strip away the museum piece aspects of the play and also get inside these charactersnot as Tennessee Williams archetypes or as symbols, but as real people. It sounds so simple but it's not. It's so rarely done ... Having the time to develop the show before the audiences in Boston, which were just as incredible as they've been here in New York, was such a gift. It's allowed us to come to a place now where we're starting to figure out these characters. It's the kind of play you could do for years and not get to the bottom of it.
BH: Celia Keenan-Bolger said in an interview that every single time, her scene with you is a little different.
BJS: It's one of the great conversation scenes ever written. If you leave yourself open to it, the dialogue can take you anywhere. There are some nights that I'm feeling a little bit draggy, a little tired, not at my best. I know that I just have to stick with it and do what I'm doingthat if I'm open to it, the play is going to fix me. [Laughs] It's going to get me there pretty quick. By the time at the end when I leave by the fire escape, it's like, "Oh wow, what just happened? And, how did I get here?" I don't really know, and that's kind of a first for me. I tend to want to control and steer my performance and have it be a certain way every night. It's been nice to be encouraged by John to not think too much about itto have a couple things boiling up inside when I go up to do the scene, but otherwise to leave myself alone and enjoy the journey. I think that's why it's so much fun. We also are having so much fun, and we enjoy not knowing what comes next.
BH: It sounds like he's a director who gives you space but also gives you excellent direction.
BJS: He's the perfect guy to direct this play, because it's his favorite play and he transmitted that love to us. Also, as a human beinghe's very similar to Cherry in this wayhe's got a fund of warmth and compassion and protectiveness, and also a love of actors and acting. It's incredible. You can't help but feel free and experimental and not so worried when you have that. That's also when you do your best work.
BH: Steven Hoggett did such great work with Once, and it sounds like he and John Tiffany are great collaborators. I also was thinkinghe's a movement director here, and movement is such an important part of this production.
BJS: It is, and it goes into Tennessee Williams' ideas about plastic theater [which uses sound, scene, imagery, light, poetryeverything available to the theater artiststo create a meaningful theatrical experience]. The table ballet that happens in act two is a poetic image. You have to extract your own meaning from it, but you know it has a specific meaning as well. Steven really specializes in that. I've learned a great deal from him because he looks at performance a certain way. Everything an actor does, to him, is like sculpting space. It's how you mold the space around you. How you point, where you point, the angle of your armthey all tell part of the story.
BH: I saw that a lot with Laura, because she internalizes almost everything.
BJS: Laura is very, very carefully choreographed. It's veryalmost tight, in a good way.
BH: Like the other characters in the show, your character Jim has suffered disappointment, but in that apartment he is among people who knew him at his peak, with all his potential and promise. He has to decide whether to stay in that worldthe world of the pastor to move forward in a real world. How do you see Jim?
BJS: In one respect it's not my business to say what I think. It's really for the audience to take away and come to their own conclusions. People have come to very different conclusions about Jim. There's a great, wide range of responses, and to me that means we're doing something right. Ambiguity on the stage is the most exciting thing, because the audience has to lean forward a little and figure out what's going on there.
From my standpoint, I believe he falls in love with Laura. He does not live in the world of the past like Tom does. His family in a lot of ways depend on him. He has to provide for them, he has to be a success, and has to live with their sense of disappointment. Laura thinks that he's the bees' knees, and remembers the best of himthe singer, the poet, the guy who was good to everybody and deserved more than he got.
BH: That's part of what he loves in her. He gets to see himself through her eyes.
BJS: Absolutely. If I could say that I'm going for something, I would love everyone to walk out of the theater with that perception.
BH: You get his humanity across. The production doesn't make anyone seem like the cads that they can be in other productions.
BJS: Oh good. That's ultimately what we're hoping for.
BH: You said that working on The Glass Menagerie in Boston made you a better actor. Does it continue to do so in New York?
BJS: I think so. I've found myself being less in my head, less on stage with the mental chatter or side commentary going on about what I'm doing. That's been a problem for me in the pastthat critic in my mind. He's been pretty quiet so far, and left me to my own devices, and I'm grateful. I think it has something to do with the fact that we know each other and the story so well, and we trust each other. We know that whatever happens, we're going to be O.K.. So, it definitely trains me in the right way.
BH: We talked a bit about Cherry Jones, but you've also raved about working with the other actors in the cast.
BJS: They are such an inspiration for me. I watch the first half of the show every night. It's another sort of my prep in a way, because they're part of what gets me on stage, watching them do such brave, open, emotional, specific, poetic work. You can't help but be inspired. Cherry says this a lot: It's all about love. Loving what you do, loving who you do it with, and enjoying the moment. I'm very grateful. This has been a very special part of my life.
BH: It's great that you appreciate it while it's going on.
BJS: Well, I've definitely taken my share of knocks, and been in some difficult productions, and had some major disappointments. All sorts of stuff. When something like this comes along, you really, really appreciate it because you know how rare it is.
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