Spotlight On
Douglas Sills

by Nancy Rosati

I have to be honest. This was not the first time I had met Douglas Sills. In fact, I had spoken to him several times before our interview and we have become quite comfortable with one another. That shouldn't surprise anyone who's met him because he is very gregarious and makes everyone feel at ease right away.

As for background information, Douglas grew up in a Detroit suburb, the youngest of four children. He fondly describes living in his household with parents Archie and Rhoda as "growing up in a double sitcom." He moved out to the west coast when he started graduate school and stayed there until he began rehearsals for The Scarlet Pimpernel in August, 1997. His first exposure to the title character was as a young boy when his mother brought Leslie Howard to his attention with the words "This guy's good." That image of a graceful, debonair actor who seemed so much in control burned in his mind and came back to him almost 30 years later when he made his Broadway debut.

For the past year, Douglas has been at the center of the hurricane known as The Scarlet Pimpernel. Left for dead by the critics when it first opened in November, 1997, it developed a tremendously loyal following of fans on the Internet who call themselves the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel. Their unwavering loyalty to the show was what encouraged the producers to seek assistance in July, 1998 rather than close down. What followed was the completely unprecedented event of closing the show for 10 days and reopening with a totally rethought, reworked, rewritten, recast production. Throughout September Douglas performed every night while rehearsing a completely new version of his character during the day. The reviews of SP in November, 1998 were diametrically opposed to the ones written a year earlier, at least as far as the production was concerned. The reviews for Douglas Sills were always spectacular from the very beginning and became even more glowing the second time around.

Douglas holds degrees from the University of Michigan and the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco. He appeared in the first national tours of The Secret Garden and Into the Woods, and the Los Angeles premiere of Chess. His television credits include Murphy Brown, Sisters, Coach, and Party of Five. He received Best Actor nominations from the Tony Awards, the Drama Desk, and Outer Critics Circle in 1998 for his role as Percival Blakeney in The Scarlet Pimpernel.

NR: Let's get started. Regarding your "Leslie Howard" story. Your mom said, "You think you want to do this?" You were very young. Did you know already that you wanted to act?

DS: She said something along those lines. I was sort of improvising. She might have just said "This guy's good." That's all she said. She was a woman of very few words when she expressed interest in what you were doing. And this was her private, private time. She was a wee hours of the night person and she would close the doors of the playroom and she would close the pass-through glass to the kitchen and she would do mysterious things in there. She would buy dresses and copy them and sort of make them more her own design and then she'd take them back. If my sisters had an event the next day she would do things like that. And I'm a midnight eater - you know in the middle of the night I'll come down and get something sweet to eat. And she said, "Hey." I thought she was going to yell at me or something, but she didn't. She said, "You ever seen this?" My reaction was "What? I'm not even awake." And I walked in and she said, "He's good." And she wouldn't say that, ever. She didn't say that. So, that's how that happened. I don't know if she knew that's what I wanted to do. I'm sure I had expressed an interest in it.

NR: So, when did you decide you wanted to do it?

DS: I haven't done that yet ... I haven't done that yet.

NR: Were you the class clown in school?

DS: I was the dry class clown, meaning I wouldn't fight for the position. These days, there's usually more than one, and I wouldn't compete for it. So if there was an opening for it that no one was going to take, I would take it. But I was very careful not to leave myself open for ridicule because I was a tender kid and kids are cruel.

NR: Are you going to tell me you were actually quiet in school?

DS: No, I was extremely talkative, but they're both the exact same thing. They're both defense mechanisms for tenderness I think. I was very talkative, so much that, you know, the teacher would say, "MR. SILLS, could you PLEASE stop talking to your neighbors and just stay in your seat?" Because I was so much more interested in social interaction than the work. The work came very easily to me.

NR: That's something I was trying to decide. Were you a straight A student, or were there a lot of letters home saying "Dear Mrs. Sills, Douglas is not living up to his potential"?

DS: There were both, but mostly straight A's. If there was "not living up to potential" it was later and it was because I procrastinated too much. There were a couple of teachers that caught on to my snow jobs. But mostly the work came very easily. I was in private school so there was a lot of work. But when I sat down to do it, it came extremely easy. I don't ever remember finding something that was an honest-to-goodness challenge once I put my mind to it.

NR: So, once you went to college, you went into theater ...

DS: No. No, I was what you would call standard 80's suburban Jewish pre-law, which is just about everything. So I was studying psych and math, I was taking calculus and linear algebra. You know, just taking anything that interested me.

NR: So, where did this come from?

DS: I was taking voice lessons. When I went up there this woman said "You should be in the music school." So, I took a test and I transferred up to the music school for my sophomore year and half of my junior year. And when they declined my major - it was sort of a general music study major that they declined me for. I don't remember why. I left. And I went back into the Liberal Arts school. And towards the end of my Liberal Arts education, maybe in the last year, I took some acting classes, but that was it. I stayed away from the acting department - they were kind of "freakishly cliquey." It felt too tight. It felt claustrophobic.

Then I had an experience at the end of my senior year in college where this woman who has her own theater here in New York now named Alexa Kelly - she was a teacher. And she cast me in a production of The Three Sisters. And it was a place where I could really apply some of the fresh new ideas that they were teaching me as an actor. And, it changed my life ... it changed my life. I don't know, there's no metaphor that comes to mind but it's just this thing that grew out of my belly that was bigger than I was - this character. And it was very entertaining for me to do - strenuous, challenging - and people really responded to it.

NR: So, you found something that was challenging for the first time?

DS: Yeah, that I was willing to apply myself at. Look, I'm not saying there weren't - there were challenges, but, you know, when the math problem was over I was like, so what? It was like eating Chinese food. This seemed to have resonance. It kind of locked. And it was a community thing so it was synergistic with other people doing the same thing and creating something bigger than the sum of the parts. That was really what changed my life.

NR: So, how did everybody at home react to that? Did they support you in it?

DS: Yeah. At the crucial time when I was graduating from college I took my LSAT's to go to law school and I applied to a couple of graduate theater programs - Yale, Julliard, ACT, University of Washington, Seattle, and Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Those were big programs when I was graduating. Although I had very long, protracted auditions for Yale and Julliard, particularly Julliard, I did not get in. I got into ACT and to Washington, hence my association with the west coast. And my dad said, "You know you should do this if this is what you think you want. You can go to law school anytime. But you should give this a shot." And that was the push I needed. Then I knew it was OK. I guess I wasn't strong enough, rebellious enough, sure enough to do it in my own head. I was too scared.

NR: OK. So, last year, after 20 years, you made it to Broadway ... and not in the ensemble but in the lead. Was the reality anything like the perception?

DS: It's better. It was better 'cause I'm old enough to handle it, the dressing rooms are nicer ...

NR: (laughs) ... in this theater, not a lot of them.

DS: Exactly. Well, mine is. It's more challenging even than I'd hoped it would be. It's like when you run a race, a sprint race, like a really good race when there's a competitor alongside you that makes you work really hard so that your chest feels that ... in some of those last breaths ... got so big and it had never been that big and you feel like it stretched and it burns because you took in so much air so fast. That's what it feels like. Because you're using everything. I use everything I've ever learned. There's like a child stuck in a well and you dig with everything you've ever learned to get the child out. That's pretty much how it feels.

NR: Is that every night, or is that just overall?

DS: Well, often. Certainly every night in the beginning for the first several months, from the first day of rehearsals through the first four or five months. Now, often I would say, something comes up. The challenge now is to stay in the moment. I have to use all of my skills to stay in the moment because there's so much repetition now. I think the human mind, the way it processes, is meant to become accustomed to things. That's the way it works. You do things twice. That's what practice is, that's what rehearsal means, so that you can know something so well that it's very hard to make it look fresh - to make it look new.