Alfred Uhry by Paul Rudd

BOMB 60 Summer 1997
Bombcover 60 1024X1024
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Alfred Uhry. Photo by Carol Rosseg.

So I got the call. Would I be interested in interviewing Alfred Uhry for BOMB Magazine? Now I realize most people know me for my journalistic integrity. A week doesn’t go by where someone doesn’t stop me on the street with questions about the Bishop Tutu piece I did in ’91. Or how I managed to give readers a glimpse into Salman Rushdie, the man.

But at first I was hesitant. Not because I’m not an admirer of Uhry’s work, I am. However, how to parlay my rewarding, yet exhaustive career as an interviewer into a successful, spiritually replete career as an actor? I pondered the offer, replied with a polite “No, thank you,” and went back to my scotch and soda. But I couldn’t shake the thought from my mind. I asked myself how many people know about Mr. Uhry’s background as a German-American Jew growing up in Atlanta? As a lyricist and writer of musicals, as well as the 1988 Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of Driving Miss Daisy? Plus I figured, since I’m acting in the current production of his newest play, The Last Night of Ballyhoo, refusing might be considered inappropriate. I took a slug of my drink, dialed the phone and informed them that I’d reconsidered. “Ah, what the hell,” I said, “I get paid for this, right?”

Paul Rudd I don’t see how you actually sit down and write a play.

Alfred Uhry The characters just start talking to me, Paul, and I write it down in my own little room by myself. There’s no one judging me.

PR They’re not judging you at that moment. You sit in your room for years, writing, and thenthey’re lining up to see the play.

AU I don’t put a lot of thought into it, I’m just used to doing it. Did you enjoy our opening night?

PR Opening night was much too surreal for me to completely enjoy. My family was there, and the telegrams …

AU How many flowers did you get? Lots?

PR A dressing room has never smelled so good.

AU That opening night party was like walking on hot coals through hell for me. The air was ripe with tension, you could have wrung it out with a towel. You know, the reviews are going to come out, and I think we tend to be dramatic anyway. That’s what we do for a living, we try to make dramatic things more dramatic.

PR The emotions that come up on an opening night are different than what one might expect.

AU Was that show more fun than the regular shows?

PR It was separate from the other shows. The experience as a whole was mythic, and on reflection will be one of the most amazing things of my life. On stage you can never really see anyone in the audience, though I saw my dad, who was back in row KK or something, almost immediately.

AU Really? You saw him?

PR I saw him. And he was applauding. And in that split second I thought, “This is what I’m going to remember.”

AU Well, one of the things that gets us doing theater is immediacy. It’s so different from the movies. There’s no coitus interruptus. You get to hear the audience respond. That is so thrilling. It’s really hanging out over the edge. I look at the movies as a wonderful gift that’s been thrown in my lap, because they support me, I meet wonderful people, I go to good places, but the work is never as satisfying as working on the stage because you can’t really control it. I don’t ever feel like it’s mine. Even the movie of Miss Daisy was, in a way, more Bruce Beresford’s than mine.

PR So when you write a play, do you keep that in mind? “I might make a screenplay out of this.” Or do you focus solely on the play?

AU No, when I’m writing a play I’m in the play. I have to see it to write it: the characters move around, walk, talk, and I’m the audience. I’m watching the play in my head when I write. When I was working on Last Night of Ballyhoo, I had the most bizarre experience, I really entered 1939. I know where your character, Joe, drove to get home, I saw the door handles of the car, I felt the streets… Time travel. It doesn’t happen a lot, but it happened that day. It was strange, exciting.

PR We’d never met until this production, and to be so close to the characters, to know what they look like, and then to see it played out by people who you don’t know, who are playing characters from your real life …

AU The audition process is very interesting. Generally, you can tell in the first ten seconds if somebody’s right for you. We were going to do a reading of Ballyhoo last April, and Dana (Ivey) said to me, “I’ve got a friend who could read. You probably won’t think he’s right for the play because he’s tall and he’s good looking.” And I said, “I beg your pardon. Does he have to be little and ugly?” So Terry Beaver read the play, he read three lines, and I knew that I wanted him to play the part. What you’re looking for in an actor is somebody who can bring the stuff to the play that you can’t write. What Terry Beaver brings to the part of Uncle Adolph is an underlying sadness. Every speech he makes feels like a man who’s missing something in his life. Now whether Terry is or he isn’t in his own life, I’m not able to say, but he brings that to the play. Likewise, Jessica [Hecht] brings to the character of Lala—which is complicated enough, Lord knows—a healthy goofiness to counterbalance Lala’s neurotic, tragic side. And Dana Ivey always brings that really fine, honed intelligence into anything she does. I find with all of you in the play, you add something that I can’t bring to it, that I can’t write.

PR In a lot of your scenes, what’s actually being said is completely different from what’s being felt.

AU I like actors, I like to see acting. In life you feel things that you either don’t know how to say or you’d be too embarrassed to say. You play a lot of love scenes in this play where you clearly are thinking, “God I really like this girl. This girl is really the one.” You never say it. But that makes it interesting to me, to feel something and to be talking about all the other things but the way you feel.

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Paul Rudd as Joe Farkas in Alfred Uhry’s The Last Night of Ballyhoo, directed by Ron Lagomarsino. All photos by T. Charles Erickson. Courtesy of Helen Hayes Theater and Boneau/Bryan-Brown.

PR In all of your writing, you never present, within the confines of language, what exactly is being felt. It’s done in subtle ways. In Driving Miss Daisy, a look, or a gesture told so much.

AU Well, that’s what you’re supposed to do. You act in this play eight times a week, and I don’t think you ever do it exactly the same way. That’s part of the fun of it, isn’t it? You know the other actors well enough now that if you throw the ball underhanded, somebody’s going to catch it. The line readings aren’t always the same and they shouldn’t be.

PR How I walk into that house, how I speak to the other characters, their reaction to that, will in a subtle way dictate what my character is like. And a change might not be very noticeable to an audience member, but to me it seems huge, and that’s what makes the play have a different life. And when that works, it is mesmerizing. But I do feel that a writer’s words are sacred, they have been chosen for specific reasons.

AU It’s not the words so much, it’s the rhythms. I really hear rhythms in my head when I write. I’ll write a scene and read it to myself and it’s almost like music to me. Unlike a lot of people I know—I write short. And I always add and add and add. The first draft of this play was 55 pages long, the bare bones, now it’s 130. I like people’s speech patterns, so the prepositions, the conjunctions, all those things are important. The rhythms are as important to me as the words.

PR Does that come from a musical background?

AU Probably, I wrote lyrics first. If I see a good play by anybody, I can hear the rhythm—certainly Tennessee Williams. Mamet’s rhythms, for instance, are very staccato. I don’t like it if an actor screws up my rhythms. Good actors intuit what a writer feels, and your job is to interpret what we feel. I don’t really remember my old rhythms after I hear you do it, but I would know enough to know if it was wrong.

PR Celia Weston’s the only person I know who can take a line that is written as a joke, or has a surefire laugh at the end, break it on the way into four different parts, and get four different laughs. And it is all cohesive, it really is very Southern.

AU Her comic timing is extraordinary, and that’s hard because her character is so otherworldly. I had two relatives in my family who were like that, dear sweet ladies in deep outer space quite a bit of the time. And what they said was mostly composed of non-sequiturs. When I was a little boy, one of these relatives was going to New York. My mother said, “Are you going to go on the train or fly?” She said, “Well if I buy that navy blue dress I saw at Richard’s yesterday, I’m going to go on the train.” Did I miss something? I mean, I always was a big fan of Gracie Allen’s. When she got the driver’s test and they said, “Have your eyes ever been checked?” She said, “No, they’ve always been light blue.” (laughter) It’s just another world. But Celia seems not to be joking.

PR That’s just it. It’s not crackerjack, punching comic, she just lets it happen. Both Arija Bareikis and Jessica Hecht have said that you write for women very well. Were you surrounded by women when you were younger?

AU I have a mother, I had a grandmother, I have a sister. My father died when I was 18 but he was there up until then, and I have a wife and four daughters. I’m surrounded by women. Your character (Joe Farkas) and Terry’s character (Adolf Freitag) are the way into this play for me. Without them I couldn’t have written it, because they’re really observing these women. I just find women fascinating. At least the women that I have observed in my life, because they basically think differently than I do. For instance, Arija’s character, Sunny, is not Little-Miss-Goodie-Two-Shoes. She’s a wonderful girl and I love her a lot, but she does do something to engender dislike in the relationship with her cousin, Lala. It’s not all Lala’s doing. I thought, “What could she have done?” And then I thought, to wear a brand new dress to your cousin’s father’s funeral would be a bad thing to do, because it would make people look at you. Lala’s right when she says no girl wears a new outfit if she doesn’t want somebody to look at them. It interested me, the relationship between the two cousins. People who read the play kept saying, “Oh, they really love each other.” I said, “No. They don’t love each other. I don’t think that they hate each other, they just don’t like each other.”

PR This is a play about anti-Semitism of American Jews of German descent towards Eastern European Jewish immigrants. It’s set in 1939, and although you touch on the Hitler business and Poland, it’s not really what the play is about. Was that something that you came to?

AU It was a lucky break. I always wanted to write a play about the mores of people who belonged to The Standard Club, the club that was “German Jews only” when I was growing up. I first wrote an episodic play years ago, Different Scenes at The Standard Club, and I didn’t know quite what to do with it all. Three years ago, I got a call from the Olympic Cultural Committee: Would I write a play for the 1996 Olympics? And almost immediately I thought that I would write a play about the last time Atlanta was in the international spotlight, which was the opening of Gone with the Wind in 1939. The day after that I thought, Oh boy, I really hit it. Because I had Scarlet O’Hara on the one hand and Hitler invading Poland on the other. I was tempted to talk more about the war but I thought, These people don’t know what’s coming. It just looks bad in Europe. But, nobody knows about concentration camps or Holocausts, that was in the future. And I didn’t want to hit it hard. I knew your character would say that he had relatives in Eastern Europe. But once is enough to say that in a play like this. That to me is horrible, when he says, “Yeah I got relatives over there,” and everybody in the audience knows something he doesn’t know. How could he know?

PR One of my favorite lines is when he says, “This Hitler business in Poland ain’t gonna turn out good.” And Boo says, “Quit paying attention to Poland so much, give a thought to your own flesh and blood.”

AU But she’s not wrong to say that. If I was having a big problem and you kept going on and on at me about, “Well isn’t it terrible that Anthony Lake didn’t get to be appointed Secretary of State and he quit in the Senate hearings … ” I’d say, “Paul, could we talk about my problem instead of this bullshit that’s going on in Washington?” I would be perfectly justified in saying that. Hindsight is an interesting thing. The character of Boo is doing the best she can in the world, I don’t know what she could do any differently. She may be too much of a pile driver of a mother, but she only wants what’s good for her daughter, she really loves her daughter …

PR Joe’s father died when …

AU Everybody’s father is dead in the play. Sunny’s father, and Lala’s … Peachy’s the only one with a father. They all talk about their father’s dying. You think that’s something I’m trying to work through?

PR Yeah, I’m wondering …

AU I didn’t realize that until we were in the rehearsal here, in January. My father died when he was 50, and when I was 50, Driving Miss Daisy opened. I just couldn’t ever quite enjoy it. I couldn’t accept it all. And one day, I was sick and I called up my wife at work, and she came home and said, “Let me tell you something: You not only didn’t die, you got rich and you got famous. And you have to deal with it … ” I started to cry.

PR That must have been an amazing moment.

AU It was a milestone. We want to please our parents. And ain’t it wonderful when we get to do it? That you had your father there, standing applauding you?

PR I was definitely lucky to experience that.

AU Yeah, to see it in their eyes. We’re lucky to be in a business where they pay us to imagine. They pay us to explore what’s in our heads and to create things out of our experiences. They pay us to make up stuff. And they pay us to think about our lives before, to remember what it was like to get shot down by a girl and how that feels, and to use it. We’re very lucky. I think we get to know ourselves better.

PR Those experiences were so hard, to experience them again some might consider an unlucky thing.

AU I am sure it’s the same for an actor. You go over your life, and how you felt about things. You don’t ever tell anybody those secrets, you don’t have to. I think about things that I’ve done in my life that I would never bring up to anybody because it’s too embarrassing, but I know what they are and I use them. The nice thing about writing—it’s the same thing with acting—is you get to tell a lot of secrets, and yet nobody knows. It’s healthy and it makes us less uptight than most people. We’re all probably more neurotic than most people, but we are less uptight and we are probably a little braver, because we’re always hanging out over the edge.

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Arija Bareikis as Sunny Freitag and Paul Rudd as Joe Farkas in Alfred Uhry’s The Last Night of Ballyhoo, directed by Ron Lagomarsino.

PR At the core of everything is being able to understand yourself. And the more you do that the better you can deal with other things. Do you think your next play will have Jewish overtones?

AU I don’t want to do Southern again. Well, I’ve got this musical going on that is another Atlanta Jewish thing about the Leo Frank case, and after that …

PR You’re like Mel Brooks and Tennessee Williams combined into one person …

AU Because it’s Jewish and it’s Southern? I want to write a play about two guys who meet at camp when they’re 12 and go through ‘til they’re 35: what happens to them, how they stay the same and how they don’t. Guy relationships tend to never say what they mean, and it’s interesting to me that in most two people relationships, there’s a pursuer and a pursued. I want to write about that, see what happens. There was some guy stuff in Miss Daisy, but not much. And Mystic Pizza was all girls … . I seem to be the girl expert.

PR Although in Mystic Pizza you have Vincent D’Onofrio.

AU Right. I wrote that scene for him. It was the first movie that I ever wrote. You know, that script existed. I was hired to rewrite it … About 85 percent of it’s mine. Lili Taylor’s character in that movie doesn’t want to get married, she faints at her own wedding. The way they had it at the end of the movie was that she got pregnant so they had to get married. I thought that was such a cop out. I wrote a scene where she keeps wanting to have sex all the time: “Come on, you can come to my house tonight. My parents are away … ” And he says, “I want to get married. I love you, and all you love is my dick.” I thought, they’re never, ever, ever going to keep this. And they did, it’s still in the movie. When I saw it I couldn’t believe it. The look on her face when he says that is just so dynamic. I don’t know what made me think of that, it certainly was not my experience when I was young. (laughter)

Another scene that I wrote, from listening to my daughters, was where Lili Taylor says, “God, I love his wrists. His wrists just turn me on.” I have spoken at high schools and colleges, and girls say to me, “How did you know that?” I just listened to my daughters. Listening is a big part of writing. I don’t know if it is with acting or not …

PR It’s everything, that’s what it’s about.

AU Huge. Writing is listening. I remember the way people sounded. I had an Aunt Coeinne who died when I was about ten. She was the basis of Dana Ivey’s character, Boo. Frankly, I don’t remember her that well, but I remember family stories of what she did. And I could hear her voice—what I think was her voice—although when I got into the play enough I started to hear Dana Ivey’s voice as well. If I’m writing a Southern play and there’s a character Dana’s age—it’s irresistible because I don’t know any finer actress than Dana. Dana knocks the ball out of the park every time. A lot of reviews talk about this cast as one that 30 years from now people will look back on and say, “Wow.” It’s true, there’s not a weak member in the cast. I don’t think I’ve ever worked in a situation quite like this. Part of that’s Ron Lagomarsino, the director.

PR It’s mostly the entire crew from Driving Miss Daisy …

AU It’s Ron, me, Bob Waldman, Dana and the producers, but you know Ron was very helpful with this play. He would call me up periodically over the last ten years and say, “So … ?” I’d say “Yeah, I’m writing a play.” And he would say, “Oh.” I know he was thinking, Bullshit, you’re not writing a play. And so I sent him—he’s the only person except for my wife—most of the first act. And he was very encouraging. It wasn’t phony encouragement, it was real encouragement. I was having trouble knowing how to end the first act, and he said, “Well it comes down to those two cousins doesn’t it? Some sort of a scramble between those girls.” I finally got it to where I wanted it to be. But he prodded me in a very helpful way, never telling me what to do, or even suggesting anything specific. But I know his language.

PR You’ve worked with many of the same people on different projects, Bob Waldman and Bruce Beresford.

AU We have a language. I have worked with directors where I have felt intimidated, which is bad, especially if you’re creating something. I’m sure it’s the same for actors. The best climate is one where you feel free to go wherever you want while you’re rehearsing, knowing that you won’t be judged for it or laughed at. Bruce Beresford’s like that. He makes you feel very soft, like you’re going to grow. He accepts you immediately as a fellow creator on his level. I try to do that too. Certainly, in the case of our play it’s been easy for me to talk to you all about what I think, because I know that you know I like what you do. I don’t give you acting notes ever, do I? I don’t mean to.

PR No, no, not at all. The notes you give me would be if I missed a word, a simple word, like “Up there in Buckhead,” as opposed to “Up in Buckhead.”

AU I would not be a very good director. I wouldn’t be very good at moving actors around. Sitting night after night, day after day, watching the play with Ron, seeing what he reacts to, and what I react to, is very different really. He reacts to light, to movement, and I react to words.

PR How is it making that switch? When you did Daisy on stage you were working with Dana Ivey, and Ron Lagomarsino was directing it. All of a sudden in the film it’s Bruce Beresford and Jessica Tandy?

AU Well, Morgan Freeman had been in the play. I never had to worry about Morgan because I think he understood the play better than I did. So he was there, and that was cool. Jessica I was certainly in awe of as an actress, but she never made any missteps anyway. But I wasn’t in control. The first time I saw the movie was on a little cassette in Bruce’s basement, when it was a rough cut. It was almost hypnotic, very strange. I couldn’t quite … By the time we were previewing it in theaters I was able to give him some fairly good criticisms, I think, most of which he took. The first time I saw rushes for Mystic Pizza, the weirdest experience was that I knew what they were going to say right before they said it, it was all like a joke. But rushes aren’t for writers.

PR Like Broadcast News, that scene with Albert Brooks, “I write it here; it comes out there.” Why did you get involved in writing so late in your life?

AU I was here in New York, trying to be a lyricist writer and not really liking my lyrics very much. I found it very hard and very unrewarding. And I always knew that Sondheim was so much better than me, what was the point? In the back of my mind I had always wanted to write a play, but I didn’t have the guts or the time or the this or the that. I graduated from writing lyrics to writing the book of musicals, which I certainly liked better, and then I wrote Driving Miss Daisy. I got into the movies by writing the play. I had already sold the rights to Miss Daisy, but Sam Goldwyn liked my work and said, “I’ve got a movie I’d like you to write for me. It’s already been written but we don’t like the dialogue.” And he said, “We’d like this movie to be a female version of Diner, with three girls.” I said, “I’m in.” My daughters were then middle-to-late teenagers. And I had gone to Brown University, so I knew the area. It was luck that I got Mystic Pizza. I had never seen a movie script in my life, never. I called up my agent and said, “Oh my God, what do movie scripts look like?” She sent some over to me. I thought, P.O.V.? O.S.? It looked like the Cyrillic alphabet. Woody Allen scripts even, that I loved! And I couldn’t read them. I thought, Oh shit. I really fucked up, because I don’t know what I’m doing. Then I took a deep breath—and I sat down. I didn’t realize I was on spec at the beginning, which I was. It was on the job training. I’ve done two more since. I wouldn’t like to choose between writing plays and writing movies. I like having both. The other dimension is writing musicals. In the case of this musical that I’m working on, I write these scenes and I send them to my young collaborator, Jason Brown. He writes the music and the lyrics and he’s wonderful. He turns my stuff into his numbers, and I love it!

PR You’re actually just writing out the story and he transcribes them and does the book?

AU Yes. He sails right into my wavelength. It’s amazing to me. Amazing! And hell, I love it. It’s less work, I don’t have to do that much. There’s only two or three pages of dialogue before somebody sings something. Do you sing?

PR Poorly. I can get the job done, but it ain’t too pretty.

AU All the music of the Ballyhoo period is so rich and creamy and romantic. Jerome Kern and Gershwin are my favorite composers.

PR Yeah, I’m a big Gershwin fan. My CD player in my dressing room is filled with Gershwin and Cole Porter …

AU Wouldn’t it be fun to live in an age where if you fell in love with a girl, it wasn’t all about getting her into bed?

PR Yeah, the romance with romance …

AU Real romance. It appealed to me enormously. I found it so sexy—in a lovely sense, not in a smarmy sense—to get all cleaned up and put on shaving lotion, put on your best suit, and go pick up this girl that you’re falling head over heels in love with. And she comes down the stairs looking like $50 million and smelling like an angel. And you get to take her to a dance and hold her in your arms, and dance with her to that remarkable music, and you’ve never even kissed her. We’ve talked about the kiss that almost ends the play, being the first kiss that these two have ever shared.

PR I love films about kids and old people, because I think they’re the only two times in your life when you’re really pure. As a kid, you don’t know any better, so you’re you. And when you’re old, you’ve experienced everything so you just don’t give a shit.

AU What do I care? What do I care what people I don’t know think?

PR But you were still having a tough time on opening night.

AU Yeah, but I had this mantra: I’m all right. I still can work, I have jobs, I have money, I’m making a living … But being publicly judged, most people don’t have to be publicly judged.

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Terry Beaver as Adolph Freitag, Jessica Hecht as Lala Levy, Celia Weston as Reba Freitag, Dana Ivey as Boo Levy in Alfred Uhry’s The Last Night of Ballyhoo directed by Ron Lagomarsino.

PR You come out with your first play and you win the Pulitzer Prize. How hard was it to write another play?

AU Real hard. Because I had to just get past: It’s not as good as Driving Miss Daisy. I always will be glad that I did Miss Daisy, so this was the price I had to pay. We all feel, everybody’s going to realize that I’m a fraud, that that was just a lucky break. This is something that plagues us, at least me still, all the time.

PR You always think that the time you’re working is the last time you’re going to work.

AU Yeah. So I managed. If I hadn’t had that commission from the Olympics, I’m afraid I never would have done it. I had to do it. Plus, every time I’d get stuck and I’d be screwing around or not doing something, I’d turn on the television to get a change of pace and they’d be saying, “157 days to the Olympics.” And we opened that very day. But I made several false starts on the play, and I got stuck, and then all of a sudden I heard Lala talking about how she was going to go downtown that night. I heard her voice. And I heard her arguing with her mother about the Christmas tree, and I heard Aunt Reba making some of her interjections. I wanted to suggest in this play that on the periphery there are a lot of frantic people that pressures have driven nuts. In fact, that crazy-in-the-train thing is something my aunt Miriam said when I was a little boy: “Oh look, there’s so-and-so’s grave. Remember? She’s the one who went crazy in the train.” My grandmother said, “Hush.” I said, “What do you mean, crazy in the train?” “Well, she took off all her clothes, and she ran off … “

PR It seems like most of your characters are from your upbringing, your family members.

AU Well, but a lot of it’s me. I wrote my parents’ love story, but clearly I wasn’t there, so I probably wrote my own love story. I don’t know how my father talked to my mother when they were courting, that’s just what I imagine. And your character … Bob Waldman was my friend from Brooklyn who came to Atlanta when we were 19 years old. He was dapper and a good dancer. He was catnip to the ladies, and I didn’t think I was. I wanted to be him. So I certainly wrote his speech patterns. I heard Bob’s voice a lot, but I put my father’s life into his mouth.

PR And then Driving Miss Daisy was your grandmother …

AU That really was my grandmother and her driver.

PR So were you Dan Ackroyd’s character?

AU My grandmother didn’t have any sons, she had my mother. Clearly, all that’s me and my mother. My mother called the other day and said, “Oh I heard it was going to snow in New York.” I said, “Mother, why are you saying that?” “Well, are they going to come to the show?” I said, “Mother, don’t do this.” “Well, I’m just … ” I said, “Mother, we’re not going to talk about this, business is fine. And inevitably, someday the show is going to close, in the far future or whenever it is, and we’re not going to talk about that.” You know, my mother is deeply involved in this thing because it is her story.

PR It was wonderful to meet her.

AU Here’s a picture of my mother in that velvet dress that Sunny wears in the play.

PR Oh wow!

AU Okay, are you ready?

PR I wear this exact same suit!

AU Yes, and it doesn’t un-look like the character you’re playing. It’s my parents going to Bermuda in 1937. My father was about 30. Doesn’t that look like the character you’re playing?

PR Umhum.

AU He was a dapper guy, my father. I do want to write something that has not taken place in my past. I realized once I wrote Miss Daisy that I had a subject that was unique, that nobody else would write about but me, being German Jewish in the South. But I’ve done it enough, I got rid of a lot of stuff in this play. I got to say through Sunny’s mouth that there’s a hole where the Judaism should be. I’ve gotten better about that.

PR Have you felt that writing this play, or writing Driving Miss Daisy has gotten you in touch with religion?

AU This has been therapeutic in a nice way. For the last few years I’ve conducted my own Seders. I’d be embarrassed to have anybody who was a particularly good Jew come to it, but it’s enough … I am getting better about my Judaism, and the fact that I screwed up my children is too bad. I mean, my wife was brought up Episcopalian, so the children were so-called Unitarians; but really they’re not anything. If I had to do it all over again, I would pretend a little bit more to be religious so I could give them some sort of background. I think that’s nice in this world, to have a religious background. You have one.

PR Not so much, not really. I could probably relate to the assimilated Freitags more in this play than Joe.

AU That’s probably because your parents were in a hurry to be Americans like everybody else …

PR Yeah, although not to that extreme. They were definitely proud of their Judaism and I was Bar Mitzvahed. But the first joke in this play really hit home with me: “Jewish Christmas trees don’t have stars.” We had a Santa Claus on top of our Christmas tree, and I always asked, “Why don’t we have a star?”

AU So when you have kids are you going to want them to be Jews?

PR I think so, I do. The woman that I date now is Jewish. Yet, I never, ever thought in high school that that would make a difference to me.

AU And does it?

PR I like the fact that she is. I don’t necessarily subscribe to organized religions, but I think that human beings thrive on ritual. My upbringing, although it wasn’t super-religious, definitely was heavily influenced by Judaism and ritual. And there’s something I like—there’s something in the humor, something in the food. I was one of the people who thought Mr. Saturday Nightwas really funny, I got it.

AU There is something about being Jewish, even as un-Jewish as I was brought up to be, that’s in the marrow of your bones. I’m probably right in saying that if for some reason, you were to have a child and that child would be christened, it would make you feel weird. And alien, and strange. That the two of you say, “Yes, I accept Christ as my true savior,” might really disturb you.

PR It has really nothing to do with Jesus or any of that, it’s simply what?

AU It’s a betrayal. My granddaughter who I love and adore, whose mother, my daughter, is half-Jewish and whose father is one hundred percent Methodist, was baptized. And she did accept Christ as her true savior, and she did take the wafer in her mouth, and it was so upsetting to me. I thought, Oh, it’s my own stupid fault. I felt so strange sitting in that church, I just felt embarrassed. Not for her, but for me. I felt like I had betrayed my heritage. But I liked the minister. My granddaughter was five or six years old, and she said, “Listen, I’m thinking about this. I’ll do it, but you know, I may want to be Jewish.” He said, “You can change your mind later on, it doesn’t matter.” I thought that was great. (laughter)

I think there’s something in the characters of Ballyhoo, in Lala and in Sunny, that in spite of themselves is inherently Jewish, and that’s why none of those people tried to change their names or pass themselves off as something they weren’t. They just didn’t want to be very Jewish. And I guess what I’ve come to realize is, either you’re Jewish or you’re not Jewish. If you’re Jewish, you’re very Jewish to the rest of the world, so you might as well be. I was able to put in your character’s mouth all that good stuff that I wish I’d believe in, like, “I guess being Jewish is being Jewish.” It took me a long time to come to that.

Paul Rudd can be seen in his Broadway debut as Joe Farkas in Alfred Uhry’s The Last Night of Ballyhoo. He is in three feature films scheduled to be released this year: The Size of WatermelonsOvernight Delivery and The Locusts. He has played Percy Bysshe Shelley in Howard Brenton’s Bloody Poetry, at the Globe Theatre in Los Angeles; “Kirby” on the television series “Sisters”; and has appeared in the films Clueless and Romeo and Juliet.

Annie Baker by Elianna Kan
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Robert Schenkkan by Stuart Spencer
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Robert Shenkkan talks to Stuart Spencer about his nine-play, six-hour epic The Kentucky Cycle, which won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Nilo Cruz by Emily Mann
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Nilo Cruz and I recently found an hour to sit down with a tape recorder in my office at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey.

Jon Robin Baitz by Stephen Gaghan
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Robbie Baitz is a little bit of a communist in the way that Tolstoy was a little bit of a communist. He is fascinated by the backside of power and, I believe, could be as precise and loquacious in ripping Napoleon a new one as Count Leo ever was. 

Originally published in

BOMB 60, Summer 1997

Featuring interviews with Barry Le Va, Jane Dickson, John Lee Anderson, Lydia Davis, Judy Davis, Peter Greenaway, Roger Guenveur Smith, David Del Tredici, Alfred Uhry, and David Armstrong.

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