If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.
Darrell Larson is an actor, director, and poet. He is an active member of the board of the MET Theatre in Hollywood, an “artist-friendly theater free from all internal censorship.” Last season at the MET, Larson directed an award-winning production of Scar by Murray Mednick, starring Ed Harris. Larson is the creator and producer of the MET’s Great Writers Series, a weekly reading of fiction by authors William Styron, Denis Johnson, James Ellroy, James Shapiro and Peter Matthiessen, and actors Paul Winfield, Amy Madigan, Arliss Howard, Alfre Woodard among countless others. The series is broadcast on NPR. As co-director of The Poetry Society of America, Larson has also produced monthly poetry readings at the Chateau Marmont featuring an actor and a poet: James Merrill with Tim Curry, Amy Gerstler with Michael Ontkean, Galway Kinnell with Dana Delany, and Sharon Olds with himself. As an actor in films, Larson is perhaps best known for his performance in the James Bridges’s film, Mike’s Murder. Last fall, he made his New York debut directing and acting in Dog Logic at the American Place Theatre. He has collaborated many times with Rob Sullivan, most recently on The Night Song of Montgomery Clift.
Darrell Larson Robert Bly said that the father wounds the son. That really disturbed me. I certainly saw how my father wounded me. But I don’t want to participate in that.
Rob Sullivan You mean participate in wounding your own children?
RS There’s no choice, though.
DL No, and the other part of the equation is out of the wound comes the son’s creativity. Which is fascinating, when you think about it. Robert Bly told this story about a samurai whose master is murdered. The samurai is honor bound to track down the murderer and kill him. So he spends a couple of years, tracking this guy down. He finds him, goes into his house, and is about to hack his head off when the guy spits on him. So he puts his sword back into his sheath and walks out because that blow cannot be delivered in anger. Of course, if you have some ego investment in the wound then it’s immeasurably worse. And destructive.
RS You mean ego invested as the father?
DL Yeah. It’s about your power over your son. Which is narcissistic parenting—and directing. As an actor, I’ve had narcissistic directors. To me, the director is there to know the story and use everything: the actors, the whole panoply of tools, to tell the story as clearly as possible. Some directors go into that whole activity about who’s in charge, so then it’s dead. The work gets all confused. And you start giving a performance that is against what he’s insisting upon.
RS To defy him.
DL Just to be a person! Just to be an individual!
RS I thought you were going to talk about how a blow will sometimes wake you up. Like the other day, John Deal, who’s directing a play, called and he said, “There’s this one guy and he’s really just screwing up the whole thing.” I just said, “Fire him.” John said, “Really? You really think I really should?” I said, “Man, he’s fucking you up, you’ve got to fire him right now. Don’t even think about it.” And I said, “You know, it’ll probably help him.” And he said, “I don’t think it’s going to help this guy.” (laughter)
DL But that’s not your responsibility.
RS No, it’s not. But I was fired from a play once. It was terrible at the time, but looking back on it, it really helped me.
DL I must say, having just gone through firing somebody, being the person giving the blow, releasing this person who is trapped…
RS It felt good?
DL (laughter) No, it was agony. It felt good because I was taking over the role. That was the complex thing about it, and that’s what I love—contradictory situations. That’s the normal human state, really. But it makes us so uncomfortable that we deny whatever half is really bugging us.
RS Samuel Beckett was directing one of his plays, and this guy came up to him and said, “What does this line mean?” And Beckett looked at him with this burlish frown and said, “Look, it’s a poem, you read.” Which really made me feel good because sometimes my stuff is ambiguous and people try to pin it down. It really infuriates me.
DL Well, the push in the culture, especially in show business, is to be one thing or another. That’s always been my struggle. Are you a director? Are you an actor? As if they are separate activities. Are you a writer, are you an actor, Rob? What the fuck are you? (laughter) You see, I don’t think people want the options. They don’t want it in their daily lives. That’s the big taboo: ambivalence. That’s what Freud said, and that was Monty’s big cross.
RS Do you still find yourself being forced to make that decision: am I an actor, am I a director?
DL Partly. It’s a question of time. Opportunities present themselves and I take advantage of them. I go with what is available to me. As an actor or as a director. But acting is very disempowering, whereas directing…part of acting is assessing what you actually sound like and then using that. You have to have a clear view of what you are presenting. In other words, the proper perspective on this is objectivity. Unless you can contain that sense of yourself, you are lost.
RS Are you talking as just an actor?
DL Just as a person…I’m not talking about an emotional coldness. In fact, you can be emotionally hotter. If you have some sort of objective sense.
RS A lot of that is having a sense of humor. But the insecurities are always gonna be part of it.
DL And they should be. The beauty and the sadness. It’s not a question of trying to eliminate the pain. It’s getting an objective view of where it falls in the picture. But not so that next time no pain happens.
RS Yeah, right, that would be a real illusion.
DL And that is what people do. One of the things I’ve been thinking about in teaching in this course—it’s called How to Talk to Actors….
RS At the American Film Institute?
DL Yeah, the first year Fellows at AFI—I’ve been thinking about what prevents us from being direct with each other, with ourselves. In writing, I find that a lot. I find that a lot of my poems are so fucking obscure. I read them a year later and say, “What is this?” This is about nothing, but avoidance of whatever was driving me to write a poem.
RS Well, unfortunately, a lot of poetry kind of promotes that.
DL I mean, I love the idea of setting up a code—
RS As long as it’s not impenetrable.
DL Exactly, exactly. That’s fun. I like breaking the code of a poem, but I better feel that there is something to find. And that’s the problem with some poetry.
RS That’s what I resent about a lot of art, especially poetry and theatre.
DL Deliberate obfuscation.
RS Yeah, that really bugs me.
DL ‘Cause then you feel like you’ve just been diddled.
RS It creates a cultural elite, which I don’t think is helpful.
DL But I think the greatest poets—Galway Kinnell, Mark Strand, Sharon Olds, James Merrill—whereas you might have some trouble penetrating the poem at first, have no choice but to write this way. If you feel like the person is not sincere in their quest, then that’s where you feel betrayed.
RS I got up last night at like three in the morning, and I was reading some William Carlos Williams and it was beautifully obscure and beautifully clear at the same time.
DL “They came/to eat from his hand/who had nothing/and yet/from his plenty/he fed them all.”
RS That’s not the one. What is that?
DL The Mental Hospital Garden, by William Carlos Williams. But it illustrates the point … it goes back to the taboo of ambivalence. People are so anxious when confronted with their own ambivalence that it scrambles the signal and then you can’t interrupt. You can’t speak directly because you’re ambivalent about your own anger. You have no right to it and yet it’s you.
RS Yeah, well, this town—twenty-five words or less, what’s your story? Not all stories are like that.
DL Maybe they should be.
RS Maybe they should be? Definable that easily?
DL It’s really hard to break something down that far, to break something down that purely. Because we’re afraid of getting that far down. It’s too direct. When you get down to really clear things, you’re put in the place of ambivalence and that’s what you don’t want. When you get down to real fundamentals, the natural ambivalence you live with is clarified, is undermined. So we avoid it by pretending that the ambiguity isn’t there, by making it intricate instead of clear, by talking around it in a certain way, by staying in the ambivalence and never recognizing it. Never acknowledging it.
RS One of the rules in magic is, if it’s obvious, people won’t see it. Maybe that’s part of not recognizing the ambivalence. What is that other word you were running into, ambition?
DL Researching Richard III, the Latin root for ambition displayed itself to me: ambitio. It means literally, “going around,” but it came to mean “being what you are not,” striving to be what you are not, which of course you cannot do. That’s why it’s a flaw. Ambition. Now it’s lost it’s perjorativeness, in a certain way. If you don’t have ambition, you’re a clod, you’re a passive jerk. Really what it’s about is trying to become something you are not. It’s a trap. A self-designed trap.
RS I sort of feel that my ambition is soaring so far ahead of me I can’t catch up to it.
DL For me, it’s an overabundance of notions.
RS Well, you have a very active mind.
DL That’s the problem. I have so many projects or notions for projects. Suddenly, I’m on the radio, I’ve got this reading series over here, this reading series over there, I’m teaching, John Binder and I are making a play out of David Harris’s book Dreams Die Hard, I want to do an opera about Artemisia Gentileschi, I keep reading excellent new plays. I’m dying to do your play, Playing Rob’s Dick, I want to keep doing the Monty piece, I’ve vowed to get in five films this year—who knows what else?
RS Do you feel comfortable with that?
DL I feel torn and frayed by it. I feel energized by it. I feel trapped by it. I feel that it’s inevitable.
Rob Sullivan’s The Inn of the Mortal Man enjoyed a successful run at the MET Theatre. His writing has appeared in the LA Times, The Village Voice, Between C and D, LA Style and Los Angeles Magazine. As an actor, he has appeared in The Bodyguard, No Way Out, and Michael Mann’s TV film, Drug Wars.
If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.