I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Victor Garber and Alfred Molina are appearing together with Alan Alda in Yasmina Reza’s play ART. They play three old friends who devote themselves to raising each other’s hackles after one of them spends what seems like an inordinate sum on a piece of modern art. The play ran in London with Albert Finney, Tom Courtney, and Ken Stott. The director of that production, Matthew Warchus, is also directing the New York premier. American actor, Victor Garber, is a four-time Tony nominee for Damn Yankees, Lend Me a Tenor, Little Me, and Deathtrap. He received the Obie and the Helen Hayes Award for his performance in Wencelas Square. His other credits include: Macbeth at the Old Globe Theater, Two Shakespearean Actors, Arcadia, Sweeney Todd, Noises Off, Assassins, You Never Can Tell, and The Devil’s Disciple. His film credits include Titanic, The First Wives Club, Exotica, Light Sleeper, Sleepless in Seattle, and Godspell.
Canadian-born and London-based actor, Alfred Molina has appeared in Serious Money at the Royal Court Theatre, Speed the Plow at the Royal National Theatre, for which he received an Olivier nomination, as well as Night of the Iguana, Taming of the Shrew with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and Molly Sweeney . His film works include Not Without My Daughter, Anna Karenina, Prick Up Your Ears, Enchanted April, Maverick, The Perez Family, and Boogie Nights. It was suggested to Messieurs Garber and Molina that this interview take the form of a conversation between two old hands in their profession. After the tears had dried and the wailing ceased—being the skilled and experienced actors they are—they managed to deliver a credible portrait of two guys from either side of the Atlantic sitting on a couch discussing the pursuit of their common livelihood. The couch in question was located in the capacious rehearsal space in the far western reaches of Chelsea where they were preparing for ART.
Mark Magill If you could ask each other anything you wanted about acting, what would it be?
Alfred Molina Victor, I’d be very interested to know how it feels when you act.
Victor Garber It feels like I inhabit my entire body. I don’t feel comfortable most of the time in my life, but when I’ve hit the right notes in a play or a musical, or even in a film, I’m in my body in a complete way. It feels full, satisfying.
AM It’s not a casual question, because I’ve been acting for 25 years and I still don’t know. Every performance feels like something is missing. If it’s a movie, I go and see it a year or five years after I’ve done it, and I think: Oh shit, I missed this; I could have done that, why did I do this? And every night I come off the stage—I can feel excited and elated if the audience has been great, you get high on the love, the approbation—but I always come off worried that I’ve completely missed an opportunity.
VG I’m much more forgiving of myself. I don’t expect everything to be perfect. I assume that it’s going to be flawed, but I do the best I can and that has to be good enough. But you know, that’s years of therapy.
AM Maybe I should start therapy. I’ve never been.
VG I wouldn’t do that if I were you, no. You don’t need therapy, you’re too healthy. Certainly working with you, you seem to me to have fun.
AM Oh yeah, I have a lot of fun. I’ve always had fun, because I love my job. But when I walk off the stage, it’s this nagging sensation that somehow I’m just really getting away with it. Any minute now I’m going to get found out.
VG That’s a very common feeling for a lot of actors. It’s odd, because on stage you give the impression of being so masterful and completely confident about what you’re doing. I guess that’s why they call it acting.
AM That’s exactly why they call it acting! Years and years ago, when I was a very young actor, it was Simon Callar who once said to me that having talent was never enough. What you had to have was the talent to use the talent. When I heard him say that, I really took it to heart.
VG It’s not like you’re scrounging around trying to find work…
AM Oh no, this is why it’s so irrational, so meaningless in a way. It has nothing to do with whether you can make a living or not, it’s a personal sense of not really getting to the center of it. Actors are always talking about getting into the heart of things. All the jargon we use in rehearsal, it’s all about getting inside. We talk about going underneath, getting to the center, and I just feel like I’m always bouncing around the periphery. Do you ever come away thinking, “Yeah, I nailed that one tonight?”
VG Not specifically, but sometimes I come off thinking, “That was okay. That was good.”
AM And that’s good enough for you, isn’t it? (laughter)
VG Yeah, thank you very much. I’ve made a living. It’s off the stage that I have that feeling of inadequacy. For me, acting has always been kinder, because it’s a controlled environment. The known parameters are much stronger, and I feel much more confident.
AM I’ve got a question for you then. Do you think actors are artists, or craftspersons?
VG Both… Do you?
AM I have no idea. That’s why I was asking the question.
VG You have to have craft to be an actor, it’s a combination of talent and craft, not just anybody can get up on the stage and play a part.
AM If I had to really jump one way or the other, I’d say it’s more to do with craft than it is to do with art. What we do is a craft which is sometimes illuminated by moments of real inspiration.
VG I’ll go with that one. What actors have inspired you?
AM Anthony Hopkins…
VG Me too.
AM DeNiro, Hepburn, Mirren… When I was still at school in London, every semester we’d go to the Old Vic, where the National Theatre used to be. We’d watch two weekday matinees within the repertoire. And I remember seeing a production of A Woman Killed with Kindness. Tony Hopkins was playing the lead. And it was the first time I’d seen a play where an actor on stage looked like a real person; Hopkins walked around looking like an ordinary guy. And I thought, Oh, I could do this, this is available to me—I’d always thought of actors as rather exotic, cultured creatures, sort of hothouse flowers. For a long time, especially in Europe, actors were essentially middle-class. If you were working class, that’s all you played, servants. Then along comes Tony Hopkins who looks like an ordinary guy struggling heroically with something very real. And I’ve never forgotten that. Who inspired you?
VG Bryan Bedford. I used to go to Stratford, Ontario. He was one of the first actors I thought was really amazing. People ask me, “Do you have a favorite role, do you have a favorite part?” I don’t. It’s the same with actors, there are moments in many different people’s performances that are breathtaking and inspiring.
Is there a discernible difference in the way English actors work, as opposed to American actors?
AM I used to think there must be a difference, because we have different cultural references, different energy. But ultimately, where it really counts, there are less differences than we think. We’d like to imagine that the differences are enormous, but that’s a defense mechanism. For instance, English actors like to imagine, and I’m speaking generally, that American actors are over-obsessive
AM No, not sentimental. We often think that some of the product is sentimental, particularly a lot of American T.V. If I see one more scene where the leading man and the leading lady kiss, and everyone in the room starts applauding…please! But at the same time, American actors almost single-handedly redefined film acting as we know it now. In the ‘40s and the ’50s, the Method was, in a sense, invented for film. American actors seem to be in touch with their emotional lives, they can tap into it on a dime: anger, pain, any kind of big, high emotion—American actors absolutely nail it. British actors tend to skirt around it a bit and sneak up on it from behind. We get there, but it’s more circuitous.
VG Still, American theater people have a reverence for English actors when they come over here.
AM I do hope you’re right. (laughter)
VG It’s absolutely true. The joke is if an English play comes over in May, you can just dust the Tonys off and give ‘em to them. I’ve always loved English actors, and I haven’t really felt that they were less at the core of things. I thought Nicholas Nickelby was one of the most heartfelt and emotional pieces I had ever seen.
AM We get there but we take different routes. Also, a big part of the British way of working has to do with humor. We play this game of not taking what we do totally seriously. We joke in a way that’s self-deprecating. If there’s any expectation that we’re going to get a bit serious about ourselves, we’re quick to deflect or puncture it. One thing I’ve noticed—this production is an exception—I have the feeling that English actors laugh more. We send ourselves up.
VG That’s always been my way of approaching things as well, I can’t bear it if no one laughs. But it depends on the play, the mix, the director. You know, who sets the tone, the leading actors and all that. I’ve actually had a lot of laughs in shows and rehearsals. Humor humanizes everyone. It takes everyone to the same place. We’re certainly laughing in this play.
AM Yeah, acting’s such a peculiar thing. There’s a small, little voice in me saying, “This is no way for a grown man to make a living.” Somehow there is something ludicrous about it. I’ve always had this fantasy in my head of my daughter as a little girl saying, “Dad, what did you do at work today?” And me trying to describe a rehearsal, “Well, I was in a room with two other men, and we pretended to be other people. And we kept saying the same thing to each other over and over again.” It’s like trying to explain the rules of cricket to someone who isn’t English. You end up in this Louis Carroll world. It’s completely bizarre.
VG Did you ever want to be anything else but an actor?
AM Yeah, I fancied the idea of being a hairdresser once. I thought hairdressing seemed like a nice, soft option. My mother told me that when I was nine years old, I didn’t say I wanted to be an actor, I said I wanted to be a film star. I had just seen Spartacus and I thought: Yeah, that’s for me. My parents laughed. They still laugh to a certain extent. I had no idea what was involved or what were the requirements. Did you?
VG I wanted to be an actor as far back as I can remember. It was the only thing I ever felt I could do. The only thing I ever wanted to do.
AM Did you get support from your family?
VG Somewhat. They were nervous, but I left home when I was 16, I went off to be a singer. Acting came later, but I have never felt like I could do anything else. I have a friend, a well-known actor from Yugoslavia who got political asylum and moved to America. He had done very well over there, and he’s now living in Minneapolis and trying to make his way. After five years, he’s starting to get back into acting. But if I had to leave New York and go to a foreign country, honestly, I’d have to do a menial job, because there’s nothing else. I can’t imagine what else I would do. It’s scary.
AM But you’ve always earned your living this way…
VG Pretty much. I worked delivering newspapers when I was 16. And washed dishes…
AM But since you started acting?
VG No. I’ve been very lucky.
AM I had to work in a mortuary for about six months. I’ve had stretches where I’ve had to do odd jobs. I’ve done the waiter/barman thing. I get quite nostalgic about it now, it’s peculiar. At the time I hated it, hated it. Especially after I’d just finished an acting job and then I’d have to go back and start waiting tables again. It was very disheartening. Particularly when the only place you could go back to was the place you had left, and you had made this wonderful gesture, “You can keep your fucking lousy job, I’m going to repertory!” You storm out, you do your little play for three months, then you’re back again, “Hi, can I take you through the specials?” I did that a few times. It’s very, very humiliating. But now, I think about the camaraderie. I had one waiter’s job where four of the staff were out-of-work actors. And it was such a bond, we really cared for and loved each other, because we understood what that feeling was like. (There was a moment’s pause in the conversation. At this point both actors turned expectantly toward the conversation’s moderator as the light began to fade across the Hudson.)
MM Victor, Alfred, I have one question: In Hamlet there are a couple of pages of advice to the actors, I’d guess you’d call them notes nowadays. Could we turn that around. What if the actors could give notes to the director…?
VG I’d give notes to the audience first: Don’t talk, we can hear you. These people were sitting in front of Alfred and me at the David Mamet play the other night, having a conversation, commenting on what was going on, as if nobody could hear them.
AM The guy in front of us turns around to his date and says, “Now, that’s a Chicago accent…” And started explaining the peculiarities of a Chicago accent—what made it different from a New York accent—as if they were home in front of the telly.
VG I find the audience’s unwillingness to participate in the experience disconcerting and alarming sometimes. We seem to have lost the ability to sit, and listen, and respond in a way that is primal and important.
AM Playwrights are responding to that as well, plays seem to be getting shorter. Mamet’s new play is an hour and a half; our play, ART, is just under an hour and a half—without an interval. Knowing audiences get restless, you don’t want to give them a chance to sink a couple of martinis at intermission and come back and fall asleep. When you think of the plays that Arthur Miller was writing in his heyday, and Tennessee Williams, and in England, Terrence Rattigan, those plays took their time. A play was an evening. You went on this journey, and hopefully, you had interesting people saying interesting things in an interesting way. But now—and we’re all guilty of it, we’re all affected by the same forces—we’re all surfing with our remotes. I read a great deal, but I can’t remember the last time I sat down and properly read a book, read a hundred pages in one go, which years ago I used to do.
VG I was sitting at home having dinner with a friend the other night. He is writing the obituary of a friend of ours who has passed away. So he has been looking for letters from this guy, and in the process found seven letters that I had written to him. They were full, three-page-long, handwritten letters. And I thought, I can’t remember the last time I actually wrote a letter. Not to sound like I’m from the 19th century, but I do think that that’s really bad.
AM There’s a great deal of evidence to support the theory that you do come from the 19th century. (laughter)
VG I don’t have a fax machine, it’s true. But I do worry that audiences don’t know how to listen. They don’t know how to absorb remotely complicated things. I was in Tom Stoppard’s, Arcadia; it was a difficult play, and Stoppard is a demanding writer. I went over to England to see his last play, The Invention of Love, which was an amazing play, but I thought: Don’t bring it here, because audiences won’t get it, they won’t want to even make the attempt. One of the reasons ART is so successful is because it’s quickly accessible on a lot of levels. It’s immediately engaging and funny or thought-provoking, and it’s very quick moving. It strikes me that we’re into a different world now with theater.
AM I worry that theater’s going to become a museum piece. There’s going to be a few centers of excellence: The Lincoln Center, the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Moscow Arts Theatre, the Comédie-Française in Paris, places like that. There’s going to be a huge amount of resources plugged into those centers of excellence, and that’s where you’re going to see classical plays or the odd, new play; but it’s only going to happen there. This broad, network of theaters around England is disappearing rather quickly. Theater is becoming institutionalized. There’s no room for experimentation, or new voices, because very often those huge centers are reliant on money from private sources, and that has an affect on what gets done there. That would be my note. My note wouldn’t be to the directors or to the audience, my note would be to the people who facilitate theater, people who can make theater happen. Angels and investors: Be brave. Be provocative, be dangerous, be challenging, that way we’ll keep this little part of our culture alive. I’m a great believer in the saying, “You give them the third rate and they’ll want the third rate.”
MM What kind of influences do you all find in your work, aside from theater acting? Say, I’m a writer, but I look at painting a lot. Is there another source for you?
VG My influences are people. There are so many people in my life who inspire me and influence me in the way I think and the way I respond to things. It’s such a wide spectrum of different kinds of people. That’s really what I think I do most: Have dinner.
AM You are the Dominick Dunne of your generation. (laughter)
VG Oh Jesus! Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
AM That’s what he does, Dominick Dunne makes a living—well, since he stopped being a producer.
VG He writes books.
AM Yes, but he gets all of his subject matter, all of his information, from going out every night. His life seems to be composed of dinners and very high-end, upmarket gossip. Which I’m not criticizing, I think it’s fabulous. I could live his life quite easily. I’ve just been reading his book, Another Scene Not my Own — it’s an upper class, trashy novel. It’s barely a novel. He’s changed his name and his family’s name, but that’s about it. And I should think if half of it is true, then this is great: It’s the life of Riley. He’s having dinner with Lord and Lady Fuckface one night, he’s having dinner with some ex-con the next, and they’ve all got something fascinating to say.
There’s always a half hour period when you arrive for rehearsal, a very nice moment when it’s like a knitting circle. You catch up with the gossip. It’s like the village green—”Oh, I went out to dinner last night. I met up with so-and-so. I went to see this movie…” And to an outside observer, it might look like we’re just shooting the shit, slowly gearing ourselves up to work, but in a funny way, it’s actually part of the rehearsal. We’re familiarizing ourselves with… Victor, you’re looking at me as if I’m talking complete rubbish.
VG “There’s that look again.”
AM It’s the Garber glare, “What the fuck is he talking about?” That gossip is part of the rehearsal isn’t it?
VG It is, and I also think it’s particularly true of this play. ART is a three character play, it’s about friends and it’s important to have that connection. But I think generally that’s true of any play.
AM You build these bonds
VG However shallow they are.
AM There’s a lot more to shallowness than meets the eye. You have to create these intimacies, which can be terribly intense, but all of us that are involved in it understand why it’s happening. We’re all keen participants. No one jumps up and says, “Why are you being so friendly? I hardly know you.” You assume the most amazing intimacy. You find actors who have known each other for three days spilling the beans on problems in their marriages, or their private lives, as if they were talking to their closest friends. And I suppose it might well be in one ear and out the other, but it performs a very important function. You must create that intimacy.
VG This play, ART, particularly, demands it. The fact is the play can close, and you might not speak to that actor ever again. That’s happened to me, I’ve been very close to somebody in a play and then years go by.
AM Yeah, that’s one of the things that’s really peculiar.
VG It is, and I’m used to it. When a play is over, I slip out. I’m not very good at dealing with the separation anxiety, as they call it.
AM Separation anxiety? Is that a therapeutic term?
VG I think so.
AM What, getting anxious about being separated?
VG Yes. People say that towards the end of a run, certain tempers will flare up, or people will get uneasy. Because you’ve been together for this length of time, and now it’s ending.
AM Is that why my wife and I always have a row when I’m about to leave to do a job?
VG Yes. Can you give me $25 for that?
AM I wish you had told me this at the beginning of the conversation. I would have been much more honest. And you could have made some money.
VG I’ve detected some serious problems you have, which we’ll talk about another time. (laughter) And I will charge you for that. But no, that’s what interests me: People, and why they do what they do.
AM So when you work on a character, do you approach it from an analytical point of view?
VG Instinctively I do, I don’t sit and say, “Oh his mother didn’t like him, or his mother abused him, and so he’s doing this,” but all of my instincts and the way I respond to things definitely have a psychological foundation.
AM It’s a cliché now, but I often think acting is like therapy. Just the release you get in terms of being able to step outside yourself. The great thing about acting is that you can behave in the most outrageous way: badly, atrociously, violently, beautifully; whatever adjective you want, and it’s all within a safe environment. You have a license to do it. And sometimes it can be fantastic, if you’re shameless, like I am, and you’re not afraid of—I plunder my memory and my private self shamelessly to get me wherever I have to get in a performance. I used to feel really guilty about that but I don’t anymore.
VG But that’s the luxury of acting, to be able to use all that stuff in a focused, positive way. It forges the luxury of really knowing who you are, and why. What makes you tick.
AM Unlike therapy, we get paid to do it, instead of having to pay someone else.
VG Yeah, you’re right.
AM I thought I tied that up rather nicely. (laughter)
Mark Magill is a screenwriter. His film Waiting for the Moon won first prize for feature films at the Sundance Film Festival. He is currently at work on Faith & Credit and A Month of Sundays with director Charles Burnett.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee