But in order to be the thing you want to be, you have to work like a dog at the thing you love. . . . Being catapulted is easy, and landing once on your feet is easy. Staying on your feet is hard and difficult for anybody in any profession and certainly in acting.
What helped me most were my failures and slumps--when I couldn't get work, people weren't interested in me or had written me off. It happens to every actor. I freely admit I have had very bad periods in my career, when I thought people maybe just didn't want what I have. The only thing you have then to believe in is your craft.
Q: What first drew you to that craft?
A: It was a way of expressing myself that was unavailable to me in life. If you're lucky as you get older, you respect the craft and it becomes a skill. You start acting in spite of your neuroses, not because of them.
I was always a loner, and it was a way of belonging somehow. One of the safest places to be in the world is the stage. You know the parameters, the rules and the length of time you will be there. Within that framework, you are able to fly and soar and do many things your imagination dictates. It is structured abandon, and where can you get that in life?
Q: Did you feel that sort of freedom playing the Doge of Venice?
A: (Director) Bob Ackerman sent "Scenes From an Execution" to me, (and at first) I felt the play on the page was dry. I didn't think it could be brought to life in the kind of visceral way I like to act. I went and had lunch with Bob and he saw my character as a very passionate, excitable man--his name \o7 is \f7 Urgentino--who passionately wanted great art but was also the victim of his position.
Q: You've said you play Urgentino as passionate only some of the time and subdued on other nights.
A: There is no right in acting. I watch actors destroy themselves by trying to get it right. There isn't any right. It's a living, breathing thing, acting. It's a movable feast. It changes, and you change. The idea that you should come into the theater every night and go out on the stage to reproduce what you did before is utterly absurd.
I've always loved investigating as an actor, but now I feel very strongly that it's just death to an artist not to. But I want to be very clear--I have a lot of technique in my pocket as an actor. I don't mean you go out there every night and just say, "Oh, well, when I came into the theater today, I was in the mood to play it with a German accent." That's bull----. I don't mean that.
Within the framework of the piece and respect to your colleagues and respect for the director's ideas, you have this wonderful human being to play with every night and to bring on in different ways.
The thing about acting in the theater for me is if you're not dangerous, if you're not courageous, if you don't think you have the right to be up there, get the hell off the stage.
Q: Can you also be dangerous that way in film?
A: I tried to in my last three pictures--"Dave," "Body of Evidence" and Ridley Scott's "1492." On "Dave," whenever Ivan would yell, "Cut," my whole take on it would be, "OK, he's printing it, he likes it, let's see what else I can do." Not, as it used to be when I was a younger actor--"how can I reproduce it?"
What I just did is in the camera. The lens got it. It's there forever. If Ivan wants take six, Ivan is going to print it up and put it in the movie. \o7 But \f7 maybe on take nine, I might do something wildly, wonderfully different and free, that he never thought of and I never thought of.
Q: Reitman says you mentioned at your audition that you were playing Bob Alexander as the devil, and Variety called your Alexander "so smarmy it would do John Sununu proud." Where did that portrayal come from?
A: I once saw a politician say, at a press conference, "I'm in charge here"--when in fact he wasn't--and I never forgot it. What I saw was someone whose need for power was so great, and I just stored it in my brain. When this part came along, it all came flooding back to me.
Q: Both Urgentino and Bob Alexander are more mature, less romantic roles for you. You have no desire to try to stop time?
A: One of the most difficult things for an actor to do who has grown old in front of the public is to change with dignity while giving up things for which you were initially loved. I began as a juvenile--a young leading man with a full head of dark hair, very thin, romantic, a passionate-poet type. Then I went into my leading man years, which certainly went on for a long time.
Q: When did they stop?
A: I played Valmont (in "Les Liaisons Dangereuses") five years ago at the Ahmanson, and in a way, it was the last romantic leading man I played.
I always tried to be ahead of Father Time. I tried to say, "You're in your 50s now--start playing roles that are older." Urgentino could be any age. He could be 40. He could be 70. I play him as me, as I look now.