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The Sunday Conversation: Gary Cole of 'Superior Donuts'

Actor Gary Cole talks about playwright Tracy Letts, his Steppenwolf days and Larry David.

May 29, 2011|Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Actor Gary Cole at the rehearsing set for "Superior Donuts" at the Geffen Playhouse.
Actor Gary Cole at the rehearsing set for "Superior Donuts"… (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los…)

TV and film actor Gary Cole, 54, returns to his stage roots in the Geffen Playhouse production of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts' dark comedy "Superior Donuts," which begins performances Tuesday and runs through July 10.

Let's talk about Steppenwolf since that's where "Superior Donuts" started, and you and Tracy Letts and Geffen Artistic Director Randall Arney, who directed this production, all go back to Steppenwolf.

I was officially a member in '86, but my first show there was in 1978. I worked at the theater a number of times before I was officially a member of the company. So my first show was officially two years after they got started in Chicago, which was '76.

These seem to be lifelong relationships. What keeps pulling you back?

That's a pretty potent combination, working with people you've known forever and you really respect, and the work seems to be consistently on a high level. As you move through your career, you know that that's not always the case. So you treasure that circumstance.

Is there a common Steppenwolf sensibility that you could describe?

Steppenwolf garnered a lot of attention outside Chicago starting with "True West," the Sam Shepard play in the early '80s, which was a very physically violent, loud, very wild and raw play. But that wasn't really all that Steppenwolf was doing. I think what Steppenwolf had was a variety of people who were really versatile actors and actors who were directors, which I think was significant. They were able to do many things well, all different kinds of material well. The work had to do with [being] a unit as opposed to people working in a solo way next to somebody else, and with that in mind, [the company] chose a lot of plays that required many people onstage at the same time, talking at the same time and having to move as a unit. If it's not done well, it can be chaotic and off-putting, but if it works, it's something unusual that I think audiences really respond to.

How long have you known Tracy, and what about his writing resonates with you? Is this just your second play with him after "August: Osage County"?

Years ago, I almost did "Killer Joe" in New York, but I couldn't for showbiz reasons. I met Tracy in 1993, which was when I saw the first production of "Killer Joe" in Evanston, north of Chicago, in a tiny, little, it wasn't even a theater — it was just a room with 40 seats in it. And the play was over, and I said, "Oh my God, who is this guy? He's the next Sam Shepard." Because I hadn't seen anything that original in a while, but equally, that dangerous. One thing I would say about him is all these plays are really different from each other, and that's a very significant achievement.

"Superior Donuts" is almost the opposite of "August" in some ways. Dare I use the word "sentimental"?

Well, sure, but that's what we have to fight against. It's full of warmth and nostalgia and a longing for something, but I think that there's darkness there too and I think in this production, we're trying to lean into that as well.

Do you know anyone like your character, Arthur, the aging hippie doughnut shop owner who went to Canada in his youth to evade the draft?

No. Over the years I've run into guys who lied, who pulled the gay card at the draft board, guys who were straight. But I don't think that I actually had a conversation with anybody that went north to Canada, not that they admitted anyway. Even if the claim is purely political, no matter the reason or cause, there is still undeniable — whether it's justified or not — guilt. In Tracy's experience, he has run into several people, and apparently that's what provoked him to write the play, this experience, 60-year-old guys, it really haunted them, whether they went or not, whether they went to Canada, whatever the situation was, it still lingers in their life. It's a wound that isn't easily fixed.

I'd say dark comedy is certainly your forte. You achieved cult status as Bill Lumbergh in "Office Space." How did you know you had achieved cult status?

It took a few years before everyone in the movie started to figure out that this movie wasn't a failure. Because that's what we thought. This was 1999 when the movie opened, so the Internet, DVDs, rentals, it wasn't like it just had started but it was kind of a new frontier. And the movie came and went, like a lot of movies do. It wasn't a gigantic failure because it didn't cost anything to make. But then a year went by and people would come up to me and start doing the dialogue from the movie, and I was kind of surprised. It became this underground success, mainly because it was a culture that is huge in the United States, this office culture, which I didn't really connect to because all the other jobs I had before I was an actor were all service jobs, or blue-collar jobs, like I was a bartender. I had absolutely no white-collar skills at all — I couldn't type, I couldn't do anything — so I never got near an office, so I had no idea.

I read that you're making a guest appearance on the new season of "True Blood."

I am. All I can tell you is that I am connected to Suki in some way. I'll be in the opening episode. That's June 26.

And then I'll be in my favorite show on television, which is "Curb Your Enthusiasm." Also their opening episode, July 10. I play an acquaintance of Larry [David], and the reason we're acquainted with each other is because we're sharing a divorce lawyer. It's kind of intimidating because there is no script, there's only an outline. David Steinberg is the director, and they have writers there that are very helpful. They just kind of massage the scene along the way it should go. You do several takes and then they say, "This time you say this." But it's a lot of fun.

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