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Sunday, March 24, 2013

* My interview with Terry Kinney, Steppenwolf co-founder, Actor, Director, Artist

1.   What inspires you?

I’m inspired by great writing, I’m inspired by music and I’m inspired by the live human experience of performance. I still feel like a perpetual amateur, I still experience things with a great deal of wonder.

2.   What is the earliest film you saw that moved you?

When I was a little kid, I delivered posters for the movie theater in my town and I’d watch from the booth, I weirdly got inspired by the projection going through the air…before it hit the screen and a lot of the movies I didn’t understand but I got up there and watched, because film was so much like church. The first film that I saw and remember thinking, “I don’t know that I get this, but I think it’s really, really good was ‘Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” directed by Mike Nichols.

3. Any others?

Yeah, when I was older and we were in college—me and Gary and Jeff Perry--we all saw this film, “Scarecrow,” and when we started our theater, we were really really clear that this was the kind of thing we were going to try to do. We were going to try to bring that kind of realism to the stage.

4. What’s your favorite color?

Is this a trick question…? My daughter asks me something like that and when I answer, she punches me in the arm!

---It’s blue.

5. Any specific blue?

Midnight blue. Almost like a black blue.

6. What is a moment from your childhood that you’ll never forget?

The one that I remember the most is actually not a happy memory, if that’s okay? I remember that I was doing a wheelie on my bicycle and I perfected it and my mother came home from work sick and I kept wanting her to watch this wheelie, I sort of hounded her about it…but she was too sick. So she went in the house and I was upset with her and I remember lying in the front yard…and then they carried her out of the house in a bloody sheet. She had had a miscarriage—my little brother. I remember it, I can’t say that I always wanted to. But it’s just…I always have.

7. What foreign films or foreign directors stand up to the test of time for you?

I love all the films of Antonioni, I can still see Fellini’s films and still be just as amused and amazed visually. Films like Amarcord, that are just timeless--in the energy that they give off. They’re eternal Because no matter what period they’re placed in, there will be something eternal in them.

8. If you were on a deserted island with an empty stage, and you hallucinated a dream cast to work with, living or dead, who would be in your dream cast?

I was raised on the films of the seventies, so Gene Hackman is always in there, George C. Scott, Vanessa Redgrave, there is a new actor named Tom Hardy that I would put in there. Who couldn’t put Brando in their cast? I’m sure he’d be difficult to direct, but whatever…I’d just leave him alone. Audrey Hepburn, Julie Christie. I’ll leave it at that.

9. Would you talk about Tom Hardy?

Tom Hardy has…you see a lot of pain in all of his characters. I’m attracted to people that bring that to the table, that work for that in front of people. He’s also a highly skilled chameleon. I’ve seen him play brutes, hyper-sensitive boys, and then he plays romantic figures. He’s an old school actor. He’s one of those guys that you can’t take your eyes off of him, because his soul shows through.

10. If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be?

Well…hunger. I hate to sound like a cliché. Hunger, I would rid the world of hunger.

11. If today you met the person you were when you began directing, what would you today tell yourself?

I would say: Stop pulling your hair out. (I may have still had some!) Relax and let it happen. You don’t have to make it happen. Let it happen. Trust the people that you put here and trust yourself a little better. I’ve learned. I mean, I’m a late bloomer and so it’s been wonderful to learn that later. Sometimes, you don’t have to do anything…

12. How important is relaxation for actors and for directors?

Relaxation is kind of everything, don’t you think? I think you start from a relaxed state and that’s when all of your memories kick in, it’s when all of your creative energy gets released because you feel like it’s okay; It’s straining against what you don’t know, it’s straining against what you do know that stops flow. And I’m just starting to learn that, especially as an actor. Letting myself be in a place of ‘I don’t know,’ and that is where things arrive. You don’t even need to ask for them at that point, they just arrive for you.

13. What plays have you seen in your life that knocked your socks off?

 There were two. They were both at school at Illinois State University. Of course, I’ve probably seen much better plays since then, plays that have knocked me out—so many that I can’t list them. Every year I see something. I just saw “The Other Place,’ that Laurie Metcalfe was in. Her performance and that of her daughter’s were just so stunning that I couldn’t speak afterwards…But the main one I saw was a production—in college, you can do things without rights, you know?—so some friends adapted Franny and Zooey, the Salinger book, and it was a workshop and it was about 2 ½ hours long straight through, and I sat there and just had so many revelations about my own life watching it. They were just talking and it was so perfect, it was so real in the room that it just shook me and I never ever forgot it at the palette for how I wanted to work; there was a production in the same workshop of Of Mice and Men. It was another one that killed me. That’s when theater, I don’t know if that’s the barometer for what it should bring to you, but when it devastates in a way that you don’t expect, what more can you ask?

14. What do need from an actor when you are casting?

The casting process is really interesting, especially when you’re casting a specific play and you have a character in your mind--it hasn’t been embodied yet and then someone walks in and they just do that. It’s not like a contest for me, I meet so many good actors who could play the roles really well. But when you have the luxury of looking for something that you envision and you find that person; at that point, what I want from them is preparation, I want honesty, confidence, and I want…a collegial sense, a sense that we’re going to be in a room for a long time and enjoy that. That’s a feeling that you get. You’re not always right. But it’s something that I look for. You know, someone that I want to spend time with.

15. What is your sense of the Group Theater?

I was probably more knowledgeable about the Moscow Art Theater than I was about the Group. For the short time they were around, and it was a short time, they did great great things for acting in this country, on stage and on film at the time. They transformed acting from something very very showy to something more natural.

16. Would you talk a little bit about the Moscow Art Theater?

They spent months and months and months, and years rehearsing with a repertory of actors. When we were studying them at school, all I kept thinking of was repeatable relationships and roles that stretched you beyond what everybody else thought you could do. They played everything, they weren’t limited to type, they were limited to repertory and to the company. Making the company and then playing everything. Rehearsing with each other, living with each other for years and years. That was for me a model of how you can make a company work. You have to become a family, for better and for worse.

17. What do you think an actor can do on a daily basis in order to keep their instrument in shape?

Do a lot of reading. Take classes. I mean, I’m lazier about it than I wish I was. I wish I took swordfighting lessons, I wish I did tai chi everyday. Actors that do yoga are smart because they’re keeping their bodies flexible. I think dance is a really good idea for actors. Because movement is everything on the stage, it’s not just your voice, it’s your ability to fill the stage with your body. Dance lessons. Singing lessons. Even if you don’t sing well, it’s a very good idea.

18. As an actor, what do you hope for in the audition room?

I hope to be present in the room. I hope to do the version that I brought in and not one that I hope they will like. Instead of trying to get the role, I just try to play the role for the time that I am given. And if that works out, wonderful. If not, then I have to let go and move on.

19. What do you think is the worst thing an actor can do to himself?

Drugs. I mean, really. Why destroy yourself with drugs, alcohol and cigarettes? I mean, it’s very tempting because the actor has so much stress, it’s tempting to turn the pressure valves off for brief periods of time. But I think you don’t want to destroy your body, and you don’t want to destroy your voice and you don’t want to destroy your face…more than anything. You want to hang on to whatever you can of your vitality. Yeah, that and…a lot of fried food!

20. What character from any play do you most identify with?

I was thinking about this the other night. I was thinking about the ones that I’ve done. I don’t have huge aspirations to do things I haven’t done unless it’s Virginia Woolf or something like that. I think I would relate most to Jim Casy in Grapes of Wrath. I always did. I did when I read it the first time. Not that I feel I’m him, or I’m like him, but I believe everything he says. I believe him. Even though he’s espousing things that appear to be wise, he’s struggling with those same things. That’s what I love about him.

21. If you could pick any character from art or history that you could be for one day, who would it be?

I would like to be that guy dancing in that Renoir painting, they have the strung up lights above them and it has those deep blues…I can’t remember the name of the painting. But that guy dancing with that woman, I’d like to be him for a day.

 22. What is your take on Hollywood?

(He groans.) You know, one time I was driving into the Paramount lot and I was kind of lost. He said go to the right and follow the arrows, I didn’t see any arrows. I just kept driving straight and I had a moment where I said, “That sky, that is pretty. The sky is very pretty, it’s got clouds, and you don’t see that very often. And then…it moved. It was a backdrop. There were people pushing it.

It reminds me of a place that’s been bombed and rebuilt. That’s what it reminds me of a little bit. And on the other hand, I think there are advantages to being there. I just never experienced any of them. But very smart people I know live there. Very smart. And they love it for reasons of their own. And I acknowledge that. It has something, including the weather. You do get sick of this east coast experience once in a while. Only so many people can spit on you. It’s freezing days in a row. How many do I need in my life? I’ve had them in my entire life from Illinois to the east coast.

22. How do you see the evolution of Steppenwolf from its beginning to the present?

Well, in the beginning it was a collective of like-minded young people who also were probably too frightened to go and forage for themselves. They loved acting, they loved plays, but only in the respect that we did them with each other. We didn’t have a great love of career. We wanted to be together, and this was a very communal time in the mid 70s. We became like a commune and we became a very broke collective of young artists trying to search for the space between us, you know what happens in the space between us. And as it became more and more known, more and more hands were laid upon it and I think the evolution is a natural one. As a playwright’s theater, it is far superior today than what we ever had. It is a place that fosters good writing and the physical space is just magnificent. It’s run so well by the people that run it. Is there anything missing? I don’t know. There’s still an ensemble. But is it that desperate, tight, fearful collective that it was in the beginning? No, and it couldn’t be. Nothing like that could ever last. So that’s a precious group. Precious to me, it’s why I started. It’s why I still see myself as a perpetual amateur. Because I thrive on that kind of energy. It’s a different place now. And I don’t regret that even a little. I acknowledge it.

23. If an actor came to you and confided that they had fear in getting up on stage, what would you say to them?

You know, far be it for me. I’ve had stage fright for…going on seventeen years now. So I understand it. I would tell someone if they really want to get back onstage, that the fear is useless to them. They have to atleast be able to say that. They have to be able to say they have it. But they also have to be able to say it’s useless. And that it’s in my way. And that it’s not ever going to help me in any way be a better artist. So to get rid of it, try whatever means necessary. I would say do small things in a room. Start that way. Rely on friends. Work with a director that you’re close to, and also, if you need to, see a talk therapist. And if you need some type of prescribed medication to be able to do it, then by all means…it just depends on how badly you want to get out there.

24. I always wanted to ask you about the back story to ‘Orphans,’ the journey you guys went on with that script. Would you say anything about that?

Sure. At the time, Gary had gone for a little while back to California. He took a minor sabbatical from the company. And it was pretty early in our incarnation. We missed his presence. And when he came back, he came back very strong. And he had some scripts with him. One was ‘Tracers,’ which was another play that we did and he directed and he completely revisioned himself; and the other was ‘Orphans.’ They had done a production out there, it was pretty successful. We read it and we loved everything until the last scene. And then we said, “What is this last scene? It makes no sense.” And Gary said, “Well, let’s get the playwright here, let’s let him have an opportunity to work with us on it and let’s see if he can improve that.” So we spent 3 ½ weeks rehearsing everything but the last scene—which, was vastly different, kind of a ‘happy ending,’ actually. At one point, we were near previews, and the playwright loved all of us and we loved him, to this day we still do, but I got very angry because I was the one having to execute the emotion at the end of the play, so I said I can’t do this, it’s fake, it’s phony and I threw the script…I just threw it, not at the playwright per se, but I just threw it in the direction of the audience. I was very emotional and Gary said, “Okay, what do you want to do? What do you want to do right now?” I said, “The guy can’t live. He’s got to be dead. And John Mahoney, who was the guy who came back to life, said, “I agree. I should be dead. Just do it.” So we just basically improvised to the point where I mourned his death by screaming. It was raw and it was unformed but there was something there. Lyle went away and kind of wrote what we did. At that point we started honing that. And it took the preview period to do that. But you saw it. You were in it. So you know that it’s effective, it’s an effective ending.

25. Would you talk about the process of taking organic acting and setting it to a piece of music? What this process looks like.

The acting comes first. The play comes first. We all had a great belief and it was something that we all shared, coincidentally, we did it at school, and Gary was a musician. We loved scores. We never saw plays get scored the way that movies did. And we always loved great movie scores. Think of Last Tango in Paris or something like that. And which came first? The movie came first and somebody scored that scene. So what we would do, is while we were rehearsing, once we got a sense of the tone of the piece, the director would sit there with a boom box or headphones while he watched the scenes, usually in a run through. So we would get ideas, what music we wanted, then we would…but it was harder to put the music together originally, because at that time, it was all on a reel to reel and we hand spliced everything. It was very precise. Now you can do it all so fast. That was the process. It was during the rehearsals and sometimes we would let the actors hear what we were playing and sometimes we wouldn’t.

26. I wanted to ask you about your writing?

I dabble. I adapted a short story, and made a short film out of it, but I don’t consider myself a writer. I found, oddly enough,  on Facebook…there’s this guy Joe Frank and another guy Lester Nafzger, and I’m friends with them and they work together at KCRW in Los Angeles for many years, doing radio plays and monologues and phone interviews that are so creative. Once they started posting some of that stuff on FB, I felt like this is where FB can make sense. Because there’s a thread that follows. I don’t want to say, “Went to the store and I really love cale.” I don’t want to say, “So inspired, my dog jumped over the thing.” I don’t want to say that stuff.
I don’t want people to know about my real life in that way. So what I do is I write fiction, nothing but. Everything I say is not true. I sometimes get a little character in my head. Or a poem in my head, or just a rant and I put it out there, just to see if people will riff on it. Sometimes they do. Sometimes they say, “are you okay?” (he laughs.) And I am okay.

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