Some veteran actors, as they get on in years, keep their eye out for the easy job. They haul up a revival of a past triumph or sign on for a role that requires minimal effort and earns maximum profit.
Not Brian Dennehy. If you want to engage him—in both mental and practical terms—your best bet is to offer him a difficult task.
“I’m only interested in doing stuff that’s hard to do, that’s challenging,” he says, “and as a result pays off or blows up in your face.”
On the stage, many of those challenges have included the iconic works of the American dramatic canon, including Desire Under the Elms, The Iceman Cometh and Long Day’s Journey Into Night by Eugene O’Neill and Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller. One newer, and very different, dramatic gauntlet comes in the form of White Rabbit Red Rabbit, a theatrical experiment in which a series of actors are handed a script just before they walk onstage and must enact it on the spot.
"I’d like to see how it turns out myself," said Dennehy of the event, which was put together by his friend Nathan Lane. Dennehy will make his appearance on March 28 at the Westside Theatre. "I may make a complete fool of myself, but it won’t be the first time and probably won’t be the last.”
His present source of inspiration is drawn from the silver screen. He is a member of the stellar cast in Knight of Cups, the most recent work by cinematic auteur Terrence Malick which hit theatres March 4. In it, he plays the father of protagonist Christian Bale, a screenwriter morally adrift in Hollywood. The cast also boasts performances by Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman and Cherry Jones. It is Dennehy’s first time working with Malick, whose past films include Badlands and Tree of Life.
“It was very different from what I thought it would be,” says Dennehy, when asked about the finished product. “But it could have been ten different things. I knew that.”
Working with Malick was unlike any previous film experience in Dennehy’s long career. At times, the shooting process could seem aimless. But that aimlessness comes with a purpose. ”He wants to make a picture that will allow him a whole range of possibilities, either graphically or in terms of sound and build the structure from there,” explains Dennehy. The actor, for instance, recorded a lot of narration for the movie, but very little of it made it into the final cut.
“I now know that what he does is to give himself as many options as possible,” he says of Malick, “given the basic setup, so that when he gets into the cutting room, in addition to the film that he has, he also, sound-wise, has all kind of possibilities that he can put in and take out or play around with. He has all these tools that he can build the final film with.
“He’s not worried about schedule,” he adds. “He’s not worried about pages.” Dennehy called Malick “a genuine intellectual” and said the two sometimes discussed theatre together. “He realized I knew a lot about Miller and O’Neill and Beckett,” says Dennehy. “We talked a lot about Beckett. I think Beckett is one of the ones he admires most.”
As Knight of Cups was released into theatres, another past Dennehy assignment, the O’Neill one-act Hughie, was running on Broadway with actor Forest Whitaker in the lead role of gambler Erie Smith. It’s a part Dennehy is very familiar with. “I know that play well,” he says. “I’ve done Hughie about 300 times in different venues. I love that play. It’s one of those fascinating pieces of small theatre that have been endlessly enjoyable for me.”
At one point, he performed the play as part of a double bill, pairing it with Beckett’s solo show Krapp’s Last Tape. Dennehy sees a clear connection between the two works. “Both of those plays were written about the same time, in the late ‘40s, early ‘50s,” he explains. “They’re about the same subject.” Hughie, he says, is about “a man coming back to a hotel at three o’clock in the morning, having lost virtually everything in his life, and discussing his life with another man who’s standing there barely listening to him. But he’s really discussing it with himself, trying to understand what he’s done to himself and why.”
Krapp’s Last Tape, meanwhile, “is the same situation—an older man listening to his younger self, and the hopes and dreams that younger man had, realizing that the intervening years have meant nothing but increasing failure—failure to be that person. Those plays deserve to be done on the same night.”
Though Dennehy realizes that stage roles can be arduous at his age (“Nothing is easy anymore. It’s all hard work. It’s takes longer to learn the lines.”), he still wants to take them on. One particular desire is to perform in Endgame.
“I would like to do Endgame to complete the canon as far as Beckett is concerned,” he says.
Among contemporary plays, he doesn’t see many professional opportunities, so he’ll continue to turn to the classics.
“For people like me, it’s O’Neill or Miller or Beckett and maybe a handful of other playwrights who have written for people with some years on them,” he says. “And I intend to do as many of them as I can before I hang it up.”