Caleb Humphreys, a young movie extra aspiring for bigger roles, bumped into Anthony LaPaglia in a Brentwood supermarket one day last year and got some on-the-spot job counseling, just for the asking. It's a scene that crops up a lot, says LaPaglia.
"People find me approachable -- I don't know why, but they do -- especially beginning actors, and I pretty much always take time for them. It depends on the first three minutes of the conversation. If I think they just want to be on the cover of a magazine, I don't waste my time, but if they sound serious about acting, I'll spend five minutes of my time answering their questions. I don't really have advice for them, but I can handle questions."
LaPaglia talks a good game but acts a better one. What every young actor should know is up there onstage at the Neil Simon in a brilliant portrayal of Eddie Carbone, the Red Hook longshoreman with zero self-awareness, in Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge.
It's a particularly illuminating View, too, because director Michael Mayer pitches it at you exactly life size, making Eddie's latent lust for his niece (Brittany Murphy) apparent to the audience as well as to his wife (Allison Janney). Given the depth of the character's denial and his stubborn thick-headedness in general, you might think the play would be dated by now, but this consideration only floorboards the drama's drive toward inevitable tragedy.
The incest and homosexuality only hinted at when the play was first presented (1956) fall just short of being heavy-handed more than four decades later, making Eddie both true to his repressed time and, at the same time, an easy read. "These were not issues that were in the newspaper or up for public discussion back then," LaPaglia is quick to point out. "There were not talk shows going on about this every four minutes, as there are now -- and even the ones they have now, rather than enlighten people to these social divisions, just cater to the lowest common denominator and sensationalize them, like it's a freak show." The typical antics of, say, Jerry Springer would probably put Eddie Carbone into cardiac arrest. "Eddie has a lot of confusion and pain going on. If you don't truly invest in the character, he would be Archie Bunker. Of course, I had the advantage of Arthur Miller sitting in a room, explaining everything to me. It's based on a real story. I don't think he knew the real people, but it's based on a story he heard that came out of Brooklyn."
Initially, it shocked LaPaglia that every time Eddie got hit or spat on, there'd be a smattering of applause in the audience; now, he wears this like a flag: "It amuses me more than anything else. I think, 'It's an Elizabethan riot crowd out there. They're getting it.'
"When I first took this on, people who had seen the play before would say to me, 'But he's so unsympathetic.' I read it, and I thought, 'That's not true. He's very sympathetic.' Here is a guy who can't control himself, who can't help where he goes because he does not have the tools to sit back and analyze what he's doing. It's what I call inarticulate rage. He doesn't have the tools, and that's what makes him sad. He's actually a good guy, a decent guy who works hard and tries to provide for his family, but he crosses the line.
"The trap of the play, when you play Eddie, is to play him the same way all the way through. The first act you have to lighten him up. In the first act you have to not give away what's coming in the second act. In moments you can give it away - in moments -- but in general, until the last scene of the first act, you can't tip your hand.
"I understand where Eddie's coming from, but am I like that? No. The truth of the matter is that, as a person, I'm like none of the characters I've played. People tend to blur what you play and who you are. A lot of people think I'm that guy in Betsy's Wedding, but I'm not. What it is for me is that, on some level, I connect with a character emotionally. I understand his emotions, and this allows me to play the game of 'What If,' which is the game I play with myself to prepare for a role: 'You're not like that, but what if you were?'
"The big thing I learned a long time ago is that you, the actor, can't pass judgment on the character you're playing. You have to embrace the character whether you agree with his morality or his sense of humor or whatever. It doesn't matter if you agree or not. You just have to understand it, and once you understand it, you can then create a character based on the people you've met or seen. That's what I tend to do. I'm a great watcher. I watch all the time. I still catch subways, I still walk streets, I still do all that stuff. Eddie's a combination of people I've known in life." Given Eddie, he'd rather not name the names.
A View from the Bridge began rehearsing for its winter Roundabout slot in November, and camera-trained LaPaglia's marvelous portrayal was pretty much in place at the very first preview -- albeit, it is now much the best for wear. "The great thing about doing a play, as opposed to doing a film, is that if something goes wrong on one night, the next evening you get to work on the trouble spots. After a 15-week run, we had worked on a lot of trouble spots, and it started to become a part of us. Now, it's more in our genes."
At the end of the Roundabout run -- which, not at all incidentally, is the most financially successful in the company's history -- was a happy ending: an extended engagement at the Neil Simon. LaPaglia's explanation for the show's success is simple: "It's a good play." But there's a telling postscript: "I don't think there's a lot of good straight theatre out there at the moment. Look at the big stuff. It's all musicals. The comment I keep getting from people is 'You reinstated our faith in straight theatre.' To me, it proves something that I believed for years: Really good, strong straight plays have a market on Broadway."
All this and LaPaglia has a new movie coming out, but he waves away the chance to give it a plug. "It's not very good -- I've seen it." And did that disappoint him? "Naw," he shrugs, "I've reached a point in my life where movies come and movies go. If I like a script, I'll do it. If it turns out right, great; if it doesn't, next. I don't really care that much about it. What I really care about is what happens onstage. Theatre, to me, is the only place left where you can't fake it. You can turn in a lousy performance in movies, and a good editor can make you look decent. There is a skill in acting in short fragments -- in maintaining your composure for 17 hours waiting to do your close-up at the end of the day. There's a certain skill in that -- and in making very fast decisions, hoping that they're the right ones -- but theatre! In theatre you gotta get up there and give for two, two-and-a-half hours, however long it takes, and that's becoming a rare thing now because the business has changed so much. The young actors are not attracted to the theatre for the most part. There's no visibility. There's no money. There's no prestige involved -- unless you happen to hit a play that really does go over the top, but that's quite rare in the scheme of things.
"I did this play at the Roundabout merely because I wanted to do it. I had no idea it would go this far. I was just committed to a short run. I wanted to get back onstage, and that was my only motivation for doing it. The fact that it has gone into an open-ended run on Broadway is all gravy. And I'm enjoying every second of it because I realize now, being older, that this kind of experience comes along every ten years. When I was younger, I thought they happened every week, but they don't. This is the best job I've had in ten years. By far. In fact, in terms of personal satisfaction, it beats everything I've ever done!"
-- By Harry Haun