Austin Pendleton On Richard III: Think Like A Rattlesnake

Austin Pendleton On Richard III: Think Like A Rattlesnake Laurence Olivier and Al Pacino are two of the most prominent actors to shout, "A horse! My kingdom for a horse!" when they played one of Shakespeare's most evil characters, King Richard III. Now Austin Pendleton joins their ranks. The veteran Broadway and film performer, who chooses to work constantly in the theatre because of the opportunities live performance affords him to expand his range, spoke with Playbill On-Line over pasta and espresso at an upper East Side Manhattan bistro.
Austin Pendleton
Austin Pendleton

Laurence Olivier and Al Pacino are two of the most prominent actors to shout, "A horse! My kingdom for a horse!" when they played one of Shakespeare's most evil characters, King Richard III. Now Austin Pendleton joins their ranks. The veteran Broadway and film performer, who chooses to work constantly in the theatre because of the opportunities live performance affords him to expand his range, spoke with Playbill On-Line over pasta and espresso at an upper East Side Manhattan bistro.

To see Pendleton, smiling, gracious and nursing a cold, one would not imagine him as a vicious, hunchbacked, Shakespearean schemer. Pendleton explained how he approaches such a legendary fiend -- especially considering the old acting advice that no matter how horrible the character, the actor has to find something to like to play him. "Oh, of course Richard's a bad guy. And I don't think he likes himself. I teach at HB Studios, and one thing I tell my students is, `imagine you're a rattlesnake.' That means seeing the world in a totally different way; the way the world would come at a rattlesnake.

"Richard's in hell," Pendleton continued. "And there are people like that. An actress friend of mine, who I once worked with -- a wonderful actress. She once told me, `Austin, I'm in hell.' And she was. She ended up living like a bag-lady."

Part of the appeal of this production for Pendleton is that director Carol Kastendieck skews the action from Richard's perspective. "The piece is very slightly rearranged for clarity, with two scenes interpolated from Henry VI to explain references in the play that might not be clear to modern audiences."

Though a villain, Richard tempts actors because of his cunning, verbal dexterity and charm. One of the great acting challenges is the scene when Richard seduces Ann at the funeral of her husband -- whom Richard has slaughtered! "It has to be seen in the context of the War of the Roses. Remember, Richard gives her the dagger and says `Kill me.' She doesn't, because he's also there saying `I'll protect you, I'll take care of you. If you were my wife..." And how did Pendleton get involved with the Richard project to begin with? "I directed a play called Admissions at New Perspectives and really liked working with artistic director Melody Brooks, who suggested the idea. Originally Kelly Morgan was to direct but he couldn't do it, so Carol [Kastendieck] came on board. I'd never seen her work but I'm very happy with what she's doing with this piece."

Admissions, a drama about college students of various ethnicities banding together at a sit-in to protest tuition hikes, would have been a probable candidate for next season at Circle Repertory Theatre -- had the theatre lived. Instead, it folded abruptly in autumn 1996.

"When I came into Circle Rep -- actually, it was me and Lynn Thigpen, but she took one look at the finances and said, `It's impossible. There's no way this can fly,' so she left after three months. She was right, but I stayed on because I sort of promised to work on certain projects, and if I had the year-and-a-half [as artistic director] to do over again, I'd do it the same way."

Pendleton's tenure at Circle Rep included the plays Riff Raff with Laurence Fishburne, The Hope Zone with Olympia Dukakis, and Size Of The World with Louis Zorich. "Riff Raff was a hit, but there was no way to run it commercially to make the kind of money we needed at that point. What happened to Hope Zone was devastating, because it's an extraordinary piece; it's been called one of the most important plays of the decade, and Olympia was tremendous. I remember talking to the playwright before the opening and joking about the reviews, figuring there'd be no way they could be bad. Then I had to call him when the reviews came out...I didn't even know how to tell him."

With Circle Rep out of the picture, Pendleton divides his time between the movies he makes to support his family and the plays he acts in and directs to grow as an artist. "On TV and in movies, I generally play these comedic, eccentric characters. But now in the theatre I'm starting to get roles I wouldn't have dreamed of, like Richard, or it looks like I'll soon be playing Iago at a small company in this neighborhood, or the one man show I do about Keats." [Pendleton recently had to cancel a NY performance of Keats at Wartermark Theatre's Wordfire Festival because of a 2-day shooting commitment on the new Steven Spielberg film.]

Broadway audiences who've caught Pendleton in Doubles or as the tailor Motel Kamzoil in Fiddler On The Roof might not know that the actor recently burst on the scene as a playwright. His Booth played successfully Off-Broadway with Frank Langella, while the two-character Uncle Bob has had Off-Broadway and regional stagings.

Playbill On-Line asked Pendleton the ultimate actor question: can an actor/playwright make a living just in the theatre? "If I didn't have a daughter..." Pendleton answered. "She doesn't ask for a lot, but she's 17 and will be going to college. We don't live ostentatiously, I don't have a car. So it's doable as a single, but not really for a family."

On our way out, I asked Pendleton whether his cold will sideline him from Richard III, Pendleton said, "No, it's just a head cold. It's a weird actor thing; for the three hours onstage, you don't even think about it." We left the restaurant, me back to the office, Pendleton off to an apartment nearby to do the most unRichardy thing imaginable -- visit his mom.

Richard III plays through March 8 at New Perspectives Theatre on 8th Ave. For tickets call (212) 730-2030.

--By David Lefkowitz