Matthew Broderick has proved equally at home on stage and screen, whether it be in his Broadway debut in Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs, for which he won a Tony Award, and Biloxi Blues; Off Broadway, Off-Off and regionally in plays by Horton Foote; and the 1995 hit revival of the musical How To Succeed in Business without Really Trying; or his numerous films, including last summer's mega sci-fi blockbuster Godzilla and his forthcoming new comedy Inspector Gadget.
"Movies are lots of fun," said Broderick, "but my love is live theatre. There's nothing like it. "
This love was nurtured by his late father James Broderick, a stage and screen actor. "In most films, there's an actor to react to," Matthew noted. "But in Godzilla, most of the time I was reacting to space. I made it up as I went. It's a million times better when there's someone live to react to!
"There were these close-up reaction shots to a giant lizard knocking over buildings. All eyes are on your reaction and it's hard not to feel self-conscious because your eyes are on whatever is not there. It's all in your imagination. When I was a kid, I did a lot of play acting where I made up the other person. That helped!"
Broderick likes it best when he plays to real people, which he's doing in the National Actors Theatre revival of the thriller Night Must Fall by Emlyn Williams, a Broadway hit in 1934. Williams was a noted actor, director, author and playwright in the U.K. and here. "Danny, the bellhop, is a departure for me," he observed. "He's smooth and charming. but with a definite psychotic bent. In fact, he likes killing people!"
Night Must Fall will still be set in '30s, but director John Tillinger has decided that Broderick will sport an Irish brogue instead of a Welsh accent. The young actor has an affinity with Ireland. He and his wife, actress Sarah Jessica Parker, live part of the year in a home in Donegal, where he once spent summers with his family as his dad searched fruitlessly for his Irish roots.
Playing against type is something Broderick has longed to do and he has Tony Randall to thank. "After a performance of The Sunshine Boys, Tony said, 'You should do something for our theatre.' I said, 'Sure. Okay, but what?' He asked if I'd ever read Night Must Fall. I hadn't, and he said he'd send it to me. A couple of days later the script arrived and I thought, 'Tony's really serious.' The next thing I knew, he'd gone to John [Tillinger], who liked the idea enough to meet with me. And, well, here I am."
Broderick explained that How To Succeed..., "which was a fun thing to do, was challenging because I sang." (It netted him his second Tony Award nomination.) "I'm sure I could find a role that I could play more easily than Danny, but that won't help me grow. As an artist, you should challenge yourself."
In New York and travels across country as his dad performed, the younger Broderick became mesmerized by the magic of theatre. He did plays through high school, which eventually brought him to the attention of an agent.
"I felt I got roles not because I was cute and perky but because I was a good actor. As with many actors, I feel my 'younger' work is just as good as my 'older' work, just different. I'm not sure you get better. In fact, some actors get worse.
I listen to directors for good ideas and they are capable of helping you shape your roles. You have to be careful, though, because that can also mess you up."
Broderick said he's drawn to theatre because it "allows me to take the reins. In movies, there're so many elements -- photography, music, editing. It's very collaborative. So is theatre, but onstage it's you and whoever else is in the scene. You use your timing and it feels so much more natural. You have more control.
"Theatre is tricky, however," he continued. "When you're an unknown, you've got nothing to lose. You have your focus and you do your work. If you stand out, great, but the very next time people are saying 'Now prove it. Was that a fluke or are you real?' It's a different vibe. It's a constant challenge."
There's a certain perception that Broderick has always played nice characters, "but," he says, "that's not true. In the movie Ferris Bueller's Day Off, I had a very dark side. In fact, Ferris is only slightly separated from Danny. Night Must Fall is a challenge because it's not the type of role I ordinarily get thought of for. I don't know why that is, because I have a psychotic side. So what's the harm in finally getting to use that?"
Tony Randall's dream, over the many years it took to create his National Actors Theatre (NAT), was to give Broadway acting opportunities to talented up and comers. However, he quickly found NAT couldn't survive without star power. "It's is important to sell tickets," he said. "That's it in a nutshell." In NAT's latest attraction, Night Must Fall, that star is Matthew Broderick.
"It's a fact," Randall points out, "that our best actors are stars. When you consider the actors who've worked for us -- George C. Scott, Charles Durning, Julie Harris, Jack Klugman, Matthew -- you find a tremendous dedication to live theatre. This creates wonderful opportunities for us and, according to them, revitalizes and reenergizes them. Star power has allowed us to spread our National Actors Theatre beyond Broadway with touring companies of The Odd Couple and The Gin Game."
Randall said many stars express interest in the NAT, but scheduling is a problem. "In Matthew's case, he and his beautiful bride Sarah became fans of last season's revival of The Sunshine Boys [starring Randall and Klugman]. They came to see it several times, which I didn't know. The last time, they came back stage and I bumped into them. Had I known they were present I would have sent word to invite them back. Matthew was complimentary. Then a light went off and I said, 'Would you like to play Danny in Night Must Fall ? Just like that, spur of the moment, standing there looking at him so young and with that incredibly youthful face. I told him it was perfect for him. Matthew replied, 'Well, let me read it and I'll call you.'
"He's never played a role like this," added Randall. "Very few actors have. This was one of Williams' favorite characters and a part he played. Williams was fascinated with abnormal psychology. And everyone in this play is a little bit off! They're strange, weird people who really existed! Danny is based on a man who conned Williams for a lot of money. He had a feeling for this, and he understood it's very theatrical. I just knew Matthew would have fun creating a different persona. "
Randall sent the play the next morning and Broderick called two days later, saying "Let's do it." There were the inevitable scheduling conflicts, but then just the right window of opportunity.
"Emlyn Williams is an important writer," noted Randall, "and there's a connection to my life. In 1941, I worked with Ethel Barrymore in Williams' biggest hit, The Corn Is Green, after it closed on Broadway, when it played what was known as the 'subway circuit.' Brooklyn, the Bronx and around."
Night Must Fall has long been on Randall's list of plays to revive, but he knew he needed a very special young talent to mount it successfully. "That's certainly Matthew," said Randall.