Charles Durning, now appearing in David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey, is excited about his new play and the cast he feels fortunate to be working with. Joining Durning under Scott Zigler's direction are Daniel Benzali, Sam Coppola, Steve Goldstein, Jordan Lage, Ruben Santiago-Hudson and Lionel Mark Smith. Durning's career includes many highlights, too numerous to mention. Among them are his memorable Tony Award-winning portrayal of Big Daddy in Tennessee William's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and his Oscar-nominated performance in "Best Little Whorehouse in Texas." But whether he was working with Al Pacino in "Dog Day Afternoon," or George C. Scott in Inherit the Wind, Durning has always brought a riveting sense of the common man to his roles. In an interview with Playbill On Line, this combat veteran, former dance instructor and beloved American actor shared some insights on his work as he prepared to open a new show.
Playbill On-Line: What can you tell us about the cast of Glengarry Glen Ross?
Charles Durning: We have some wonderful actors in it who are all pretty well-known and pretty well-trained. They're terrific actors, and a lot of them are stage actors like Danny Benzali and Ruben Santiago-Hudson. I've never worked at the McCarter before, and it is a marvelous theatre. When he was a freshman, James Stewart worked on that stage, and so did Jose Ferrer and Josh Logan. In fact, Josh was an actor before he turned to directing.
PBOL: Did you get involved with formal research for your role of a salesman in Glengarry Glen Ross?
CD: I don't do that kind of research. I only go by instinct -- in other words, however I think I would act, myself, as a salesman. And I've done a little of that. As a dance teacher, I had to sell stuff and so I rely on that because its my background. As a salesman, you have to make them buy something they don't necessarily want. They don't really want it, but you get them to go and after a couple of lessons it's your job to see if they can sign up for more and more. I did that for a while. It's all mental manipulation. I can tell you, salesmen have the smell of chalk about them. I don't know why that is, but they remind me of chalk. When I was a child, they would come to the house and I noticed they were often nervous. These were insurance salesman and they came in the house and my mother paid the insurance. It was only a nickel or a dime or whatever, and he came by every week. And he always looked like he was ready to leave and he never sat down for it -- he was always ready to go. They were always kind of jumpy and scared, but very nice, pleasant and charming people -- until you get them alone, I guess.
PBOL: So you really go by gut instinct as a performer?
CD: I sort of hold my nose and jump in. There's no compass per se. You're out there on a high wire without a net, and that's the way actors operate. They have to be fearless about how they work and they have to create a life for the audience in 90 minutes and make them believe. Sometimes you succeed and sometimes you don't. We're all taking things from each other and you have to get to know one another early on. You also have to make the leap right away.
PBOL: Do you find you are one of the first to take this leap in a company, because of your experience?
CD: No, I'm usually the last one. I'm not as outgoing as a lot of people. I'm a little closed in, I think. PBOL: Do you believe that has served you well?
CD: Well, in some ways it has because when you are the last one, everyone is helping you. They think you are a little retarded and they say, 'Here, take my hand, I'll help you.' And by that time, anything that you have watched them do is part of the deal. You know what they're going do, so then I come in with the sledge hammer close. (Laughs.). Not really!
PBOL: Would you say that's a mainstay of your acting strategy?
CD: I'm the wrong one to ask, I think. Who knows how acting really works. I have no idea. Acting is ephemeral. You can't hang it on a wall. You can't throw it off. And you can't bring it out of a closet . It's there one night and it's gone the next, at least with stage acting anyhow. One night, maybe it soars, and the next night it may go right in the toilet. You need to be as honest as you can be, that's the main thing, and you need to be honest with the other actors. For instance, you can't spring surprises on them on opening night. First of all, you may get your head whacked and second, you might get fired. (Laughs.) But no, you've got to tell them what you're going do, you have to know how to play off each other to trust each other.
PBOL: Because this cast is particularly strong, do you thing you'll develop that special level of trust?
CD: Certainly the actors are all strong, and the rehearsals and performances are exciting and terrific to watch. When you have good actors, even one, and we have several, that one person can bring everybody up. This is really a terrific show with an incredible script from a brilliant playwright -- and it's all put together by director Scott Zigler.
PBOL: With your extensive background as a dancer, do you think you might somehow bring a little footwork to the production?
CD: I may sneak a little step in there -- or two.
PBOL: Is there some special role that you would still like to do?
CD: There's always the other role. I would like to like do Lear someday but I'm getting to any age where I'm too old to lift Cordelia. They'll have to bring her in on a wheelbarrow. But I've done my share of the classics, 22 Bards, and a lot of the Greek tragedies, O'Neill and Tennessee Williams. My theatre bag is very full. I think I've done 200 plays and 125 movies, so I've been very lucky to have made a living at acting. Of course, I'm often not the top dog, but sometimes it's better not to be top dog, because you last longer. If a movie or play flops, you always blame the lead. They say, 'He couldn't carry it.' They always blame him. But they rarely blame the second or third banana, so I insist on playing those roles and so far, so good.
PBOL: Is there a role that you might have dropped from your resume once there was enough other work on it to make that possible?
CD: I've worn a Good Humor outfit and sold ice cream, I've been an elevator operator, a western union delivery boy, I've worked on docks, as a waiter and as a pipefitter's helper. But as far as acting is concerned, I wouldn't throw any of it away. I might wish I'd have gotten there sooner, because I didn't start making a living until I was in my late '30s. It makes me think of some of these kids now who are 20 or 22 and making millions. You have to wonder about that. They have to save their money, because it's not going last.
PBOL: So, you're still reaching for your best performance?
CD: You are always searching for that one note. It's like a musician looking for one high note. And when he does get it, he wants to see if he can get higher. It's the same with acting. You reach a certain level and then you figure you want to go higher. Like the artist who finishes a painting but always puts another dot in there. In the same way, acting is never done. There are always new plays and a different group of actors and you find your place. My father used to say something that I like to remember. He said, 'Put your hand in a bucket of water. When you pull it back out and there's a hole in there, you'll know you're important. If not, you'll know you're replaceable.'
-- By Murdoch McBride