From recollections about his first theatre work atop the Rocky Mountains in 1962, to a seasoned veteran's assessment about how big a draw Art would be on opening night at the Paper Mill Playhouse some 40 years later, Judd Hirsch describes the life of a theatrical actor with precision and insight. Gifted with an eye for common nuance and the intricacies and foibles of human nature, director-star Hirsch spoke with Playbill On-Line just as he and co-stars Cotter Smith and Jack Willis began their five-week run of Yasmina Reza's award-winning Art at the Playhouse.
PBOL: You are certainly familiar with this play, so instead of asking how it's going, maybe it's best to ask just how well it's going?
Judd Hirsch: This is kind of our first preview. We had an invited dress rehearsal last night, but you often don’t know how many people are coming, especially in such a large house. But, you know, they get pretty much the best possible performance because [the actors] not concerned about their reaction.
PBOL: It would seem that openings are always nerve-racking.
JH: Early performances are unique because sometimes you take off on each other and it can be an interesting investigation of something we never expect. We had a run-through last night so I could see how various parts worked. Even then you could see it still had to be perfected. But, we'll get up there, the three of us, and hammer the hell out of each other. It's unique because nobody in the future will ever see that performance.
PBOL: Is the dual role of director and star unique for you?
JH: It's not the first time. I directed [Lanford Wilson's] Talley's Folly at the Elitch Garden Theatre in Denver. The park has been moved now and the theatre no longer exists. It was a beautiful old octagon which was wonderful because the Talley's Folly stage was also almost an octagon.
PBOL: Working in both capacities you must have some interesting takes on interpreting the play.
JH: When you do these things, you get an idea inside, from the character's point of view. If I've played a play for a while, I start to get ideas, which is to say an outlook. A value you put on things and develop in your head about how important something is or what’s underneath a character. Art is built that way, built so that you can make up and choose desires...and some secrets. You can put them in and you can act on them. She [playwright Reza] even says so. She writes nonexplicative people. She doesn't explain anything about them or where they come from...not even a last name. She writes for actors. Not directors, certainly, but for actors. They can choose a through line for the story. PBOL: How so?
JH: Well, if you had a character who seems to be a weakling, as we have in this play, a conciliatory fellow, he tries in some way to make it nice for the other two. Perhaps he's a bit of a coward, or he just does not want to get involved in that way. So, we have this character and we start to choose what parts we want to expose.
PBOL: It gives you many different ways to go in other words.
JH: That's why I would want to direct it, after being in it. You can watch movies and ask yourself, "What if the score was done a different way? Instead of a jazz score, what if they just used pianos?" With Art, the design was there so I worked backwards. How do I want them to feel at the end of the play? Do they feel sorry, or hopeful or do we like them more than before? Do they feel a sort of "in vain" feeling? As a kid I went to movies a lot. They'd have characters die unsuccessful. The bank robbers lost, there were failed love affairs and lot of tragic endings. People lost their loved ones. "Casablanca" is the best example I can think of, and they changed that ending 20 times. With those movies, the feeling was sort of depressing when you got out. Later on, when I became an adult, commercialization made it so movies were supposed to end well, with successful endings. Gimme back the old B-movies that end in real terms.
PBOL: So all of this informs your approach to Art?
JH: We can chose what we hear and see and suggest as a way of thinking about these guys. I want to record their faults and why they got there and see what you think in the end. There's not going to be anybody up there who's right or wrong. Sometimes people believe the three characters are equal, and that any one of the three can play the other parts. It's an interesting idea, when you start with that, that nobody is standing in a less or more powerful place. They all deserve to be heard. There is no foil, we don't use one person as a bouncing board. When you see the play on paper, whether it's about the "coward" or anyone else, you never make up your mind about them. It's a human failing to describe anything correctly. If you approach anything objectively in this play, you go wrong. Reza has written less, on purpose, so that she can get more human ideas into it by way of the actors. She writes for actors because she wants to see something happen. I know what my character, Mark, would call Ivan—a coward—because I've played him in my head and I made a choice inside, rather than outside. Now, some might say he was just wishy-washy, because when you see something in someone else, you can excuse it. When you see it in yourself, you hate it more. It's not just shortcomings that Reza was interested in. She was interested in how they resolve it or try to resolve it. It's such an imperfect resolution, it remains human.
PBOL: Your Paper Mill program dedicates this run to the late David Dukes. Did you ever perform Art with him?
JH: David Dukes had signed to do the play in London but I didn't do it then, Stacey Keach did. At the time it wasn't a good idea for me, it was family summer time and I had to say, "maybe some other time." Later on, I got my chance on Broadway and then in London. So, no, I never saw Dukes do the play and I have no idea of his ideas.
PBOL: Are there any pitfalls you've learned to avoid in Art?
JH: Yes—if it's ever deemed "funny" by a director or an actor. It won't work if they go for the humor. The troublesome parts are really a serious endeavor. Since it's so riotously funny, you can’t do that. You really have to be honest and in touch with that sense of truth. Their [characters'] fault is they think that they know the truth. They don't. They approximate it. There's a point in the play that becomes a violent argument and it becomes funnier and funnier as it progresses. It's about the term, "A man of his time." Now, what the hell does that mean? A man who lives in his own time. Now, we know he means something and he knows he means something, but my character replies, "How can a man live in any other time but his own?" And suddenly we realize they are arguing about something else, even though they don't know it. That's what's fun. Of course, I know somebody is doing this as a farce somewhere, and they're bludgeoning it.
PBOL: But not as long as you're around...
JH: Sean Connery (Broadway co-producer of Art) saw us do it in Washington, D.C., at some point in his travels and, of course, he's seen other companies. He called me from Canada and in that voice of his said [imitating Connery] "Well, you certainly can't fuck that one up, can ya?" Which I took to mean, no matter who you are and no matter what you do, you can do it well.
PBOL: Have you met Yasmina Reza?
JH: Never met her. She knew of me, but I'm not sure how. She gave me something for my birthday. I always wanted to get the play in French but it wasn't available here in French. I used to be a French student but I lost so much of it. I even wanted to teach French as a kid. So, I told some producer that I wanted to see a translation and then I got the present from her, a collection of her plays, in French. I supposed the producers said to her, "Can you sign this?" and she sent it.
PBOL: Is there anyone you would like to have worked with but never had the chance to?
JH: Yes, Jose Ferrer. I was preparing to do Herb Gardener's Conversations With My Father back in 1991 at Seattle Rep, and then on Broadway. While we were putting it together, I came to New York. I was at Circle in the Square and I forget what play I was seeing then, but I was desperately trying to find the perfect "old Russian Jewish actor." It was during intermission and I looked up and there he was...Jose Ferrer. He was such a famous stage actor and director that I hesitated to approach him. But I thought he'd have a flare for this man and a certain amount of strength in the role. So, I went over to him and said, "Mr. Ferrer, I'd like to ask you a question." And he said, "What's that?" I described the play and he said, "Why don't you send me the play?" Now, we were going to do the play in 1991 and into 1992, so I called Herb and told him Jose Ferrer was interested and to send him the play. We had a wonderful meeting with him, the director and the playwright. We talked for quite a while. He had a great sense of humor and he was a tremendously opinionated guy. It was an experience I never expected to have and, of course, he died in early 1992. I always felt I had missed one of the big experiences of my life. He was one of the door-opening people who said, "If you act, do play the height of your intelligence." I always wondered what other little gems he might have shared.
PBOL: Was there ever anything on your resume, something early on, that you quickly took off when you had better credits to replace it with?
JH: The very first thing I ever did, the first thing I was ever paid for, were some melodramas in the back room of a restaurant bar in Estes Park, Colorado. This is the highest point you can drive to in Rocky Mountain National Park, so it's up there at about 12,000 feet. This goes back to 1962, and there was nothing going on there. They'd have us do street shows and shoot 'em ups, kangaroo trials and plays. I picked a 1928 Russian farce that made fun of their Communist government ideals and philosophy. I knew the people who ran the theatre, and it was the first time I ever directed anything. Now, that's not on my resume. The place was so totally inconspicuous. They paid me $10 per week with room and board, and I never collected the money. I wore sneakers in all the roles I played because that was all I had. I think they claimed bankruptcy with $143 in the bank. I put the plays in my resume the way people always do when they first start out: "Three plays, Estes Park, Colorado." We didn't actually list the plays because I think they were worried about paying royalties. So, the names were changed and until now, no one ever really knew what they were. Let's see if I can remember them... They Went That-a-way, Once Upon a Mattress and Crisis in the Old Saw Mill (Squaring the Circle) by Emialian Tonkonogov.
—By Murdoch McBride