For Laila Robins, who typically plays poised, polished career women (Mrs. Klein, The Extra Man) or gentile period types (A Streetcar Named Desire, last year's The Herbal Bed), her current role as May in the McCarter Theatre's production of Sam Shepard's Fool for Love is a definite change of pace. But few roles are beyond this performer, whose rare combination of elegant beauty and inate intelligence has won her roles in Williams, Ibsen, Chekhov, Stoppard and Shakespeare. Robins talked to Playbill On-Line about playing a wall slamming, hard-loving Shepard girl, as well as the lure of the classics and how "acting is hair."
Playbill On-Line: Fool for Love is a bit rougher material than we're used to seeing you in. Did you make a conscious choice to try something new?
Laila Robins: Conscious, hm? Maybe on some level, I don't know. It was just a project that came up that the McCarter was doing, and I'd been wanting to work with [director] Emily Mann for a while. The fact that they were doing it and she was doing it, I thought, well, that would be kind of interesting to go in that direction. It would be challenging, it would be different. Yes! Maybe is was conscious. [Laughs]
PBOL: Had you done any Shepard before this?
LR: No. Never really touched on Shepard. It's been a pretty easy fit. It's intense, it's high energy. There's a bit a physicality to it. But it's very cathartic and it's right out there. It's very primitive and direct and, as you say, I'm used to playing these turn-of-the-century, corseted type gals. This is the antithesis of that, definitely.
PBOL: I heard Shepard stopped by and showed your co-star a few rope tricks. Did he give you any tips?
LR: He hung around for about six hours. He spoke a lot about theatre generally and about this play, how it's very important about the shifts that occur. The play's so stark and barren that when something new enters the room, you have to deal with it, whether it's the bottle of tequila- there's a shift -- or a car drives up -- there's a shift. Also, he was quoting Joe Chaikin as saying, "Oh, naturalism -- naturalism is boring. Do something else." [Laughs] And he was talking about the world in which his plays live. They're not naturalistic. They're somewhat heightened, they're somewhat...I don't know if surreal is the right word. When we bash against a wall, there's going to be sound enhancement that makes it boom very loudly, to give you a feeling that you're inside the human heart. So, the show lives on a sort of heightened plane. You have to play it at that vibration for it to have it's own truth. But it is a bat out of hell. There's no easing into this thing. You just jump in and swim upstream as fast as you can.
PBOL: You were in Mrs. Klein with Uta Hagen. Is she an intimidating co-star?
LR: We had our moments, but generally speaking we got along very well and we both tend to work in the same way. A lot of times you come against actors who come from a different direction and you tend to meet in the middle. But her and I, I think we both we work the same way, so I think she was able to recognize that and relax a bit. She was also very careful not to give me too many notes, because she knows that if you give an actor too many notes then that actor feels like they're being watched, assessed or judged. But every note she gave me was exactly correct. It was great to spend 13 months with her. I learned so much. She can be intimidating at times, but that's all good. PBOL: Is there anyone else you drop everything to work with?
LR: I just had an opportunity to work with Daniel Sullivan, and I would have dropped everything, but I wasn't willing to drop this. He's doing a Donald Margulies play called Dinner with Friends at the Variety Arts. It's overlaps, and I didn't want to split my focus. And I was also feeling hopeful about Fool for Love possibly moving to New York. That's always the dream. They're bringing producers out here to take a look at it. I want to work with Cherry Jones. We almost had a production of Pinter's Old Times put together by [producer] Alex Cohen, but for several reasons that fell apart. [Director] Scott Elliot -- I've had friends who have done really wonderful work with him. I'm kind of curious about him.
PBOL: You're usually well-received when you appear in New York, yet you're on the New York stage only occasionally. Are you selective about what you do?
LR: Yeah. You know, it's funny, oftentimes the really great roles that I enjoy are in classic plays, and there aren't many theatres in New York who will do them, aside from Roundabout.
PBOL: So you go out to Chicago to do Blanche du Bois or to the McCarter to do Fool for Love...
LR: Yeah. And recently I was at the Guthrie to do Summer and Smoke. These are the roles I love. Also, if the Roundabout did do something, they'd probably go to a movie star first. So, there's always that issue. I wish they didn't operate that way, but they do. And I want to, in my lifetime, play all the really great roles. And I'll go anywhere to do them.
PBOL: Are their any dream roles you haven't been offered?
LR: I want to do a Hedda Gabler, and I'll probably be doing one at the Guthrie. Joe Dowling was very happy with Summer and Smoke. We'll try to plan that for next season, probably. Blanche was so fun, I'd love to do another Blanche. But I had such a good time on [the Steppenwolf] production, I can't imagine it being better than it was. I'd rather do a great play, than a mediocre play in New York. As much as I'd like to be seen in New York, that's not my driving motivation. My motivation is to play great roles, wherever they happen.
PBOL: You were in a favorite production of mine, The Extra Man. Was that a good experience for you?
LR: Not per se. I just felt that it was being pushed in a direction it didn't need to be pushed to. I actually think Richard Greenberg's plays work better more like a Pinter play; a little more subtly and a little more under wraps. A lot of times his plays are directed to be very external and kind of energetically pushed. And I don't think it serves his work. I've seen it happen several times. Whereas, Three Days of Rain was very well served by the direction. I'm actually in conversation with Richard Greenberg about a new play, which we have had several conversations about. He's got an idea and we're talking about it, because I really like his writing.
PBOL: One comical question. What was the strangest or most embarrassing thing that's ever happened to you on stage?
LR: [Laughs] Well, it just happened, so I can tell you. I was at the Guthrie and doing Summer and Smoke and there's the anatomy scene when I'm thrown into a wicker chair. And, one night, the young man playing John Buchanan threw me into the chair and slowly, slowly, slowly the wicker chair went over, my legs went up into the air and my wig flew off. My motto is "Acting is hair." So when my wig flew off, my character flew off my head!
--By Robert Simonson