No one's blase about Killer Joe . People love it or hate it. It's about the type of family you'd find on "The Jerry Springer Show."
"But Jerry would be the first casualty," laughs co-star Scott Glenn. "You might think the play's a trailer trash drama, a kind of noir thing. But it's not. Killer Joe 's about the need for place and family. And it is a romantic comedy of sorts, but a strong cup of coffee."
And not everyone's cup of tea. "Yes, but no one falls asleep! It doesn't whimper or whine, preach or make apologies. It's raw, about people who live hard lives. The humor's so raw that when you laugh, a second later you feel uncomfortable you did."
Glenn's character is policeman Joe Cooper, who moonlights as a hit man. "I love Joe's many colors," observes Glenn. "He's from an abusive background, and, emotionally, has never matured. A man loved by animals and kids, but adults watch out. They're targets. I have this cynical, lethal fix on life."
You or Joe? "For the run of the play, Joe Cooper and Scott Glenn are basically the same dude. Joe's a perfect fit. It's scary, but I feel at home with his dark aspects. I told Tracy [Letts, the playwright,] that he may not have known it at the time -- and I know other people played the part (in the U.K. and Off-Off-Broadway) -- but he wrote it for me. My challenge is summoning whatever it takes to deal with the fragile emotions." Glenn looks for parts where his character goes through change. "Here, that happens the moment I walk on and meet Dottie. Suddenly, I encounter an emotionally retarded girl, half my age, who's in the same place as I am. It's like that Roberta Flack song, `Killing Me Softly.' Dottie kills me softly. She's the only human being I've met who I can relate to. I can't let her go."
Joe Cooper is lethal, but Glenn plays him with relaxed subtlety -- a performance firmly rooted in his Actors Studio training. "I'm a lifetime member," Glenn laughs. "I was the first person who got in by accident. A friend asked if I'd fill in for his audition partner. The next morning I got a call congratulating me on being accepted. I said, `That's nice, but I can't join. Right now, I'm struggling.' This brusque voice came on the phone. `This is Lee Strasberg, schmuck!' he said. `You're a member free, for life. You're a part of our family, so bring some work and let us be rude to you.' And I did.
"Lee [Strasberg, Studio founder] didn't have the best bedside manner, but he had the best eyes and ears. His greatest gift was making me realize I'd never be a master at this craft."
You haven't reached your peak? "Metaphorically, I'm a college sophomore, maybe a junior, but not even close to grad school. Killer Joe, aside from great fun, is kick-starting me onto another plateau. That's because Tracy's characters, no matter what you think of them, are so alive."
Glenn says he's "blessed to be working with such a phenomenal, special cast" -- Amanda Plummer, Marc Nelson, Mike Shannon and, as Dottie, Sarah Paulson -- "All of us are constantly shoving, pushing the limits. Sarah's performance is nothing short of mesmerizing, and it makes my stuff really work."
The actor never set his sights on Hollywood, but his performance Off- Broadway in 1968's Collision Course -- 11 One Acts by 12 Authors led to his going West and such films as 1971's "Angels Hard as They Come," a biker film produced and co-written by Jonathan Demme (who latter cast Glenn in his "Silence of the Lambs"), "Nashville" (1975) and "Apocalypse Now" (1979).
"Then the bottom dropped out of my film career," reported Glenn. "I wanted to return to New York, but didn't have the money. I worked as a truck driver, carpenter's assistant, doing whatever it took to keep bread on the table for the family."
Glenn moved his family to Idaho, where they still live part of the year, "and I became a carpenter and acted in local productions. I never thought I'd work in Hollywood again, but a year later I was there and visited my friend James Bridges. He wanted me to audition for a film he was directing. I told him I didn't do that anymore, that I wasn't a piece of meat anymore."
Bridges tried to convince Paramount Pictures, explained Glenn, "but they didn't want me or this relatively unknown actress Jim was pushing. He said he was going to shove us both down their throats and he cast me and Debra Winger." The movie was 1980's "Urban Cowboy." "And I never had to audition again!"
Three weeks into shooting, agents who saw the dailies offered Glenn the lead in three TV series, "but I turned them down to return to the stage, first in Los Angeles, then New York." He has frequently followed his heart "and returned to the thing I love most: Theatre's the only way I get better at what I do. Working with film directors helps me grow, but nothing like the incremental jumps I make onstage."
-- By Ellis Nassour