STAGE TO SCREENS: Audra McDonald, Kenneth Branagh, Craig Wright, Jill Clayburgh

News   STAGE TO SCREENS: Audra McDonald, Kenneth Branagh, Craig Wright, Jill Clayburgh This month's column catches up with Audra McDonald (TV's new "Private Practice"), director Kenneth Branagh (the new film "Sleuth"), Jill Clayburgh and writer Craig Wright (TV's new "Dirty Sexy Money").
From Top: Audra McDonald in
From Top: Audra McDonald in "Private Practice"; "Sleuth" director Kenneth Branagh; Jill Clayburgh in "Dirty Sexy Money." Photo by ABC (Production Stills)

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"Grey's Anatomy" has McDreamy; its spin-off has McDonald. Audra McDonald plays Dr. Naomi Bennett, a fertility expert and major owner (55 percent) of Santa Monica's Oceanside Wellness Group, in "Private Practice" (ABC Wednesdays 9 PM ET), also launched by "Grey's" creator Shonda Rhimes.

How would four-time Tony Award winner McDonald describe her role? "She's divorced from Taye Diggs [Dr. Sam Bennett], who's part of the practice. We have a 13-year-old daughter [not seen on the premiere]. Naomi's incredibly efficient and smart; she's always done everything exactly right. The fact that her marriage has failed has thrown her into a tailspin. All of a sudden — for the first time in her life — things aren't going as planned."

It wasn't planned that McDonald be part of the ensemble cast. "I was doing 110 in the Shade and I got a call from my agent, saying they were recasting the part. 'Would I be interested [in playing Naomi]?' At that point, I wasn't totally sure of what I was going to be doing. I had a couple of options. I thought: Well, it might be interesting to go out and see what happens. I really hit it off with Kate [Walsh], who was at my audition."

Walsh reprises her "Grey's Anatomy" role of Addison, the surgeon whose affair with "McSteamy" (Eric Dane) ended her marriage to Patrick Dempsey's "McDreamy." The spin-off begins with Addison accepting the invitation of her medical-school friend, Naomi, to join the Santa Monica staff. Adds McDonald, "I felt very comfortable with Shonda [Rhimes]. I guess I lucked out." (The show certainly did.) "Private Practice" marks McDonald's third series, following "Mister Sterling" (2003) and "The Bedford Diaries" (2006), both of which were short lived. Notes McDonald, "You never know [what may succeed]. It's so hit and miss. How many series has Nathan Lane done — or Kristin Chenoweth, or Donna Murphy? You do what you can, you make the money while you can, and hope that everything goes well."

Playing the series' other featured physicians are Tim Daly (Pete Wilder, an alternative-medicine specialist), Amy Brenneman (psychiatrist Violet Turner), and Paul Adelstein (pediatrician Cooper Freedman). Chris Lowell plays receptionist (and midwife-in-waiting) William Dell Parker, and KaDee Strickland appears as Dr. Charlotte King, who works at a nearby hospital and disapproves of the clinic.

While McDonald doesn't "necessarily like doing something eight times a week, which can get awfully boring, learning new dialogue all the time makes me feel behind the eight ball." Is juggling her personal and professional lives easier onstage or on TV? "I think television is more difficult, because you don't have a set schedule. You're owned by the network five days a week. On Mondays, you're [at the studio] at five a.m. and they shoot as long as they need to shoot. You really can't make any plans, you have to be available at all times. I go back to New York almost every weekend, and weekends I don't go home, my daughter comes out here." The beautiful Zoe Donovan (6½) is the child of Audra and her husband, bassist Peter Donovan.

Which stage role has given McDonald the most satisfaction? "I'd have to say 110 in the Shade. I feel proud of all of the work I've done — even the ones that might be considered failures. Right now, 110 is near and dear to my heart." Just before the revival of the Harvey Schmidt-Tom Jones musical premiered, Audra's father, Stanley McDonald, 63, was killed when a plane he was testing crashed. Doing the show during the tragedy's aftermath proved beneficial. "I was able to get a lot of my emotions out. 110 has to do with a daughter-father relationship, so it was therapeutic."

She's filmed Storyline's TV adaptation of A Raisin in the Sun, which airs Feb. 25 (ABC 8-11 PM ET). Joining her are cast members from the 2004 revival, including Sean Combs, Phylicia Rashad, and Sanaa Lathan. "It was a great experience, working with Sanaa and Phylicia and P. Diddy [Combs]. We already had a working relationship, and we all had our friendships. Kenny Leon directed [as he had onstage]. It was an easy situation to jump back into."

Some difficulty arose due to shooting out of sequence. "It's constructed so well. The continuity running through the show lets you build out of each scene. For me, it was difficult to maintain [her character] Ruth's pathos and emotions the entire time. And you have to cover things from 500 different angles. I was able to see a cut of it recently. It looks great!"

Upcoming is "a concert tour scheduled for the spring. Our hiatus starts at the end of April. I'm going to be with the New York Philharmonic and, I think, I'll be with the Chicago Symphony. I sort of go where they tell me. [Laughs]"

If "Private Practice" succeeds, will she come back to Broadway? Exclaims McDonald, "Absolutely! Broadway's my first love. I probably will do a workshop over hiatus. I have no plans to ever leave Broadway — ever, ever! I never have, and I never will!"

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Says Kenneth Branagh, who directed the new film version of "Sleuth," which has a screenplay by Harold Pinter, "There's just one line [remaining] from the [Anthony Shaffer] play: 'It's only a game.' Everything else is Pinter's. Harold entirely appropriated it and made it a Pinterian piece." It opens Oct. 12.

People who saw the first movie version will be surprised by the changes, which go far beyond the original's unexpected plot twist. The Nobel Prize winner's screenplay, claims Branagh, "took an entirely different tack. It's ingenious in its dark humor and far away from the flamboyance of [the 1972 picture]. "This film is leaner and meaner."

Continues Branagh, "As an actor, Harold as David Baron [the writer's stage name] was terrific and played in many, many thrillers. He admires them hugely, but it's not his strong point [as a writer]. So, to inherit the theatrical mechanics of the central theme — two men [author Andrew Wyke and actor Milo Tindle] playing a deadly game and fighting over a woman whom we never see — suited him. [The woman is Wyke's wife and the younger man's lover.] Harold kept the center and turned everything else around."

Branagh read the screenplay "from start to finish [in one sitting]. I gave it to my wife [Lindsay Brunnock], and she couldn't put it down either. Pinter's last 'act' has a homoerotic possibility. Is Andrew attracted to Milo? Or is it his ultimate sick provocation?

"Harold said, 'I'm not good with plot. I'm not interested in plot.' For him, of course, it's all about character and atmosphere — which, I think, is quite a good marriage."

Onstage, both in the West End and on Broadway, where it won the 1971 Best Play Tony Award, Sleuth starred Anthony Quayle and Keith Baxter. Shaffer wrote the screenplay for the 1972 movie, directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, and for which Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine both received Best Actor Oscar nominations. This time around, Caine takes over the Olivier role and, as he did in the recent remake of "Alfie," Jude Law succeeds Caine.

Actors, all of whom were not seen, were listed in the credits of the play and the prior film. Was the extra cast considered for this version, which may (or may not) feature two characters? "It was," states Branagh, "but I suppose to not do so might be another way to distinguish ourselves from the original. We tried to stay away from that. The Mankiewicz film is utterly delicious and many people will know its twist. We tested [the new film] in front of a young audience, who had never seen the original. They gasped [at the twist].

"It's quite hard, you know, to come up with names of actors that don't sound a tiny bit phony." I mention that in the first film, Wyke's wife was shown in a framed photograph (actually of Joanne Woodward) and was billed as Eve Channing. "Exactly!" says Branagh. "Fair enough if you're Mankiewicz [to combine the names of two "All About Eve" characters], but we decided to avoid that pitfall."

Might the woman seen on a screen in Wyke's home be his wife, Maggie? "It was the actress whom we cast as Maggie," admits Branagh, "and indeed we shot a number of scenes with her. But we decided, during the course of filming that the more we showed of Maggie — even fleetingly — the less powerful she became. When we don't see her, she becomes enormously powerful. You're the first one, Michael, to actually ask if it's the wife. In fact, it is, but I've ducked the issue."

In this version, Wyke is very much involved with gadgets. He uses an ever-present remote control to remove walls, erect screens, operate an elevator, etc. Originally, Wyke was obsessed with games and puzzles, because the inspiration for the character was a composer-lyricist who's fascinated by games. The working title of the play was Who's Afraid of Stephen Sondheim?

Branagh's New York stage credits include directing his play Public Enemy at the Irish Arts Centre in 1994, and directing the Broadway production of The Play What I Wrote in 2003. It was recently announced that, for the Donmar Warehouse's 2008-09 season at Britain's Wyndham Theatre, Branagh will play the title role in Tom Stoppard's adaptation of Ivanov, and direct Jude Law as Hamlet.

I inquire about an early scene in "Sleuth," where the two men share a drink, but only their midriffs are seen. Explains Branagh, "It was part of an attempt to unsettle the audience visually and put them in Milo's position. It begins with an overhead shot of Michael [Caine] introducing himself. Then they get into this ridiculous conversation about which of their automobiles is bigger. I try to discombobulate the audience a bit and not fully reveal the characters' faces until about 12 minutes in, when Michael sits down into a close-up and says, 'I understand you're sleeping with my wife' — although he puts it rather bluntly. It was an attempt to make it cinematic and not theatrical."

Relates Branagh, "I remember an example of Harold's love of ambiguity. When I asked in rehearsals what Maggie is saying on the other end of the phone in the two calls Milo receives in the last 10 minutes, he replied, 'What do you mean?' I said, 'What is Maggie saying?' Harold said, 'The phone rings, yes, and he appears to be talking to someone, but we don't know what's being said — or even if it's Maggie.'"

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After appearing in four back-to-back plays on Broadway (A Naked Girl on the Appian Way, Barefoot in the Park) and Off-Broadway (The Busy World Is Hushed, The Clean House), Jill Clayburgh decided that it might be a good time to check out the TV world. "Dirty Sexy Money" (ABC Wednesdays 10 PM ET) appealed to her "because of the writing by Craig [Wright, who created the series]. I was very taken with his intelligence and bold imagination. I knew that he would go somewhere with this story." She plays Letitia Darling, matriarch of an extremely wealthy New York family.

Letitia is the wife of Tripp (Donald Sutherland) and mother of five: attorney general Patrick (Adam Baldwin), thrice-wed Karen (Natalie Zea), testy Episcopal cleric Brian (Glenn Fitzgerald), and twins, would-be actress Juliet (Samaire Armstrong) and lovable alcoholic Jeremy (Seth Gabel).

Viewers see the Darlings through the eyes of attorney Nick George (Peter Krause), who's paid an obscene salary to replace his recently deceased father as the family's lawyer — much to the chagrin of his wife Lisa (Zoe McLellan).

Clayburgh says that her character "is mostly defined by what has just happened — she's lost a man [the family lawyer] she's been in love with for 40 years. She's rethinking how she's going to live her life, now that this huge part of her life is gone — how she's going to deal with her husband, her family, and her lover's son who's now taking over the work that his father did."

Shooting an episode requires eight days, and asked about the working hours, she responds, "Oy! I worked until one o'clock last night and I had a nine o'clock interview this morning. I work the next two days, but I don't work Friday. I don't know how the crew works these 16/17-hour days. When do they sleep? If you're in a play, you go out afterwards and have dinner and a drink. But you can't do that at the end of a shooting day. That alone is very challenging." However, she agrees that television pays more than theatre: "Just slightly," she says with a laugh.

Does she prefer the stage to TV? "I cannot answer that. I just had an amazing run in the theatre; now, I'm completely engaged in this. I'm loving this more than I thought I would, because the writing is so good. I don't think: Oh, I wish I was back on the boards. Will I ever feel that way? I'm sure I will. I have a play I want to do as soon as I have time. Richard Greenberg wrote it for me. It's a wonderful play called Our Mother's Brief Affair. "Working on my lines [for TV] is a very difficult challenge. Some actors just wing it, but I'm not an actor who enjoys the loosey-goosey type of thing. I guess that's the theatre part of me. While it's terribly hard to keep something alive eight times a week, it's a definite challenge to learn new lines all the time. But, if my lines are solid, I can feel free to act. One of the amazing things about the scenes is that you generally do not know where your character is headed. You take turns as a character that you're not expecting."

Married since 1979 to playwright David Rabe, Clayburgh has a daughter, Lily, who's appeared on Broadway in Steel Magnolias and Heartbreak House; a son, Michael (now in college, he's interested in acting and writing); and a stepson, Jason, who's a musician; he wrote the theme music for TV's "Damages."

Did she encourage Lily to pursue acting? "Don't put your daughter on the stage, Mrs. Worthington [quoting Noel Coward's hilarious song]. I didn't let her act when she was little. I wanted my kids to have a normal life. While Lily was in high school, I got the call: 'Mom, I think I'm going to major in theatre.' She's a powerhouse onstage, an amazing actress who has that wonderful low voice, which is very unusual in a young woman. I've done two plays with her, and hope to work with her again. She's simply divine!"

Following her 1968 Broadway debut in The Sudden & Accidental Re-Education of Horse Johnson, Clayburgh appeared in two musicals: The Rothschilds and Pippin, in which she played the female lead. However, she doesn't favor musicals. "When Betty Buckley took over [in Pippin], people went: 'Ooh, that's what singing is.'"

Unable to choose a favorite role, Clayburgh claims, "I love all my parts. I really, really have." And right now, she loves Craig Wright's writing.

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For the last few years, Craig Wright has been working on scripts (and producing) for television — "Six Feet Under," "Lost," "Brothers & Sisters" — assignments that were due to the success of his plays, including Recent Tragic Events, Orange Flower Water, and The Pavilion (which received a 1999 Pulitzer Prize nomination). When I interviewed Wright in December 2005, he had recently signed a lucrative deal with Touchstone, and told me, "I'm really excited to launch into trying to create something [for TV] as personal and evocative as I've tried to do with my plays." That something turned out to be "Dirty Sexy Money."

Having screened the pilot, I congratulate him and ask if it's correct to describe the series as "a soap-opera spoof?" Replies Wright, "It's very much a soap-opera. We talk about 'Dallas' and 'Dynasty' all the time. But it has a twist to it — we see the people [the Darling family] through the eyes of an outsider [new family lawyer Nick George, played by Peter Krause].

"That's the novelty. At the center of the show is a person who is not a member of the same class or family as all the main characters. So the show is revealed through him; the show belongs to Nick. Even when we're not with him, we're seeing the Darlings through his eyes. That creates room for a satirical tone, but it doesn't have many more satirical elements than anything I've ever written." Therefore, he would not term it a spoof: "It's more easily read as an allegory."

Did the title come easily? "When I wrote the final version of the pilot, it was called 'The Ruins.' The family name was Rooney, but the tabloids referred to them as 'the Ruins.' At a meeting, it was decided that the title was too dark. Somebody said, 'These people have problems, but there's something nice about them.' I said, 'They're sort of darling,' and it was suggested that we rename it 'The Darlings.' ABC didn't want to sell an ironic title. Somebody said, 'Can't we call it 'Filthy Rich' or 'Dirty Money?' Another person, 'Why don't we call it 'Dirty Sexy Money?' Everyone stopped and said, 'Okay!'"

Wright wrote the part of Nick especially for Peter Krause, who declined it three times. "He didn't want to commit to what he thought would be a long-term series," explains Wright. "Peter and I became friends on 'Six Feet Under.' Eventually, it worked out, which was very fortunate."

Have any characters been added since the pilot? "Yes, we have a recurring role for the family's chauffeur. Shawn Michael Patrick plays Clark, who's in a lot of episodes and performs several functions. When the family takes an impromptu trip to Italy, he flies the plane. He has lots of conversations with Donald Sutherland about Ancient Rome history books that Donald keeps getting him to read, and in episode eight, Jeremy [Seth Gabel] tries to convince a girl that he's poor and that the chauffeur is his father."

Notes Wright, "We have such a large cast and such a large palette of stories that whenever you're sick of writing about one thing, you can find another. That was the fun thing about developing it."

TV Guide's fall preview issue revealed several plot elements. "I didn't read it," says Wright, "but we just want people to watch. If giving people a little information, that may make it possible to grab as many people as possible." Dan Rather (as himself) and Peter Bogdanovich (as an actor) have cameos in the pilot.

Born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Wright traveled a lot during childhood. "My father worked for a company that frequently moved around. Also, he got married a lot. I lived up and down the east coast. At 14, I moved on my own to Minnesota. For a long time, I toyed with the idea of becoming an actor. At 20, I got a job in children's theatre. In the company was a playwright who suggested that I write a play and submit it for a Jerome Fellowship award. I did, and won $5,000. I didn't like being an actor. I wasn't very good; I didn't like taking direction. Being a playwright is really a good fit for me. It's just the right mix of introvert and extravert."

A multi-tasker (who sleeps "from about one to five"), Wright's a member of Kangaroo, an alternative-rock group. "Our latest CD is called 'Songs (French).'" He also writes lyrics ("I'm a big fan of Frank Loesser") to fellow band member Peter Lawton's music, and manages to fit in being a husband (to Lorraine LeBlanc) and father (son, Louis, is 18). And, somehow, he found time to collaborate with Larry Gelbart on a new play, Better Late.

Of "Dirty Sexy Money," Wright says, "It's an immense privilege to write for a big audience, and I don't take it for granted. I'm very, very lucky!"

"Dirty Sexy Money" creator Craig Wright
"Dirty Sexy Money" creator Craig Wright