STAGE TO SCREENS: Carla Gugino, David Hyde Pierce, and "In Treatment" Writer Leight

News   STAGE TO SCREENS: Carla Gugino, David Hyde Pierce, and "In Treatment" Writer Leight This month we speak to Carla Gugino ("Watchmen," Desire Under the Elms), David Hyde Pierce (Accent on Youth) and Tony Award winner Warren Leight (HBO's "In Treatment").
Carla Gugino
Carla Gugino

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It's the afternoon following opening night of Desire Under the Elms, at Broadway's St. James Theatre, and a day off (following nine successive performances of the 1924 Eugene O'Neill drama) for Carla Gugino, who stars as Abbie Putnam in the revival. "I needed the day off like I've never needed one before," she says. Still the black-haired Gugino takes time to chat in the lobby of a Manhattan hotel, where she's a guest.

Back in February, New York Times critic Charles Isherwood covered the Goodman Theatre's production of the play, in Chicago, and praised Gugino: "She displays a depth and range of expression that I cannot imagine any other actress achieving with such blazing honesty and wrenching truth. She is simply magnificent." Reviewing the Broadway transfer, Isherwood wrote that Gugino gives "a brave, luminous, ultimately haunting performance."

Says Gugino, "I read very few reviews, but I did read the one in Chicago, because I was told that [Isherwood] had really gotten what we were going for. People have read me quotes from the one today."

Were there particular challenges in playing Abbie? "There were so many. I didn't want to ever soften where she starts, or to do anything to make her more likable. What I found fascinating about the way O'Neill wrote her was she's not the classic femme fatale. She's not duplicitous. This is a woman who's never had a home, never had love, or any kind of real warmth in her life.  

Carla Gugino in Desire Under the Elms
photo by Liz Lauren

"But when she sees Eben [Pablo Schreiber], everything changes immediately. [Eben's the stepson of Abbie's new, much older husband, Ephraim, played by Brian Dennehy.] When she falls in love with Eben, she'll go to any length to protect that love. That took a lot of exploration."

Describing the Gugino-Schreiber scenes, Isherwood wrote: "Rarely has sexual passion been depicted with such tense, animalistic ferocity on a Broadway stage."

Acting since she was 13, Gugino has several TV credits, and has been a regular on seven series: "Falcon Crest," "The Buccaneers," "Spin City," "Chicago Hope," "Karen Sisco," "Threshold" and "Entourage," in which she appeared in Season Three (as a talent agent), and returns for the upcoming fifth season.

Numerous film credits include "This Boy's Life," the "Spy Kids" trilogy, "Sin City," "Night at the Museum," "American Gangster," "Righteous Kill," "Watchmen," and "Race to Witch Mountain."

Gugino has worked frequently with her significant other, writer-director Sebastian Gutierrez. (She points him out, across the lobby.) "He came in for 24 hours, for the opening."

They've worked together on a "Karen Sisco" episode, and the six films that he's directed: "Judas Kiss," TV's "Mermaid Chronicles Part I: She Creature," "Rise," and an upcoming trilogy, "Women in Trouble," "Elektra Luxx" (the porn-star character she plays in all three) and "Women in Ecstasy" — "which," she says, "is being edited now."

Two other pictures are due for release: In "Our Lady of Victory," she plays a basketball coach at an all girls' high school ("It's based on a true story"), and in "Every Day," she appears opposite Brian Dennehy, Helen Hunt, and Liev Schreiber, "Pablo's brother. I went from Liev to Pablo. They're incredibly talented, wonderful human beings."

This is her third New York-stage appearance, all of which were in revivals of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwrights' dramas. Currently, she's an Outer Critics Circle Award Best Actress nominee for the O'Neill tragedy. She also received an OCC nomination, as Catharine, Off-Broadway in Tennessee Williams' Suddenly, Last Summer, and won a Theatre World Award for her Broadway debut, as Maggie, in Arthur Miller's After the Fall.

Will Gugino only appear in plays by Pulitzer Prize winners? She laughs. "Those are things that I really responded to. With each play, I read a biography of the writer, and that has been very helpful to me.

 

Carla Gugino in After the Fall
photo by Joan Marcus

"Arthur Miller was still alive when I did After the Fall. We got to work with him, which was incredible!" She acknowledges that Maggie was "influenced by Marilyn [Monroe, Mrs. Miller, from 1956 to '60], but I know that Arthur felt that she was a separate character, and I didn't play her as Marilyn. I did a lot of research, used it as a point of departure — and then let it go.

"I feel completely blessed to have gotten to do the work of three of our greatest American playwrights. I'm grateful to [director] Michael Mayer, who gave me a shot to play this extraordinary role [in After the Fall] — having never been on Broadway, never acted on a New York stage. I was so warmly embraced by the theatre community, I knew that I wanted theatre to be a huge part of my career. I want to do something by a new playwright, and I'd love to do a comedy."

Born in Sarasota, FL, Gugino moved with her mother to Paradise, CA, following her parents' divorce. She worked briefly as a teenage model, "but [at 5-foot-4-inches] I was far too short. I came to New York City at 14, but it was far too daunting [to be by herself]. I went back to California. I've been living on my own since I was 16."

Which role, so far, has given her the most satisfaction? "I'm very fortunate, because I've played a lot of roles I've really loved. My character in 'Watchmen' aged from 25 to 67. I loved Maggie, which will always remain one of the most magical, life-changing experiences. And playing Abbie [in Desire Under the Elms] is no doubt one of the hardest things I've ever done — and, therefore, one of the most exhilarating."

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David Hyde Pierce
photo by Joan Marcus

Christopher Durang's 1982 play Beyond Therapy, starring John Lithgow and Dianne Wiest, marked the Broadway debut of David Hyde Pierce, who was billed as David Pierce. It wasn't until he joined SAG, and there already was a member with his name, that he added Hyde.

"That's my middle name, not hyphenated. When I attend an event, I never know if tickets will be under Hyde Pierce, or Pierce." The former was what Charles Isherwood used in his New York Times review of Samson Raphaelson's Accent on Youth, the Manhattan Theatre Club revival, now at the Samuel J. Friedman (formerly Biltmore) Theatre.

According to the critic, the Tony winner (Curtains) "hits his comic marks with the precision we've come to expect from his priceless turn on the long-running, exceptionally literate sitcom 'Frasier.'"

The series ran 11 seasons, from 1993 to 2004, earning Hyde Pierce as many Emmy nominations, of which he won four, as Niles Crane, brother of Kelsey Grammer's title character.

What attracted Hyde Pierce to Accent on Youth, a comedy that premiered on Broadway 75 years ago? "Dan Sullivan [who directed] brought it to me. Dan and I worked together on The Heidi Chronicles [in 1990, Hyde Pierce and Christine Lahti succeeded Boyd Gaines and Joan Allen in the Wendy Wasserstein play], and I had a great time.

"Dan was excited about this play. That got me interested. For a 1934 comedy [by Samson Raphaelson, concerning a May-December romance between a playwright and his secretary], it's a surprising play. I expected something wackier, or along the lines of a Noel Coward comedy.

"We put together a reading, and the final piece of the puzzle, for me, was Mary Catherine Garrison, who plays my secretary. Her part isn't easy, but she got it instantly. We have a good rapport."

 

Mary Catherine Garrison with David Hyde Pierce in Accent on Youth
photo by Joan Marcus

Nicholas Hannen and Constance Cummings starred in the original play, and Hannen reprised his role, opposite Greer Garson, on the London stage. Has Hyde Pierce seen any of the (three) movie versions? "I have, though none of us has been able to find the first one [1935, starring Herbert Marshall and Sylvia Sidney]. I don't know if it exists."

In 1950, the playwright character was changed to a composer (Bing Crosby), songs were added, and the title changed to "Mr. Music," co-starring Nancy Olson, and (as themselves) Groucho Marx, Peggy Lee, Marge and Gower Champion. Notes Hyde Pierce, "It's dated, but not bad."

Much closer to the story, he says, "is 'But Not for Me' [1959, with Clark Gable playing a producer, and Carroll Baker, his love interest] — but it's one of the worst movies ever made. Ella [Fitzgerald] sings the title song during the opening credits. One should watch the credits — and stop.

"All of us watched 'Trouble in Paradise,' a 1932 Ernst Lubitsch film [written by Samson Raphaelson], with Herbert Marshall, Miriam Hopkins, and Kay Francis. People don't know the movie, because it's about jewel thieves, and soon after its release, the Production Code came into play.

"They decided that it glorified criminals, and pulled it. Peter Bogdanovich introduces it [on DVD] as one of the three seminal American comedies of its day, along with 'Twentieth Century' and 'It Happened One Night.' It's one of the great comedies."

I'd read that Hyde Pierce watches "Frasier" re-runs, often with a martini or glass of wine. True? "Well, depending on what's in the refrigerator. Last night, I think it was a piece of goat cheese. I don't watch it consistently, but it brings back great memories, and still makes me laugh."

Does he have the opportunity to see John Mahoney (his TV dad) on this season's "In Treatment"? "Absolutely! I hadn't watched it; I don't watch much television. But someone reminded me that John was doing it. I watched it, and I love the show. John is fantastic! He's a born actor, like a fish in water."

Was it difficult to get beyond the role of Niles? "Outside of New York, anyone who knows me, if they know me, knows me as Niles. It was hard to get away from Niles while the show was on. Movies offered were more of the same.

"Coming right out of 'Frasier,' I was so lucky to do Spamalot, because it was a different medium, with different characters, and a different style of humor. I wasn't asking people to accept me as Willy Loman.

"Spamalot was a great way to shake it up, and Curtains [the John Kander-Fred Ebb-Rupert Holmes show] took me even further away. I expected it to be harder to get away from Niles. I think that audiences have become more sophisticated."

His first sitcom experience was 1992's "The Powers That Be," starring John Forsythe. The short-lived series cast Hyde Pierce as Theodore Van Horn, an unhappily married, suicidal congressman. He was disappointed when it ended, but TV success was waiting in the wings, with "Frasier," the long-running spin-off of "Cheers."

Over the years, in New York and regionally, Hyde Pierce has appeared in several plays, among them Holiday (as Ned, "a great role"); Summer; That's It, Folks!; Candida; The Seagull; The Cherry Orchard (at BAM, and on tour in Japan and the Soviet Union); Tartuffe; Hamlet (as Laertes); The Maderati; Much Ado About Nothing; Zero Positive; Waiting for Godot (understudy to Bill Irwin, as Lucky, "in the [1988] Lincoln Center production, starring Robin Williams and Steve Martin"); Elliot Loves; It's Only a Play; Trial by Jury; The Boys from Syracuse; The Guys; and an oak tree.

During the last season of "Frasier," Scott Ellis, who directed several "Frasier" episodes, offered Hyde Pierce the lead in Curtains, playing Lieutenant Frank Cioffi, a police detective investigating a backstage murder in Boston. However, he was committed to do Spamalot, but Fred Ebb's death postponed the mystery musical, and Hyde Pierce was able to do both. Hyde Pierce, said the New York Times review, "steps into full-fledged Broadway stardom."

Curtains co-star Karen Ziemba greatly admires him. The Contact Tony winner tells me, "David was a great leader [of the company]. We were an extremely happy family. He was protective of everyone. He cares about how people feel, and about their lives. I think that he has incredible sex appeal, and he's one of the funniest people ever. Sex appeal and humor — what tops that?"

 

David Hyde Pierce in Curtains
photo by Joan Marcus

Youngest of four (he has two sisters and a brother), Hyde Pierce was "born in a hospital in Albany [NY], but grew up in Saratoga Springs." He began acting in high school, and (initially) studied classical piano at Yale.

"Half-way through college I started taking [drama] classes. Before that, I had acted purely for fun. After graduation, I came to New York." It was there he met another struggling actor, Brian Hargrove (now a writer-producer-director). After 25 years together, they married in October 2008.

"Bright Lights, Big City" (1988) marked Hyde Pierce's movie debut. Among his films: "Little Man Tate" (star-director Jodie Foster had seen the actor when both attended Yale), "Crossing Delancey," "The Fisher King," "Sleepless in Seattle" and Oliver Stone's "Nixon" (as John W. Dean). Extensive voiceovers include "A Bug's Life," "Hellboy," "The Amazing Screw-On Head," and TV's "The Simpsons."

He devotes much of his time to the Alzheimer's Association (his father suffered from the disease). Hyde Pierce hosts their annual "Forget Me Not" gala, June 1, at the Pierre Hotel. He also supports AIDS and LGBT organizations.

Are there any dream roles? "No. I've done some Chekhov — an extraordinary challenge, almost impossible to do right, but certainly worth trying — and I hope there's more Chekhov in my future. I also love creating roles."

Is there a role that has been the most satisfying? "I've been so lucky in my career — not in terms of success, although that's true — but in the parts I've gotten to play, people I've gotten to work with. I liked playing Niles. Was it more fun than anything else? No."

Three of the biggest influences on his career were Edward Herrmann, Mike Nichols and Uta Hagen. Herrmann "told me to go to New York, and see if I really wanted to do this." Nichols directed him in "Wolf," Waiting for Godot, Elliot Loves, and Spamalot.

Recalls Hyde Pierce, "Mike told us, 'One of the things you have to do is alter your favorite moment, the moment when you know how to get your guaranteed laugh.' He called it 'your favorite squeak and turn. Change it. Do something different one night.'

"Once you give yourself the freedom to not care about any given moment and how the audience responds to it, then you have total freedom onstage. If you let go of individual moments, you might discover something that never, in your wildest dreams, would you have found."

Remembering Uta Hagen, with whom he co-starred in Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks (in 2001) at the Geffen Playhouse, in L.A., Hyde Pierce says, "I learned from her, just by being onstage with her. I absorbed so much about what it is to really exist onstage. That was a life-and-career-changing experience, aside from the fact that I loved her. We had the best time. We just clicked. I can say, without modesty, we were great together.

"Ms. Hagen and I were going to do the play on Broadway, and then she had a stroke. I said I wouldn't do it without her." (Polly Bergen and Mark Hamill co-starred in a 2003 short-lived Broadway production.) Hyde Pierce has just written the foreword for a reissue of Hagen's first book "Respect for Acting." I mention my interview with her, when I asked her to sign the book. "Did she fling it across the room?" he asks.

No. She said, "I have disassociated myself from that book. If people ask me to sign it, I write, 'Throw it away — Uta Hagen.'" Instead, she gave me a copy of her second book, "A Challenge for the Actor," which she signed.

Explains Hyde Pierce, "After the first book, she would go around the country, and sit in on acting classes, and see people doing these god-awful, unwatchable exercises. Then, they'd turn to her proudly, and say, 'We were doing what you taught in your book.'

"She thought: 'Oh, my God, what I have done?' She wrote 'Challenge for the Actor' to try to make it clearer. I think that one should read both books. We remained friends till the day she died [Jan. 14, 2004]. It was one of the great relationships of my life.

"While working on Accent on Youth, I thought of her a lot. There's enough meat in the play, so that the other actors and I can explore new approaches. That's the thing I really took away from working with Ms. Hagen."

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HBO's "In Treatment" (Sundays and Mondays, 9 PM ET; and On Demand) started its second season April 5. (Season one is available on DVD.) Each week, there are five episodes — this season: two on Sunday; three on Monday. Four feature analyst Paul Weston (Gabriel Byrne, a Season One Golden Globe winner) and respective patients; one episode observes his therapy session with mentor Dr. Gina Toll (Season One Emmy winner Dianne Wiest).

 

Warren Leight
photo by Aubrey Reuben

Warren Leight, a Tony winner for Side Man (1999's Best Play), is one of six executive producers, and the second-season show runner — which means, "You do the casting, work on every episode, look at every costume," he says. "You tone the script, give notes, do a little polish, either a minor or major rewrite. You sit with directors, mostly freelance guys, jobbed in, and walk them through every beat of every line. You're on the set for the first take of every set-up. Then, you're editing, and trying to get the next day's episode ready. The buck stops with you, on every decision. With 35 episodes, you run yourself into the ground.

"Even with world-class actors, great writers, and a very good crew — we shot it like a Mexican telenovela. We shot the episodes in 74 days, which is ridiculous." Last season was filmed in L.A., and this season "at Silvercup Studios in Queens."

New York Times reviewer Alessandra Stanley observed, "In many ways the second season is richer," and New York Post critic Kyle Smith stated, "The writing...could not be tighter or purer....Each episode is like a two-character play pared down into one critical scene." Weston has relocated to Brooklyn from Maryland, after a bitter breakup with his wife (Michelle Forbes). He returns there on weekends to see their children, teenager Rosie (Mae Whitman) and younger brother Max (Max Burkholder), and also for his therapy session. The season started with Weston being served an injunction for a malpractice suit, brought against him by a deceased patient's father (a cameo by Glynn Turman, a Season One Guest Actor Emmy winner).

Based on an Israeli TV series, "Be'Tipul," created by Hagai Levi (who's directed some HBO episodes), the U.S. show was developed and produced by first-season show runner Rodrigo Garcia. The Israeli title "is a literal translation of 'In Treatment,'" reveals Leight. "I think that they should have called it 'In Therapy.'"

Episodes are adapted from the Israeli series — "though it's a bit of an insult to the New York writers to call them 'adaptations.' Each episode requires two days to shoot. Usually, 'the patient' is filmed first. That gives Gabriel time to get up to speed. The 'patients' have had their scripts for a week. Gabriel didn't want to know too far in advance what was going to happen with his patients. Two cameras are running almost all the time. There isn't any rehearsal. You start at seven in the morning, with a script that's never been read aloud.

"Most often, we start on a shot that Gabriel's not in. It's called 'a clean single.' Shooting over Gabriel's shoulder is 'a dirty single.' By the time we turn the camera around to photograph Gabriel, he's ready."

Leight hired playwrights, "because they can't make a living in theatre. Everything is grant-based. That's why I had the quality of writers that I did." Jacquelyn Reingold writes the storyline for Mia, a 43-year-old attorney. "I worked with Jackie — on ['Law & Order:] Criminal Intent.' She's great for Mia," who's played by Hope Davis (now on Broadway in God of Carnage). "When Hope was cast, I didn't have to worry."

Sarah Treem, he tells me, "is our youngest writer. I thought that Sarah would respond well to April," a 23-year-old college student, portrayed by Alison Pill [a Tony nominee for The Lieutenant of Inishmore].

"Everyone in New York knows Alison, and how good she is. She was less well-known to execs out west. I waited them out."

Keith Bunin writes the storyline for 11-year-old Oliver, played by a superb child actor, Aaron Shaw. "Gabriel was great with him. From time to time, we improvised. That loosened him up. Then we'd go back to the script."

Sherri Saum and Russell Hornsby play Oliver's parents, "and Keith Nobbs will be in the 'Oliver' episodes, starting week five, I believe."

 

Dianne Wiest and Gabriel Byrne in "In Treatment"
photo by Abbot Genser

Marsha Norman (a Pulitzer Prize winner for 'night Mother, a Tony winner for The Secret Garden) writes the Gina-Paul [Dianne Wiest-Gabriel Byrne] episodes. "I ended up taking over the storyline for Walter [a CEO in his 60s], who has the weight of the world on his shoulders. As a show-runner, it was easy for me to get into the character. [Laughs]

"Everyone knows John Mahoney [who plays Walter] as the 'Frasier' father [twice an Emmy nominee], but he's also a Tony winner [The House of Blue Leaves]. His work ethic is remarkable.

"John was doing eight shows a week, in The Seafarer, at the Goodman [he's now in the play at L.A.'s Geffen Playhouse]. He would get on a plane Sunday night, arrive at his hotel at midnight, and be on our set at 6:30 in the morning — letter perfect."

Though enjoyable, Leight describes his "In Treatment" experience as "like being in a cave for six months." Having emerged, he's focusing on his first love — the stage. "I'm doing a workshop of a new play, Home Front, in June… Evan Yionoulis is directing. She directed the first [productions of] Three Days of Rain and The American Plan. We just began to discuss casting.

"A musical version of A Separate Peace [based on the John Knowles novel]" is also on tap. "It's set at a boys' prep school, toward the end of World War II. The score's by Todd Almond, and Stafford Arima [Altar Boyz] is directing."

Married to Karen Hauser (of the Broadway League), the Leights have a two-year-old daughter, Isabel, "and one on the way." Of his work, to date, what has given him the most satisfaction? "It's always going to be Side Man, at the rehearsal room at Vassar. Not even the New York transfer, which took two years, compared.

"Michael Mayer directed [as he did on Broadway], Edie Falco [who would receive a Theatre World Award] was a waitress, and Frank Wood [who would earn a Tony] was teaching math in a high school. We were all so young. I learned more about what I do for a living during those three weeks in Poughkeepsie, than I'll ever know."

Has HBO picked up "In Treatment" for a third season? "Not yet. The reviews are very good, but we don't know for sure. It's a very stressful job for Gabriel, and I don't think you can do the show without him."

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Various and Sundry

Brotherhood: The feature film, "Lymelife," written by Steven Martini and his brother Derick Martini (making his directorial bow), stars Alec Baldwin (one of four brothers who act) as the father of two real-life brothers, Rory Culkin and Kieran Culkin. The Martinis also appear in the film (Steven as a cab driver; Derick, a photographer), and the executive producer is Martin Scorsese, who's made a few films about a group called "the Brotherhood."

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Motherhood: The "Partridge Family"-"Brady Bunch" TV-Moms, Shirley Jones, Florence Henderson, will hit the road together, starting at the Indianapolis Hilbert Circle Theatre (Nov. 20-22). The concert features songs (solos, duets), anecdotes, and clips.

Both ladies share Rodgers & Hammerstein connections. They've played Laurey in Oklahoma! (Henderson in 1953, at City Center, with Barbara Cook as Ado Annie; Jones in the 1955 movie), and both have been in South Pacific (Jones made her Broadway debut as a replacement Ensign; Henderson starred as Nellie in a 1967 Lincoln Center production). Jones was Julie in the film version of "Carousel," and Henderson played Maria on tour in The Sound of Music.

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Impressionism closes May 10 on Broadway, but its stars Jeremy Irons, Joan Allen will still be dealing with the art world: In a September Lifetime movie "Georgia O'Keeffe," Irons plays Alfred Stieglitz (O'Keeffe's husband) and Allen has the title role. Bob Balaban ("Bernard and Doris" Emmy nominee) directs.

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This year's "Memorial Day Concert" (May 24), a live PBS telecast, from Washington, DC, features Brian Stokes Mitchell, Katie Holmes, Colm Wilkinson, Laurence Fishburne, Dianne Wiest, Gary Sinise.

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Three-time Emmy winner ("Roseanne") and Tony nominee (November) Laurie Metcalf will play Kate Jerome in the Broadway revivals of two Neil Simon plays, Brighton Beach Memoirs, Broadway Bound.

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Whoopi Goldberg joins the second season of the A&E series "The Cleaner," which stars Benjamin Bratt as an interventionist. (Perhaps he can intervene to try to get Goldberg's co-hosts on "The View" to stop speaking simultaneously.)

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Stage to Screens is Playbill.com's monthly column that connects the dots between theatre, film and television projects and people. Contact Michael Buckley at stagetoscreens@aol.com.