STAGE TO SCREENS: Chats with Maura Tierney, Plus "Hamlet 2" Creator Fleming and Actors Astin & Strole

Stage to Screens   STAGE TO SCREENS: Chats with Maura Tierney, Plus "Hamlet 2" Creator Fleming and Actors Astin & Strole This month we speak to Maura Tierney (Three Changes, "ER"), Andrew Fleming ("Hamlet 2"), and two actors in Fleming's film: Skylar Astin and Phoebe Strole.
Maura Tierney
Maura Tierney Photo by Jack Guy

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Previews of Nicky Silver's Three Changes began Aug. 22 at Playwrights Horizons. Prior to Wednesday's tech rehearsal, Maura Tierney takes time to discuss the play, as well as her Emmy-nominated role as Abby Lockhart on TV's "ER." (She's already taped her last two episodes, which will be seen early in the series' upcoming 15th, and final, season.)

Telling her that the show's publicist kindly sent me a copy of the five-character dark comedy, Tierney says with a laugh, "Great. Maybe you could tell me what it's about." She describes her New Yorker character, Laurel, as "a professional woman, who's married and has a lovely apartment on the Upper West Side.

"On the surface, she's an ideal wife, but as the play unfolds, you realize how hard she's working — and how hard all the characters are struggling — to maintain the appearance of normal, happy, successful, all these ideas of what the world is supposed to be, and what we're supposed to achieve."

Directed by Wilson Milam (The Lieutenant of Inishmore), the cast is completed by Dylan McDermott (as Laurel's husband, Nate), Scott Cohen (Nate's brother, Hal), Brian J. Smith (Gordon, a 19-year-old runaway), and Aya Cash (Nate's mistress, Steffi). Laurel works as a catalogue-layout designer for L.L. Bean, a job that she tells Hal could be done by "a chimp on thorazine." Continues Tierney, "I've wanted to do another play since I did Neil LaBute's Some Girl(s) [Off-Broadway, in 2006]. I finished my TV show this year, and I thought it would be smart, coming off that, to challenge myself. It's such a different way of working."

Does she enjoy the rehearsal process? "I do. It's a little bit difficult sometimes to switch back and forth [between media]. I was on 'ER' so long [since 1999], and TV's almost like instant acting. We cover a lot of material in a day, and we don't rehearse that much. You get sort of facile at working that way. You develop certain muscles. You can just turn it on, which I think is a good thing.

"The downside is the other muscles get kind of flabby. You have to switch over and slow down — mentally and physically. You get to think about [character and dialogue] a lot more, and experiment a lot more. It's fun.

"Doing a play once a night, you go from moment to moment to moment. You're in that moment, then you move on. That's exciting! On TV, there'll be a set-up. You do one moment nine, ten, or more times. I'm looking forward to living in the moment and moving through it, as opposed to stopping and doing it again, and then doing a close-up."

Tierney's appeared in 187 "ER" episodes, and particularly enjoyed the (2000-01 season) arc, in which Sally Field played her alcoholic mother. "I think that was the highlight. She's such a wonderful actress, and a really smart lady." (As Maggie Wyczenski, Field won a 2001 Emmy, and between 2000 and 2006, did a total of 11 episodes.)

Might Tierney be willing to divulge Abby's fate on "ER"? "Everything's alright with Abby," she confides. "My character's had so much tragedy and so many hard times that the writers just wanted to give her some peace. Basically, I go off into the sunset with Goran's character. [Goran Visnjic plays Abby's husband, Dr. Luka Kovac.] I think my last episodes will be the second and third of the season."

Once quoted that there was more interesting work on TV than in movies, she clarifies, "I don't think that in general. What I meant was that the stuff they wrote for me on 'ER' was a lot more challenging than anything anyone was offering me movie-wise at the time."

Among movies she made, does she have a favorite? "I loved 'Primary Colors,' and I really enjoyed 'Semi-Pro.' It's hard to choose one." Prior to "ER," Tierney played Lisa Miller in 97 episodes of "News Radio" (1995-99). "I had so much fun on that show."

Born in Boston, she's the eldest of three (two daughters and a son) of Patricia and Joseph Tierney. Her mother's a real-estate agent; her father served eight terms as a city councilman, and ran for mayor.

Growing up, actors she admired included "Jessica Lange, Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Al Pacino. My movie knowledge began in the '70s; I'm not familiar with the classics. Films like 'All the President's Men' and 'Dog Day Afternoon' awakened me to wanting to be an actor.

"It's what I've wanted since I was very young. I acted in high school. In college, I was a dance major, my freshman year, but I realized that wasn't what I wanted to be doing. I had a lot of friends in the drama department, and I switched. I felt much more comfortable."

Which role has given Tierney the most satisfaction? "I'd have to say Abby. 'ER' was a great, great, great job for me. I got to work with so many great guest actors."

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"Hamlet 2," a quirky, offbeat comedy that premiered Aug. 22 in Manhattan and opens nationwide Aug. 27, was directed and co-written (with "South Park" veteran, Pam Brady) by Andrew Fleming.

"We were not interested in making a parody of an inspirational-teacher movie," Fleming explains. "Instead, we wanted to make a movie about a guy who thinks he's living an inspirational-teacher movie. He's kind of an idiot, but his enthusiasm carries him through."

That character is Dana Marschz (portrayed by Britain's Steve Coogan), a Tucson-based failed actor turned high-school drama coach, whose decision to write and direct a musical sequel to the melancholy Dane's madcap antics — with a time machine to revive the deceased — incurs gripes of wrath aplenty.

Fleming, whose credits include "Threesome" (1994), "Dick" (1999), and "Nancy Drew" (2007), previously worked with co-author Brady on two ABC pilots, "which were probably too eccentric for network television. We decided to try to write a feature script of our own, and not try to set it up anywhere. That was at the end of 2002.

"Last year at this time, we started scouting [for financing]. From then until now was an astonishingly quick turn-around. After wrapping production, we had 10 weeks to show it to Sundance [where it was a 2008 festival hit]."

Steve Coogan and Skylar Astin in "Hamlet 2"
photo by Cathy Kanavy

Originally, the Hamlet 2 musical-within-the-movie had lesser significance, but Fleming decided to enlarge it ("I'd never staged a musical number") and add songs, three of which he and Brady penned (in part): "Rock Me Sexy Jesus" (performed by Coogan as Christ, backed by a gay-men's chorus), "Raped in the Face," and "Gay as the Day Is Long." Does the last song, played over the closing credits, have any reference to Marschz? Answers Fleming, "No. It was intended as part of the musical — it was about Laertes coming out. But things were getting too long." Spring Awakening supplied Fleming with two original-cast members who play Marschz's leading players: Skylar Astin (as the closeted-gay Rand) and Phoebe Strole (a narrow-minded Epiphany). Astin and Strole "are both really talented," Fleming points out. "They both read and nailed it. They were right on in their choices."

Awakening, states Fleming, "was the kind of show that [Marschz] would put on. I don't mean it disparagingly. The style's not conventional. It's almost as if the young people in the cast are putting the show on themselves. It's an MTV-type version of a Broadway musical."

With the Hamlet 2 musical, Fleming says, "We weren't trying to do something bad or good; you don't have to have just one response. We were trying to captivate everybody with a high-school effort, have them be riveted, and show how the characters are affected."

Catherine Keener appears as Marschz's wife, Brie, and David Arquette plays their boarder, Gary. Missing from the movie is a scene sexually involving the Marschzes and Gary in a threesome. "We filmed it, but it was too confusing. People were unsettled by it, as was I. It will be on the DVD."

In the movie, Elisabeth Shue is cast as herself. "When she read, the character was generically written and called Famous Actress." The plot calls for the "Leaving Las Vegas" Oscar nominee to be toiling in Tuscon. "She read it, liked it, and was up for the madness. She exceeded everybody's hopes for the part."

There are amusing cameos by Amy Poehler (as ACLU rep Cricket Feldstein) and young Shea Pepe, playing the ninth-grade (literally) critic, who pans Marschz's pre-Hamlet 2 production of Erin Brockovich). "He's never been in a movie before. He was attending a performing-arts school [in Albuquerque]." Incidentally, Albuquerque stands in for Tucson, where the story is set. Fleming notes, "It's easier and cheaper to shoot there."

Affirming a production-notes' quote — "Drama teachers are always insane" — Fleming feels "like I can say that. I was a drama-camp kid, ephemerally part of the drama department in high school — essentially a scenery, production-design guy, took acting classes in college, went on to film school, and attended a two-year follow-up program. I feel I've been exposed to quite a spectrum of acting teachers. Yes, they are all insane — completely!"

Is there a Fleming movie, to date, that has given the director the most satisfaction? "I love [the Watergate-themed comedy] 'Dick,' but I feel a real connection to Dana [Marschz]. He's my favorite character ever, because he's so hapless but enthusiastic at the same time. I'm very, very happy with this movie. I look forward to seeing the response."

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"Hamlet 2" co-stars Sklyar Astin and Phoebe Strole
photo by Cathy Kanavy

From Stage to Screens: A five-week leave from Spring Awakening allowed Skylar Astin (Georg) and Phoebe Strole (Anna) to make their movie debuts in "Hamlet 2." Native New Yorker Astin describes his character, Rand, as someone "who just wants to succeed, and is jealous of the other students." He enjoyed the shooting in Albuquerque "and one day in Times Square. It was all a joy, a great work environment."

Fort Worth-born Strole admits that her character, Epiphany, "is very religious, but a little bit racist." She's amused when I remind her that an Avenue Q song insists that everyone is the latter.

Absence from the musical "not only made me miss the show," Astin tells me, "but also made me fully appreciate what we did in it. I'll never forget my first night back. It felt like I was doing it for the first time again."

Though briefly seen in the 2007 feature "Descent," Strole regards "Hamlet 2" as her real movie debut. She played a recurring role in three episodes of "Rescue Me" (in 2004), and appeared in a two-part 2005 "Law & Order: Criminal Intent."

Counting the workshop, Off-Broadway engagement, and transfer to Broadway, Astin and Strole spent two-and-a-half years with Awakening, and agree that the backstage camaraderie was very real and heartfelt.

Recalls Astin, "We never dragged our feet into the theatre." Strole relates, "I was lucky enough to play Wendla [the female lead] for a whole week, but I missed my character. I loved Anna." In July, came the bitch of leaving, but while they praise the experience, both concur that the time had come to move on.

Recently, Strole returned to Albuquerque "for three or four days" to play in an upcoming Renee Zellweger film, "My One and Only." She laughs when I ask if she only makes movies shot in Albuquerque. "It seems that way."

Astin's excited about his soon-to-be-filmed role — "in Ang Lee's 'Taking Woodstock' [a 2009 release, to coincide with music festival's 40th anniversary]. Jon[athan] Groff, the original Melchior [in Spring Awakening] has one of the leads." Adds the sincere Astin, "I wouldn't have it any other way."

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Various and Sundry

Now making his Broadway debut as Melchior in Spring Awakening is "Weeds" actor Hunter Parrish, who plays the son of Mary-Louise Parker (a "Weeds" Golden Globe winner, Emmy and Golden Globe winner for "Angels in America", and Tony winner for Proof).

Just signed for a Coen brothers 2009 release, "A Serious Man", are Broadway's Michael Stuhlbarg (Tony nominee for The Pillowman, and this summer's Hamlet, at the Delacorte) and Richard Kind (a replacement Max Bialystock in The Producers, and TV-regular on "Spin City").

Elisabeth Moss ("Mad Men") makes her Broadway debut Oct. 23, recreating the role that Madonna originated, in the revival of Speed-the-Plow, the David Mamet play, co-starring Jeremy Piven (of TV's "Entourage") and Raul Esparza.

John Glover (currently in The Marriage of Bette and Boo), Tony Goldwyn, and Olivia d'Abo guest star on the Aug. 24 season finale of "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" (USA, 9 PM ET)...And Ellen Burstyn, who scored both Oscar and Tony wins in 1975 (for "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" and Same Time, Next Year), will play mom to Christopher Meloni on a "Law & Order: SVU" (scheduled to air Oct. 21).

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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.

"Hamlet 2" director Andy Fleming with stars Steve Coogan and Catherine Keener.
"Hamlet 2" director Andy Fleming with stars Steve Coogan and Catherine Keener. Photo by Cathy Kanavy
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