STAGE TO SCREENS: Chats With Whitford, Hurt, Howard, and Kodjoe

By Michael Buckley
04 May 2008

Bradley Whitford
Bradley Whitford

This month, Bradley Whitford (Boeing-Boeing), Mary Beth Hurt (Top Girls), Terrence Howard and Boris Kodjoe (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof).

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"I guess, because of TV, producers look upon me as someone who could sell tickets," says Bradley Whitford, an Emmy and SAG Awards winner for "The West Wing" (1999-2006; for which, he wrote two episodes). He's returning to Broadway in Boeing-Boeing. "For many years, as a younger actor in New York, I really hated a television guy who came in to do a play. Now, I'm that idiot. [Laughs]"

How did he become involved in a revival of the French farce (which had a short Broadway run in 1965, but ran seven years in London)? "I heard that [director] Matthew Warchus had an interest in me [to play Bernard], and wanted to meet. I read the script and became very enthusiastic. It's silly, and radically different from anything I've done lately."



 

Bradley Whitford in Boeing-Boeing
photo by Joan Marcus

States Whitford, "My character's engaged to three airline hostesses." His holding pattern falls victim to modern technology, when jet-speed innovation interferes with Bernard's carefully scheduled Parisian-apartment trysts. British actor Mark Rylance makes his Broadway debut as Whitford's pal, Robert, who unexpectedly crashes at the love nest, and two-time Tony-winner Christine Baranski plays his harried housekeeper, Berthe.

Whitford points out, "The [1965] movie is very different from the play. Bernard [played by Tony Curtis] is a newspaper man in the movie; in the play, he's an architect. [Featured in the film were a subdued Jerry Lewis (as Robert) and the always pitch-perfect Thelma Ritter (Berthe).] The movie has sort of a Rat Pack-gloss about the way the men deal with the women; in the play, it's less mercenary."

At Juilliard, Whitford earned a masters in theatre. He had the title role of Coriolanus at the Folger Shakespeare Theatre, and his films include "Scent of a Woman" (1992), "Philadelphia" (1993), and "The Client" (1994).

Josh Lyman on "The West Wing" (1999-2006) is "the longest relationship I've had with a role," claims Whitford, and also the one that's given him the most satisfaction. "It was a challenging schedule, crazy hours, but with a great group of New York actors — Allison Janney, Richard Schiff [whose brother was Whitford's college roommate and best friend], Martin Sheen, John Spencer..."

Nominated for an Emmy in 2001, '02, and '03, Whitford won the first time out. He jokes, "I'll be carrying it around onstage [in Boeing-Boeing]." He also received a 2001 SAG Award (as part of Best Ensemble) and was nominated on five other occasions.

He first met Aaron Sorkin, who created "The West Wing" and the actor's most-recent series "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" (2006-07), an episode of which Whitford directed, when he made his Broadway debut in the writer's A Few Good Men — first (July 1990), as a replacement in the role of Lt. Jack Ross, and two months later as a replacement in the lead role, Lt. j.g. Daniel A. Kaffee.

Previously, he'd appeared Off-Broadway in Sam Shepard's Curse of the Starving Class, opposite Kathy Bates, and, at The Public Theater, as Paris in Romeo and Juliet, in which he also understudied Romeo. In 1989, at the Mitzi Newhouse, he played Claudio in Measure for Measure, with Kate Burton as Isabella.

Burton introduced him to her best friend, actress Jane Kaczmarek, who became Mrs. Whitford in 1992. "They're about to do House of Blue Leaves together in L.A., with Kate as Bananas and Jane as Bunny." The Whitfords are parents of three: Frances (11), George (9), Mary ("I call her Lulu," 6).

Do any of them plan to follow in their parents' footsteps? "Our rule is that they're not allowed to do it for money until they go to college. One of them has no interest [in show business], which I'm very proud of. It's already too much of a fight for the mirror."

Kaczmarek played Lois, the mother of Frankie Muniz, the title character on "Malcolm in the Middle" (2000-06), and received six Emmy nominations and three Golden Globe nominations.

"My wife and I both had jobs where we really got lucky." The Madison, WI, native's first TV series was 1998's "The Secret Life of Men," with Peter Gallagher. "It died quickly."

Other New York stage appearance include the The Tower of Evil (1990; "I had totally forgotten about that"), and (his most recent turn) the 1997 Manhattan Theatre Club's Three Days of Rain.

Confides Whitford, "It's a relief to get a farce in front of an audience. Doing this play is a lot of fun."

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Among the stellar female cast of seven of the MTC's production of Caryl Churchill's Top Girls at the Biltmore, is Mary Beth Hurt, a three-time Tony nominee (Trelawney of the "Wells", Crimes of the Heart, Benefactors). According to Hurt, "The play's set in three places: a kind of dream state, a house in [Suffolk], and an office called 'Top Girls,' an employment agency in London. It was written in the '80s, at the height of women's liberation."

 

Mary Beth Hurt in Top Girls
photo by Joan Marcus

Unfamiliar with the original 1982 Off-Broadway production, I checked out the play, and found that it compares feminism in England and America, and also comments on Margaret Thatcher (then Britain's Prime Minister), who believed in Reaganomics. Focusing on a career woman, Marlene (played by Elizabeth Marvel), and her rise to success, it examines combining career with family life.

Continues Hurt, who plays Louise/Waitress, "I don't know that Caryl Churchill would agree; but, it seems to me, the play's kind of a rumination on choices women have to make throughout the ages — not choices that are thrust on them by men, but choices that involve ideology.

"The structure is non-linear. There's a dreamlike opening sequence in which Marlene meets famous women [factual and fictional] from the past." The ladies who lunch include Pope Joan (Martha Plimpton) who, disguised as a man, is supposed to have assumed the Papacy between 854 and 856; explorer Isabella Bird (Marisa Tomei); Dull Gret (Ana Reeder), a Flemish-folklore figure; Lady Nijo (Jennifer Ikeda), a Japanese emperor's mistress, and later a Buddhist nun; and Patient Griselda (Mary Catherine Garrison), a "Canterbury Tales" Chaucer character. While everyone gets drunk, it's revealed that each has suffered problems that parallel the contemporary characters.

Come August, Hurt celebrates her 25th wedding anniversary with writer-director-producer Paul Schrader, whose credits include screenplays for "Taxi Driver" and "Raging Bull."

They're parents of two: Sam and Molly. "I was fortunate enough to do both things I wanted to do in life — act and have children." Does either have show business ambitions? "Absolutely none!"

From 1971 to '81, she was Mrs. William Hurt. The Hurts spent a year in London, where Mary Beth (illegally) performed with "a little regional theatre in Ealing, called 'The Questers.' I did a play called Happy Haven, playing Mrs. Phineas, a woman about 110, who was in a wheelchair."

It was as a slightly younger (98) Vietnamese man, Uncle Remus, that she made her New York stage debut, at the Public, in Michael Weller's 1973 musical More Than You Deserve. Hurt was then hired by Joe Papp for Shakespeare in the Park.

Several plays followed, including Boy Meets Girl, which was televised on PBS (Jan. 12, 1977). She shot two "forgettable pilots," both of which were televised: "Royce," a Western with Robert Forster, and a women-cops sitcom "Ann in Blue," starring Penny Fuller.

Born Mary Beth Supinger, the middle of three daughters, in Marshalltown, IA, her baby sitter was Jean Seberg, the tragic actress (1938-79) who starred in Otto Preminger's "Saint Joan" (her 1957 film debut), and later committed suicide. Hurt narrated the 1997 documentary "From the Journals of Jean Seberg."

Hurt's movie debut occurred in 1978, playing Joey, the youngest of Geraldine Page and E.G. Marshall's three daughters, in Woody Allen's "Interiors." Recalls Hurt, "To get to do that movie with Maureen Stapleton and Geraldine Page was just wonderful!"

Other films include "Head over Heels," "The World According to Garp" (as Robin Williams' wife), "The Age of Innocence," and "Six Degrees of Separation." She may also be seen (sans credit) in "Hide in Plain Sight" (1980), starring and directed by James Caan. "They had to replace someone quickly. I was good friends with [cast members] Joe Grifasi and Jill Eikenberry. They called and asked if I'd do it. I said, 'Sure.' My agent said, 'No.' I did it for no credit, playing Joe's wife in two scenes — at a bowling alley and in a cocktail lounge."

Again playing one of three sisters, she won an Obie as Meg McGrath, a would-be singer, in the MTC production of Beth Henley's Pulitzer Prize-winning Crimes of the Heart, which transferred to Broadway. In Top Girls, Hurt plays two roles: Louise/Waitress. "I'm onstage longest as the waitress — and I say nothing."

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