Far from Hollywood
By Naila Francis
David Strathairn understands that it’s a game.
But even as he’s playing by the rules, the gifted character actor can’t help but ponder their arbitrary nature.
In Philadelphia to star in the Wilma Theater’s production of “Leaving,” the U.S. premiere of playwright and former Czech president Vclav Havel’s first work in 20 years, Strathairn is doing the necessary promotional rounds.
That the spotlight should be on him, however, versus any of the other actors in the 15-member cast feels like a bit of rather ill-fitting prominence.
“That’s weird to me. Why not (interview) somebody who it’s their first time in a Havel play and working at the Wilma and they’re five years into their acting career?” he says. “It’s kind of odd. It’s the game in a way, but what I have to say is just opinion and it’s no more or less than anybody else’s opinion.”
His leading role in the play is indeed being credited with bringing a bit of Hollywood to the Wilma, despite his having appeared in two other Wilma productions and having first begun his collaborations with the theater’s co-artistic director, Jiri Zizka, in the off-Broadway production of Havel’s “Temptation” in 1989.
But Strathairn, reposing with a ruminative ease in the Wilma’s lobby, a week before the play’s Wednesday opening in previews, is the first to assert that there is little Hollywood about him, at least not by today’s standards of celebrity.
And a celebrity he is certainly not, refuting even any claims to stardom.
“It requires a different approach,” says the 61-year-old, who earned a best actor Oscar nomination, his first, for his riveting turn as American broadcaster Edward R. Murrow in George Clooney’s 2005 biopic “Good Night, and Good Luck.” “That’s a particular kind of iron you have to keep in the fire. It’s a hot skillet out there and things tend to evaporate quickly.”
As if to illustrate his point, he notes that his Academy Award honor (“Good Night, and Good Luck” also earned him his first Golden Globe nod for best actor) was not followed by the usual proffering of similar high-profile roles and did little to change his career trajectory. Yet, as Strathairn speaks with a measured quiet, gracious and unassuming in jeans and a black North Face jacket tossed over a light knit sweater, one senses a certain deliberate intent in forging that path.
PURPOSE IN HIS PROJECTS
Following what many critics referred to as “the performance of a lifetime,” he turned his diligence and dedication to what he does best, taking up character roles in films such as “We Are Marshall” and “Fracture,” as well as more substantial parts in independent projects like “The Sensation of Sight” and “The Notorious Bettie Page.” He also appeared in blockbusters like “The Bourne Ultimatum” and the fantasy film adaptation “The Spiderwick Chronicles,” but picked up TV appearances, too, narrating the four-part PBS series “The Supreme Court,” playing a chess master in an episode of “Monk” and most recently, in April, creating a tearjerker moment as a dying patient on “House.”
“I usually pick a project based on whether I’d like to see it or not,” says Strathairn, acknowledging that while he prefers the stage, “you do have to pay the bills, and television and film often are more lucrative than theater. Film is an extraordinarily powerful medium and when it’s used well, it can offer a very powerful experience, but if you could do theater 52 weeks a year and get paid for it, like the actors in Poland and London and other parts of Europe do, that would be great.”
One of his more recent — and unusual — projects has been his participation in Theater of War, an independent production company that stages readings from two plays by Sophocles, “Ajax” and “Philoctetes,” at military communities across the globe. The goal is to communally explore the psychic impact of war from the perspective of these Greek tales, which chronicle the anguish of its characters and the villainous acts that war can induce soldiers to commit against their fellow officers.
“The Greeks knew they had to deal with the effects of the Trojan War on their community, that they had to deal with the psychological health of their community, and they decided to do that by putting it into a theatrical context,” says Strathairn.
“This gives a person a context in which to experience feelings that are sometimes hard to express directly, unless it’s with a caregiver or health worker. It’s a different way to access and get the conversation going about war, and it’s a testament to the power of theater. … It’s where theater becomes a healing experience.”
FROM IMPROBABLE BEGINNINGS
Given how impassioned he is about theater, it’s no surprise that the San Francisco native and upstate New York resident got his start in entertainment on the stage — though in perhaps less-likely beginnings.
After graduating from Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, where he was involved in experimental theater, Strathairn had a brief stint as a circus clown, having trained at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College in Florida.
“That was kind of a wild, crazy impulse to check it out and see what it was all about,” says the actor, who then gravitated toward children’s theater, helping to found a company with actor Gordon Clapp in Glen Falls, New York, and other stage work. “I didn’t join the circus with the intention of it being my life, but it was a great experience.”
Honing his acting skills at summer stock in New Hampshire, he reconnected with director John Sayles, whom he’d done theater with at Williams College. It was Sayles who gave him his first film role in 1980’s “Return of the Secaucus 7,” launching a fruitful collaboration that would include supporting roles in films such as “The Brother from Another Planet,” “Passion Fish,” “City of Hope” and, most notably, “Eight Men Out,” in which he played the morally flawed Chicago White Sox baseball pitcher Eddie Cicotte.
“That’s how I cut my teeth, learning what it was to make a movie,” says Strathairn, who eventually went on to star in supporting roles in hit films such as “The Firm,” “L.A. Confidential,” “The River Wild” and “A League of Their Own.” “I’m sure I would not be as far along as I am if it were not for John giving us all these opportunities to work without that pressure. He created a really safe and delightful place to learn about the movies.”
FAVORING A TRANSFORMATIONAL GENIUS
That Strathairn, who can next be seen in “Howl,” a film based on Allen Ginsberg’s poem and starring James Franco as the famous poet, is one of the most versatile and conscientious actors working today is what led the Wilma’s Zizka to personally tap him for the role of ex-Chancellor Dr. Vilem Rieger in “Leaving.”
Zizka, a native of Prague who decided on a career in theater after seeing a production of Havel’s “The Memorandum” at 15 years of age, first met Strathairn when he was still a relatively unknown actor in New York. He hired him for the American premiere of “Temptation,” Vaclav’s reworking of “Faust,” following an audition but notes that Strathairn did not audition for his other Wilma appearances in David Gow’s “Cherry Docs” and Tom Stoppard’s “Every Good Boy Deserves Favor.”
“He is a transformational actor. In ‘Every Good Boy Deserves Favor,’ he played an insane patient in an asylum in the Soviet Union. That’s very different than Vilem Rieger, who is a quintessential European chancellor, but David has that ability to transform from one role to the next,” says Zizka, noting his remarkable turn as Noah Vosen, the evil head of a covert CIA wing, in “The Bourne Ultimatum.”
In “Leaving,” which is being directed by Zizka, Strathairn plays an aging politician displaced from office by his unscrupulous rival in an unnamed country in central Europe. As Rieger struggles to manage his eccentric family and the swarm of officials who provide many of the play’s humorous moments at the orchard villa where he retires, he also confronts some painful truths about power and what it is to lose it.
According to Zizka, Strathairn’s familiarity with the much-banned, often-imprisoned dramatist has been essential to the mounting of the play.
“We understand each other and I know he understands Vclav Havel,” he says, adding that Havel is a friend of Stoppard, the Czech-born British playwright, with whom he shares a similar aesthetic. “Language is always the star of the piece, and David understands that innately and naturally. You don’t have to explain much to him. He’s very intellectual.”
THE PARTICULAR CHALLENGE OF HAVEL
Strathairn last appeared in the Philadelphia area in the fall in People’s Light & Theatre Company’s production of “Nathan the Wise” (he got involved with the Chester County theater more than 10 years ago starring in friend Russell Davis’ play “Sally’s Gone, She Left Her Name”). Though he has had to turn down other parts at the Wilma over the years due to scheduling conflicts, he always appreciates the opportunity to return.
“The Wilma is a pretty special place in that it uses all available and affordable tools of the theater to nurture a theatricality that pushes the envelope,” he says. “They strive to nurture and perpetuate the magic of live theater, which is always coming under the pressure of budget constraints and a public that’s more susceptible to other forms of media and to television.”
And so in some ways, there seems no better place to perform in “Leaving” than at the Wilma, given that Havel — who is expected to attend opening night on May 26 — is known for his keen political satires spun from, among other things, absurdist humor, intricate explorations of language and sweeping allusions to history and art.
In “Leaving,” for instance, the playwright references lines from some of his previous works and makes no secret that the script was inspired by Anton Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard,” Samuel Beckett’s “Endgame” and Shakespeare’s “King Lear.”
“The tricky thing is to hold all these resonances and references to other influences in the writing that Havel has,” says Strathairn. “It’s grounded and farcical … there are so many different frequencies at play. Learning to blend them all into something consistent so the audience doesn’t feel barraged by all these seeming inconsistencies — that’s a pretty exciting challenge learning how to do that.”
He admits that another no-less-welcome challenge has been getting to the core of Havel’s intention with this work. Many have wondered if the play, which opened in Prague in a small experimental theater in 2008 and had its English language premiere in London later that year, is an autobiographical account of the playwright’s own departure from office in 2003.
But according to Zizka, the intellectual dissident actually began working on “Leaving” in 1988, a year before his leadership in the Velvet Revolution would bring on the bloodless overthrow of Czechoslovakia’s communist government and launch him into the presidency.
It was only after leaving his post as president of the Czech Republic following two terms that he again picked up the play.
LETTING THE ROLE SPEAK
That “Leaving” may hint of Havel’s own history is all part of the playwright’s appeal, says Strathairn.
“Havel has his own charming, inimitable way of referencing his own experiences and feelings that grew out of his experience of being a politician but also a playwright and a poet,” he says. “(‘Leaving’) is a meditation on what happens to someone when their time on the throne is over and yet it could also be a very specific look into what happened in the Czech Republic and what’s happening in the Czech Republic or other countries where market capitalism is replacing other ideologies.”
For all its many layers and its exuberantly unfettered melange of styles, tones and ideas, “Leaving” remains one of Havel’s most accessible works, primarily, says Zizka, because of its universality.
“Everybody will have to leave something — you leave your job or your country or your spouse. … I think it’s one of his most relatable subjects, what the process of leaving is and how to deal with it,” he says.
And Strathairn illuminates the inevitability of such transitions with a deftly nuanced turn.
“(Vilem Rieger) has to be an elegant politician. He cannot be a redneck. He cannot be a political brute. He has to be smooth, he has to be articulate, he has to be intelligent, he has to be good with people — men, women — and David has all of that and conveys that in a very graceful manner,” says Zizka.
“Vclav Havel is a very deeply humorous playwright. Although he tackles very important philosophical and serious subjects, he always has humor in it. That’s something that David also brings to the piece. He’s very amusing, but he understands what is the humor of David Strathairn and what is the humor of Vilem Rieger. They are two separate things.
“David is pretty amazing in this. I’ve seen him on Broadway, I’ve seen him onstage, I’ve worked with him, I’ve seen him in movies. It’s a very special performance that he gives us.”
For Strathairn, such accolades speak more to what the business of acting is about than the “media-driven noise” and constant jostling for attention that seem to sustain so many of today’s careers. In that fickle landscape, his work remains his calling card.
“That’s really all there is,” he says, seeming to cast about for some elaboration before shrugging, and then conceding once more with a murmur: “Yeah. That’s really it.”
– The Bucks County Courier Times and The Intelligencer