A chat with Matthew Broderick
We sit down with the Tony-Award winning actor in between his shows at Williamstown Theatre Festival
WILLIAMSTOWN — With rehearsals and initial performances of "The Closet" behind him, Matthew Broderick is ready to explore the Berkshires.
"I really haven't done anything," Broderick said at Williamstown's Tunnel City Coffee, nursing a medium-roast coffee with milk on a scorching Tuesday afternoon.
Broderick had been spending recent days and nights refining the new comedy by Douglas Carter Beane in the midst of a run at Williamstown Theatre Festival. But director Mark Brokaw's Sunday departure from Williamstown marked the end of daytime rehearsals, meaning the 56-year-old actor of "The Producers" and "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" fame would have some more free time on his hands. Horseback riding was in his plans.
"I hope I don't break anything," he said.
Broderick is renting a house in Williamstown with Brooks Ashmanskas, the Tony-nominated actor who stars alongside Broderick in the play inspired by Francis Veber's "Le Placard." (Broderick hasn't seen the film version.) The two actors' current living situation is fitting; in "The Closet," Martin O'Reilly (Broderick) is attempting to save his job and relationship with his son when Ronnie Wilde (Ashmanskas), a gay man who is about to start renting part of O'Reilly's home, enters his life (and upends it).
"We play married men in the play, and then we really are married," Broderick quipped. "He's a very good roommate, though. I've known Brooks since 1995. We did 'How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying' [for which Broderick won a Tony in 1995] together on Broadway all that time ago and various other things. We've also done five readings of this play together over the years. Brooks is an actual friend of mine for a long, long time, so it's very easy."
Rustic life is treating them well.
"There's a farm right near our house where you just leave money and take hunks of meat out of a freezer, which is pretty good," he said. "We've been cooking. We bought a Fire Stick from Amazon, so we watch movies. It's been a pretty good arrangement."
Broderick has enjoyed his work hours in Williamstown, too.
"It's a perfect place to do a play," Broderick said. " ... It's a very renowned festival. It feels like the middle of nowhere, but I realized that if you look on the walls of the theater, there have been some great plays that started here. The audiences are very sophisticated."
Broderick had visited the Berkshires with his father, actor James Broderick, during his youth, but he hasn't been back since. He underestimated the driving distance from Amagansett, N.Y., where he and his wife, actress Sarah Jessica Parker, share a summer home. Their three children have visited Broderick at different points during his time in Williamstown, and Parker was aiming to make the trip, too. Broderick's son, James, had just spent several days with his father, enjoying the Clark Art Institute, among other Berkshires attractions.
"My son loved it," Broderick said.
Broderick hopes to peruse some Berkshires museum galleries at some point. His natural surroundings have provided ample visual stimulation in the meantime, though.
"I think it's a really beautiful spot," he said.
During a 30-minute conversation with The Eagle, Broderick spoke about "The Closet," his career and his future. Questions and answers have been lightly edited for clarity.
Q You've done so much theater in New York; when was the last time you performed in a play outside the City?
AWhen I first started, the first play I did on Broadway was "Brighton Beach Memoirs" [for which Broderick won a Tony in 1983], and that started in Los Angeles. That would be like 1982 or something, but it was in L.A. And it went to San Francisco, but those were pre-New York runs. And the same thing with "Biloxi Blues" in about '85, I guess. And then I did "Love Letters," a Pete Gurney play. I did that in Boston. Wait a minute, now that I'm thinking, this is a lot! I did a play called "Taller Than a Dwarf" by Elaine May in Boston in the early '90s. That's the last time.
Q But never in a rural environment.
A No, I've never done that. And my father [James Broderick] did when I was a kid. I had spent time in places like this when I was very little — maybe even here, but I don't remember. I think he might have worked in Williamstown, but there was a theater in Stockbridge; ... we were there a few times.
Q When you were considering taking on this project, how much of a consideration [was distance from home]? Why did you decide to take this on?
A I thought a little bit mistakenly that — it's harder to be here than I thought because the tip of Long Island, though geographically close, if you're a crow is pretty close, but not in a car. My kids have camp and things like that, so it's a little harder to get everybody here. I mostly did it for a few reasons. One, I liked the play, and this was where it was going to be done. I've been doing readings and been vaguely attached to the play for like a year or two, and I didn't want to drop out right now, you know. Also, everybody always says how much fun Williamstown is, and it is fun. I thought it would be nice to try it.
Q Political correctness is at the fore in this play. Do you feel like we are policing language too much as a society?
A It's kind of a complicated question. There's an interesting line in the play where I say something about [how] we contort and destroy our own language to try to not hurt people's feelings, and it's all exhausting. But then I say, but, there are so many people that don't care about others. Political correctness — the heart is in the right place even if it's irritating and sometimes makes you not be able to say what you mean in a simple way. The idea is right, and for so long, people have been subtly abused by language. It's the right idea; it's just, of course, now there are some insane phrases that people are trying to learn. They seem ridiculous to me. Maybe they won't in a while. My son, who's 15 and gets lectured at high school [about] exactly how to behave, use words, he gets very irritated by it.
Q As a public figure for so long, you've had to watch what you say. You've done a lot of interviews. It feels like maybe, as a society now, everybody has to do that, too.
A That's a good way to put it. Yeah, it's like everybody's a celebrity all of a sudden. Everybody is in a way. Everything is now remembered and digitally logged and follows you for the rest of your life, so one misconstrued joke or inappropriate [act] ... it's a good correction that's occurring. During the correction, there are going to be people who just get screwed. I don't know. I'm not a genius about it.
Q Let's talk about Martin. What attracted you to this character initially, and how has your perspective on Martin changed in performing his role as opposed to reading it?
A I've liked Beane's writing always. I always wanted to work with him. I just think he's so extraordinarily witty. Like in person, it's amazing: Any joke you make, he will top, to the point where, it's almost like he has a tic. I'm always telling him, 'Can you not let somebody make a joke and not improve it or top it every single time?'
Q He's that friend, huh.
A Mm-hmm. But he's brilliant at it, and I think the play has a nice story beneath all its humor. I thought the part was good because you get to go crazy. He's this very miserable person at the beginning, and then, given an opportunity to change his personality — it was just a fun idea for anybody, I think. I just thought it was very funny. I hadn't read a play that was really funny in a long time, and when we would do readings of it for little audiences, they would laugh really hard. That seems to be worth something. It's not that common.
Q Do you see any aspects of his character in yourself?
A I guess I should. You're supposed to, they tell you. Sure. My son is 15. My son in the play is ... 17, or something like that. He's getting ready to go to college, early admission Penn State. ... We're not quite up to that yet with my boy, but I can relate to the separation of father and son that happens, not that my son screams in my face that I'm an a------ or he hates me like they do in the play, but that relationship is familiar to me. I know what it feels like to be in a job that feels repetitive and stuck. I can relate to all of that. I think anybody my age probably can. It doesn't mean it's all like that, but you can relate to it. I guess coming out of the closet, what it means in this play is stopping hiding your true self, which is what happens to the character. It's a nice feeling. I'm nowhere near as miserable as Martin.
Q How have you felt the performances have been going so far?
A It's kind of a farce, and it could use a lengthy run. It will get much sharper, probably. But, on the other hand, if you see it now, you're seeing a slightly raw, good version, too. Our last rehearsal was Friday, and the two shows Saturday. The director left Sunday, which means now this next almost two weeks is just performance, and that's always — I think plays get better once the director takes a step back for a little while, nothing against the director in any way. But once people start owning it themselves and not spending the day discussing what happened last night and how can I make that better — all that has to be done — but once that stops for a while, that's when it can start to get its own life. So, this should be fun.
Q I've heard you, in interviews before, talking about stage versus screen. Is that one of those elements where actors can have a little bit more control onstage than on screen, that shift you're talking about?
A Yeah, I think so. The buck stops with us in a play. There's nobody to edit it or fix it afterwards. You're the last person to touch it before the audience sees it. There's a responsibility and an enjoyment to that, and there's a looseness to having done something a few times, once you start to really know the words well enough that you're not concerned about, 'Will I remember what to do?' That takes a while. ... The nice thing about plays is you mix up all these people, this cast, and now we will, together, by accident, hopefully, make it a little bit better every night. I once did a show, and it opened and, not to be a name-dropper, but Mike Nichols told me, 'Now you get to make it a little bit better every night.' So, that's what we try to do.
Q What is your routine like on a day of a show when you don't have rehearsals going on? Or, is the point that there's no routine?
A Normally in a play, I like to keep a simple day if I have a show that night. I don't want to be having three appointments, feeling already tired out or anxious by the time the show starts. A day before a play, there is this slight — you know something bad is coming around 7 or 8, but you kind of forget what it is, and you can enjoy the day. It can be very pleasant. You don't have to wake up early, and you have an excuse to not do all sorts of things you don't really want to do. Usually, I'm in New York. This is different because I really will have nothing to do. I think I'm going to go to the gym after we talk. Then I have to make one phone call, and I believe that's my day. It beats the guy building the road behind us now in the sweltering sun. That's part of what I like most about plays is this empty day you can have. You have an excuse to really just follow your nose and do whatever you want.
Q You were just in a play in a New York. ["The Seafarer," which closed on May 24; rehearsals for "The Closet" began on May 29.]
A I've never done [such a quick turnaround] before. That was a horrible feeling. I thought the world had ended. When I went back into a room with people holding scripts and reading lines written by somebody else, I was like, 'I'm in a 'Twilight Zone' episode where this is just going to happen forever.' But now I'm here, and I'm happy I did it.
Q When you were going into [working on this play], what were you hoping to take away, and now that you've been here, what do you think that will look like?
A I don't know. I always hope to have a good time, as stupid as it sounds. I like the process of trying to make something as good as it can be, a new piece of material. Oftentimes, I'm doing a revival or something that somebody's done perfectly. Now, we get to start this, which is nice. So, that's what I was hoping, and that's what I feel. I look forward to it each night, really. And I love Jessica Hecht [who plays an O'Reilly co-worker], I should say, too. I've always loved watching her. I just think she's a complete delight. She's thrilling to work with and really, really funny and different every night and excellent. And Brooks, too, and everybody [Ann Harada, Will Cobbs, Ben Ahlers, Raymond Bokhour]. I enjoy watching everybody.
Q What film projects have you been working on recently?
A I did a movie before "Seafarer" ["To Dust"] ... It was at Tribeca. It won the Audience Award. I'm only saying that because it's a poor little movie and needs all the help it can get. It's got a distributor now, a distributor I've never heard of but hopefully is good. I hope somebody will see it. It's a lovely movie.
Q Anything else that's coming up?
A No, I don't think so. I have a few things that I'm reading, but I'm definitely not going to work for the summer. I'm going away. When this is done, the family is going to Europe. We're going to Italy and traveling around until August, and then we'll be out on Long Island. I've kept my summer very clear, so unless something happens, some great job ... but I'm trying very hard not to work over the summer.
Q What haven't you done in your career yet that you really want to do?
A Gee, I don't know. I haven't really done anything classic in a way. I haven't done Chekhov or anything like that, so I always feel a little funny that I never had done anything. So, some day, I'll bore the s--- out of everybody [and do a classic].
Q What are some classics you have in mind?
A I've never done Shakespeare, I've never done Ibsen, I've never done the things you're supposed to do if you're a serious actor. I haven't done a lot of those. ... Doing this has been interesting because I realized suddenly: I haven't done a real out-and-out comedy in a long time. I forgot I like doing that. I forgot that. That used to be what I liked, and then I kind of forgot about it. So, maybe I'll do some more of those.
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
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