ای بی جی

کتاب: زندگی در چند بخش / فصل 66

ای بی جی

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LBJ

I needed to let Walter White die.

And I thought the perfect way might be a different medium: a play. I asked my agents at UTA’s New York office to look out for something great, and I got a call right away. “I found it, Bryan. The character is on par with Walter White, only on stage. But it’s different. It’s like King Lear.”

The thirty-sixth president of the United States. Lyndon Baines Johnson. In a play called All the Way. Huge role; huge risk. The play would run nearly three hours, and I’d barely have the chance to take a breath. I’d be offstage for about fifteen minutes total. And the character, the man, was big. LBJ was brilliant and cruel and restless and funny and visionary and angry and ambitious and insecure, and more. It could be a tour de force if done right. Or it could be a big turd. Professor Flipnoodle on a national stage.

I read it through, and one scene toward the end of the play stuck with me for days. Johnson is getting ready for bed and he laments, “I have a genuine desire to unite people, but my own people in the South are against me and the North is against me and the Negroes are against me and the press sure doesn’t have any affection for me.

“I could drop dead tomorrow . . . and there wouldn’t be ten people who’d shed a tear.”

His assistant tries to comfort him. “That’s not true, Mr. President.”

“The hell it ain’t,” Johnson snaps.

“People turn on you so fast. When my daddy lost everything, people who’d been glad-handing him treated him like dog shit. Humiliated him to his face in public. And my mother, the way she would freeze him out; that’s what killed him. You know what I think it is? People think I want great power but what I want is great solace; a little love. That’s all I want.”

He was reliving his pain, his father’s embarrassment. His mother’s cold demeanor.

I could imagine it. I could see myself on stage, allowing myself to sink in, letting the audience witness that moment, that pure vulnerability. I could see myself conjuring up that pain. The need. That neediness was at the root of everything LBJ did, everything he was: his quest for power and his flaws and his great gifts.

I thought of my own ego-driven father, my brokenhearted mother. If I did this play, they’d be on stage with me, too. I could imagine tears coming to my eyes. And I could feel the energies and sympathies of the audience. I felt them crying, too.

Then, after I gave the speech, I could imagine myself abruptly changing. Embarrassed, I’d almost slap myself to get rid of the tears. Fuck it. I’d try to cover. Pain is vulnerability for a man—especially a man of that generation. I’d give the audience a glimpse of Johnson’s soul, how he truly felt, then slam the door.

I imagined myself, on my feet, close to the audience, so that I was able to talk very quietly, so quietly that they’d have to lean in. They’d want to lean in. They’d yearn to be close. And with a few words, I’d make them feel more alive.

On stage, you and the audience, it’s like sonar. You give them something, and it all washes back to you. Especially with the right part.

And what a part.

This was the part.

It was my part.

I knew I wanted in. But I also wanted to meet the director and writer to make sure they wanted me. And to make sure we were a good fit.

Bill Rausch, the director, and Robert Schenkkan, the playwright, came over to my house. The agency is fond of saying: It’s not an audition. But in truth every meeting is an audition. I’m sure Bill and Robert wanted to see if I was in the ballpark of what they had in mind for LBJ. And, in truth, I wanted to know: Is this going to be a director who is rigid about everything I try? A writer who thinks his every word is chiseled into stone? I don’t work well with that kind of domineering, my-way-or-the-highway type of director or writer. I work better in collaborative environments. Everyone respects each other, challenges each other, and works toward a common goal. The best idea wins.

As part of the storytelling complex, as an actor, I have to be able to know I can ask questions and be heard. I wanted to know if Bill and Robert would allow for that kind of exchange.

In the protocol of theater, there’s far more respect for the writer than there is in film and TV. A history of reverence and laws protect the text; you’re not allowed to change lines without the playwright’s permission. You can’t even cut text unless authorized. No rewriting allowed. In film and TV, you respect the text, but it’s a blueprint, not a bible. Changes are common, especially when stars insist on them. In the theater your director and your writer (if you have the luxury of a writer being present, if he or she is cooperative and not dead) are giving you notes through the previews; they change lines and blocking and make adjustments.

But after opening night you’re in what they call a locked show.

In my view, that is the antithesis of what creativity should be. As long as actors and audiences are showing up, nothing is locked. How can it be?

With any play, moments can get bigger or smaller. They evolve from night to night. Sometimes I change for no other reason than to see how it feels. I twist the reading of a line. It may result in a much bigger laugh. It may not. Then I try it another way the next night to see what happens.

I’m part of the creative triumvirate: writer, director, actor. I listen, I respect, but I don’t lock anything. That works for computer programming—not acting.

I think you run a tremendous risk of getting complacent if you don’t keep looking for changes. You should never be too at ease on stage. Get too rehearsed, too relaxed, you lose focus and slip into autopilot, and then you’re not listening. Someone could drop a line. You have to work out of that problem, react to it. He skipped ahead, so I need to clarify that point for the audience. Otherwise, they’re completely lost.

Some actors panic; some assimilate mistakes and correct course. If you’re paying attention, if you’re present, more often than not you can rise to the occasion. Or sometimes your castmate will rise to the occasion for you. I know I’ve been bailed out many times. But you can’t bank on someone else coming to the rescue. You have to be open and present and willing to adapt.

If you tell me a play is locked at opening night and there’s no room for exploration or change, I’d say I’m probably not the best actor for your play. If every night you gesture here, put your hands on your hips there, if every night you sip your drink on exactly the same line, your consciousness will pop out of your body. You’ll be a casual observer of yourself, going through the motions. Once that happens, you’re dead. You’re a robot. Every performance needs to have its intimacy, its difference.

Every night, a new audience is sitting out there in the dark, waiting. And you’re new, too. You’re a day older. Maybe you’re hoarse. You drink some hot tea. Then you’re on stage and you have to pee like a racehorse. Note to self: ease up on the tea. Maybe you didn’t eat as much as you did last night. You’re hungry. Use that. You caught a cold. You have a sinus infection. LBJ is dealing with these same maladies on stage, blowing his nose, hacking away. You bring everything you are on stage with you. And you see if it can fit into the character. If it doesn’t, you need to note it and make an adjustment.

Bill and Robert and I sat down for coffee in my guesthouse in California, and I wanted to know: Were they open? Or were they “lock it” people? Were they going to say “the play is the play”?

We talked for a while, and then I suggested we read some passages.

They were delighted. Since it wasn’t an audition, it would have been awkward for them to ask me to read. But I’m sure they were wondering: Can this guy pull it off?

Together we found out. Robert picked out a scene. How about this one with Hubert Humphrey? I read. They listened. I experimented with putting LBJ’s voice in my body, and suddenly I felt more attached to the role.

At the end of the meeting, we all knew. They liked what I had done, and I liked them. They were not rigid. Nor were they pushovers. I had the strong feeling we’d make a good team. And I could see myself in the part. This could work.

We got the agents involved, signed a deal. We’d open in Boston in the late summer of 2013.

I dove into the research. The literature on Johnson is wide and deep, and I got lost in it. I devoured Robert Caro’s masterpieces. I listened to the LBJ tapes that Michael Beschloss edited and put into historical context. I read LBJ’s memoir, The Vantage Point, as well as books by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Joseph Califano, Taylor Branch, and Mark Updegrove. I also visited the impressive LBJ library in Austin, Texas, and soaked up everything I could.

Lastly, and most importantly, I leaned on the brilliant, powerful text in front of me, Robert Schenkkan’s All the Way.

I arrived in Cambridge, where we’d be mounting the play at the American Repertory Theater before taking it to Broadway. We gathered for a table read of the play, and it was me me me me me me him. Me me me me me her. Oh my God. Of course I’d read the play a few times before, but I’d been reading it objectively, not from a logistical, elbow-grease, what’s-it-going to-take perspective. I’d been looking for a deeper understanding of the story, the man, not thinking, Look at all these lines I need to memorize.

At the end of the reading, we got the schedule. Four weeks. We had four weeks before our first audience. The first week we’d rehearse Act One. The second week, Act Two. The third week we’d put it all together. The fourth week would be a technical rehearsal. Costumes, lights, makeup, sound. That wouldn’t really count as time for the actors to prepare.

So basically we had three weeks.

Holy shit.

What had I done? Or more appropriately, what had I not done? I thought if I could show up in Boston with the character nailed, I’d be in good shape, but I got lost in the joy of the research and neglected the nuts-and-bolts work. Memorization.

It was as if I’d been planning a feast, and then a few hours before serving it I realized I hadn’t shopped. The table was set, but the main thing was missing. The food.

Usually, preparing for a part, I memorize alone. But I knew this time I’d need help. I contacted my old friend Bill Timoney. When I was on Loving, he was on All My Children, playing Alfred Vanderpool. We were on the same network, right around the corner from each other in New York, and we became fast friends.

Now I hired Bill to come to Boston to be my right arm: to be my coach, to run lines with me, to help me with the daily stuff, power me through. He knew what that would entail. And I knew he knew. Bill is bright, personable, perceptive. I could count on him.

I’d never had problems with memorization before. Over the years I developed a habit of doing margin work, writing notes to myself in the margins of the script. That helps me memorize or “bone” lines as well as developing the character. I write a sentence’s verb in the margin (a trick I learned from Jane Kaczmarek), and the active verb works like a gatekeeper to the rest of the sentence’s meaning. As I’m familiarizing myself with a speech, I can test myself by reading the list of verbs in the margin to trigger each sentence. Pretty soon, I’ve memorized a page. Then repeat the process for the entire script.

But this part was so big, and I had so little time. The amount of dialogue I had to memorize was mind-boggling. Too many verbs! Do the work, I told myself. Just do the work. There are no shortcuts for doing the work.

But I soon started to feel the amount of work I had to do would crush me. I’ve loved work and thrived on work my whole adult life, but I was just dizzy with how many words I needed to stuff into my brain.

Within a week I had serious doubts about whether I was going to be able to pull it off. My uncertainty affected everything I did. My mind was heavy. My chest was heavy. Even my legs felt heavy when I went for my run. Each day was so crammed with input that I thought the wiring in my brain might short-circuit. By night, the morning was a distant memory. Before bed, I’d call Robin. “I don’t know if I can do this,” I told her.

“Sure you can,” she said.

“I need more time.”

I thought: I have to be in a place where my body can support this effort, this stress. I tailored my whole existence around the role. I ate oatmeal and vegetables and fish with a squeeze of lemon. No sugar. Few carbs. I pounded water. Every meal, I sat with the script. Every night, homework. Seven days a week, I worked. I needed every minute.

We’d finished blocking the first act and were on to Act Two. A couple of days into that second week, I was feeling desperate and asked for a meeting with the director and writer. Off-site. I didn’t want to talk in the theater. Too close to home. I took them across the street to a park in Cambridge.

“I’m drowning,” I told them. “I’m dying here.”

They exchanged a curious look. “What are you talking about?” they said. “You’re in great shape.”

“I don’t feel that way. I don’t have enough time to be ready.”

“No, no. You’re on track. Keep going.”

Every day I willed myself out of bed. Sit-ups, push-ups, push-ups. A run every other day. Oatmeal. And then into the play. I’d see how well I remembered what I did the day before and then I’d go further. I’d memorize more. By 10:00 a.m., I was at the theater rehearsing. At dusk, I’d go outside with my script just to get some air. I’d eat dinner, then read more sections of the play. I’d go to sleep with the play on my chest and wake up with pages scattered all over my bed.

Except for bike rides with Bill on Mondays and Breaking Bad on Sunday nights, that’s all I did. The play, the play, the play. I stayed on it. The other actors would shoot the breeze, talking about their days off: dinners, day trips. What about this new movie? Did you try that new restaurant?

I was envious and resentful of their freedom. For a minute. And then I went back to work. As we rehearsed, per equity rules, we took periodic fifteen-minute breaks. I’d get some oxygen and do a stretch and then back into the play, reading, rereading, making notes, memorizing. I was never without it. Even when I was going for a run, I was working out how I’d deliver a line, when I’d punch it up, when I’d hold back. The play was always with me.

“I don’t think I can do this,” I said to Robin, more and more urgently. We were nearing the end of the second week. “I’m adrift. I’m at sea.”

“You can do it.” She hadn’t heard me like this, other than when I struggled through Brooklyn South. I was doubting, but I heard no quaver of uncertainty in her voice. Her counsel was soothing. She believed in me.

“Trust the process,” Bill Rausch said. “It’s amazing what the brain will allow you to do. You open your brain and fill it with words, and close it and let it rest. You have to rest. And then the next day you’ll be able to stretch and fill it with more. I wouldn’t say this if I didn’t see it working every day. You have to trust the process.” Bill was a wonderfully open and generous director, supportive and smart. I wanted to believe him.

And I did, intellectually, but it wasn’t resonating. Easy for him to say. He wasn’t going to be on stage forgetting lines. I nodded along, but I was steeped in doubt.

By the end of the second week, I was feeling my sanity at risk.

For the first time in my life I was having the classic actor’s nightmare. I was on stage, doing the play, and then—blank. I couldn’t remember my lines. I felt naked, defenseless. I gave pleading looks to my fellow actors, but they couldn’t help. I was on my own. The audience was looking at me with sympathetic embarrassment. If I was lucky, I’d wake up from the awful dream before too long. But then I couldn’t go back to sleep, because there was too much adrenaline running through my system. Bad sleep? Good luck with the memorization tomorrow.

I’d had moments of insecurity and doubt before in my career, but never the standard anxiety dream, never The Nightmare. Now I’d had it a few times. It would shadow me into the morning hours. It was hard to shake.

When I was feeling overwhelmed, on my walk to work, I would concoct these elaborate victim scenarios. Morbidly reassuring daydreams. What if I got hurt? What if I got injured just badly enough so that I couldn’t do the play? Then it wouldn’t be my fault. I couldn’t be blamed if the play was delayed or canceled. I started imagining a Tonya Harding-type situation. Could I pay someone to kneecap me with a baseball bat, put me out of commission? Not a permanent injury. Just enough to sideline me for a couple of weeks. No one would blame me if I had to bow out because of a shattered kneecap!

And then it was out of my reverie and back to the play.

Bill Timoney said to me, “Here’s the bottom line. Come the first night of previews, you will be on that stage. You will perform. So work backward. Trust that you’ll get there. Don’t stop working. We won’t stop working. We’ll get you there.”

Yes. I just had to trust the people around me and the process and keep working. Never stop working.

With one week to go, the play suddenly began to open up. It began to come to me. Everything I’d done in my life seemed to have prepared me for this moment. Collecting eggs and killing chickens at my grandfather’s farm. Watching my mother gather junk to sell at swap meets—she didn’t give up. Announcing that Abraham Lincoln was going to write one of America’s greatest speeches as soon as he returned to the White Front—that failure and embarrassment was with me somewhere, too.

Opening night, I stood in the wings as the audience got settled. The script called for the other actors to fill empty seats on stage, and then for the lights to cut to black. That was my cue.

Downstage center. Right in front of the audience. That empty seat at center stage. That was my seat.

Two weeks earlier, it looked like an electric chair.

Now, opening night, it looked like a throne.

Standing in the hushed darkness, I smiled. Oh. That’s why I went through this. The monastic life. The doubt. The work. The pain. It was all part of it.

It was all so I could have this feeling. It was so I could live this moment.

I took three deep breaths. I shook those breaths into my body. And then I relaxed. I let it go.

And I went to take my place.

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