Who was Walt Disney, really? We all know bits and pieces of Walt Disney The Legend—he was maybe an anti-Semitic union-buster, he killed untold lemmings to make a documentary conform to a myth about the species, he supposedly had himself cryogenically frozen so he could return to enchant and frighten future generations. But the man himself remains opaque, his persona forever obscured by that colorful fantasia his name invokes, and inseparable from the vast empire he oversaw.

Lucas Hnath's funny new play, A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney, ingeniously probes the inner life of the man who gave us Goofy. Starring veteran stage and screen actor Larry Pine as Disney, the play is conceived as a reading of a screenplay Walt wrote about his life, a sort of self-serving movie memoir. Staged in a David Lynchian conference room, replete with wall-to-wall red carpeting and a movie screen that remains forever blank, Disney himself leads the reading. His weary brother Roy (the great Frank Wood) sits to his left, indulging the great man's bizarre ritual with a dutiful sigh. To Walt's right are his beloved daughter (Amanda Quaid) and his despised step-son Ron (Brian Sgambati), who materialize to vex him whenever he sees fit.

Over the course of 80 minutes, Disney and Co. act out the animator's increasingly unhinged and hagiographic screenplay, which largely focuses on Disney's desperate attempts to build a utopian city in Florida, as well as other splenetic struggles. The caustic chemistry between the overbearing Walt and the unappreciated Roy gives the show its propulsive force, and as the play progresses, Disney's megalomania spills out from the pages of the script in a way that makes him seem at once frightening and pitiful. The whole thing quickly takes on the feeling of a dream, and then a nightmare of isolation.

We recently spoke with Pine about the role, and his life in the theater beyond this production, which has been extended to June 9th at SoHo Rep. Details here.

What was your reaction when you got this script? You saw the play right?

Yes. So you know what it's like. It's people interjecting and cutting off one another and all kinds of things going on. And I thought it was great. I thought with the sparse language that Lucas Hnath uses, I thought it told a good story and I thought it would be great fun to play somebody like Walt Disney, because he created a whole world that is good and bad at the same time. I mean it's startling, the things he did. But his reputation was always very dark, very stormy, so that was appealing right off the bat.

I think your performance really embodied that darkness, and you could see how people were intimidated by Walt Disney. Well, I think that is true with anybody with power. One of my greatest mentors was Joe Papp. He was like a king in theater in his day. And just to be in his presence was intimidating, just because he could say 'I want this! I want that! I want this to happen! I want that to happen!' [laughs] And it immediately happened.

People literally bowed to him sometimes. And people like that are just interesting because of the way they handle it. They take everything they say for granted and they believe everything they say and they don't mean to be mean sometimes. They wind up being mean but they don't mean to be mean. They don't do it purposefully. They just do it because they think that's what needs to be done at the time. When Joe did his playwright thing, at the same time he took a percentage of their earnings for life. In one way it was great because he gave playwrights a chance to be heard and seen, and on the other hand he made it impossible for them to get rich.

How much research did you do into Walt Disney to prepare for this? I grew up with Walt Disney. I even saw the film about the lemmings when it came out. He was just a part of the world. I have to say I didn't do a lot of research, but there's a very telling What's My Line video on YouTube where he's the secret guess on What's My Line. Just the way he moves. He's very publicly very shy and awkward. But at the same time he's got this brain that's going a mile a minute at all times.

What do you think the play is saying about Walt Disney as a person and what his legacy is? I think he seems like he's just trying to rationalize his death in the play. And his whole philosophy of death and living is if you feel that you've been a good person and you've done good things, great things, that you'll go to heaven and that heaven is that little two seconds. If you've been evil and mean and a murder and a rapist and fascist and a horror, it won't be so pleasant. Unless you truly enjoy doing those things. I don't know what it is. I really don't know. I'm not a philosopher really.

I think he was completely self-involved to the detriment to the people around him. Although he didn't realize it really. When he did things he thought it was just because these people are just asking for too much. That's all there is to it. "I give them what they need and they don't need more than what I give! I'm a very generous person." He believed in himself so much but he probably didn't understand other people's problems very well.

Amanda Quaid, Larry Pine, Frank Wood (Julieta Cervantes)

I think the interplay between you and Frank Wood, who plays his brother, is really great. Was it exciting for you to reconnect with your co-star from The Royal Tenebaums? He's terrific. Frank Wood is terrific. We have a good time. We're still working it out. It's a very difficult text to play. And it needs a good long stretch of rehearsal, and we only had three and a half weeks. It's still on the ironing board.

It seems like you've been around in the New York City theater scene a long time. How long have you been doing this? Oh jeez. I got my start working with Andre Gregory, and we hit the long ball right out of the park with Alice in Wonderland back in 1970. '69 or '70. And we were a company for a long time. I got my Equity card I think in '68, when my first play was at Lincoln Center. I think I played Fop #2 in Cyrano de Bergerac. So I've been around a long time. I know a lot of people, I worked for a lot of people. I did Stuff Happens. I played a lot of good, fun parts.

Is there one you'd like to go back to do again because you want to bring something new to it?
No, no. I like new plays. I really enjoy new plays. I've always enjoyed new plays. I'm not so keen on old plays. I mean I would do them if there was nothing else to do, but I really do love the mystery of solving a new play. It's great fun because you don't have anything to live up to.

You are going to be in a revival of Wallace Shawn's The Designated Mourner sometime later this year. Oh yeah, we did do that earlier. The reason we're doing that one again—we did that back in 2001, in the spring of 2001. And actually it got great reviews from every paper, all the magazines and papers that came to see it, but I'm not quite sure why they gave it such a good review.

Why do you say that?
It's a very dense play, you know. After the World Trade Center got hit and Wally's [Wallace Shawn] whole treatise in there about enemies—who the enemies are—it actually became palpable. His language, it was all very "Mmhmm, I see, yes, that's very interesting." But once that thing happened and this country was actually belted around by a group of people who you wouldn't expect to do that to you—a bunch of Saudis—it put a whole new perspective on who and what enemies are and how they operate. And so I think it's going to even be clearer this time. So that's one I'm glad we're doing again.

Wallace Shawn (Katie Sokoler/Gothamist)
That was one of the best things I've ever seen, by far.

That's great. I'm glad to hear that. When you're in a play, you always wonder. When I was in Alice in Wonderland years ago I used to look out at the audience at some points when I wasn't doing whatever it was I was doing and think, "What do they see? I don't get i!" They would just go nuts. We did another Wallace Shawn play called Our Late Night at the Public Theater which I think was one of the best plays I've ever been in. Literally had people pissing on themselves because it was so funny. And funny in a very grotesque way. It was ridiculous kind of stuff that isn't sort of humor that you would recognize.

Was there simulated sex on stage during that? No, not in that one. That was another one of Wally's plays called...A Thought in Three Parts. That was that one. I wasn't in that one. Thank God. I wouldn't have been something people would want to watch anyway.

What do you think it is about your connection with Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory that has been so enduring? Well, we just all certainly love each other a lot. In a very artistic way. We still have such great respect for one another. And when we get together we just have a great time. And it's very easy. Our work together is easy. It's not stressful. It's hard and we really throw ourselves into it but we all listen to one another. Andre creates a world of absolute truth and freedom in its own context. When I say truth, it may not be The Truth, whatever that is, but it's the truth of the work. We just have a great time together. And we're very relaxed together because we know each other very well. And we don't take each other for granted in the way that "Oh, I know what he'll say, I know what he'll do" or anything like that. Because it seems like we never do know that.

You know, Wally is a man who can surprise you by everything he says. One thing after another. He's very smart and very thoughtful all the time. All the time. And Andre is a seeker of truth. I know this play has nothing to do with Andre or Wally but they are a great influence on me. I always love to work with them.

(Julieta Cervantes)

I think Shawn is one of the most interesting and important living playwrights in America. I'm glad that his newest play is finally going to be produced here. It's incredible to me that it's taken so long. Did you see it in London? Andre was experimenting with a return to a theatrical venue. He was a person who fled the theater a few years ago and he creates his own theater, but he decided he would try it out again. He's done it periodically. It never works out exactly right because he gets pressed for time and time is his great friend. But I think he's now had the time he's needed with Grasses of a Thousand Colors and I think it's going to be terrific. I don't have anything to do with that one. I just see it.

But let me just mention that Sarah Benson, who directed the play I'm in now, was great to work with. She's a director who doesn't take no for an answer. If she asks you to do something and you say "I don't want to do that. Man, that sucks. I don't want to do that," which I did a lot of times with her. And then I would see that she was determined so I would go out and do it and it always turned out well.

She put these little touches of magic in the play. Her insight into the character of Walt Disney—instead of being a gruff businessman which I may have been on the night you saw it. I don't remember but sometimes I fall into that. He's a man who's driven by what he believes is right in the world. He's not out to do harm to anybody, he's just out to try to create a world that people would love, and I think that's an important character trait of this man. And to not just create some egotistical boob.

Left to right: Brian Sgambati, Amanda Quaid, Larry Pine, Frank Wood (Julieta Cervantes)