- Bill Irwin
- 55 years old
- Grew-up: Partly in Tulsa, OK, and partly in Southern CA. Now lives in Nyack, NY. "I work in the city almost every day, but we moved out to Nyack in 1996."
- Actor/ Writer/ Director/ Choreographer/ Clown
– Currently playing George in the Broadway production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
How did you get involved in this production of Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf? Was it a result of working with Edward Albee on The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? Was it something you jumped at when asked to participate?
It was a no-brainer for me; I don't know about for them. Edward has been trying to put the right group of people together to do this play for a long time, apparently. These questions are always hard for actors to answer because it's such a weird profession. There's so much molecular drift and happenstance that conditions your working life. But I had done some Samuel Beckett work, and Edward Albee is a great fan of Beckett's. I don't know how much he goes to the theater, but he does see Beckett stuff onstage, and so I guess I came on to his radar screen that way. Then I read for him , the director and producers and ended up doing The Goat. Then lo and behold I got asked to read [Virginia Woolf] with Kathleen [Turner] one hot summer day just over a year ago, and that afternoon [the producers] called and said, "Edward wants you and Kathleen to do the play." Very soon after they found David Harbour [who plays Nick] and Mireille Enos [who plays Honey]. So it's a quartet piece. It's often not acknowledged what a sort of ensemble piece this play is.
Even though you didn't create the role in The Goat, was there more pressure to take on such a famous role, like George, in such a noted play? Especially one that lives on in movie form? Did you do anything to try to distinguish your George from Richard Burton's, or do you not even think about things like that?
Your first job as an actor, as I perceive it, is not to think about that, to put that out of your mind. I saw the incredible film when I was 17 years old, and, still to this day, when I'm on stage I'll think of Mike Nichols' images and the way he constructed that film. But fortunately, I haven't seen it since I was 17, and so that was easier then to put it aside.
The great thing with this play is that we have the playwright, and he was in the room when we read the play. He has guidance which he's never shy in sharing it with you. He gives lots of notes. There is a great connection between George the character and Edward the playwright. So being around Edward, you soak up a certain amount of wavelength knowledge, and then in the end it's just what you react to in the role.
People have very complimentarily said, "Ah, it's a revolutionary take. It's so different." And all I can say is, “Oh Thank you,” thinking to myself, I haven't a clue because it's the only way I can imagine doing it.
You have amazing control over your body, and one interesting element of your performance is how you use not just your voice, expression and the line reads, but your posture, pose and stance to create this character. Slight lean-ins and slumped shoulders -- how much of your acting technique is embodied through the physical versus mental and emotional?
I think they're completely connected, and even maybe beyond symbiotic they really are the same things. Our emotional lives are our physical lives, and we'd love that not to be the case because we'd love to think we're not quite so transparent, but as human beings walk around we're radiating our strengths and our weaknesses and our insecurities. So when you take on a role that's the delicious – challenging but delicious part of that as a storyteller. You tell the story of this person.
But a lot of actors, even classically-trained ones who take various movement classes, etc. don't necessarily go subtle rather than broad with their gestures, particularly on stage where actors tend to be bigger to reach the back rows. So is that something that you consciously work on, or is it something that simply evolves in the way that you find yourself performing a character?
That's a hard one to answer. You know one of the things that helps is just being on stage a lot in your life. On one hand you can sort of ask the cynical question, "What do I have to show for my life except a lot of stage manager reports about how much time I've spent onstage." But the more you're onstage, the more you're able to think through your body, and so it's not so much a series of conscious gestures and choices as just letting the unconscious tell the story. You have to be able to have been in front of audiences enough to trust subtle gestures, otherwise you may feel “Oh this isn't enough, that isn't enough,” but in fact a subtle gesture is often enough, and more than that, is more than enough.
You've often been compared to Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, and it seems you could have had a successful film career, even maybe comparable to other actors who do a lot of physical comedy as well as drama, like Robin Williams or Jim Carrey. Did you ever consider a move to LA or at least focusing more on a film career, or was the stage just really always your home?
That's very flattering company to be in. I think every human being is different and reacts differently. I'm very different from those guys, and I'm second to no one in my admiration for Robin and Jim Carrey, for instance. But even though I've written a lot of my own stuff, I think I'm more a guy of the theater than I am anything else. Now that could change over the next three years. It's not only financial, but the notion of leaving something behind you creeps into your consciousness as you get older. But as of right now I know my way around the stage much better than I know my way around a camera. And I'm getting better with camera work, but you know, it's like flying an airplane. You spend a lot of time in the cockpit of a certain kind of airplane, that's the one you know how to fly. So when I'm on stage I know my craft better than any other place.
To theater audiences, you're most famous for your "clown roles." Are you now making a conscious shift into what you just mentioned -- more straight acting roles?
At a certain level ,they're very different crafts, being a clown and being an actor in a play. Almost like night and day. But in certain other ways, they are essentially the same thing. You're telling a story, and you're reaching an audience -- a live audience. And clowning will always be very close to my heart, but in many ways clowning is a young man's form, not just because you need to be spry and fall down and also get up again real quickly. But a lot of clowning, like the great silent comedies, are about a young man's striving: he wants to get the girl; he wants to get the job; he wants to make good. In middle-age, that doesn't operate the same way. That's why a middle age playwright's work or maybe stuff I can write for myself as a middle-aged actor just resonates better When I do clown stuff now I find myself thinking, "That's really a young guy's joke." So, you've got to shift and change otherwise you'll be stuck trying to work as a different aged person than you really are.
Do people come up to you and say, "Hey, weren't you on The Cosby Show" all the time? Do you get recognized from Sesame Street?
Actually more than anything else [people ask me about Sesame Street]. It's amazing. Actors talk about this sometimes. You spend years every night on a Broadway stage in different things, and yet, at the grocery store it's most likely some TV appearance that you did that will register with somebody, which makes perfect sense. But Sesame Street -- at least you can be proud of that one. Somebody says, "Excuse me, are you Mr. Noodle?" That you can answer proudly. There are some that ask, "Were you the guy that killed the guy on such-and-such hour long TV show?" For me there'd be a little less pride in answering that.
But Sesame Street … you apparently relished that experience?
I do, at the same time, I'll speak very candidly and sort of Realpolitik: I wish there was more time with all television always, but especially with Sesame Street. And of course now I’m talking about the huge funding upheavals. But the Mr. Noodle episodes had to be done so quickly. We'd crank them out like five in a day or something. And you would love to spend more time nuancing them and reshooting parts of them and editing them. But they have to crank them out sort of like it's 1912 with the first camera that came out. You know you turn the handle, run it down to the lab, make a couple of cuts with a piece of tape and then throw it on the projector. They really have to get put together quickly. Which means, I am very proud to be Mr. Noodle and have that character, but I'd just love to take more time crafting those things for kids because kids watch them over-and-over again.
How do you see the current state of theater in America, particularly in New York? Is it worth it for theater lovers to spend $80-100 per ticket? Does the best theater even get to Broadway anymore? Is Broadway just for tourists now?
That is a huge question. I wish there was a simple answer because that would make a good little sound bite like, "Yes it's always absolutely worth it," or, "No it isn't. Don't waste your money." You can waste your money on Broadway -- and as a Broadway actor I cringe to say that -- but you can also still see some of the greatest theater in the world in Broadway houses and not other places. It doesn't mean there isn't great theater other places – in all the regional theaters, off Broadway and in the non-profit world. But, just put it this way: when I have a night off … there's a night on the calendar when I get to go see Glengarry Glen Ross, and there's a night in August I think when I get to go see Doubt, and I can't wait. There is the greatest stuff in the English speaking world sometimes at Broadway houses. There's also a lot of schlock. You can lay out a ton of money and wish you'd watched television, and that's very sad.
Do you spend your free time going to theater?
I do. I do. After Kathleen's birthday show the other day [on Sunday Jun. 19], we rushed over with family and friends and went to see The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. I hope you can see it. It's great. I won't say anything about it.
What was it like to win the Tony?
Oh god, it was the most thrilling night of life-so-far-as-an-actor in many ways. Even though you can talk about the complexity and absurdity of awards and rewards in theater, and how they really don't have much to do with the work, or they're very separate from the work -- but it was the thrill of a lifetime.
At the same time, I was very disappointed three minutes later when Kathleen's name wasn't called. I was surprised and confused and disappointed that she wasn't called.
Do you attribute much of your performance to her performance?
Oh yeah. It's like being married. 24 hours a week we're married, and yes, you can't really separate the two performances.
Your Tony acceptance speech was very gracious and grateful, unlike many such speeches by actors. Is there anything else you'd like to mention today?
Well you know there's no reason to listen to an actor about other things outside the theater just because he happens to get the public ear occasionally, but, that said, notwithstanding, I do hope people will in the next few weeks and months come together to try to close down the Guantanamo facility. I mean people don't have to agree with each other about the prosecution of the war, don't have to agree with each other about special policy questions, but Guantanamo is just horrible and detrimental to our national interest situation, and I have some hope that forces for different directions will cohere to bring down a decisive public voice just to say, "That place has to get closed down."
Nine things to know about Bill:
What's the best thing you've ever purchased/salvaged off the street?
I had a stuffed lynx that I found on the street, and eventually I put it back on the street. It was in an office I had in Manhattan for about 19 years, and it was on a high shelf so that people would sometimes see it and react as if there was a bobcat snarling at them from on high. I'd often forget it was there.
Which city establishment sees more of your paycheck than you do?
Personality Problem Solving: Would you consider your personality more hysterical or more obsessive, and have you changed since living in New York; has "New York" become a part of you?
I'd love to think that I was hysterical, but I'm afraid that I'm more obsessive. I think that New York has only intensified that.
NYC Confessional: Do you have a local guilty pleasure?
Eating at Kodama Restaurant.
When you just need to get away from it all, where is your favorite place in NYC to be alone, relish in solitude and find your earthly happiness? (We promise not to intrude.)
Union Square Park has been a favorite place of mine, and I look at the playground equipment where my son – who's now a big husky 14-year-old guy – he'd run around there, and we'd push him endlessly on the swings. And the greenmarket there is a favorite place. You could even put that under the "guilty pleasure" category.
What's one thing you've done (or regularly do) in NYC that you could not have conceived doing anywhere else?
Grabbing a New York Times and reading it on the subway, so you're reading things and also people watching, and then getting where you're going within 15 minutes.
Assuming that you're generally respectful of your fellow citizens, was there ever a time when you had to absolutely unleash your inner asshole to get satisfaction?
It is an effective device sometimes. No reason not to mention Continental Airlines. [Just minutes before this conversation] we were invoking habeus corpus on the telephone – my two siblings and I, simultaneously – with our 86 year old mother on a tarmac waiting for hours.
Describe that low-low moment when you thought you just might have to leave NYC for good.
It has frequently been on that cherished subway. The good days are great when the AC is on and the system is running and you make a lot of blocks uptown in a very short time. But when the train doesn't come or they change the route and you see your stop go by while you're reading the newspaper because you're on an express that you didn't notice, that's when I think sometimes that it's time to leave the city.
There are 8 Million stories in The Naked City. Tell us one, but try to keep it to a New York Minute.
We know a Guatamalan family – Maria Zamorra. I've known them on and off, helped them get their green cards. They were working at McDonald's, two of the family were working at McDonald's around September 11th. I was in touch with them – it was a very unlikely friendship. And now I've lost touch with them because they moved to the Bronx, and they left me a phone message, and my Spanish or their ? there weren't enough numerals in the phone number that was left. So, I've lost touch with Maria Zamorra and her family after being sort of unlikely friends for about a decade.
Bill Irwin can currently be seen onstage eight times a week in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Longacre Theater (220 W. 48th Street between Broadway and 8th Ave.) opposite Kathleen Turner, David Harbour and Mireille Enos. Performances are Tuesdays at 7 PM and Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 PM with matinees on Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 PM and Sundays at 3 PM. Tickets are available at the Longacre box office or through Telecharge at (212) 239-6200 (800-432-7250 if you're outside NY) or at www.telecharge.com ranging from $46.25-$91.25 per seat. A limited number of $20 student rush tickets are available at the box office on the day of the show.
-- Interview by Aaron Dobbs and Lily Oei
-- Photo by Carol Rosegg