Born and raised in New York City, Campbell Scott—son of George C. Scott and Colleen Dewhurst—is a quintessential New York actor. Famous but not too famous, courteous but still salty, Scott has distinguished himself as a deeply thoughtful performer and director who balances his time between theater and indie film. His screen roles include standout performances in films like Singles, Roger Doger, David Mamet's The Spanish Prisoner, the under-appreciated black comedy The Secret Lives of Dentists, and Six Degrees on ABC.
You can currently catch Scott on stage in Ronan Noone's one-man show The Atheist, in which he portrays a scandal-mongering reporter who'll do whatever it takes to get the scoop on a front page story—even if it means manufacturing the story himself. It's an entertaining romp through one man's ethical vacuum, and Scott is great fun to watch—at turns charming and revolting, he brings an indispensable depth to a character that might have seemed simply repellent in the wrong hands. (Here's our full review.) The Atheist continues at The Barrow Street Theater through January 4th.
Your character in The Atheist, Augustine Early, says "I'm always angry." Do you relate to that condition? [Laughs] What do you mean by that, John? I'm always angry? No, I'm not always angry. In fact, I think I usually go out of my way to try to find roles that don't seem to be like me. Although, to be honest, I'm sure there's always something in them that I can appreciate or identify with. I think I used to be angry a lot more than I am now, but I'm old, man. I'm less angry now. It sure is fun to play him though because it's a safe environment to be old and angry.
It's engaging because he does things that on paper would seem really despicable, but he's also really likable. I found myself really rooting for him, despite myself. Well, that's the challenge, and some people go for it and some people don't. It hasn't been a long route. I only did it for two weeks in Boston and then I did it for two weeks over in Williamstown, and now I'm doing it every other week here, so literally every week is different. The show changes, the audiences response changes, and I have to say I love that. And I think Ronan is a great writer. He puts enough stuff in there that people, even in spite of themselves sometimes, begin to... if not empathize with the guy at least appreciate his distorted honesty and then get engaged with him.
The only bad thing, the worst performances I can remember—and there have only been a few of them, but they're seared in my brain—are the ones where people don't engage at all. They just write him off for some reason and there's nothing I can do about it. Then the show becomes 50 hours long. But that's rare, and people old and young, different audiences, different places; they seem to hold on. Some people think it's hysterically funny, some people think it's not, obviously, and depending on how they are in the evening I try to change it up a little. And I can't tell you how much fun that is. It was terrifying at first, but really fun now.
Can you articulate how you change it up? I can in a general way. I've never done a one-person show before so I didn't know what that was like. I was petrified at first, because you have no one to rely on and ultimately your only friend, for lack of a better word, becomes the audience, which you're not used to. Usually you're friends with the other actors, or the scripts, or whatever, and you're just presenting it, but this is different. Even in rehearsal we never knew what the show was until people started coming.
So now, for example, if I feel like they find the guy immediately repellent—and often they do, they just think, "Why am I listening to this guy?" I can just feel it from them because they're not laughing, they take him very seriously; he punches his mother very early on! If I feel that, I'll open up all the charm stops and really try to be as genuine and charming as I can inside the guy. It doesn't always happen, but I try it, and that will bring them back a little, or at least confuse them to a point where they become engaged. On the other hand, sometimes I start the show and they just think it's the funniest thing on earth. It's darkly funny and they're laughing and they think he's like a really funny grotesque guy or something. If that's the case then I get really gentle, so that I can surprise them with the truly angry parts.
So depending on what's happening I'll vary in very little degrees, but to me it makes the show different every night. I will cater to them in some way, and try to make it surprising. Try to make the tone of it—what happens remains the same obviously, the linear story, but I'll try to punch up things and take things down. Man, I tell you, it's been absolutely fascinating. I love doing it.
Do you miss not having a team of actors on stage with you? Or do you relish having the spotlight for yourself? I miss it. Of course you miss it because also when you screw up or when the audience doesn't like you, you have no one. So it's really incredibly lonely. But having said that, it becomes like an athletic event. I always compare acting to athletics, only because the analogies usually work pretty well. But think of the difference between a team sport and one that you do by yourself. Like it or not, if you're by yourself you're going to be faced with a lot more of your own doubts and your own drawbacks and your own whatever. So if I'm by myself and I get through the show and the show goes well, it really feels like I've run a good marathon or something. If I don't, then all I think about is what I can change and what I can try the next night. It's always good to know you have another opportunity.
It's a really entertaining narrative. But besides that, do you think The Atheist is saying anything about journalism, or is journalism just a prism through which the play looks at humanity? I think it can't avoid saying something about journalism. But I also think it has a lot to do with Ronan. He's an Irishman, who's only been in the country like 10 years. But he's definitely an American now. He was a journalist for a year in Dublin, so his opinions are in this play, there's no doubt about it. I think he told us he even wrote it as a one-act for an Irish character and he didn't like it; he put it away. And when he got to America, something about the way we do things—let's face it—got him re-interested in the nature of celebrity journalism and what passes as reporting and what's real and what isn't and all that.
And I think, for some reason, placing it in the middle of the country makes it kind of Gothic. And you can feel that, too, because a lot of people have said to me, for example, they feel like when they first start watching the play it's kind of a period piece, like it's in the '80s or something. And then they realize he's talking about the internet, so it's now. And I like that; I feel like that's Ronan and Justin Waldman, and all his designers—you know we picked that suit, and it's like this guy thinks he's part of a great history except that he's manipulating it and it's totally skewed and it's terrifying because it has, obviously, real consequences for the people involved, and for him, too.
And let's face it, [Augustine Early] never lies. He manipulates and he points out certain specifics about his stories, but he doesn't lie about what people do and what he does. It's very similar to Roger Dodger, similar to that character. I think I'm attracted to these characters that, on first glance, we can immediately write them off as being kind of repellent, kind of cynical, and a little less a part of humanity.
As you watch them, same thing with Roger, you begin to realize that even though what he says is kind of abhorrent and it's a perspective that is difficult to listen to—because it's just too much—Augustine says that at one point, the fact is that he's consistently telling the truth, his truth. And I think that's very attractive, at least for us to watch in a safe environment in a dark theater. You know, we don't want to date that guy. A lot of women will say it's fascinating with Roger and with Augustine; they find him fascinating, and I think they would be really repelled—and some are. But a lot of young, smart, female viewers say they know people like this. I think it's fascinating to them.
Speaking of Roger Dodger, Dylan Kidd reportedly approached you in a restaurant and gave you the Roger Dodger screenplay. Does that happen often? He did, downtown. "Roger" was 2001, so it's been seven years, and for a few years after "Roger" came out, there was a specific kind of independent writer/director who was definitely like, "Hey will you read my script?" And finally I just had to say I can't take it anymore, because they would just sit in a pile at my home and I would feel guilty about them or not read them. I did it with Dylan because at the time I had no job and was broke and I liked him and he seemed like a nice guy. You never know; you just go with instincts. That was fun for a while. It all has to do with your own personal boundaries and I'm very, very good at saying to people, "I would love to read this, but in a specific way."
Director Alan Rudolph once said, “I don’t think that Campbell sees acting as a very exalted profession.” Is that true? Is it that you prefer directing or that there's another field entirely that you'd like to work in? Did he say that really? I love Alan Rudolph. I'm going to guess what he meant by that, because he knows I'm from an acting family and I respect actors and acting; they're some of my favorite people, there's no doubt. I think what he means is that I don't get all serious about it. I like to do the hard work but I don't like to take myself too seriously, and I certainly don't like to talk about it.
I don't want to say this wrong, because it will come out wrong or certainly look wrong in print, but I feel like it's a craft and a very noble one, but I really like the fact that it's like anything else. To me it's like great house builders, great athletes, great architects. None of them want to really talk a lot about what they do or how they do it because they don't know. They just have a good instinct for it, or they found it, or it meant something to them and they just started to do it. It gets confusing when you start making a lot of money or get famous for it—that's what always fucks it up in our business—but I think that's what he means. It's not like this thing that is rarefied and could never be really shared. People who have it just have it. All that stuff. To me it's just like, if you have talent and you're lucky enough to find where you fit and you work with the right people, it's not exalted at all. In fact, it's like building a bridge or something, and that is exalted in a way, but you don't talk about it that way.
What else are you working on these days? I am just about to start editing again, a movie I made last year called Company Retreat, which I wrote and directed. It's a very, very low budget thing made with great friends of mine. I just got sick of not being able to raise money for a movie—that's what happens, so I just made my own. But it turned out great; it's got a lot of great performances in it, and I'm in the process of just trying to form that into something. That's it, man. Doing the play is great. I'm doing it every other week so I can be with my son. It's rare that I get to do theater, but thank God for the Culture Project, that they are allowing me to do it. It's really fucking fun, I love it.
You were born in New York. Do you have a weird "only in New York" story? Oh dear dear, I'm terrible at these. I could be really obvious and boring and say that it was amazing to be in Times Square the night Obama got elected. That was really thrilling. In fact, I live with my lady in Chelsea and we heard screaming outside when it was announced and we decided to go to Harlem because we thought that would be the place to be. And on our way we decided to check out Times Square and see what that's like. And we went up there and of course, like New Year's eve, there were thousands of people there and it was raining a little and the TV feeds were on the screens. You couldn't really hear them, but it was amazing.
Amazing because, whatever your politics, it was amazing that so many people seemed to have an outlet for pure joy for at least one evening, especially nowadays when things are kind of intense. And that they would want to join together like that and watch this guy who—for my money—his real great talent is that he continues to reflect back at everyone else, as opposed to making himself the real center of attention. Even though he is the center of attention, he's really good at saying this is about you, not me. And all the shots in Chicago and New York and all over the world of people just listening to him and finally being glad to have someone to listen to. That was amazing and truly inspiring. And we fucking need it man, let's face it.
I absolutely agree; I felt it was a once in a lifetime night. A once in a lifetime situation, and there were even some people who weren't happy about the election, who were vocal about it, walking by. But no one was mad at them and they weren't mad either, they kind of stuck around too and watched too. It was truly amazing. We never made it to Harlem because it was so amazing in Times Square; we just never got there, but I heard that was amazing, too.
If you could change one thing about New York what would it be? Not to get all green, but I really think that some cities do that well. I think Bloomberg has tried, too... But less traffic, more biking and walking, because it is a biking and walking city. And that doesn't mean everybody has to bike, but it would be great to see a bunch of smaller vehicles and less larger vehicles and more park area and stuff like that, because people are out doing it anyway and they're kind of doing it with the cars.
But when you look at the cities that are doing it well, whether they're in Europe and there's a couple in America that are doing it well, too, it's amazing. They have a downtown, or at least a central area, where there's no fucking cars at all. And it's not because we hate cars and we hate car owners; I'm a fucking car owner, but it's a great way to present and hold your city, it seems to me. We're getting closer. There's lots of great bike paths and stuff like that, but it would be great it everybody kind of felt the same way.