November 1998, Interview by Patrick Pecheco
Ride, Patrick, Ride. Patrick Stewart on Madmen, Arthur Miller, and playing a bastard at the Public Theater.
How does it feel to play a warm, funny fascinating bastard like Lyman Felt?
There seem to be as many reasons to condemn him as to admire him.
Yes, oh, yes. He's a bastard; he says so himself: "I'm a bastard, but I'm not a cop-out." It's one of the challenges of the role to find the energy in the man. For most of the time, he utterly relishes his life, his determination to have everything and to have it now. As one of his wives says, he's like a kid in a fairground. There's an irresistible attractiveness to a man like that.
Leah also notes that Lyman has hungers you don't often see in a man, especially after 25. Has this role put you in touch with those kinds of appetites within yourself?
Well, you get to a stage when you hope that the choices you make go beyond pure career and professional choices; that the choices you make as an actor are the most challenging and interesting choices for your life, too. If that happens then there's the potential for an interesting tension to occur in your work. I've been blessed for that to have happened a number of times. Lyman is pretty much my age. I'm a divorced man, married for a very long, long time, and then divorced. Now engaged again (to Wendy Neuss, a film producer). And possessed with many of the fears that we all understand about commitment, and fear of intimacy, and yet wanting that unique connection with one other person. That aspect of the play is very raw for me.
Have you ever performed in an Arthur Miller play before?
Yes, I played Howard in Death of a Salesman, the most forgettable character in the play. He's the boss, the one who plays with the tape recorder all the time Willy is trying to ask for a raise. It was during my first year as a professional actor. Four years later, I was the lawyer, Alfieri, in A View from the Bridge, also in rep. The role I always wanted to play was Proctor (in The Crucible) and then I got too old for it. That was a role that always spoke to me.
There, again you have a man struggling with moral and emotional dilemmas, and he's pinned to a dilemma - as Lyman is, too. How do you reconcile all the different desires of your life? Lyman says, "You can be faithful to yourself or to others, but not to both. And everybody knows that."
Isn't that just a rationalization?
In that particular scene, it is a rationalization because Lyman's in a considerable amount of denial and not wanting to admit to certain things. And so there's a certain amount of bullshit. One of the interesting things about the role is walking the path between bullshit and absolutely honesty. Lyman is, after all, a salesman, and he's really good at it. And being a really good salesman is a little like being an actor. I know, because I started my life as a salesman - and I was a terrific salesman because I was a good actor. The things overlap, but it's dangerous because it can lead you into those gray areas when you start to lose track of what is truth and what is fantasy. So Lyman is very skilled at bullshit.
What did you sell?
I sold furniture, high-quality furniture, in a neighboring town to where I was born and brought up, while saving money to go to drama school. Did it for almost two years, and I was really, really good at it. It was years, in fact, before I made as much money as an actor as I was making as a salesman. A couple of years ago, I met the son of the man who owned the store. And he said, "There'll always be a place for you here," because I was so good at it.
This play is very much about character - a buzzword of late, particularly in politics. How do you personally define "character"?
Well, again, it brings us right back to the heart of the play. It is truly to live live life as honestly as possible while being careful not to hurt people. I just finished readingThe Heart of the Matter, an early Graham Greene novel, and in that, a character says, "A little kindness with a few lies is far preferable to a thousand truths." And I closed the book and I thought, I cannot go down that road. I don't believe that. It's too soft an option. It's slippery and bound to get more slippery the longer you stay on it.
What do you think of President Clinton's current predicament within this moral context? He's so much like Lyman in his recklessness.
First, I had to get past my emotions. I was very angry at him, and I felt a personal sense of betrayal - as much of the nation does - because there is so much about his period of office that has been admirable; so much about him that is fine. But there was always an equivocation about him that made me uneasy. The comparison with Lyman is fascina- ting, because I'm convinced that we actually create these situations for ourselves. (There's) an unconscious desire to bring it all down. And if you're sitting in the Oval Office, the repercussions are serious. But my feelings have changed as weeks have gone by. My anger and irritation have subsided, particularly as I've watched his work in the past couple of weeks in the Middle East negotiations. This may sound pompous, but I actually found that I forgave him, and I now find myself firmly belonging to that camp that this whole business should go away. To hell with them all; lets get on with it.
Lyman is a person who systematically sets out to conquer his fears. Can you relate to that?
Very much so. Particularly as an actor, I can, because fear handicapped me as an actor for many years. I had a multitude of complexes and fears, none of them really justified. But I allowed fear to govern so much of what I did. In fact, it was said to me very bluntly by the principal of my acting school, "Patrick, you will never achieve success by insuring against failure." And it was years, decades, before I really understood what Bill Ross had meant by that: literally, handicapping myself with fears of getting it wrong, fears of being in the wrong, not believing in myself sufficiently. I finally just had to let that go and trust.
You said in a previous interview that you had a really hard time expressing rage on the stage because you grew up in an environment in which there was a constant threat of violence and anger. How do you summon it up, particularly in a play like this that must call upon your reserves of rage?
Oh, I think letting it in to your life. Admitting it, authenticating it, and discovering that feelings are permissible. Working on Othello, I discovered that there's another side to this, which is love - to inhabit that as an actor. It wasn't until doing Othello that I could allow feelings of love and passion to overwhelm me for the first time . In this play, both rage and love are very strongly present most of the time.
Admitting that feelings are permissible sounds easy, but it can take 17 years of p sychoanalysis to get to that point.
Indeed, it can. Or 40 years as an actor. We're so lucky, we're so blessed, because again, if we're lucky enough to work with material like this, we're being thrown at this stuff constantly. For me, when I look back on playing Prospero and Othello and Ahab and now Lyman - I put him in there - all characters living at terrific intensity, well, it makes life very interesting. Curiously, playing these intense roles makes life very tranquil. It's true. I've been happier in the last couple of years, playing these fucked-up madmen - murderous, obsessed, dangerous, damaging people. It does lend for a tranquil private life.
That gives your fiancee a break, doesn't it ?
[Laughs] Well, she should speak for herself on that subject.
Have you been in therapy?
Yes, that's right. Investigating the history of one's feelings and so forth. For a long time, I used to think that therapy was very dangerous for actors. Or for any other creative person. Because I thought if I were not fucked up, then maybe I wouldn't want to be an actor. It's ludicrous, of course. The fact is, the more you know - the more insight you have as to what lies behind certain feelings, certain actions - the more choices you have as a performer, the more is opened up to you.
Yet the play argues, or at least Lyman does, that we as individuals are ultimately unknowable - Sigmund Freud notwithstanding. Do you think that's true?
Actually, that is the one part of the play that I find, at the moment, is affecting me most deeply. And it's not one that I particularly want to talk about, but it moves me very deeply: that section of the play that says we're always as opaque and unknowable as statues on a church wall. Lyman says, "I sometimes think I'll vanish without a trace." And that is something, for whatever reason, that is gripping me quite strongly whenever we come to it. That fear of being unknowable. It is a connection that he is seeking. It's what we all seek if we're lucky, if we know that is what we are looking for. That's the best thing. It's absolutely the best thing, I think.
How natural is monogamy for men, in your opinion?
I think men are tremendously bigamous. I was reading a recent book on sexuality, and the one fairly common linking theme - no matter what culture, or where in the world - is the polygamous male. Lyman has this fear of being trapped, and for him, the presence of one person in his life all the time feels like a trap. The moment there is somebody else, the trap is sprung and he can rebound; ricochet from one to the other, blissfully happy, and making them happier than they've ever been in their lives.
It's tough for his wives to reconcile their sense of betrayal with how happy he's made them.
Yes, they say that's unacceptable. I can't remember when I've looked forward to having an audience as much as I do with this play. I really feel in a state of absolute innocence to how audiences are going to accept this play and our hero.
What might surprise them is the amount of humor.
We've found it very funny in rehearsal, and that's always a danger. It's a bit like those great stand-up comics when they all began to change, 20, 25 years ago; when they started saying the unsayable in public. There's a lot of that in this. Lyman is very politically incorrect in this play. It's going to be fascinating to experience an audience. What will it do to their feelings? If you believe at all in the theater, that is what it is meant to do: to fundamentally change the way we look at things, or at least to attempt that. This play is right on the edge.
At one point in the play, Lyman compares a man to a house with various aspects of his life in various rooms. What does your "house" look like?
[Long pause] Well, my house, for too many years, was teetering on the precipice because it was filled up far too much with my own obsession with myself and my work and my own needs. And so the working actor was present in far too many of those rooms. The insecure, arrogant, egotistical actor was everywhere. And in the last few years, I've tried to inhabit some of the rooms with somebody who looks outward a little bit more, out into the world - and, particularly, out to other people. And yet, as Lyman says, bills have to be paid, and if you're lucky, you'll have tomatoes to raise, too. And all of us will always have a fantasy of rolling around the living room with a bare-assed girl. but it's finding the balance for that house. I don't believe in the cellar aspect of it, of blowing it all up. That's Arthur.
Speaking of Arthur Miller, what do you make of the fact that he is much better received, at least critically, in your native England than he is here?
The London Times did a poll recently and he's been voted the most important playwright of the 20th century - he's number one.
Would you agree?
Looking at the whole body of work, yes. It's been a great century, too, for writers. There is so much vitality in this play, burgeoning energy, and a sense of life in it. On the first day of rehearsal, I was intimidated, as any actor would be, to be reading an Arthur Miller play with him sitting in the room. But there is an aspect of him that I never expected to see; and that is he chuckles - a lot. He just sits and chuckles, and it's tremendously attractive and disarming. He grins and smiles as he talks, and even though he's speak- ing gently and persuasively, there is a sense of power that comes from behind this man. It's a relish of everything. And it's so infectious.