On the Phone With Brian Dennehy

On the Phone With Brian Dennehy

Brian Dennehy (©Timothy Greenfield-Sanders)

With two Tony Awards for Best Actor in a Play in his trophy case (Death of a Salesman, 1999, and Long Day’s Journey Into Night, 2003), Brian Dennehy is not an actor to rest on his laurels. Rather, defying his 76 years, the preeminent interpreter in this country of plays by Eugene O’Neill and Samuel Beckett is one of Broadway and Hollywood’s busiest and most bankable stars. When we spoke, he was making a TV pilot, prior to starting rehearsals in New York for his current gig on Broadway in A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. “I’m in L.A.,” he said right off. “And nothing more needs to be said.” But, of course, a lot more was said.

Brian Dennehy: Love Letters will be fun. Lately, I’ve done Hughie by O’Neill and Krapp’s Last Tape by Beckett, both of whom have interestingly enough created characters who are looking back or having conversations with their younger selves or examining, as Erie does in Hughie, where he’s come from. And to some extent, Love Letters is the same. A memory play: two people having a conversation through their letters. It’s quite beautifully written. I have a feeling that there’s a forgotten audience on Broadway of older people, who live in Westchester or New Jersey, and who come to the theater and don’t necessarily hear conversations onstage that involve them. This does. This play is directed toward them.

FL: Love Letters can say a lot to young audiences as well, don’t you think? In that it shows another way of communicating, something that is perhaps more thoughtful and considered than a text or email. It could even be a wake-up call to younger generations.

BD: That’s a very interesting point. Up until, say, 30 or 40 years ago (maybe even longer), letter writing was not only a substantial way of communicating with one another, but also writing a letter gave you the opportunity to sit down and think about what you were saying, maybe put a little bit of art into it, a little bit of humor. When I do write emails, I take the time to frame sentences, thoughts and ideas, and I do try to put some humor in. I love reading collections of letters, usually of prominent people, artists and so forth. It is probably going to become a lost art form, lost not in the sense of some Congressional committee forming a platoon of people to find out what the hell was actually said, but in the sense of hearing somebody’s voice and learning who that character is, what that person is like and understanding something about them. Our whole form of communication now is to type something, have it exist for 5 seconds and then it disappears.

FL: Everything’s disposable. At least with a handwritten letter, there’s the notion that it can endure.

BD: Do you remember real stationery stores? Beautiful letter paper and beautiful envelopes. Obviously paper that was made to last, to survive, to be folded up and put into a closet someplace. I don’t think it exists anymore. A brave new world, right?

FL: Which makes me think Love Letters may be more relevant now than when it was first produced on Broadway in 1989.

BD: I hadn’t considered that. I’ve got to think about that. It’s very interesting. I’m going to do the show with two ladies, Mia Farrow [Sept. 13-Oct. 10] and Carol Burnett [Oct. 11-Nov. 7], who have completely different angles on it. I did it with Carol years ago for a couple of different charity things. We had a lot of fun with it. She’s an old friend. Mia and I did The Exonerated, which is a whole different story. I’m looking forward to Love Letters because, as I work on it, I realize there’s a hell of a lot more beneath the surface. Especially for the woman.

FL: More so than your character, Andrew Makepeace Ladd III?

BD: What’s interesting about Gurney’s writing is he’s showing two people from the same [upper class, moneyed] milieu, a milieu that I certainly have never lived in. I was never a kid of privilege at all. I kind of bumped along the sides to some extent. Then, when I went to Columbia [University], I realized that that world existed. I know people in it. They usually dress better than me, even if my clothes are more expensive. Gurney looks at that milieu, those lives, from the standpoint of two people who are living very, very different versions of it. You have Melissa Gardner, an independently minded, smart, passionate woman, who lives there but doesn’t necessarily want to be there. She fights against it, struggling against herself, her own background, her own family and environment, and her own self-interests. She’s never gone along, never accepted what she has been expected to accept. He, on the other hand, has done the game the right way. But, in the end, Andrew, who has lived that life the right way, seems to have lived a much less interesting and much less valuable life than she, who has always struggled and fought, and lived a human, exposed life, anxious to taste life and making a lot of mistakes. Gurney proposes at the end: Which life was lived the better? Which was the more important life? Which was the more interesting life? The play is hypnotic when done right. In letters, people think they’re saying one thing, but they may be revealing something else. It’s the something else that is, of course, of value. That’s why the thing has lasted so long.

FL: Because of the secrets behind the actual written lines?

BD: It’s like Beckett. Beckett plays these games. Of course, we all come out of this [life] at the same place [death]. And that’s the great joke for Beckett. It’s also true for Gurney, in his own way. What is the significance of life? Well, how about this? All those questions inevitably must be answered by the audience. It’s a great problem to solve.

FL: Is it exciting to you as an actor to be playing the same part opposite two very different actresses?

BD: Over the years, Andrew has responded to Melissa in different ways. He’s absolutely head over heels in love with her and terrified of her. As Mia and Carol are different, so will I be. They’re completely different personalities. Carol’s rebellion, if you will, against her own expectations or what was expected of her, is so robust, so angry almost, that it’s very funny, of course, and fascinating. It changes the response toward Andrew. Mia is softer and more heartbreaking, because that’s the nature of her work. So it will affect the way I respond. One of the great things about the play is every time somebody does it, it’s a different play.

FL: You’ve worked with several other extraordinary actresses on Broadway. Elizabeth Franz [Dennehy’s co-star in Death of a Salesman, 1999], for example.

BD: Franz, of course, has a great reputation in New York, which she deserves, and she has a Tony, which she also deserves. She suffers in a performance. You can see it. It affects her. She works her soul into it, and she pays a high price for it.

FL: Carla Gugino [Desire Under the Elms, 2009].

BD: Carla has the problem of her beauty to deal with, which is an interesting way of putting it. She’s really smart and sensitive, and she has great acting skills, but she’s just so goddamn sexy and beautiful that the audience has to somehow work its way through that to see where she’s going. She has such great acting ambitions, and she’s a wonderful actress, very smart, very poised. Yet she’s got this incredible figure and this incredible beauty that I think is probably a disadvantage for her. It’s great to be around, don’t get me wrong, but there is a tendency for people to say she’s so goddamn beautiful she can’t be good. She’s great.

FL: And Vanessa Redgrave [Long Day’s Journey Into Night, 2003].

BD: Vanessa is the queen of the ride at the parade. Her very presence onstage is such a power position: the mere fact that she is there. She, interestingly enough, understands that she has this power, but it’s something she almost can’t control. She just is. I remember taking bows [at Long Days’ curtain call], standing next to Philip Seymour Hoffman, God love him, and the four of us would bow and, as we bowed down, I would stage whisper, “Phil, they’re all looking at her.” You could see the house, and they were. Everybody in the house was staring at her with their mouths agape because what they had seen from her—and Mary is the center of that production—was so extraordinary. Vanessa is like a force of nature, like a tornado or some kind of a great electrical storm. What you do as an actor, you get on and hang on and do the best you can. I loved working with her. Absolutely loved working with her. You never knew what she was going to do. She knew the lines, but things came out of her that were just so extraordinary. She’s probably the greatest stage actress of our time. It’s a privilege to be onstage with her. It can be difficult, it can be complicated. But, boy, anybody who says he wouldn’t want to work with her again is crazy. She’s amazing. I’d love to get her involved in this thing. She would have been onboard, but she’s doing a pilot, too. [laugh]

FL: You’ve said that you like to read collections of letters. If, say, down the road, there’s a volume of Brian Dennehy’s letters, will it contain love letters?

BD: No. Unfortunately, I always go the easy way. I do a lot of writing, but not letters. I think I was married first when I was 19. My second marriage came when I was in my 50s. Both happened fairly quickly, so there wasn’t [the time or opportunity for love letters]. I’m astounded by Chekhov, for example, who died at 44, and was a surgeon and a doctor, who toured all the hospitals in places like Siberia for the Russian government and issued a huge government tract I don’t know how many pages long. He wrote countless letters, thousands of letters. And also wrote four of the greatest plays in history and countless short plays and essays. So, when somebody says, “I’m so busy, I don’t know what to do,” I always say, “Read Chekhov’s life, if you want to learn about somebody who was busy!” Ironically, in one of his essays he says, “I’m so lazy, I’m such a bum, I don’t get anything done, I fiddle around”—the whole Russian complaint—“I just fritter the time away” and so on and so forth. And the guy was constantly writing. I’m not like that. Unfortunately.

FL: But you are a constantly working actor.

BD: I’m not one of these actors who does something of value and then retires for six months. I’m looking around immediately for the next thing. I’m squeezing Love Letters in between this pilot I’m doing and The Iceman Cometh in Brooklyn [Feb. 5-March 15, 2015], which Nathan Lane and I have already done in Chicago. It’s an extraordinary play. The reaction to the production in Chicago was amazing. It’s an ordeal for the audience as much as it is for the actors. And that’s really the point. O’Neill was deliberately subjecting the audience to this kind of down-at-the-heels tedious stuff. But when it’s done well, the audience responds to it, understanding and feeling something. They’re not just observing events on the stage, but they become a part of O’Neill’s bleak understanding of what life is all about. I’m looking forward to it.

FL: And best of luck with the pilot.

BD: That’s the next ambition at this point. You want it to happen [that it's picked up for a series]. But what you really want is for them to send you the money. For that to happen, you actually have to do it.

>> Love Letters, Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 W. 47th St., btw Broadway & Eighth Ave., 877.250.2929