by Linda Lombardi, Literary Manager
Edward Gero returns to Arena Stage following his powerful performance as painter Mark Rothko in Red. A four-time Helen Hayes Award winner, Ed is one of the most beloved and respected actors in the D.C. area. From Scrooge to Shakespeare, when Ed embodies a character, you're in for a layered, intricate performance. In the midst of rehearsals for John Strand's world premiere play, The Originalist, Ed shared his insights into America's political landscape, his love of teaching, and life as an actor in the DMV.
What attracted you to the role of Justice Antonin Scalia?
Apparently I was audacious enough to suggest to John several years back at some event we were at together that he write a play with me in mind. He reminded me of that when this process all began and I said, “I didn’t actually say that. Did I actually say that?” And he said, “Yeah, you did.” And then he said, “And I’ve done it.” I was shocked to learn it was about Justice Scalia, but I wasn’t surprised, really. It had been in the back of my head because of the resemblance— that that might be something that could come up. So I thought, “Oh my goodness, this is actually happening.” That was a year ago.
I love politics. Scalia’s a Shakespearean character, he has that kind of dimension. He’s Italian American. It may sound saccharin but the fact is I’ve never played an Italian-American in my career. I’ve played Italian, but not Italian American. The timing is right, the political environment in Washington is right. I’ve grown up aware of politics, listening to the Watergate hearings when I was in college and of course living in Washington, you can’t escape it. It’s our industry.
You’ve done quite a bit of research, including meeting the man himself. Tell us a little about how you’ve prepared for this role.
I started with biographies, what’s his backstory, and that was fascinating to read. It seemed very familiar to me. Born in New Jersey, raised Catholic—I went to Catholic school through 8th grade. He’s maybe a few years older than my oldest sister, so we’re kind of in the same generation, but a half-step away. His father was an immigrant, his mother was born here. So he’s second generation and a half. I’m solidly third generation. He grew up in the 1950s as did my sisters, so I have a sense of that period from them. The other piece about him was the textual piece, which fascinated me. I sought connections—how do I find myself in this person? What are some things about him I might recognize? Certainly his love of language, his acute listening, that I connect to having worked with Shakespeare for 30 years.
I wanted to find his spirit and to understand him intellectually and his theory of interpretation. He’s developed his theory of interpretation his whole life and he’s steadfastly committed to it and he’s still honing it. It’s still a process and I recognize that because I have that sensibility of doing Shakespeare. It’s something I’ve developed over 30, 40 years, and I’m still honing it, still trying to articulate what it is.
I also read the Federalist Papers. A large part of my reading list is defined by what work I’m doing. I went to observe him, maybe half a dozen times at the Court, and in public, speaking to students at the National War College, and then I spent some time with him in chambers over a meal, which was a surprising turn of events. I didn’t ever anticipate that.
How did that happen?
He said, “Let’s have lunch.” It was interesting because neither one of us knew quite how to…do we shake? Do we do the Groucho Marx/Harpo Marx thing in the mirror? But he set the tone, and made me and our other guests very much at ease. He’s an Italian…you sit down at the table, let’s relax and talk. I recognized that immediately and I think he recognized that in me. He’s very street smart and very book smart. What a faculty of language! We talked about things that we shared in common—our families, our relationships with our fathers, a love of text, opera, music. Everyone knows he’s a big opera fan but I found out he likes jazz, which makes perfect sense because it’s the democratic music form. You come in as individuals and then you make music together and you make an ensemble. That made perfect sense to me.
I asked if he were going to be on a desert island, what piece of music would he bring—like Desert Island Disks. And hands-down, it was Mozart.
A large theme in the play is the political middle ground. Do you think it still exists?
Oh I think it exists, I just think we can’t hear it from all the screaming. It’s very difficult. The middle ground requires a concerted effort to listen and to respect. And in the mis en scene of the political landscape, with all the screaming, you get lost, you’re caught in the crossfire. The image that John uses in the play is absolutely apt. It’s No Man’s Land. I hope this play will raise the conversation. It’s not about Scalia or Cat, but Americans in general. What is it about us that we steadfastly refuse to respect the other person’s point of view? It only works if both sides do their homework, and research and develop a position that’s based on logic and fact and reason. That’s the real problem. We’ve lost the capacity or the discipline or the commitment for high-level critical thinking. We don’t do homework. We get information, but we don’t synthesize it, we don’t think it through. When I was growing up, everybody watched the Huntley-Brinkley Report or Walter Cronkite. You were watching the same event. And that has a sense of community. We’re not all reading the New York Times or the Washington Post. So there’s a devolution of critical thinking and that’s why it’s become a call to arms in the education business to teach critical thinking. We have to teach critical thinking. The middle requires that kind of work.
Growing up so close to NY, what made you choose D.C. as the city to make your living in as an actor?
I had always gone to the city as a kid. Hop on a train and go see a Broadway matinee or downtown to the Public or the Delecort or La Mama. I worked in New York and I lived there until 1983. I studied there, after I finished my education at Montclair State. I was working with the Barter Theater in southwest Virginia, and they did a season in northern Virginia on the campus of George Mason University in 1981. I was doing a play called The Corn is Green. An actress and speech coach from Washington named Katie Fly was helping with the Welsh accent, and Katie was friends with John Neville Andrews who was running what was then called the Folger Theater Group. He came downstairs to the dressing room to say hello on opening night and said “How’d you like to join the company?”
I had trained to do Shakespeare. I had actually come to Washington in 1974 with the American College Theater Festival, and also the National Society of Arts and Letters. I had won the state competition and the national competition was on stage at the Folger. I didn’t win that year but I thought, “Someday I’d like to play here.” So when that happened I thought, “This is a dream!’ So in ’83 I came down for a season, and John invited me back. So I could either go back to New York and look for work or stay here and do the work I was trained to do. No contest. And I had the great good fortune to have a life—home, family, to not be a nomad. It was a great way to balance out a life in the theater. I don’t think you could do that in other cities.
Being attached to The Originalist for the past year, how has being part of the development of the script evolved your perspective of your character?
It’s great to be a part of the process and to read the various versions and chat with John. All that work that John has gone through to cull it out. It’s the Michelangelo process. There’s a big stone and then you chip away and discover the work of art inside. I do the same thing as an actor, that’s my approach: do all the research, put it all together, then start to subtract and shape it.
Molly [Smith] sets up a great room. She’s what you want in a director. She asks you questions. She plants a seed and it’s totally collaborative. It’s been a wonderfully high level of collaboration and that’s something you hope for, something you aspire to, and you don’t know when it’s going to happen. As an artist, as an actor, you aspire to that.
In the past you’ve portrayed Richard Nixon, Mark Rothko and now Justice Scalia. What do you enjoy about portraying biographical characters?
There’s material on the record. In a totally fictitious piece, you rely on your own experience and the text, the circumstances of the text. With a biographical character, in a way all of that work is done for you. In this case the material is enormous—there’s so much on the record, with videos and recordings and biographies. It gives you a solid foundation from which to ingest and incorporate the connections you may have and find the spirit, and then let it go.
What’s really fun is something I realized with Nixon. Everyone knows who Nixon is, so when I did the physical changes and the vocal changes, people can see the work. It’s no different than what I’ve done with every other character, but people have a metric. It’s like looking at a Swiss watch with the gears showing; you can see how it works. It’s a way the audience can participate in the process that they couldn’t any other way.
I’m really getting a sense of how significant this could be—in this community particularly. Everyone has an opinion and we’re asking people to reexamine their points of view. We’re advocating respectful thought. That’s a risk. That’s our job as artists. That’s our calling. One of the great things about being in Washington with this play is that we have access here like no one else.
These people, these politicians, are our neighbors. They come to our theater. We know them, and they know us. There’s also a civic-mindedness about it. This is where the artist-citizen should come to speak to people of government. It’s part of the responsibility of the artist-citizen. You can’t do that in New York or Chicago or LA or anywhere else.
I want to move to your work at George Mason. Did you always know you wanted to teach?
I’ve always loved the classroom. I’ve always thought of myself as a student. A perfect day would be teaching class during the day and performing at night, in a monastic way, always involved and immersed in the process. Analyze it, look at it, hone it, and then perform it. I had the opportunity to teach in the early days with the Folger and there was a student from George Mason who took a class in Shakespeare, went back to school and said, “You should get this guy to come out here, he’s terrific.” And that turned into a class. Directing a play turned into a part-time position which turned into a full-time position and now I’m tenured. What’s wonderful about that particular program is that everyone on faculty are working professionals—as playwrights, designers, sound technicians. It’s great for the students to be able to have the access to the community through people who are in the community.
Teaching reinforces a sense of wonder and the act of letting go. I see in my students a struggle that sometimes I think I’ve mastered, but really haven’t. So there’s a sharing that goes on. The great thing is to see students get it—not what to think but how—and to see that process come to fruition in them.
What’s something our audiences may not know about you?
I like to cook. I like to go to Italy. I’m an overachiever. I’m amazed at how I got here. Looking back, it looks like things were written, like they were planned out as I couldn’t have imagined. I really hold what we do as something kind of sacred, it’s a religious impulse, a spiritual impulse. That may be from my Catholic upbringing and certainly mysticism and Zen and Carl Jung. I’m really formed by the conflation of Catholic mysticism and psychology and the notion that we’re all connected. That’s been an influence in my entire career.
How would you describe Scalia (as he is in our play) in three words?
Incisive. Self-aware. Ironic.