did you know you wanted to perform?
My parents were musicians, and I was the
youngest of four siblings. I had to fight for attention at the dinner table,
and it was pretty early that I became a bit of a clown. But I really started
acting when I was about 12. I don’t know…my dad was an actor too, so I watched
him in plays, and then I became interested in theatre through my sisters.
worked at this off-off Broadway theatre in the early '70s, the Theatre for the
New City. I started going to watch what they were doing, and the head of the
theatre saw me and asked if I wanted to be in a play, [some] street theatre
that summer, so I did my first play.
was the play?
It was called Undercover Cop (laughs). I played a street gang member. And the
company is still together after all these years.
did you know it was going to be a career?
When I went to university I was studying to
be a director, so I didn’t think I was going to be an actor. It wasn’t until my
senior year when I performed in front of an audience of industry types, agents
and so on, and won this competition, then I got an agent and started to
About a year later I got my first part, and when I realised I could
produce theatre with the money I earned acting, I got more excited about the
idea of becoming an actor. So, the Actors’ Gang had already started at that
point and the first play we did out of university was a big hit. We were really
excited about this new aesthetic we were working with. Parts on television and
movies started to fund the Actors’ Gang.
at your career now, are you surprised at all the film you’ve done? Were you always
more involved with theatre?
Well, for the first five years or so, I
always viewed acting as something that would pay for the theatre. It wasn’t
until I had done Five Corners in
 that I realised I could be involved in really good films. And then I
started pay more attention to it, be more excited about it.
was the first play Actors’ Gang did?
Roi, (Ubu the
King), a play by a French man named Alfred Jarry, written in .
it seems that from the beginning, Actors’ Gang wasn’t a commercial project,
given that it opened with a play so few people had ever heard of. Did you see
this as a place you could do whatever theatre you wanted to do?
That's more what it was, and it turned out
to be quite a success. I was attracted to the play because I’ve always been
attracted to theatre that has a larger canvas, a larger scope, that has to do
with subject matter that [concerns] with all of us, not just one domestic
And this play was the craziest play I’ve ever read – there were
stage directions like, 'the entire Polish army enters.' Another stage direction
was 'a malcontent explodes (laughs).' We were all punk rockers at the time, and
I was interested in doing theatre that had a visceral, physical aspect. This
was the perfect play to discover our propensity towards that.
your success in film, why was it so important for you to keep Actors’ Gang
I have this incredible laboratory, a group
of like-minded actors and artists that want to create innovative new works.
Every time I did a part in a movie, I knew I could carve out some time to make
a new production. I viewed it as a blessing; it was a way for me to expand, to
keep developing as an actor and a director, and then as a writer.
writing plays for the company, and through doing workshops and the rehearsal
process I learned how to mould a piece, to reinterpret it, to give it form and
a certain style. That ability to have that laboratory with Actors’ Gang made me
learn how to adapt and write and direct for film. And I still went back,
because this was a way I could work on an idea, but didn’t have to get the
approval of a studio or raise millions of dollars in order to realise it. It
was there for me, if I wanted to put the energy in and I wanted to do it. I
still feel that way. I spend more time in my theatre then I do on movie sets.
of writing, in a 1996 interview with Charlie Rose, you mentioned having to
'throw out whatever is sacred as a writer'. How hard is that to do? Did you
have any formal writing training?
My training came from Actors’ Gang. We
would get commissioned to do a work, I would get everyone together, I would
say, here’s the idea, here’s the basic script, we have three weeks, what are we
going to do?
When it isn't on the page, the actor can create it; we’d go into
the workshop, we’d see the scene and we’d think, 'It’s missing something.' So
then I would go after rehearsal and work until 3am with my co-writer; we’d work
out the scene we saw last night, and bring it back the next day filled out with
more depth and more insight.
This ability to do that in the theatre [made me]
realise that any script you’re working on, if you’re going to be shooting that
day, if it’s not working, there’s no one to blame. What are you going to do, are
you going to yell at the actors? It’s basically, how do you make it work, right
now, time is ticking, money is being spent, you got to shoot. [You
learn] adaptability, improvisation and figuring out how to create the truth in
the moment, it’s a really exciting creative process for me.
to directing your own work, is directing Shakespeare harder or easier?
It’s easier, you’re not –well, I’m not going to rewrite Shakespeare
(laughs). And it’s funny because when I did the play when I was younger, it was
a great production, we got great reviews and it ran for a while, but I don’t
think I really understood it. And it’s the kind of thing we’ve been trying to do
with the Actors’ Gang over the last ten years, we’re throwing out the paradigm
of the old model, of rehearsing a play for six weeks, putting it up for eight
and then it’s over.
We like to find good plays, work on them, put them up, take
a few months off, and work on them again. It’s the best we can do without state
funding, to affect the European model of state-funded theatre, where they can
go into rehearsal for eight-nine months and be paid to do it, and create a
piece that has a lot more depth than in the six-week rehearsal period.
great thing about Shakespeare is that it’s all there, if you don’t ignore it,
if you respect it, it’s there for you – it’s a solid piece of work. And what we
found when we did it the first time last summer, is that any time anyone got
psychological with the interpretation of a line, the laughs would go away. The
meter was the most important thing; the rhythm of his writing is impeccable.
And I would say to the actors, 'You know, that line that didn’t get a laugh
tonight, why do you think that was?' And they would say, 'Well, we were screwing
around with it.' I was like, 'Shakespeare is laughing in his grave, you can’t
mess with him (laughs)'. This is a perfect piece of work, and we have to
you tell me about the Actors’ Gang Prison Project? In an LA Times 2013 article, you talked about them gaining confidence,
can you expand on that?
Well it’s been transformative, not only for
the prisoners but for the actors that go in and work with them. It puts it all
in perspective, let’s just say. Everyone has their things in life they are
battling through, and creative people tend to dramatise that perhaps more than
the normal person. [But] then you realise that some of these guys are here for
30 years and they’ve got nothing, no creative outlet, nothing. And you work
with some of these guys in here and you see them transform, not in just an
acting way, but in a whole, complete holistic way. It’s pretty extraordinary.
Most of the guys will tell you that their lives were profoundly changed by the
experience over the eight weeks. Some of them have done more than one session,
and some of them have become leaders within the prison, creating their own
projects and their own groups. We taught these two guys over a course of three
sessions, then we went to a different part of the prison and said, 'You guys
are on your own for a while.' We found out later, within a month they had
gotten the prison’s permission to run their own programme. They trained 28 new
actors, they made costumes out of paper, they made sets out of anything they
could find, and they made commedia dell’arte masks out of papier mâché and the shoe leather from their prison-issued boots.
We saw this
incredible satire that they did called the Magnanimous
Ass, [from] a workshop I had done with them based on Midsummer Night’s Dream, the scene where the man gets turned into
the donkey. It has a lasting effect on these guys, and the prison officials
love it because the problems go away. When you’ve got guys that are more
attuned to, and more able to express, their own emotions, [they’re] more able to
work out problems on their own with fellow prisoners. It is a much safer
environment. The work is very demanding – it’s not psychological, it’s not
easy, it’s physical and it demands a commitment to strong emotions.
This is an
incredible consistency with the programme, we see these things happen all the
time, and we’ve stumbled onto a great form of cognitive therapy. No one wants
to be in a situation where you’re trying to be a psychiatrist in a prison
because there’s a good chance that there’s going to be some kind of con going
on. When you get people talking about that stuff, they tend not to be so
honest. But when they’re up there with white face on, pretending that their feet
are on fire, they have to tap into the sincerity of the emotion in order to get
the respect of the other people in the room. By doing that, they have to figure
out, sometimes for the first time, how to express emotions.
your concern for prisoners stem at all from your work on Shawshank Redemption and Dead
Man Walking? Are you drawn to write and/or star in films that deal with
issues of interest, or do you become more interested in issues because of your
First of all, there but for the grace of
God go I. I grew up in an area of New York City that was rough at times, and
you had to develop certain survival instincts. Some of my friends wound up in
jail. But I wasn’t particularly sensitive to the situation until I did Shawshank.
You know, one of the great
things about being an actor is that you’re constantly being thrust into
environments you would never choose. To be there and to be sentient in that
experience, you have to be open and receptive to what is there, and what was
there were a lot of prisoners.
We were [filming] at a working prison, and a lot
of our extras were doing time. We got to talk to some of them, and also the
prison guards who worked on the film. They gave me some insight into what was
wrong with the prison system; even back then, these right-wing, conservative
Republican prison guards were telling me that the whole problem with the prison
system is the drug laws. They’re locking up kids for possession of marijuana
with violent criminals, and they have to survive.There’s a waiting list for GED
high school equivalency programmes and for job training programmes, so
basically they never get anything but an education on how to be a better
criminal. I knew it was broken then, and then in Dead Man Walking, I learned more about how broken the system
Then at one point, one of the members of my company Sabra Williams came to
me and said, 'I’d like to start this programme, a prison programme.' She’d done
one in London. I gave her some money and then I started to go with her and
became part of it, and it became something that made a lot of sense. For years,
I have advocated for various causes, gone to benefits and donated money, but
even though the intentions were good and it’s important to do that kind of
work, you don’t really get anything out of it. In essence you’re creating money
for the people that do the work. And what I found is when you do the work
[yourself] it actually makes a lot more sense, using your talent to affect
change rather than your celebrity. That was a big revelation for me.
of Shawshank, do you have a favourite
film, or film experience?
There are a lot of them; I’ve been in a lot
of really interesting and great projects. [But] I would have to say that the
seminal moment for me was working with Robert Altman. It was such a different
and exciting experience from anything I had ever experienced.
He involved me in
the project as a creative partner, and for someone that you had viewed as an
idol, as a hero, to be looking you in the eye and saying, 'Your contribution is
important, and I want to tap your brain and see what you think,' it awakened a
sense in me that I could direct, and I could go to different levels of my
acting. [That] was the invaluable and unique experience of The Player .
said in that same Charlie Rose interview that you prefer acting to directing
because directing is so difficult, do you still feel that way? Is theatre
directing equally difficult?
Actually I don’t feel that way anymore,
what I was talking about at the time was how difficult it is to set up a film
project that is outside of what Hollywood wants. I still feel that way about
film, I think it’s still very difficult.
[But] I’ve been directing some
television series I admire, Treme, a
beautiful series set in New Orleans, [and] I really love directing in the
theatre. I love the ability to keep expanding in that way. I think you can get
constricted in this business sometimes. As an actor you can get on this kind of
hamster wheel, doing the same thing over and over again, and as a director you
can make compromises and make rationalisations for yourself, that this script
isn’t formulaic, it isn’t something you’ve seen before. I think you lose – or I
would personally expect to lose any passion I had before.
The difficulty is important;
there’s always a Sisyphean challenge in accomplishing a project, whether it’s
in theatre, film or television, there’s always a moment where the odds are all
stacked against you and there’s a mountain in front of you, you just have to
just suck it up and do it, overcome it. It’s never easy but it’s always
film directing is only difficult because of the business angle?
Yes, yes. Because the actual doing of it is
easy, I mean, if you’re disciplined and prepared, it’s a lot of fun. And I find
it really exciting to do. It’s the business that is telling you can’t do it,
that’s the most difficult thing, raising the financing and convincing people to
give you the money to do something that is in your head (laughs).
told me that the real talent of directing is being able to convince someone
that what’s in your head is going to be brilliant, and how do you say that?
What do you say to that person to get them to believe you?
Gang is known for doing experimental and often political work, what made you
decide to bring Midsummer Night’s Dream
to China? What do you like about the story?
Sometimes it’s important to remember that
in the midst of all the crises and economic fallout, that love is still there,
the spirit of the forest from Midsummer
Nights’ Dream is still there in our world. And we have to remind ourselves
of this from time to time. And one of the most thrilling things for me is
seeing the audience’s faces just lighten, and see the couples leaving the
theatre in love. That’s a real cool thing.
What I love about the play is that
it ends in a blessing, where Oberon comes and blesses the three couples that
were just married, and says any child conceived tonight, may it be without a
flaw, may it have perfection, may it be healthy. It’s a blessing for the three
couples in the play, but it’s also a blessing for the audience. And it’s one of
those moments you realise the genius Shakespeare had, to take people through
this crazy romp, with lots of laughter, and then to end on a note of 'go from
this theatre and make children that are perfect.'
about the Actors’ Gang version of Dream?
We’re trying to do things with this
production I don’t believe have been tried before. We’re working with language
in a way that…well…the essential idea is that once the lovers are in the
forest, all bets are off.
Their behavior becomes irrational, the opposite of
what they want – and how does that happen? Well, in the play, they drop some
liquid in one of the lover’s eyes, [who then] wakes up and [sees] the person he
falls in love with, but we were workshopping this and started thinking, 'What if
everyone knew the lines of the lovers?'
Everyone is essentially on stage for
the whole play – when someone exits, they become part of the forest – and what
if, when the lovers first come in, these fairies, animals and sprites, what if
they haven’t heard English for a while, and they start by just mimicking
Then as the play progresses, they start to say the words after the
lovers, then [eventually] become their subconscious. And at the end of the play,
when all hell is breaking loose, we’re working with [getting] the words there
before the lovers.
So, it’s like what happens on a drug for example, where
you’re not quite sure whether you’re in the moment or past the moment, or – and
this is what I think he’s getting at in the play – the transformative power of
night, of magic and of drugs. It’s been really interesting.
We’re also playing
with the idea of Puck being –as he says in his first speech – a shape-shifter.
He can turn into a stool, a crab; he can be anything. Going off that idea, we
started playing with the idea that Puck isn’t just one person, he’s constantly
transforming himself into something else, so that means that a lot of actors are
playing Puck as well. Are you confused?
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is at the Daguan Theatre, Thursday 19 to
Saturday 21 June. See event details.