hen Glenne Headly steps out on to the stage of the Tiffany Theater for the Sept. 18 opening of Colleen Dodson-Baker's new comedy Detachments, it will be the first time she's been in front of a live audience in the United States in 10 years.
Scary, no doubt. But perhaps less scary considering Headly's true return to the stage after her 10-year hiatus already happened a few months ago, when she received rave reviews for her role in the revival of Wallace Shawn's Aunt Dan and Lemon at the Almeida Theatre in London. And even less scary when one considers that this is Glenne Headly, after all—one of the early members of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company—an actress who took part in the glory days of perhaps America's most prestigious regional theatre. The stage is in her blood.
At Steppenwolf since 1979, Headly worked on a variety of plays, from Miss Firecracker Contest to Born Yesterday, from Coyote Ugly to Absent Friends. She was also married for a time to Steppenwolf actor/director John Malkovich.
Outside the theatre, she made a career as a comic actress whose best on-screen roles were not necessarily in the comic genre. Her sweet, breathy voice and big eyes—combined with her dead-on timing—made her the dream ingenue in films such as Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Dick Tracy. But it was projects like Lonesome Dove and Bastard Out of Carolina that allowed her to really show off her chops—and earn her Emmy noms along the way. These movies, as well as films like Mortal Thoughts, show her at her best—able to lighten the mood instantly when it's appropriate through her superb sense of comedy, but ultimately tapping into a deep sadness in her characters.
And don't think for a moment that airy indicates airhead. Headly's shown that she's particularly adept at conveying sharp intelligence. Consider two of her medical roles, in particular: Dr. Mary Guinan in And the Band Played On, and her recurring ER role as pediatric surgeon and love interest Abby Keaton.
Considering her successful screen career, what made Headly return to the stage? First of all, as she explains below, theatre will always offer her something that no other media can match. Even so, she didn't exactly come back willingly; it was more like kicking and screaming. Headly explained that playwright Wallace Shawn and director Tom Cairns basically kept up a campaign of correspondence with the actress, begging her to do Aunt Dan and Lemon for more than a month. Even after that, a trip to L.A. by the British director to appeal in person apparently wasn't enough to persuade her. Only after Shawn left a half-hour message on her machine explaining why she had to do the show did she come around.
"It was just too dark of a play," explained Headly, who, currently married with a son, considers more carefully her commitments to material. "I didn't want to go in a dark place." But she did, and the show, which starred Miranda Richardson as Dan and Headly as Lemon, was a hit.
Convincing Headly to commit to Detachments at the Tiffany was a lot easier. Produced by Loretta Theatre's Beth Henley and Amy Madigan, this screwball comedy centers on a woman who loses her longtime boyfriend after her retina becomes detached. Headly commited to the project as soon as she read the script, which Henley had passed along. Said the actress about relative newcomer Dodson-Baker and her play, "I'm sure she knows it's good, but I think it's really very good. And I don't think she realizes that it's as good as I think it is." It must be good to get Headly back onstage, along with a great cast that includes Laraine Newman, Victor D'Altorio, and Albie Selznick.
Headly recently sat down with Back Stage West before a rehearsal to discuss her time at Steppenwolf, her time away from the stage, and the time of her life she is having now that she's back.
Back Stage West: Gary Sinise said that when he saw you in a 1979 production of Curse of the Starving Class with John Malkovich, he knew immediately that you would be perfect for Steppenwolf. What are your first memories of the company?
Glenne Headly: I saw a production they did of The Caretaker with Gary Sinise and Jeff Perry and Allen Wilder, directed by John Malkovich. I had just moved to Chicago. I'd done two plays at that point, and I'd seen some good acting, but I saw that show in a little basement up in Highland Park, Illinois, which is a far north suburb of Chicago. And this production in the basement of this church was fantastic. I couldn't believe it was that good. I thought it was the best production I'd seen anywhere in a really long time, and that would include New York. And I thought, God, I will do anything to be a part of this group. I thought they were fantastic and that, to me, was really what acting was all about.
So I did some volunteer stuff for them—I helped them clean up and stuff like that. Then I did this production of Curse of the Starving Class in which I played John's sister, and they all came to see it. And they, at this point, had been around for four or five years, and they wanted to add people to the company. So they saw the play because of John. And that's when they asked me to join, along with John Mahoney, Fran Guinan, Tom Irwin, and Rondi Reed.
I thought there was an edge to Steppenwolf then, a believability factor that really attracted me. There was no pretense of being in a play. There was no "acty" stuff going on. The acting was really real, and the choices were really imaginative. And that first impression stayed with me throughout my career. I have never changed my mind about that.
BSW: What was your training before Steppenwolf?
Glenne: I had gone to the High School of the Performing Arts in New York City. When I left high school—I was younger than my classmates, just 17—I knew I wanted to be an actress, but I thought, When I go to college, I'd rather study something else. So I went to college in Switzerland.
Then I graduated with my B.A. early and went to New York, where I went to the HB Studios, but that was just a two-month program, which was very interesting, very good. I also tried out for Uta Hagen's classes, but I didn't get in. Then I went to Chicago just on a fluke with a boyfriend who was from there. It was Passover, so I went to visit his family. The boyfriend and I—well, that wasn't going to work out, but I thought, Hmm, Chicago is really kind of neat. While I was there on the weekend, I read the papers and saw that there was this young, burgeoning theatre thing happening, particularly with the St. Nicholas Theatre. Steppenwolf was not mentioned at all in the things that I read. I thought, Y'know, I should move out here and see what I can do, because it seemed like a good place to learn, and it was really cheap compared to New York. I literally left New York two weeks later.
BSW: At Steppenwolf, there were no classes, per se, correct? The training was simply putting things up.
Glenne: Part of why I wanted to go to Chicago was, I wanted to get the training on my feet. To me, a lot of what makes a good actor is not what a teacher tells you to do but how you respond when you're on your own. You're out there for however long that play is, you're out there with the audience, and—be it a big one or a small one—something happens. It's very different than in a classroom.
It's also very different when you get to run the play from the first scene to the last scene, much different than working on a scene for scene study. Scene study is isolated. I suppose it's interesting, but I don't think it really teaches you about a throughline. A throughline is something you feel when you do one scene followed by another followed by another.
Also, a big part of training for me is what happens when you go show to show. You do the same show, but on Tuesday, you discover something you didn't know on Monday. On Wednesday, you figure out something else. And those are things you can only discover when you run something all the way through and you have no net. In a classroom, there's always a net.
I think a lot of good actors—for instance, Gary Sinise—have no training. His training was really entirely on his feet. I suppose you have to have an instinct for it. You have to be devoted, because it's going to swallow most of your life. You just learn on your feet. I'm sure there are great teachers and all that, and people love their classes. But I'm just saying, if you want to do this as a profession, it's about a lot more than what you learn in the classroom.
BSW: You were in Lanford Wilson's Balm in Gilead, one of the first Steppenwolf shows to transfer to New York. What was that experience like?
Glenne: The thing is, in Chicago, we'd already brought Balm in Gilead to a larger theatre, so we'd already seen the difference between an audience of 180 and 320. Audience-wise, we knew about that. And we knew that it lost some of the intimacy. That play, with 180 seats, was in your face. When we moved to the larger space in Chicago, we got a sense of how to play with not being right in your face and what distance did with the show, and how to make adjustments for that.
Then we went to New York and at the Circle Rep, and we were back in a smaller space again. We were also in the position where they had their own company, so we had to blend companies together. So there was us getting used to the other actors. And, of course, in our very first production of Balm in Gilead, we did bring in members from the Remains Theatre because it was a really big show—28 people.
What was most exciting about New York was that people were going to get to see what we could do. It was a real ensemble show. But it almost didn't happen. I remember right before previews, someone from Chicago who was going to invest in the show backed out, to the tune of $75,000.
Luckily, John was doing Death of a Salesman at the time with Dustin Hoffman. Dustin had started out in the theatre and was really excited hearing about our theatre. He'd only seen True West, he hadn't seen Balm in Gilead, but he wrote us a check for $75,000. That was the most generous thing. So the show was back on, and it went really well.
BSW: Despite the number of fantastic women who have come out of Steppenwolf, it seemed to have a male-dominated reputation in early years. Did you feel that was the case?
Glenne: Well, the men were all directing and the men were artistic directors. I think we really tried to make sure that the women were always getting good parts, too, but there really are more parts for men in plays than women. That's just the way it is. So that's probably why it seemed male-dominated. Right now, for the first time, there is a woman artistic director [Martha Levey], so things have changed. But while I was there, there was not.
BSW: Many theatre groups have tried to follow Steppenwolf's model, but there are not many Steppenwolfs out there. What made Steppenwolf unique?
Glenne: We had a mutual respect for each other's acting abilities. It helped that we were very young starting out. That helped because it means that you have (A) energy, (B) energy, and (C) energy. Theatre requires devotion that is all-consuming. When we started out, we didn't mind working 12 hours a day. We didn't mind going endlessly over and over a scene to make it right. I was the company's costumer for the first few years, and I remember the budget for Balm in Gilead was $150. I made that work by going to every thrift store in town. I think you just have to not be concerned about money.
I remember a bunch of people had day jobs, and they'd work at night, or night jobs, and they'd work in the day. Once we were a part of Equity, we were able to get a salary, and then because we were employing ourselves, we just made sure we were always working. We put in hours to get subscribers. We used to do little shows at rich peoples' houses to get them to give us money. We did shows in their living rooms, on patios, on terraces, wherever it had to be. And as people got interested, then we moved on to doing our little vignettes in hotels or ballrooms. We did all the mailings.
It was pretty much an all-day, all-night affair, once we were able to support ourselves on that Equity check, which was only a few hundred dollars. But that's what you have to do. You have to really do it, constantly. You can't be dissuaded by a bad review or lack of an audience or people walking out during your show, which happened many times. You just can't be dissuaded by that. We trusted each other as our judges. And if people liked it, that was really nice, and if they didn't, well, that's too bad. We liked it. I think that attitude really helps because it strengthens you as a unit.
Also, we were really critical of each other. It wasn't like we would let anyone get away with anything. If you saw some acting that wasn't really good, you'd say, "You know what? I didn't believe what I just saw." And that helped us to just keep getting better and better. I think it's about energy and devotion and not needing money or security or approval.
BSW: You've had a lot of success in film and television, and yet you recently returned to the theatre after a 10-year hiatus. Why?
Glenne: In a play, you get to live the arc of that character from beginning to end. When you're doing television or film, you're not doing it from the first scene to the last. You're not feeling that arc, which makes things move so naturally. When you're doing film or television, you have to manufacture what you would be feeling at that point because you haven't just run the scenes before that. If you do some really sad scene in a movie that happens in the movie's Act Two, you don't have that set-up because you haven't filmed that—perhaps it's been out of sequence, or if you have filmed it, it's been several days ago. When you're doing a play, everything comes very naturally because you're living it from the beginning to the end. I find that it's much easier for it to kind of flow through you. It's much easier to find the emotional life of the person.
They both have their up and down sides. The downside of the theatre is, you have to repeat it—the show, not your performance. Your performance might be different from day to day, ever so slightly. It's always growing; hopefully, it's always evolving. Most people will tell you that a show four weeks into the run is better than opening night, because you are having to do it over and over. That's why for a long time I didn't want to do the theatre. I was just burned out.
BSW: You've also found equal success in comic and dramatic roles. Is it a myth that certain actors are born to play comedy? Are there special skills a comic actor has that a dramatic performer does not?
Glenne: There are so many kinds of comedy, but I suppose you could generalize by saying that a good comic actor is very much in touch with the absurdities of life. I think most comedic actors have to be very observant about behavior. You would say that about a dramatic actor, but in fact, I think you might have to be a little more observant as a comic actor.
Then there's timing. Rhythm and timing are so important in comedic acting. And everybody can have their own sense of timing, but you have to have some sense of it. It's kind of like music. With a joke, there's a set-up to it; whereas in drama, there's kind of a set-up in that you, the character, know that a sad moment is coming, and the audience doesn't know it. You build to get to that sad moment. But with comedy, it's very quick. You have to have a sense of the musical rhythm of it and play that instrument well.
But I know a lot of comic actors who have very different styles, and all are very funny, so there's not any one particular comic style, obviously. And people do tend to get pigeonholed as comic actors. I think I've gotten away with that not happening because I did a lot of dramas, too. With my voice, I thought, Oh, God, this is going to be hard. At Steppenwolf, it was easy. I could just do whatever I wanted. But after Steppenwolf, I thought, It's going to be hard doing dramas because people are going to hear my voice and think… something.
But somehow it's been OK because I try, when I do the dramas, to do something really far away from me. Obviously, every part has a little bit of the actor in it, but I try to do things further away because I tend to be a very light, buoyant personality. I try, in the dramas, to do darker things. With Aunt Dan and Lemon, that's about as dark as I want to go.
BSW: What would you say was the highlight of returning to the stage?
Glenne: Doing Aunt Dan and Lemon in London, I secretly hoped certain playwrights whom I admired would see the show: Caryl Churchill, Tom Stoppard, and Harold Pinter. Caryl Churchill showed up on the very first preview. She came backstage to talk to me. I was thrilled that she said she'd love me to do one of her plays. Then Tom Stoppard came and told me he would love me to do one of his shows. Then Harold Pinter came. It was a huge thrill, him coming back to my dressing room to talk to me.
BSW: Will there ever be another 10-year period of no plays?
Glenne: No. What I hope is that I'll be able to do shows here in L.A. My family's here. This is so much easier than going elsewhere to do a play. Two guys that I'm extremely close to—Randall Arney and Stephen Eich, who were formerly with Steppenwolf—have taken over as artistic director and business manager at the Geffen. Those guys are fantastic. They really know what they're doing. They moved us from one of our smaller houses at Steppenwolf to our big, $8 million building built from the ground up. They organized all of that. I'm very happy that they're here.
BSW: You've mentioned your distinctive voice. Did you obsess over it when you were younger?
Glenne: It's a drawback. I can change it, and I have been able to in certain parts, and people don't even realize that I have been able to change it. I think when people think of Mortal Thoughts or Bastard Out of Carolina or Lonesome Dove they don't think, high, breathy voice. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels or Dick Tracy—yes, they do. If I go on an audition and they haven't seen those things, they may think I cannot change it.
But, day to day, if someone meets me, they'll think I have this breathy, airy, airhead voice, whatever they'd describe it as. I thought for a long time that I should just change my voice. I should just work at it, since I'm so good at accents. I should just focus and do it all day long. But I can't do it. At different times, I will try, "Today I am going to talk with a deep voice," but then I get excited about things, and it goes back up. I think the voice correlates with my positive attitude. I can't be positive and do a lower voice. I can't.
BSW: Tell me your earliest memories of some of the Steppenwolf company members: Gary Sinise.
Glenne: My earliest memory of Gary was seeing him in The Caretaker as Mick. He's got tremendous power onstage and completely immerses himself in the part. You have no question that he's living in that moment. There's a rawness to him that's just so powerful. It's just so real. It stands out. You'd think that people would be able to do that easily. But you know what? They can't. And he just does it really well. There are some actors who are kind of cerebral and there are some who are very physical. And he's physical. It makes it very exciting for the audience because you don't know when he may leap off the stage.
BSW: Laurie Metcalf.
Glenne: The first thing I remember Laurie doing was one of those vignettes for the rich people. She did a scene from The Real Inspector Hound in a backyard in one of the suburbs, at one of these estates. She was playing the maid, and all she had to do was say, "Black or white, madam?" She conveyed so much about that character with that one line. She was a very hateful maid, and it was so funny. I thought to myself, This person has comic genius. And I hadn't really ever seen it in person, onstage. I got scared for a second because I thought, She's that good—and on just one line.
I'm very close to Laurie, and I don't even really think, frankly, that her talent has been tapped. There's a lot more there. She can do so many characters. She's really versatile.
BSW: John Malkovich.
Glenne: The first thing that I saw John in was a play at St. Nicholas, which was Ashes, and he had a combination of the animal and the cerebral thing happening at the same time, which was an interesting combination. And I usually see just the cerebral actor or just the animal thing, but he's a combination of both, which is great. And he had such a presence and was really vulnerable, even as a big guy. He was almost breakable.
BSW: John Mahoney.
Glenne: The first thing I saw John do was Brian Friel's Philadelphia, Here I Come, and he was so real, very ebullient on stage, very at ease with himself. He has an extremely warm presence on stage, and very, very at ease. Of course, he was older than the rest of us, so he had a sense of himself at that point, which none of us had, but he was very, very self-confident. That struck me in the beginning, that ease, because that's what everyone wants to have, and when you're younger you don't always have that.
BSW: Joan Allen.
Glenne: The first thing I saw her do was also Philadelphia, Here I Come, and she was very ethereal and very quiet and contained. She is, in my mind, more of the intellectual kind of actress and very, very believable. And she had a lot of grace, and very believable.
Laurie also, let me say, was probably the most at ease of any of them. The most. And the funny thing is, she says that she's always really scared. But she seems, definitely, to have the most at-ease performances.
BSW: Are you still a member of Steppenwolf?
Glenne: Yes, I am. There's going to be a huge 25th anniversary celebration this year, two days before we open, and I am not able to attend because I'm going to be in previews. I'm so sad.
BSW: Do you want to work there again?
Glenne: Yes, I do. In fact, we're doing a reading tomorrow of Beth Henley's Crimes of the Heart, because I think that would be a great play for me and Laurie and Moira Harris to do together. And I think it would be great for us to play sisters. I think that Beth is one of our most charming, funniest writers. And the fact that those sisters in the play return home and haven't seen each other in a while, I think there's a parallel with us as actresses. I think that would be a great thing. So we're going to read that tomorrow, and hopefully we'll be able to do that. BSW