Ed Herrmann has made a career out of playing the blue-blood millionaire. Whether it's William Randolph Hearst in The Cat's Meow, good-natured patriarch Richard Gilmore, in the WB's acclaimed series Gilmore Girls, Nelson Rockefeller in Nixon, Grant Stayton III in Overboard, or even Richard Rich Sr. in the 1994 remake of Richie Rich, Herrmann's authoritative presence commands the screen. While Herrmann is quick to point out that he hasn't had the luxurious life of so many of the characters he has portrayed, he said he appreciates the finer things—namely good theatre and quality writing. In his latest role, Herrmann plays Rex Rexroth, real estate mogul and the unwitting victim of his wife's (Catherine Zeta Jones) money schemes in the newest Coen Brothers film, Intolerable Cruelty. The 6-foot-5 actor sat down with Back Stage West to discuss his distinguished career as a first-class actor.
Back Stage West: How did you become the go-to actor to play the rich guy, or the headmaster, or the president?
Edward Herrmann: If you do something that is indelible or makes a big impression first off, that's what people think of you as. People thought of Errol Flynn in tights because of Captain Blood. The first thing anybody saw me in on a large scale was Eleanor and Franklin. Of course he [Franklin Roosevelt] was so elegant, and he had tremendous command of the English language. People just began to think of me that way also. They think of me as being very preppy, which I'm not. I went to public school. I did four movies before that, all of which were very different, and I played very different characters. I drove a motorboat in The Day of the Dolphin; I was a crazy inventor in the Great Waldo Pepper, a law student in Paper Chase, and Klipspringer in [1994's] The Great Gatsby. None of those characters made enough of an impression for people, but Roosevelt did. So now I play a lot of roles in which I get to wear very fine suits.
BSW: How do you keep each character so unique?
Herrmann: You look at the situation that the character is in, you look at the needs of the script, of the dramatic structure of the piece and how the character fits into it, and what is required of him. If the character isn't terribly fleshed out, then you try to find places where you can really make the character your own. But usually the character's profession dictates a lot about what he thinks about life and what he does. It depends on the script and how well it is written. There are playwrights, if you start at the top, with Shakespeare and Chekhov—you have to work to fill these enormously complicated characters. You can work all your life and never do all of Uncle Vanya or King Lear. Most of the time, though, scripts are pretty thin in terms of characterization, and you have to fill them up rather than the character filling you up. With Shakespeare you sort of erase yourself and let the character inhabit you, and from there all the complexity will come. With many films and television scripts, you have to add the complexity yourself. I've had good luck this summer with two films: Welcome to Mooseport, which is a comedy with Ray Romano and Gene Hackman, and The Aviator, in which I got to play head of the Breen Commission, Joseph Breen. It's not just my dilemma though; it's every actor's dilemma. How many times can you play an action character, or a quirky romantic? Every actor has to find his own way to make each character unique. That's why playing Hearst [in The Cat's Meow] was such a kick for me—precisely because he was such a complicated man.
BSW: Did you do much research into Hearst's life before taking on the role?
Herrmann: I was given such short notice before shooting began that I didn't have time to do a lot of research on him. Of course I knew the general outline of his life. But in this case I just grabbed hold of the script for all it was worth and played the complexity in the script. Fortunately [writer Steven Peros] had done his research and had done a really wonderful job with the script.
BSW: Do you think the time you spent in London at the Academy of the Dramatic Arts helped you to perfect the snooty erudite quality?
Herrmann: I don't know. I think my parents had more to do with it than anything else. My father is an engineer; my mother was a schoolteacher. I guess I've always been drawn to a certain look, a certain quality. In the '50s our heroes were tough guys like John Wayne and Humphrey Bogart. I remember seeing the first Astaire-Rogers musical on television, and I couldn't believe how beautiful it was. It dawned on me that you don't have to wear a cowboy hat to be a man. I had just always thought the sun rose and set on English theatre. Going to London, then, allowed me to experience bad English acting. In the end I envied them because they could do everything. They could do a West End farce, and then Hamlet, and then a radio play at the BBC—you could have a multifaceted life. At that time in the '60s in the United States, you were a movie actor or a TV actor or a stage actor—you just didn't cross-pollinate the way they do now. As luck would have it I've been able to have the career I wanted in London over here.
BSW: Have you ever played a completely down-and-out degenerate?
Herrmann: No, but I want to so badly.
BSW: How do you know when a script is right for you?
Herrmann: Somehow you just know. I'll be reading a script, and suddenly something strikes me, and I feel more alert and aware. The preconceptions of the day are so finite; that's when you run into stale categories and you think, I can't do this anymore, I can't play the prep school headmaster one more time. But the profession itself is so magical, and you can find scripts that will reinvigorate you. Rex Rexroth was one of those characters for me; he was handed to me on a platter, and it was wonderful. Something will come along; it always does. The thing is to be ready for it.
BSW: Do you consider yourself a character actor?
Herrmann: I'm an actor. I'll take a lead if it's offered. The really good actors can fill a character, no matter what the role is. A good leading man is a character actor; a good character actor can be a leading man.
BSW: For so many actors, it's a dream to work with the Coen Brothers. What did you learn from them?
Herrmann: I learned a dangerous lesson, which is that it's easy to make a movie. They make it so easy to work, they shoot only what they need. Each morning I would get my sides, and sketched on the back would be a copy of the storyboards. You knew exactly what shots were going to be needed that day, so by 5 o'clock you were having a martini. I never saw two people work together so well; everything on the set was relaxed and easy. If you had an idea, they were always willing to try something. But if they felt that they had gotten what they needed from one or two takes, then that was it—you were finished. They are planning a toga epic that they want me to be in, and I just can't wait.
BSW: You have been paired with some of the most gorgeous women in Hollywood.
Herrmann: Oh, yes, I have.
BSW: Did you ever have any idea that your career would take that turn?
Herrmann: None. Of course all actors think they're ugly failures, which is why they compensate by getting onstage. But the idea that I would be paired with Sigourney Weaver or Blythe Danner or Dianne Wiest or Catherine Zeta-Jones, Kirsten Dunst or Goldie Hawn, it's just madness to me. I'm just this great, hulking person. I always thought I would be a comedian, but here I am.
BSW: You spent a lot of time in Dallas doing regional theatre. How was that beneficial to you?
Herrmann: It was a great place to be onstage and to learn and to grow, but also to fail, and not be seen by every casting person in the world. You can do a bad show, and people are very forgiving. I think staying in a smaller region is very beneficial for learning your trade, so that when you do get into the larger markets, you have something to sell, and you feel confident in your craft. Ultimately it's a question of temperament. Can you be happy in L.A. or New York? Staying in a small area is so great to really learn what it is you are doing. And if you like it there, stay there. If you want to move on, at least you'll have a professional competence to fall back on. Your internal clock tells you if it's time to move on.
BSW: And you still do theatre?
Herrmann: Oh, yes, often in Williamstown. It refreshes you, keeps you plugged into how you really do a scene and how you really submerge yourself in a character and let the impulses come from the text and from the situation. As I get older, more and more of that rhythm and tempo is really the most important thing onstage; how you pace things and take the audience along, like a long musical composition.
BSW: You were the voice of Dodge for a long time. Any concerns about turning into Joe Isuzu?
Herrmann: No, I did the Dodge commercials for eight years, and I loved it, it was such a great gig. I didn't want it to end. But the style was always very presentational, so I never had to worry about being so strongly associated with a brand. Besides, I think the mold was finally broken forever when Olivier did the Polaroid ads. If John Gielgud can sell Gallo wine, then I can certainly sell a car.
BSW: Any advice for actors?
Herrmann: Be good at what you do; the world doesn't need bad actors. You really have to have a worm in your belly to make this happen. Try to see your life in the theatre as a life, with ups and downs. You're not in it to just hit it once and get your house in Beverly Hills. It's a continuous process of exploration. A life in art has incredible rewards, but it takes a lot of sacrifice. So be prepared for it, and just do it; don't bitch about it. I think it's much richer and much more fun to be an artist than to be anything else. I can't think of a better life than acting. BSW
Where You've Seen Him
A Selective Filmography
The Aviator (2004; in production) as Joseph Breen
Intolerable Cruelty (2003) as Rex Rexroth
The Emporer's Club (2002) as Headmaster Woodbridge
The Cat's Meow (2001) as William Randolph Hearst
Nixon (1995)(as Nelson Rockefeller
Richie Rich (1994) as Richard Rich Sr.
Big Business (1988) as Graham Sherbourne
Overboard (1987) as Grant Stayton III
The Lost Boys (1987) as Max
Compromising Positions (1985) as Bob Singer
The Man with One Red Shoe (1985) as Brown
The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) as Henry
Mrs. Soffel (1984) as Warden Peter Soffel
Annie (1982) as Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Reds (1981) as Max Eastman
The Betsy (1978) as Dan Weyman
The Great Waldo Pepper (1975) as Ezra Stiles
The Great Gatsby (1974) as Klipspringer
The Paper Chase (1973) as Thomas Craig Anderson
The Day of the Dolphin (1973) as Mike
James Dean (2001) as Raymond Massey
"Oz" (2000-2001) as Harrison Beecher
"Gilmore Girls" (2000) as Richard Gilmore
"The Practice" (1997-98) as Anderson Pearson
Here Come the Munsters (1995) as Herman Munster
The Prodigious Mr. Hickey (1987) as Headmaster
Murrow (1986) as Fred Friendly
"St. Elsewhere" (1986) as Father Joseph McCabe
Freedom to Speak (1982) as Andrew Carnegie/ Robert Ingersoll/Abraham Lincoln/Mark Twain
A Love Affair: The Eleanor and Lou Gehrig Story (1978) as Lou Gehrig
Eleanor and Franklin: The White House Years (1977) as Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Eleanor and Franklin (1976) (TV) as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, age 20-50