I had a feeling Matthew Broderick would be a little tired of any discussion remotely involving his 1986 film Ferris Bueller's Day Off. But it's impossible, I think, to not make some mention of Ferris when speaking of his career.
Actually, the 38-year-old actor had no problem bringing up the film in our recent conversation, and he has fond memories of the experience; he did make it clear, however, that he hopes people look beyond a part he played 17 years ago. Though he's continually worked in movies, he has branched out most in theatre. A New York native, Broderick made his professional stage debut at 17 opposite his father, James Broderick, in On Valentine's Day. He won an Outer Critics Circle Award for his supporting part in Harvey Fierstein's Torch Song Trilogy (he later starred in the film version) and won his first Tony Award for his starring role in Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs. Broderick also starred in Brighton's stage sequel and film Biloxi Blues. He received his second Tony for his portrayal of J. Pierrepont Finch in the Broadway revival of How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. (Who knew that that he had a terrific musical-comedy singing voice?) His more recent theatre credits include Night Must Fall, Horton Foote's The Death of Papa, and Elaine May's comedy Taller Than a Dwarf, in which he played opposite Parker Posey earlier this year.
Broderick continues to shed his skin onstage. Currently, he is in rehearsals with Nathan Lane for the stage adaptation of Mel Brooks' Academy Award-winning 1967 film The Producers, which will open in February in Chicago and then come to Broadway in March.
His film credits are not shabby, either, although it is where he has had considerably more difficulty leaving behind his nice-guy image. His screen work includes the pre-Ferris films WarGames, Max Dugan Returns, and Ladyhawke, as well as his adult credits in Glory, The Freshman, The Night We Never Met, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, The Lion King (as the adult voice of Simba), The Cable Guy, Infinity (which he co-wrote and directed), Addicted to Love, Godzilla, and Inspector Gadget. Recently, Broderick played two of his best on-screen roles in years—in Alexander Payne's Election, in which Broderick was now the miserable teacher tormented by a student, and the current release You Can Count on Me, written and directed by acclaimed playwright and Broderick's best friend, Kenneth Lonergan.
Back Stage West recently talked shop with Broderick in New York City, where he lives with his wife, actress Sarah Jessica Parker, in Soho, just six blocks away from where he grew up.
Back Stage West: I know that you and Kenneth Lonergan, who directed you in his first feature, You Can Count on Me, have been best friends since you were 15. Was there a definitive moment when you knew that your good friend had talent?
Broderick: I always knew that. The first time I met him, we did A Midsummer Night's Dream together, actually. I played a teeny little part. He had been going to that school since he was 3 or something, and I had just gotten there when I was in ninth grade. People knew him and nobody knew me. He seemed to kind of take a shine to me. He thought I was really funny, and that was my step into society at Walden School, and I started hanging out with him and his friends.
He wrote little short plays that I was in, and then he wrote a full-length play with our drama teacher, and that was first time I ever played a lead part. It was a drama about a family and a teenage kid, and I played the kid. It was really good. Ever since then, we did a lot of little plays at Naked Angels [a New York-based theatre company] together. We've just stayed friends more than we've worked together.
BSW: Did he significantly influence your choice to become an actor?
Broderick: Yeah. Sure. We influenced each other, I think, quite a bit. We both were influenced by the same people, too. We hung out with the same crowd, and our crowd had its own sensibility and sense of humor. I think that formed me and Kenny a lot. The Honeymooners was a big thing. We watched that all the time. Twilight Zone. And if you really couldn't sleep, Marcus Welby, M.D. So if you watch Marcus Welby, M.D., The Honeymooners, and The Twilight Zone, you will know Kenny's writing—just mix them in the proper ratios.
BSW: And what about your father? Was he influential in your decision to pursue acting?
Broderick: I don't know. I'm still not sure if I want to be an actor or not. With that said, when I was about 4 or 5 I kept telling everybody that I wanted to be an actor. But then when I was 7 or 8, I had a chance to actually be in a play with my father, and the mere idea that it could really happen I found terrifying. I burst into tears. I was really upset that he even asked me, and then I decided that, in fact, I didn't want to be an actor.
But I liked being backstage. I always liked theatres, and I loved movies, but I didn't even dare to think that I would ever be in them. So it wasn't until pretty well into high school that I again started to think that maybe I would try this.
That's a long answer. I think I did secretly always want to be an actor, but it took me quite a while to get the nerve up to really try it. And it wasn't until I tried and had done it for a little while that I really thought that is what I want to be.
BSW: Was there a lot of uncertainty in your house growing up about your dad's financial security and when and what his next job would be?
Broderick: Sometimes. He mostly worked, and mostly theatre—and TV and a few movies [Dog Day Afternoon]. Then, finally, he did that TV series called Family with Kristy McNichol.
BSW: Did the fact that your father was very much a working actor—and not really a celebrity—affect your definition of what success in acting is?
Broderick: Yes. I think the fact that he was such a good actor and never got really famous or rich from it—which is not to say that he was [unsuccessful]. He did put children through college and graduate school—except me—on an actor's salary. So to call him not successful would be crazily wrong.
I've known too many good actors who don't get famous and too many not so great ones who get famous for a little while, so I'm not that impressed by [fame]. I might be jealous when somebody is doing really well, but I've been around long enough to know that there's a lot of luck involved in whether you happen to get famous or how much you work.
I mean, you have to be good to get any work, really. But beyond that, it's a lot of luck and it's a lot about what roles you happen to be in the right place at the right time for. It's kind of a domino effect, and I don't think you can control that so well. There's a lot more luck in it than people like to think.
BSW: What did you do after high school? Did you train as an actor or did you begin working right away?
Broderick: I trained a little bit. I went to the HB Studio, and very early I got a movie—a lead opposite Sally Field. So I quit acting school.
BSW: What was the film?
Broderick: That was called No Small Affair. The [people involved] had just won Academy Awards. I had a bigger part than Sally Field, and I had never made any money as an actor in my life. You could not get a bigger job.
I prepared for it for months. They wanted me to learn how to be a photographer and all this stuff. Two weeks into shooting, the director got sick. Sally Field was not happy with it at all. And they lost their insurance. Then it fell apart. So I had kind of the greatest beginning and the worst ending that you could possibly have.
BSW: But what an important lesson that must have been for you as a young actor.
Broderick: Yeah. It wasn't great at the time, but it made me, basically, not trust anything—which is good if you want to be an actor.
After that, I was suddenly back to auditioning just like everybody else. I had been in this big film, but it didn't mean a thing. Then I kept not getting parts for a year or two. Over and over again, I would go on an audition and not get it. Then I auditioned for Torch Song Trilogy, which they were doing at a theatre that was less than 100 seats—and that part I got. My agents were like, "You don't want to play a gay guy." I said, "I'll play an orangutan. I need a job." And I really liked the part, too.
And then that play didn't do well. It was about to close, even in this little crappy theatre. And a guy from The [New York] Times, Mel Gussow, came and wrote a rave review of it. So then all the other critics came, and then it moved to a bigger theatre. Then directors started coming, and then suddenly directors were fighting over me, basically—not quite, but it all changed for me. The feeling in the auditions was that I was possibly a good idea. I was not this nothing.
So that's what I mean when I say it's a lot about luck. It wasn't like I had a goal, like, I'm going to do this Harvey Fierstein play. It was not something I controlled. I was lucky, in retrospect, not to get the other parts I was reading for, because they were TV movies or TV series that all turned out crappy. And the one I get is this little play, which turns out to be a huge hit. Who can predict any of that?
BSW: I read an interview you did with Kenneth Lonergan earlier this year, and in it he asked you how you think you've changed since you began acting. And you said, "I think I'm worse sometimes." I have to believe you were joking. In all seriousness, don't you think you've improved your skills as an actor over the years?
Broderick: No, not really. Sure, I am better in some ways. I don't want to be pretentious, but is a painter's younger work not as good as his older work? It's just different.
You know, you change. I will never have some of the unconscious, weird energy that I had when I was younger—that energy that people have when they're just starting out and they have no idea what they're doing. Marlon Brando will never be better than he was in On the Waterfront. He's just different. He's older. He is a little more detailed and complicated in some of his later roles, and he could do stuff that he didn't know how to do when he was starting out.
I hope that I've learned something that I can put into my acting, and I don't really know how to put that into words. There are some things that I used to skim over that I think about more now.
BSW: So what is the challenge for you now when you get a part?
Broderick: Well, it depends on the part. I did How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying a few years ago, and I had never sung or danced. So that was a whole new thing to have to learn.
BSW: Did you know you had that in you?
Broderick: No. Not really. I hoped I did.
BSW: So did the producers or the director call you, or did you go in and audition?
Broderick: They kind of called me. But I sang with a teacher for a long time, and then I made them listen to me. I made the director at the time—who didn't end up being the director of the show—listen to me. I said, "I don't want to not do this well." And he said, "Oh, you're great. You're fine." And the dancing—I know that I can move, so I just trusted the choreography. Good choreography is really helpful for people who don't know how to dance.
It's fun to challenge yourself, and I seem to be the type who likes to jump into something without knowing I can do it. I would almost prefer to say OK and then figure out how to do it. The things that seem most impossible and most out of my league are what's most attractive, and I don't often get those chances. I mean, most of the work I get asked to do is the same as the work I've already done. So whenever I get the chance to do something new, I tend to jump at it.
BSW: But wouldn't you agree that you've had some good opportunities in the past few years—with Election, for example—to show different sides of yourself to audiences? It seems to me that you've managed to avoid being typecast.
Broderick: I hope I'm not, and it's nice to hear that. You could never say that I have not done a big variety of stuff. If I had to write an essay on parts that I've done, there's no theme at all.
Some audiences, however, are always a little disappointed that I'm not a teenager doing Ferris Bueller—no matter what I do. I've kind of just learned to accept that. Some people are always just a little bit disappointed, and probably in their own lives, that they're not teenagers anymore.
I was on my little scooter the other day, and I was at a red light, and this guy pulled up in a truck and recognized me. I said, "Hello," and he said, "You know, I miss the old you—the young you." Then he drove away. It was kind of depressing. But then I thought to myself, I bet he misses the old him. I bet he misses whatever he was doing when he saw the old me. There's nothing I can do about it.
BSW: What would you tell an actor getting into this business?
Broderick: Good luck! I was in front of this hotel the other day, and this woman dragged her daughter over to me and said, "My daughter wants to act. What school should she go to? What should she do?" And I said, "I haven't been to acting school in 20 years. I have no idea who teaches acting. I don't know how you get started."
But I think going to school is a good idea because, even if you don't learn anything, you will meet people who will be doing plays or films. You have to get with a group of people who might work, and then you can kind of hook into that. So if you want to start being an actor, I would definitely recommend a school, a theatre company, some kind of group. Get with a group. Don't just be on your own sending out photos. There's too many people doing that, and that won't work.
And if you like it, keep at it. And if you don't like it, quit. If you don't love acting or if you hate being rejected too much, you should not rule out quitting. There's a lot of really interesting things to do in this life. BSW