On a series of disrupted telephone calls to Back Stage from Newark International Airport and from Seattle, he still managed to speak cogently and regardfully about being an actor in plays and being a playwright watching actors.
Back Stage: How did you learn your crafts of acting and of writing?
Wallace Shawn: When I was first starting to write plays, I quite literally had never heard of the idea of studying playwriting. I wouldn't have studied it even if I had heard of it. I started writing plays in around 1967, and at a certain point, I thought, "I'm writing plays, I should learn about acting and what it is." So I went to the HB Studio in New York, and I was there for about nine months. I told them when I went, "I don't have any thought of being a professional actor. I write plays." And they said that's fine. And so that came in quite handy later on. I studied for nine months. It was great. I loved it. But it still never crossed my mind that I would do it professionally.
Back Stage: I imagine you were the best in your class in text and scene study. Were there classes you weren't the best in?
Shawn: I was the worst at everything. One thing that is wonderful about the HB Studio is that you can start at any time in the year, at least in my time. You didn't need to start at the beginning of term. The first couple of months, I didn't understand what anybody was talking about, I didn't know the language: actions, objectives. It took me a long time to catch on. I'm still catching on because I don't really think that people come into a room with only one objective. But that's been my question for 40 years. But also, obviously, I was not the best in the speech class. If I thought I was going to become a professional actor, I would have studied speech and voice five times as long. Of course, it's possible I wouldn't have gotten work, then. But at the time I certainly believed that you shouldn't talk like me if you were going to be a professional actor. If I thought I was going to be a professional actor, I would have learned the habit of going to the gym and taking care of my body. But I never formed those habits, tragically. And the speech and voice teachers obviously said, "You have a lot of work to do."
Back Stage: What did you tell the naysayers who thought you should be a rocket scientist/doctor/lawyer?
Shawn: For the most part, the people that I grew up with were very supportive, but I had a kind of Wagnerian belief in myself. From the time I wrote my first play, I thought, "I have a calling," and I would just follow it, and everybody else will have to learn to respect me. At first I didn't realize that they wouldn't respect me. At first I was confident that everyone would share my opinions of myself. But I was pretty quickly disappointed.
Back Stage: But then you got into acting. Did you think it was going to be a one-off thing?
Shawn: Yes. My first acting job was in a play that I had translated from Italian [Machiavelli's "The Mandrake"]. I had translated it for the director. He said, "We'd like you to be in the play." I did think it would be one crazy experience for a few weeks. The producer decided to extend the play, so it played for a long time, and I got put into movies. After being in one movie, it didn't seem like that would be my life. I had done several jobs, briefly. I'd been a shipping clerk, I worked in a copy shop, I didn't think the acting was going to go on and on.
Back Stage: During these day jobs, what was the inner monologue that kept you inspired to be creative?
Shawn: Well, in my mind this was just the early days of the artist's biography that we would all laugh at in 50 years. Or in 10 years. But I just had a kind of belief in myself at that time that was quite, in a way, without doubts
Back Stage: Did you ever audition for roles?
Shawn: I still do. At a certain point I became upset that I had no money. This was sort of after I had had some of my plays performed. Unconsciously I had expected that having my plays performed would lead to somehow my being able to live a bourgeois lifestyle. That didn't turn out to be true. So, then I began to think, "How will I make a living?" I didn't have any very good ideas. When I'd had two or three film jobs, I thought, "Well, maybe I could make a living doing this." Then I got an agent, tried out for jobs, etc.
Back Stage: How did you get your agent?
Shawn: Well, to be absolutely frank, I think that the paranoid people who think you need connections in life are right a lot of the time. I was a friend of the playwright Michael Weller. His wife was a casting agent, Kathy Talbert. And she knew [casting director] Juliet Taylor and worked with her. Kathy and Juliet came to see that play I was in, and that's how I got to meet Woody Allen, and I think Kathy also fixed me up with Jeff Hunter, who was my first agent.
Back Stage: Can you recall your best audition and your worst audition?
Shawn: Gee. I find doing it on tape, those are all the worst because it makes you feel like you're not even worth the time of the director to actually sit in the room with you. So those are degrading and sort of embarrassing. I suppose my best was my first, which was with Woody Allen [for "Manhattan"]. He said, "Are you going to be in New York this summer?" I said, "Yes." I think that was the end of it. That was excellent.
Back Stage: Have you ever felt miscast?
Shawn: I've often felt that I don't have the ability to do what should be done. Frequently, because I have not been trained for years at a conservatory, I feel that I'm not qualified. And I frequently feel I can't adequately rise to the demands.
Back Stage: Are you ever intimidated on a set or working on a play—somebody else's play, obviously?
Shawn: I'm usually intimidated because I do feel that other actors know how to do things and I don't. In a sitcom, I suppose I felt more comfortable than in most things that I've done, because in a way it just comes very naturally to me. Being in "Star Trek" ["Deep Space Nine," as Zek] came very naturally to me, because it was like showing off in a school play. It's where it's supposed to be truly believable that I often feel I have no idea what I'm doing. I remember I had a scene in a movie many years ago, and I was on the telephone, and I was supposed to say, "Hello, Dr. Smith, did you get the results of the test?... What? I only have six months to live?" I didn't know what to do. I called Bob Balaban; I said, "I don't know what to do." I can't tell you quite what he said or how he did it, but somehow I did it.
Back Stage: You had this Wagnerian self-confidence in your early days, then it seems to have drained from you. Do you know what happened?
Shawn: The one drawback of being raised with a lot of encouragement at home and school, it did hit me when I was around 40 that the encouragement was based more on a belief of my schools and my family that children should be encouraged than it was based on an objective assessment that I as an individual was particularly talented or skilled. So I sort of thought, "I have a lot of self-confidence, but it's actually not based on a sound foundation."
Back Stage: When you're acting, what do you do to not judge the writing?
Shawn: First of all, I've accepted the job if I'm doing it, and I don't accept everything. But if I've accepted it, then usually the challenge of doing the scene is huge. I don't find it that easy, even a scene that looks easy on paper—you walk into the office and you say good morning to your colleagues—by the time you actually do the scene and you're there on the set, to make it truly believable is actually very difficult. You have to really focus and put yourself into the right zone. I'm not focusing on whether somebody else is doing a good job, whether it's the writer or it's my fellow actor. That's part of the environment that I'm working in. My lines are one of the things that form the environment, and the other actor is part of the environment, and I'm trying to believably come in and say good morning. Of course, if it's a certain kind of film or television program, the writer might be pleased if you change the wording a little bit to make it more congenial or natural, and if I can get away with it, I do it. Sometimes they don't even notice, and sometimes they're pleased, and sometimes people ask you to put it into your own words.
Back Stage: I think that's because it's you.
Shawn: Woody Allen is famous for that. It's not that he wants you to make up things that aren't in the script, but if you want to word it in a way that's more natural to you, it's going to make the scene better. I have improvised. I love "Fat Actress"; it's completely improvised. They give you a description of the scene in a paragraph form, and you make up your dialogue. I love doing that.
Back Stage: What about actors who are performing your scripts? Do you want them to put things in their words?
Shawn: No. I would be unbelievably bitter and unbelievably upset.
Back Stage: Seriously?
Shawn: Yes. It's only happened to me a few times. But I was unbelievably upset and I would be again. I've spent years writing these plays, and a TV show might have been written in a week. My last play took me 10 years. It's a different type of situation. Or that's how I feel about it.
Back Stage: What do you most want out of actors who do your plays?
Shawn: What I want is to be shocked and inspired by stuff I could never have dreamed of that nonetheless is not violating what I dreamed of.
Back Stage: What was the most memorable element or idea an actor brought to one of your scripts?
Shawn: I'm not necessarily very articulate in speaking about this, but for instance Larry Pine, who was in "The Designated Mourner" with me in New York, there was a kind of warmth and kindness that he brought to the role of the rather arrogant intellectual that you could say was combined with a sort of natural disdain that he felt for the character I played, which actually in a way hinted at the rather noble courage that he actually displays in the story. There's no scene in the play that shows that courage. But just in the way that he played the nastiness of the character, there was an undercurrent of decency and courage in there that was so insightful and gave such a deep picture of the play to people.
Back Stage: Have you ever sat in on casting of your plays?
Shawn: I always do. I'm going to be sitting in next week.
Back Stage: In general, what do you notice about the actors who are auditioning for you?
Shawn: If I had even the tiniest scrap of advice to give to a young actor who was figuring out how to audition, I would say don't memorize the script. First of all, most people who try to memorize their script actually get lost and forget things in the new and alarming circumstance of being in the audition. And also, to me it's a sign of not quite knowing how the game is played, and it's indicating that this is what your performance would be like, whereas in a way you may be better off if people think you're just giving a hint of what your performance would be like, and that after weeks of rehearsal you will do something that could never be imagined in the audition. The reality about auditions is that 98 percent of the results has to do with what you are, not with what you did in the audition. To be honest, people say things like, "Oh, I thought he was 10 years younger," or "Well, something about him is so untrustworthy, I don't think I would believe him playing the role of St. Francis." I suppose if you have absolutely no understanding of the material, that will come out in the audition, and if you have a particular understanding or insight into the material, that too will come out. Obviously it's not a good thing to aim for results that you don't achieve. If you don't think you're going to be able to act the way someone whose family has just been killed would act, don't give a halfway performance of it; it's better to, in a way, show that you understand the script and that if given the job, maybe after a few weeks of rehearsal you will be able to show what that feels like.
Back Stage: Have you taught or coached?
Back Stage: Do you want to?
Shawn: Not really. I'd feel like an idiot. I'm too slow. I don't think I can look at a scene and immediately know what the problem is. Those good acting teachers are unbelievably quick.
Back Stage: Did you ever go back to acting class or work with a coach on a role?
Shawn: I played the role of a student when Andre Gregory's company taught workshops at NYU during the summers when I was working with them. So for two or three summers in the middle '70s, I would in effect be one of their students. And I once sort of looked into taking a class, but the teacher was leaving town or she wasn't doing the class anymore, and I don't know. I'm a busy guy. It just didn't happen. Do I regret that? Probably. Yes. I'd go back today, but my life is complicated. I asked Brooke Smith when we were doing "Uncle Vanya": "How can you do what you do, and who did you study with?"
Back Stage: What was it in her work that made you respond like that?
Shawn: She has a kind of effortless access to, I suppose, her emotional imagination. It seems effortless. If you would say to her, "Now, imagine that your whole family would be killed, and here are your lines," she could just do that, whereas I would just have to leave the room. I wouldn't know how to.
Back Stage: Have you ever felt something akin to jealousy after hearing another playwright's words? Or after seeing yet another actor's performance?
Shawn: Yes. I feel that quite a lot. With actors, I feel that all the time. It's quite common for me to feel I wish I could do that. And with other playwrights, there are times when I think, "Oh, it would be wonderful to write a play that affects people emotionally," in the way that, let's say, "Death of a Salesman" affects people. It's emotionally overwhelming to people, and my plays don't go in that direction. I myself don't go in that direction. But it's somehow not the way I see life, so it's not in the cards that I would write that way.
Back Stage: Have you ever tried?
Shawn: No, because I can't express Arthur Miller's view of life. I have to express mine. With acting, I remember I was in a play with Seymour Cassel, for example. I don't know what he was doing, but when he would look at me in the play, it was so true that it was almost staggering. It was so intense. I don't know what he was doing, but it was so real. I sort of felt, well, whatever he does, I would like to do. It doesn't seem impossible. It seems impossible that I would suddenly wake up one morning and be Arthur Miller. But I can imagine waking up with certain abilities as an actor that I don't have today.
Back Stage: Did you ever ask Seymour what he was thinking at that moment?
Shawn: I very much doubt that he could tell you, but no. If I had another lifetime to live, I would love to study it all. The connection between the things that they taught at the HB Studio and actual acting, I don't know where that links up. I have no idea of whether most actors whom I admire in a play or in a film have any of the thoughts in their heads that relate to things that were taught at the HB Studio. I know that if you see "The Godfather," you see all these incredible performances done by people who studied with Strasberg, and his own performance is incredible in "The Godfather [Part II]," so clearly these great performances had something to do with the fact that these people studied with him, but I don't know quite in what way they used that study as they were doing the movie, because when you're actually acting, there isn't time to think about such things, and personally my own goal is to think absolutely nothing. Certainly I'm not going to burden myself with thinking about something other than what is right in front of me. I don't want to be looking forward at the other actor and at the same time looking backwards at some slogans or words that I have figured out for myself, such as my objective in the scene. That's a double focus that is either impossible to achieve or certainly wouldn't be helpful. I'm hoping to be in a state where my mind is completely blank, and I am simply looking at what is actually around me.
Back Stage: That's in performance. What about in rehearsal? Do you take some of the things you learned and use them to build a character?
Shawn: I doubt it. Obviously they're in the background, yes. Of course it goes without saying that you have some theory about what's going on. It's not 100 percent moment-to-moment instinct. But I'm not hired very often, and a lot of people don't think I'm a good actor. So my approach to acting could be the reason why I'm not very respected. It happens to be the case that I don't think I would know how to create a character, and I don't even know quite what that means, and I don't do it. Basically, it's me in the circumstances. I'm showing what I would be like if all those things were true of me. I don't do anything to show them; I just kind of try to not contradict them, and somehow I have some awareness of them as I'm thinking about doing the scene. But once I'm doing the scene, I'm just doing it.
Back Stage: Whether in rehearsal or performance?
Shawn: Yes, I think so. I'm not recommending this approach. And obviously there is a reason why I'm not on the A-list. And I have never really had the guts to try to find out what criticisms people might make about my acting and why they don't hire me or give me better parts. There may be things that are quite simple that they could say—or that they do say, just not to me. But I've never had the guts to set out to find out. The most serious acting that I've done has been with Andre Gregory, and in that type of work, which basically he has invented and I've been involved in that process, I'm confident that I'm quite well-suited to that type of work, and I sort of feel that I probably do succeed, just as I succeed in a funny way in writing Wally Shawn plays. It's a specialized craft.
Wallace Shawn appears at UCLA's Royce Hall for an evening of spoken word with "Real World, Fake World, Dream World," Saturday, Jan. 22, 8 p.m. (310) 825.2101. www.uclalive.org. He also tours various other cities.