For those who know Victor Garber only as emotionally isolated spy/ father Jack Bristow on the ABC series Alias, let's for a moment discuss range. Among the many roles Garber has taken on over his career are Jesus, the Devil, John Wilkes Booth, Daddy Warbucks, Titanic engineer Thomas Andrews, and Liberace. In recent years he has been more prominent than ever, doing scene-stealing work in high-profile projects that include Sleepless in Seattle, The First Wives Club, Legally Blonde, and TV's Frasier. Long respected by his peers (he has four Tony nominations and three Emmy nods to his credit), Garber has been working steadily since his film debut—in the 1972 adaptation of Godspell—and is continuously praised as the consummate actor's actor. Of course it's the entertaining escapism of Alias that has introduced him to a wider audience and finally propelled him from "Hey, it's that guy" status to major stardom.
"Being on a television series is sort of life-altering on every level," said Garber, speaking with Back Stage West. "I'm just glad it's something that I'm proud of and not embarrassed about, because it easily could have gone the other way." Case in point: His last venture as a series regular was as the star of the short-lived CBS series I Had Three Wives, in which he played a private investigator whose former spouses helped him solve cases. The show, which lasted six episodes, served to teach Garber an important lesson. "What I realized was how difficult an hour show is and how miserable you can be if you're not happy doing it. That's why, when Alias came along, I knew I'd be OK if the show was on for five or six years because the writing was so good and the creative team was so strong," noted Garber. "And then it just turned out to be that I was in love with everybody on the show. So it's turned out to be a miracle."
An unexpected miracle at that, as Garber wasn't even looking to join a series. "I was looking to make some money, honestly," admitted Garber in his trademark deadpan that often leaves one wondering if he's kidding. "You can only do so much theatre. I had done some TV movies that were great experiences but, no, I wasn't looking to do a series. It was just that the script came along, I read it, and I said, 'Wow. This is actually really good.'"
On paper the idea might seem silly. And when one thinks of all the things it could have been—campy, comedic, completely unbelievable—it is amazing that Alias has achieved its critical and commercial success. The story revolves around undercover agent Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner), who learns the hard way that nothing in her life is what it seemed. Her employers turn out to be the bad guys, which leads her to become a double agent for the CIA; her estranged father is also an undercover agent, and her presumed-dead mother is a Russian spy. And that was just the first season. According to Garber, the secret to keeping audiences interested in the more far-out espionage and double-crossings on the show is by keeping the relationships grounded in reality: "It's about these people who are inextricably together for whatever reasons, and they happen to be in the spy world. It's about relationships, and the bottom line is, that's why you care."
Relationships were also key in Garber's new movie, Home Room, a low-budget drama from writer/director Paul F. Ryan in which Garber plays the sympathetic police detective called in to investigate a brutal school shooting. The film, which stars Erika Christensen and Busy Phillips as students unexpectedly brought together by the tragedy, was shot in late 2000 and is scheduled for release Sept. 5 in New York, Los Angeles, and Colorado. Director Ryan chalked up the delay to several factors, including a long post-production that involved a lot of "begging and borrowing" and the desire to present the film on the festival circuit.
Home Room is one of several recent films—including Michael Moore's Oscar-winning documentary Bowling for Columbine and Gus Van Sant's upcoming Elephant—that uses a school shooting as a plot point. But unlike those films, Home Room deals more with the aftermath of the shooting in relation to several personalities. The main focus is the tentative friendship between Christensen's honor student and Phillips' vitriolic teen, two characters who know more about the massacre than they initially reveal. It's an eerily accurate portrayal of today's youth; early on, Garber's Detective Van Zandt observes, "High school is no place for kids anymore."
Van Zandt is precisely the kind of role the actor excels at: the seemingly unemotional observer with a steel-trap mind struggling to make sense of an act of madness. "To be totally honest, Victor was the guy I was thinking of when I wrote the script," said Ryan, who first noticed Garber in Atom Egoyan's underrated drama Exotica. "I didn't want [the character] to be this NYPD kind of cop. He needed to be on an internal quest as to why these things happen, and it needed to be someone who can come across in a more cerebral way. And I think of Victor in all those terms."
Ryan was surprised to get Garber, who admitted he was at first concerned with the film's risky subject matter. "I had no interest in doing a movie like that. It's such a difficult subject to do," said Garber. "But when I read the script I thought, This is interesting. It's about so many other things, and it really presents the idea that we are all culpable. And that really appealed to me." For Garber, Home Room is not about a school shooting as much as it is about the bond between the two characters. "The narrative of this movie is so clear. It's really about relationships and people who happened to be involved in this hideous incident. And that becomes the backdrop for the relationship where people find themselves enmeshed in this horrendous situation, trying to figure out how you get through anything like that."
Despite his a lengthy career, this is Garber's first foray into independent filmmaking—with a first-time director, no less. "I was nervous until the first day of shooting," Garber admitted. "Then I thought, This guy knows what he's doing. Paul is so smart, and I was really impressed with the crew. Compared to some of the bigger-budget movies I've done I was treated better, and they were so well-prepared because they couldn't afford to waste time." This praise should come as a huge relief to Ryan, who admitted to initially being intimidated by the prospect of working with Garber. "I just kept thinking, This guy has worked with James Cameron and Atom Egoyan. What is he doing here?" said Ryan, laughing. "I still watch the movie and say, 'I can't believe I got Victor in this.'"
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Garber, who grew up in Canada, was exposed to the entertainment world at an early age. His mother was the host of a women's show, At Home With Hope Garber, in London, Ontario. When he was a kid, she drove him two and a half hours to see a matinee of West Side Story, which Garber deemed a "seminal experience" for him. "My mother couldn't have been happier when I said I was moving to New York," recalled Garber. "My father wasn't so happy. He was a little more nervous. But I did OK."
The move to New York was to shoot his first feature, the film adaptation of Godspell. Garber had starred as Jesus in the infamous Toronto production along with Gilda Radner and Martin Short, and getting the call to reprise his role in the film brought a whole new chapter to his career. "That was life changing," Garber said, "although the movie wasn't that successful and didn't really propel me into anything directly."
It would be almost 20 years before Garber did another film, Paul Schrader's Light Sleeper. Instead, he worked steadily in television and made a name for himself onstage. He originated the role of Anthony in Sweeney Todd and earned Tony noms for his work in Deathtrap, Little Me, Lend Me a Tenor, and Damn Yankees. "I was busy in the theatre and sort of typed as a theatre actor until Paul Schrader offered me a role in Light Sleeper, and that got me back on film," said Garber. "That kind of got the ball rolling a little bit."
Following Light Sleeper, it suddenly seemed like Garber was everywhere. Whether as Tom Hanks' friend who is rendered emotional by memories of The Dirty Dozen in Sleepless in Seattle or as Goldie Hawn's sleazy ex-husband in The First Wives Club, Garber was suddenly back in demand on the big screen. Then came Titanic. The blockbuster had such an impact on his career, Garber believes, that most people still associate him with the film. "So many people saw it and so many times," said Garber, "particularly young kids and girls in their teens. Whenever I see a crowd of them on the street, I know I have to be careful."
But screaming girls are surely nothing compared to Alias fans, whose rabid excitement about the show overloads the Internet and sells countless magazines. "I am surprised by the enthusiasm of fans—the kind of avid, crazy excitement about Alias— which is wonderful," Garber noted. "I wish our ratings were better, but maybe they will pick up this season, because Jennifer [Garner] is now off the charts." In speaking of his TV daughter, Garber sounds like any other proud parent. "I've never been with anybody that close and watched them catapult to the degree she has, and I'm so impressed with the way she deals with it. Because frankly it's overwhelming, being in the public eye and all the meshugas that comes with being famous. I'm grateful I don't have to deal with it. Because first of all I'm not that famous and people don't really care to follow me around."
Um, perhaps Garber isn't familiar with any of the countless shrines dedicated to him on the World Wide Web. "Haven't seen them," he said. "I've heard about it, I appreciate that people like me, but I find it a little strange." Indeed, Garber avoids the Internet altogether. "I really don't like it. I think it's really changed a lot of our world in a way I don't like. It's disgusting that a Broadway show can't try out anymore, that no matter where they are in the world, there is this massive dialogue going on between people damning or praising it. There's nothing left, no way to try anything, everything is prejudged before it opens. It's the same with gossip, it's gotten to the point where it's so invasive, I find it scary."
Ask Garber to reveal something surprising about himself, and he has to think about it. Ask anyone else, and he or she will immediately refer to Garber's sense of humor. "He has the most wonderfully dry humor that I completely did not expect," said Ryan. "He's completely self-deprecating and droll." This probably wouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who has seen Garber onstage, where he tends to play broader comedies. "I've done a lot of funny stuff, but mostly onstage," Garber observed. "On film I haven't really played the kind of roles I've played onstage. I'd love a shot at a really challenging role on film."
Perhaps that's why, if pressed to pick a favorite medium, Garber returns to the theatre. "The stage is where I feel most comfortable, and I miss it all the time. And when I go to see plays, I marvel at how people can do that. I've done it all my life, but I still find it mystical," said Garber. "Theatre demands different muscles and different aspects of one's personality. I believe that acting in any medium is the same thing, it's discovering the truth in where you are. But the theatre requires a different energy."
But don't expect to see Garber return to the stage anytime soon. "Unless it were a short-term run or a special event, I'm just too tied up," he noted. He also isn't sure he's eager to take the stage in Los Angeles again after his last experience: the 1998 production of Art, which starred the original Broadway cast of Garber, Alan Alda, and Alfred Molina. A huge critical success in New York, Yasmina Reza's brilliant satire wasn't treated as kindly on the West Coast, although audiences weren't swayed by negative reviews. "When we came out, some critics were so dismissive of Art, and it made me not want to do a play in L.A. ever again," said Garber. "I think theatre in L.A. is really risky. There's some great theatre in town, but generally speaking it's an industry town, and people get up too early to go to the theatre at night. Even I don't want to go out."
In recent years Garber has been able to bring some of his stage talents to the small screen. On television he has appeared in the musicals Cinderella, Annie, and The Music Man and was scheduled to star as Tevye in a production of Fiddler on the Roof, but the production was cancelled because the situation in Iraq made it too dangerous to shoot in Prague as planned. While some people might be jarred to witness Jack Bristow singing and dancing, Garber loves the opportunity to shatter expectations. "For Fiddler I had to audition for the original writers, who knew my work but weren't sure I could play Tevye," he recalled. "And I went in, showed them I could, and it was a fabulous day for me. I love that on TV I've had great opportunities, and I feel very lucky that I haven't been pigeonholed. To me, that's what an actor does—all different kinds of roles."
Let's talk about something vitally important: awards season. For the second year in a row, Garber has been nominated for an Emmy for his work on Alias. (The entire Bristow clan was nominated; Garner and her TV mother Lena Olin also received nods.) "The whole family being recognized, that's the coolest part," Garber agreed. "I feel like it's sort of arbitrary. It could have gone to so many people on our show who are so deserving, and I just feel really thrilled. Awards are what they are; they don't really mean a lot, but they're nice to get. And it's so nice to be included."
This year Garber faces serious competition from previous West Wing winners Bradley Whitford and John Spencer and two Sopranos stars, Michael Imperioli and Joe Pantoliano. All are deserving, but let's be honest—is there anyone on TV who has the opportunity to do what Garber does every week? As the seemingly honorable but still questionable agent and father, Garber makes the family drama as tense and gut-wrenching as the espionage. In addition he is playing a character even he doesn't know the entire truth about, and he wouldn't have it any other way. "I find out more about Jack every week," he observed. "For me, backstories are a little overrated. People ask me, 'How do you shoot the end of a movie first?' But I believe if you're playing the moment you're in, it doesn't matter what the character had for dinner or how he slept."
And then there's the pure physicality of the role. Was that something Garber was prepared for when he signed up? "No," he said quickly. "First season, I was behind a desk a lot, but my first mistake was doing OK in my first fight scene. If I had screwed up, they wouldn't have realized I can do it. Now I'm on missions. Every week when I get a script I say, 'Just tell me I'm not on any missions.' Yes, I joke about it, but I love shooting the guns and things I'd never be asked to do. Although after 15 hours in a beard, you do get sick of it."
Asked if he had any parting advice, Garber offered the following: "You know, advice is easy. There's no one way to do this, but I believe that the most important thing any actor can do is to realize that when they walk into an audition they have to be who they are and not try to be somebody else. It's a fine line because you're obviously portraying a character. But, in fact, particularly in film and TV I think, producers want to see who you are. And I think so many people feel that who they are is not interesting or not enough. And I promise you, it so is enough." BSW