Bill Irwin laughs knowingly when asked -- as he frequently is -- about filling the very big shoes of Richard Burton, who earned an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of put-upon husband George to Elizabeth Taylor's emasculating Martha in the 1966 film version of Edward Albee's darkly dramatic yet hilarious play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. When Irwin took on the role in a 2005 Broadway revival opposite Kathleen Turner as Martha, he might not have seemed the obvious choice. After all, Irwin was known, in the best sense of the word, as a clown -- a man who received fellowships from the MacArthur and Guggenheim foundations and the National Endowment for the Arts for his bold and innovative work in physical comedy, who created and developed such seminal works as the multiple-Tony-nominated Largely New York and The Regard of Flight, and who will forever be known for his loose-limbed antics as Mr. Noodle to legions of Sesame Street viewers.
Two years later, Virginia Woolf is enjoying a successful national tour, currently in Los Angeles at the Center Theatre Group's Ahmanson Theatre through March 18. When it's pointed out that CTG's artistic director is none other than Burton's son-in-law Michael Ritchie (married to actor Kate Burton), Irwin pauses. "I hadn't thought of that," he says, mulling this over. "There's actually a lot of other actors in whose footsteps one treads in this role." Indeed, actors ranging from George Grizzard to John Lithgow have played the role on stage to great success. But Irwin's nuanced, heartbreaking performance as a man incapable of greatness stands on its own -- and won him a Tony Award for best actor in a play. Irwin's take on the character is his own. Where Burton came out swinging and blustering, Irwin is all thinly veiled rage behind constantly darting eyes. It's a demanding part -- the play runs nearly three hours, and for most of that time George and Martha are literally and figuratively at each other's throats -- but the actors pull it off with a fearlessness that appears simple and natural.
Irwin makes the impossible look easy. He doesn't so much master physical comedy as he seems to defy the laws of physics. Using nothing but a baggy coat, he can shrink inches before an audience's eyes. Setting a top hat upside down onstage, he can maneuver it onto his head by cartwheeling into it. Standing in a small chest, he can seemingly disappear down flights of stairs with an aptitude that would make Austin Powers envious. Most modern slapstick comics, from Jim Carrey to Mike Myers, owe a debt to Irwin. And the actor has proven himself equally adept outside of comedy, appearing in dramatic roles such as Waiting for Godot on the stage and The Laramie Project, Eight Men Out, and last summer's Lady in the Water on the screen.
Still, Irwin readily admits he might not have been the first name to spring to mind when producers went looking to cast a revival of Virginia Woolf. However, "It actually makes a strange sort of sense," he notes. "It's the most wonderful, weird play, and it really is a clown piece in some ways." Albee and the producers were holding readings of the play with several pairs of actors, testing out different chemistries and couplings. Irwin had some familiarity with the playwright, having been a replacement member of the Broadway cast of The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? in 2002. "When this came up, it just seemed oddly right," Irwin recalls. "Sometimes you have a premonition. I'd heard different groupings were being put together; in retrospect, I've heard there were some brutal experiences with people who had a rough time making it through the play and just didn't click or connect with the material. Between the great, iconic movie and the great, iconic play and the legend of it all being so classic, it carries a lot of baggage that you can let defeat you or get in your way."
Irwin and Turner met at a read-through for director Anthony Page, and the chemistry was instantaneous. "It was a weird thing where you shake hands, say how you admire each other, then sit down and read the play," Irwin says. "And when we sat down, something clicked about this marriage and this love story and the comedy and the humor of it all. Something wonderful transpired. And that's acting. That's the craft, in a weird nutshell." Two days later, they performed a reading for Albee and the "various nervous producers," and were cast in the production. Irwin made a point of not revisiting the film version, which he'd seen and admired when he was 17. "This is a place where Ms. Turner and I diverge," he notes. "We agree on a lot of things, but she doesn't care for the film, and I think it's just great. But I'm glad I didn't watch it when I first got the gig. My wife and I finally rented it two or three months ago. Only after having done the play in New York and London was I able to sit down and say, 'Okay, now I can watch this.'" Irwin says seeing the film again didn't cause him to rethink or change anything about his performance. "The more I work within this play with this incredible foursome, I see how different the film and stage mediums are," he says. "They're much more different experiences for both the actors and the audience than we'd like to fess up to. It's a different set of muscles, like baseball and football, if you don't mind me using a sports metaphor."
It's an apt analogy, as performing Virginia Woolf every night requires a fair amount of athleticism. For one, the lean and muscular Irwin is constantly "fueling": He devours a whole chicken over the course of this interview and then places an order for a second meal of soup. Outside his dressing room he has a trampoline, which he uses to open up his diaphragm "to be ready for Mr. Albee," noting, "If the diaphragm is not free, it's a long slog. Actually, even with your diaphragm working well, it's tough. The thing you don't ever want to be is on stage and out of gas. It's like a trans-Atlantic crossing: You don't want to run out of fuel, because it's a long way to glide."
Growing up in the 1950s in Oklahoma, Irwin says, he was interested in clowning, though his early memories were of the masters such as Jackie Gleason and Phil Silvers. "But I did respond to the physical in anything I ever saw," Irwin adds. "The first training I did was pretty traditional scene study, and I was lucky for that and so glad I got that grounding. A lot of people who are brilliant physically grew up in the circus and don't get that grounding of how to work a scene. If you learn early on to think like an actor, you'll ask questions like, 'What does this character want? What's going on in this scene?' Then you don't have to worry so much and you won't be seized with self-consciousness." Irwin recalls how such training came in handy when performing Fool Moon in 1993. "I would be on stage thinking, 'I'm out here trying to get a laugh when what I should be doing is trying to have something I want. I should be pursuing something as this character," he continues. "If you go out eight times a week, you'll sometimes think, 'I need a laugh here,' not 'What do I want to try and get here; what does my character need?'"
After graduating from Ohio's Oberlin College in 1973 with a degree in theatre arts, Irwin realized his childhood dream by running away to join the circus. He graduated from the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College the next year. But rather than staying with Ringling Bros., he moved to San Francisco and helped found the Pickle Family Circus. Some may consider it a bold move, but Irwin deflects such praise. "It may have been more cowardly," he says. "I wasn't sure I was up to the demands of the Ringling shows. Also, I had a family thing come up that prevented me from signing a contract, had they offered me one. Several months later, I met the people putting together Pickle, and it fit into my situation. And it was my next life chapter."
Irwin credits his time at Pickle with teaching him how to direct and helping him hone his style and look. "I was sort of flying on instinct," he says of the company, which he left in 1979 to pursue stage work. He also began working in film and television, making his movie debut in Robert Altman's Popeye in 1980. At first, most of his gigs called on him to perform his slapstick routines, but soon he was being pursued for parts that had nothing to do with contorting his body. Irwin says of such offers, "It's wonderful -- especially now, as physical comedy tends to be for young people. I've gone into meetings where they say, 'I've got an idea for you. You fall off a ladder...' And I groan and think, 'Get a young guy.'"
Which is not to say Irwin is giving up clowning. He travels with a large number of props and costume changes, which he keeps in his dressing room. Asked why he brings various hats and gigantic foam pants from city to city, he laughs. "The official answer to that is that I'm working on a new piece," he replies, affecting an erudite tone. "'The Philadelphia Theatre Company has commissioned me to create a new clown piece.' But in fact, there is a part of me that always thinks, 'What if someone needs me to do 15 minutes at a benefit, or I run into a Mr. Noodle fan?'"
Irwin credits his training with allowing him to see how every role is physical. "Even radio or books on tape, which I've done, is about the physical," he says. "Books on tape is one of the hardest gigs I've ever had. There's a stamina issue there, and you don't want to get into a drone." Asked if he approaches all roles from a physical standpoint first, he replies, "Instinctually first. And most times, that's a physical idea. And it's often dead wrong but still very important." He adds that the physical is often "the language beneath the language" and notes this is a point on which he and Albee disagree. "Edward told us he wanted to be a composer when he was young," Irwin says. "And that's the way he writes, to a certain extent. When he comes to see one of his productions, he often sits in the back and doesn't watch; he listens.
"I respect that completely, but I also have a countervailing view, which is that any play -- especially a great play -- can be told visually," he continues. "Without the visual component, there's a physical story to be told. The physical language is older than the spoken language; it's the oldest in history. And without always knowing it, we experience it that way. So when the lights come up on a play, and two people walk in, even before they talk, you think, 'Oh, I like this,' or 'Oh, I don't.' It's there."
One of Irwin's most famous pieces is "The Marionette," which he has developed and performed for more than 25 years. A short, silent vignette about a puppet who realizes he has no strings and crumples under this independence, it is classic Irwin -- physically amazing and poetically touching. And it comes to mind as the question is raised of performing Virginia Woolf on and off for nearly two years now: When does Irwin feel a work is complete? "I love to return to things," he says. "But the question is one of age and what you can and can't bring to something at an older age than you can at a younger [age]. 'The Marionette' may have had its final incarnation. But it's funny: I think there are things I like about the old version better than I like about the new one."
Considering the physical and vocal demands of Virginia Woolf, Irwin admits he doesn't know how many years he can do it. He notes, however, that not only does he feel his performance has improved since the Broadway run but he never worries about keeping it fresh from night to night. "Oddly enough, it's not been boring," he says. "It can be grueling but never boring. We like to think we work on it every night. It's still plumbed and sussed out as a piece of dramatic literature with a new audience every night."
The actor is vague about his next project, though he promises he's "working on something." In the meantime, he's more than happy to pass the torch to a new generation of physical comedians. Much in the same way he was inspired by Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, Irwin is proud to have inspired current clowns. Discussing the fine line between paying homage to someone and ripping off that person's bits, Irwin is gracious. "It just delights me to see the tradition continue, because there isn't anything I've ever done that didn't come from somebody before me," he says. "Actually, that's not completely true. That's the weird thing about the clown tradition: You're always looking at people you responded to and admired and slavishly copied, and your own thing comes into it without effort. Somebody defined originality by saying that people who are original, all they have to do is try to exactly copy somebody else and it comes out originally. Because that's their fate, for better or worse. And you see that. So I'm always flattered when I see someone who's got young-enough knees to do it."
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? continues at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A. Tue.-Thu. 7:30 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. Added Thu. 1 p.m. Mar. 15. Through Mar. 18. (213) 628-2772. www.centertheatregroup.org.