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'Variations' on a Theme

Colin Hanks and Samantha Mathis admit that the chance to appear on a Broadway stage with Jane Fonda was a major draw. So was performing in a work written and directed by Moisés Kaufman (Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde). From the outset they knew 33 Variations would be a high-profile production and scrutiny would be intense—especially for Hanks, who is making his Broadway debut and whose father is Tom Hanks. Mathis also hails from an industry family. Her late mother is the well-known television actor Bibi Besch, and her grandmother Gusti Huber starred in the original Broadway productions of The Diary of Anne Frank and Dial M for Murder. Hanks and Mathis take their family backgrounds in stride. At least that’s how they come off when they talk about their famous parents—the advantages, the disadvantages—and then get down to the more immediate issues of acting in general and the specific challenges they face in 33 Variations, which opened March 9 at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre.

The play recounts the evolving relationships among Dr. Katherine Brandt (Fonda), a musicologist dying from Lou Gehrig’s disease; her estranged daughter, Clara (Mathis); and her affable nurse Mike (Hanks), who falls in love with Clara. The contemporary play, interspersed with 19th-century flashbacks, is set mostly in Bonn,Germany, where the brittle Dr. Brandt is researching the genesis of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations.

“The challenge for me was trying to bring a natural quality to a piece that also calls for a larger theatricality,” says Hanks. “You have to be believable within those parameters. Establishing those parameters was a bit of a challenge. It’s not a naturalistic play, and that was a new experience for me. So there was a bit of a learning curve.” For Mathis, the big challenge is taking on a role that other actors had tackled in the show’s earlier incarnations at Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage and the La Jolla Playhouse in California. “Anytime you’re doing something that’s been done before, someone else has put an imprint on the character,” she says. “The challenge is putting that aside and bringing a fresh perspective to it.”

Mathis, who launched her career at 16 and did not formally study acting until she was well into her 20s, counts Pump Up the Volume, How to Make an American Quilt, The American President, Broken Arrow, Little Women, and American Psycho among her film credits. By contrast, Hanks majored in theatre at Loyola Marymount University before making his professional acting debut. His credits include W., The House Bunny, Untraceable, The Great Buck Howard, HBO’s Band of Brothers, and AMC’s Mad Men.

During a freewheeling conversation, the two actors were amiable and forthcoming as they talked about craft, Fonda, and artistic turning points among other topics.


Back Stage: How do you generally approach a role?


Mathis: Truthfully, I don’t have any one particular method. I’ve trained mostly with Lesly Kahn, a teacher in L.A., and through her what I try to do is know what I’m saying and make it honest. It’s instinctual with me. I start with an impression and that may go away, but it’s a hook. Sometimes I work from the outside in, and that might be as superficial as a piece of jewelry or the way I carry myself or a style of clothing. I’m still discovering Clara, and that’s the beauty of theatre. I guess the challenge for me is—not having trained theatrically—where to find the honesty. And be heard. It’s a new a muscle for someone who has worked mostly in front of the camera.


Hanks: In this play I started with one scene: the physical therapy scene where I force Clara and Katherine to touch. That was my way in, in terms of understanding why Mike is there. From that I was able to work my way backwards. Mike is an interesting character in that he’s always saying the wrong thing. But his purpose is to come and help facilitate and repair a relationship between a mother and daughter and also getting a daughter to open up and become her own person.


Back Stage: Do you have a general method of working?


Hanks: My method is to say things as believably as I possibly can and try to make it sound like I’m saying it for the very first time. I try to be as relaxed as I can. I come to the table with a few ideas about who my character is, and then once we start doing table work or get it on its feet, it becomes apparent if it works or if it doesn’t.


Back Stage: Have either of you ever worked with Jane Fonda before?

Mathis and Hanks: No!

Back Stage: Did either of you have any reservations about getting involved in this project because of her star status?

Hanks: No.

Mathis: No. You always wonder what someone is going to be like, someone who is a big star. I didn’t know going in if she would have, for lack of a better term, any diva qualities. She does not at all. In fact, I found her incredibly inspiring. I’d say out of the entire company she is the one person who has never complained.

Hanks: Never!

Mathis: She never lost her temper, and she defines grace under pressure.

Back Stage: What did you learn from her?

Mathis: She’s not afraid to ask questions, which is always a wonderful thing. And to see someone who has had such success still have her feet on the ground.


Hanks: She has a life beyond her work that brings her great joy and passion and fuels the choices she makes in what she’s going to do and how she’s going to do it. The fact that she was there every day working as hard as she was and committed to coming [with the script] memorized—she’s inspirational in the way she handles herself.


Back Stage: Colin, to what extent have you been helped and/or hindered by your dad?


Hanks: That question is hard to answer because I have nothing to compare it to. More than anything, it’s been an advantage in that I understand the basic tenets of being an actor and coming to work every day, being responsible, and trying to get better, knowing that even on the days you feel no one is paying attention, hopefully someone is. But it’s not the be-all-and-end-all thing that’s going to make your world crumble. That’s the good thing. I’m very comfortable in a theatre, very comfortable on a stage. The downside is, there is very little new ground for me to break that has not already been broken by someone else in my family. So there’s little mystique in what I do.


Back Stage: Colin, your father produced The Great Buck Howard, which you star in.


Hanks: That happened by accident. I found the script in 2003 and fell in love with it and spent a great deal of time trying to get it financed. [Writer-director] Sean McGinly and I went around town trying to get it financed, and someone suggested Playtone as a possible place for it to end up.

Back Stage: That’s your father’s operation.

Hanks: Yes, with Gary Goetzman. And I said, “This is what we’re going to do. We’re not going to ask them to make this movie. We’re going to ask them what they think about it and if they have any suggestions on how to make it better and if they know anyone who would be interested in making this movie.” And that’s how we sent it to them, under those strict guidelines. What I was not prepared for is that they liked it so much they wanted to make it and my dad decided he was going to play my dad in the movie.


Back Stage: Did you have any reservations when Playtone came on board?


Hanks: Yes, of course, because I knew that one day I’d be sitting in my dressing room having this conversation. But the bottom line is I know how it happened, and it happened in a way I’m very proud of. And it happened in a film I’m very proud of. If it was something else, it would have felt dirty.


Back Stage: Samantha, your family background is not as high-profile as Colin’s, but there’s theatre and film lineage there all the same. Has it been a help and/or a hindrance?


Mathis: I was recently asked, “How does one get started?” I gave some advice, but the truth is I was lucky enough to have grown up around the business and knew enough people because of Mom having worked for quite some time. And I had a big-enough mouth about it from the time I was 12 that I wanted to start acting, so that by the time I was 16, I at least had a few doors open to me. No one gave me any jobs, but an agent said, “Sure, kid, I’ll give you a shot.” And a couple of casting people said, “Of course, we’d love to read Samantha.” The blessing and the gift was that I actually got a job two months after I started auditioning, and off I went.


Back Stage: Have you felt more scrutinized because of your background?


Mathis: I have not. What I encounter is lovely. My mother passed away quite a few years ago, and nine times out of 10, I’ll walk into an audition and the first thing someone says is, “I loved your mother so much.” They knew who my mom was. She guest-starred on every TV show. She was in so many things and worked for so long and had this reputation for being a wonderful woman to work with. For me, it’s lovely to hear that.

Back Stage: Colin, what about you?

Hanks: I don’t know. Sometimes I’ll read something and they’ll drop some sort of catty remark like, “Well, he’s not as good as his dad is.”


Back Stage: That’s a little premature to know that.


Hanks: I say do the math. Look, there’s no way for me to know. It is what it is.


Back Stage: Did you ever think you might be happier doing something else?


Hanks: No, ’cause this is what I love to do. Very early on I said to myself, “Look, I really better love what I do if I’m going to have to deal with all this other stuff. Because if I don’t, it’s going to make life a living purgatory. The interesting thing is I never thought about all this until I started working. This is what I always say: “When your favorite color is green, and someone keeps asking you for 10 years, ‘Why is your favorite color green? Have you ever thought that blue is your favorite color?,’ you go, ‘I don’t know. I like blue. Blue is a good color. Look, green is my favorite color.’ ”


Back Stage: Samantha, you were working at 16. Was the transition to adult actor a problem?


Mathis: Not the way it would have been if I was acting at 8 and had that [child] persona. I suppose to a certain extent, there was a period I felt, “I can’t lose my virginity on film one more time. Please, God, I’ve got to be a woman now.”


Hanks: I had the same thing. Only mine was no more scenes next to lockers. If I had to put something in or take something out of a locker one more time, I’d go insane.


Back Stage: What were your professional and artistic turning points?


Mathis: Artistically it happened after my mother passed away—I was 26—and I stopped acting for a year and a half. I had had a lot of success in my early 20s, doing a lot of films. Perhaps it was some survivor’s-guilt complications for me. As a little girl when I was first taken by the craft of acting, I wanted to be in the theatre. I got my first film when I was 18 and went in that direction. [After my mother’s death] I decided I wanted theatre to become more a part of my life. That’s when I found my acting teacher, Lesly, and we started working on Shakespeare sonnets. She demystified Shakespeare for me and gently guided me back to what I wanted to do. And not long after that, I got my first play, Collected Stories with Linda Lavin. That was a huge artistic turning point. On a professional level, this is huge for me.


Hanks: Appearing in Orange County was a professional turning point because it was my first big leading role. Artistically, I had two turning points. First, I was able to do This Is Our Youth in London on the West End, which was amazing for a multitude of reasons, including saying Kenny Lonergan’sdialogue every night. But more than anything, someone finally gave me the opportunity to be a different character, not be the kid who has problems talking to the girl. My second turning point was the role I just did on Mad Men, Father Gill. This is my first adult role. Instead of trying to get the girl, I was trying to save the woman’s soul.


Back Stage: Careerwise, where do you want to be in five years?


Hanks: Working on projects where I want to invest two to three months of my life, projects that have some truth in them.


Mathis: I want to be here, working steadily in theatre. I’d love to do a cable series and constantly be working on things that push me out of my comfort zone.


33 Variations runs through May 24 at the Eugene O’NeillTheatre, 230 W. 49th St., NYC. Tickets: (212) 239-6200.

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