ACTORS' DIALOGUE: Bob Gunton & Anne Archer

Reporting by Rob Kendt

What do you do when you've got to be married for a long time to someone you meet on the first day of rehearsals? Actually, Anne Archer and Bob Gunton, who currently appear as a troubled husband and wife in Robert Glaudini's new play The Poison Tree at the Mark Taper Forum, met during auditions. But even though they apparently got along famously from the start, and they've had a rehearsal period to develop the semblance of a believable marriage (longer than they would on a film set), the question still remains: How do actors make the very specific imaginary circumstances of a longtime relationship work onstage?

Archer is best known for her Oscar-nominated role as Michael Douglas' cuckolded but steadfast wife in Fatal Attraction, her Golden Globe-winning role in Short Cuts, and her recurring part as Harrison Ford's wife in both Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger. Most recently she appears in Rules of Engagement and in Wesley Snipes' upcoming The Art of War. Theatre credits include the Off-Broadway production of A Coupla White Chicks Sitting Around Talking, which she reprised in L.A., and Tourvel in the Williamstown Theatre Festival's Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

Gunton may be recognizable for his role as the evil prison warden in Shawshank Redemption or his turn as Nixon in the TV movie Elvis Meets Nixon, but the bulk of his career has been in plays and musicals: his Tony-nominated lead in the 1990 revival of Sweeney Todd, the King in Big River, James in Passion, Juan Peron in Evita (also Tony nominated), and a raft of Off-Broadway and regional credits. He also has featured roles in The Perfect Storm, Patch Adams, and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

Back Stage West sat down with these two in the midst of tech rehearsals to discuss playing house but not taking the work home.

Anne Archer: In terms of creating a relationship onstage, life helps you so much. You've been married for many years, I've been married for many years, so you bring to this a certain knowledge of how life goes and how relationships go, and that feeds us-although neither of us has the problems that these characters have, certainly.

Bob Gunton: I don't think we have the same kind of problems in our individual marriages, but the dynamic of a longterm marriage is certainly something I'm familiar with. So it gives you a context to see why people could sort of get into the kind of trouble that this couple is in.

I also think it's important that we've been supplied with a relationship that develops and unfolds before the audience: what this relationship is, what it was, and what it has become-even in the rehearsal process. There's one scene we played which was rather ardent and affectionate and very sexy in rehearsals; it has since evolved into something very different. But I think playing it the way we did in the rehearsal period gave us almost a sense memory of how these people interacted physically, the ease which they had. So we have almost developed a nostalgia for what no longer exists.

Anne: Also, I think that actors are chameleons. They meet and they know they have to play lovers or adversaries, and they immediately just start doing it.

Bob: It's like being a child and saying, "OK, you be the good guy and I'll be the bad guy."

Anne: "You're going to be my husband now, now we get to play." Very rarely does that not work, unless you have that occasion when somebody has some real problems you have to deal with, and unfortunately their problems spill over onto everyone else. But that rarely happens.

Bob: I'm just fortunate to be working with someone like you. I like working easy and relaxed, from a relaxed place. And if that relaxed feeling starts before you open your mouth onstage, for me, I can do dangerous things, embarrassing things, I can be awkward-as you have to be in the process-because I feel safe. And I feel that with you.

We go to some very dark places as the characters-recrimination, guilt, regret, beration, all of that stuff. And it's fun! To me, I would almost prefer to get into a real, from-the-gut, from-the-genital argument with someone I desperately loved-play that scene-than the sexy, affectionate stuff. Because it's really primal. And that's what the stage is for. For me, the stage is about deep, deep emotions, not about the comfortable ones. This is Medea and Oedipus. We get to do those. Several times.

Anne: I agree with you. It is why you want to be on the stage, because you get to play moments you don't get to play on film. The whole process is so much better for the actor.

Bob: But you have to do it publicly-it's never just you, me, and the director and the other cast members. There's always the stage managers, people wandering in and out. It takes getting used to. Did it for you? To do this kind of work with people wandering in and out while you're spilling your guts?

Anne: To me that's like being on a film set. You've got a whole crew and they're all doing this and that and you're emoting and carrying on.

Bob: But do they see as much of the process?

Anne: Yeah, because you don't have rehearsal. So you're up there and you're running through it a few times, and shooting it. Sometimes you're on a public street where you're shooting a very emotional scene and you've got real people walking by and wondering what the hell you're doing. And there you are-either crying your eyes out or trying to unzip some guy's pants.

So, for me, the stage is sort of like we have permission. I was pleased with how quickly I adjusted to the rehearsal process of being in a room, having people there, and running through the scenes. It felt nice for me, like I had a space for myself. On a film set, you're sort of jumping into all these new spaces, sometimes many in a day. Sometimes they help you and sometimes there's no time just to make them your own.

Bob: No matter what the time sequence in a play is, I find that I am playing that character's entire life from the time they were a child to whenever the play leaves them. In Shawshank Redemption, I played someone with the arc of nearly 20 years, and that's the closest I've ever come in film to what I always experience onstage. Even if it's a real-time thing of two hours out of someone's life, you are playing their entire life, the entire arc of their life. If it's written well, if the playwright has plugged in where they have come from, how they developed, and why they came to this climactic point we're seeing in this play, and suggested what's going to happen with their lives after that-that to me is the thrill of stage that I can embrace, to subsume an entire life in me. And I never-or very, very rarely-have had anything like that in film.

LOVE AND DEATH

Anne: The stuff from this play does bubble over. I try not to let it. I say, "I don't have to do this play at home. Do it in the theatre." And I'll find that my emotional state is very rocky at times. I'll cry just thinking about it. It's been very hard.

Bob: In film roles, I play a lot of heavies and a lot of bad guys, so I tend to be the jokester and the good-time Charlie on the set. And I think part of it is the human thing of, "I don't want people to think I'm an asshole all the time." And I like to let that out, and in a way that gives me permission when I have to blow somebody's head off or whatever the hell else I've got to do-to really go to that dark place and then come back and say, "See, we're fine."

So I don't get a lot of spill-over with film, but with the work process in theatre, if I'm coming up against something I have to get past, some block in me-that's where most of my emotional trauma comes from, not so much from the character. The character's trauma is sort of worked out and I'm riding it and as it goes through its catharsis, I'm OK. But if I'm coming up against, What the hell is happening here, why am I dry in this scene? Where am I here? Then I become emotional and I'm not always so swell to be around at home because I'm walking around with this knot.

So I play a lot of tennis, I talk to my kid, I spend time with my wife, and remind myself that I'm safe and that it's a play and that I will go to bed and wake up tomorrow and that all the work I've done, with the director and other actors, is going to help me through this and I'm going to be fine. I'm going to take the ride of my life. And we've decided that it's better than sex.

Anne: When it's going well. Otherwise, it's the worst thing that could ever happen to you, worse than death. It's either better than sex or worse than death. There's no in between. BSW