Balancing Act

He is leading an exhausting life, for which he sounds extremely grateful. Co-starring on television's popular and critical hit The West Wing (playing Leo McGarry, the White House chief of staff), John Spencer wakes up at 4 a.m. and heads to Warner Bros., where he works from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. At this point, his day is half over. After his 6:15 p.m. nap, he takes on an equally brilliant role, as jazz musician Martin Glimmer, in Glimmer, Glimmer and Shine, opening this week at the Mark Taper Forum. Then Spencer heads home and, well into the night, learns lines for the next morning's shoot.

Kindly granting an interview to Back Stage West after an onstage rehearsal and before a preview performance, Spencer chatted warmly with us in his cozy dressing room at the Taper. Having found two such wonderful pieces to work on simultaneously, he said, gives him a high—the challenge has become choreographing his time and maintaining his stamina.

"To be able to play two such vastly different characters—that's what I'm really getting off on," he said. "In my daytime job, I'm playing the White House chief of staff. Then I come here and I'm playing a junkie with tracks on my arms." He pulls up a sleeve and looks at the makeup bruises. "They're getting so that I can't even wash them off."

In its West Coast premiere at the Taper, the play by Warren Leight (Side Man) tells of twin-brother musicians from the Swing era, since estranged, and the paths their lives have taken. Spencer said he chose the role because of the inspired writing and because he identified with the character—a drug user and alcoholic. Spencer is an openly recovering alcoholic.

His agent had found the script and convinced a reluctant Spencer to read it, just as the agent had with the pilot of The West Wing. This is mine, Spencer thought after reading each script—no one could play the roles better. Knowing he had to miss the play's auditions, he asked a friend at 20th Century Fox for help putting two monologues on videotape, and he was hired based on those taped monologues. "It may not be the best way, but at least they see you do something," he acknowledged.

Then came the predicament of geography. In 1999, the play was produced at the Williamstown Theatre Festival (as The Glimmer Brothers) and was heading for New York. If The West Wing pilot sells, Spencer thought, the play needs to run in L.A. He brought the play to the Taper's artistic director, Gordon Davidson, meanwhile convincing Leight to wait until the future of the TV series was determined. Spencer also said he did some "stroking" of West Wing creator and writer Aaron Sorkin, telling him, quite truthfully, how much he appreciated Sorkin's artistry but also how much he wanted to do the stage role. Sorkin promised Spencer the flexibility.

The More Things Change…

These days, and nights, Spencer is living the artist's success story. "Last night, I felt I was really on top of my game. I went home, and I just sat and thought, I am in a deep bath of artist's gratitude, of having been suddenly presented with two extraordinary pieces and the opportunity to work on them at the same time. It might be a once-in-a-lifetime thing," he acknowledged humbly, "so I'm trying to just give myself over to it."

Still, he said, success is relative. "People think, Oh, my God, if I were just successful—some people use the word 'famous'—or if I just got to act all the time, everything would be better. Then suddenly you do, and you're still faced with an enormous amount of decisions and challenges and disappointments. They're just different. So, suddenly, Bob Duvall is doing the role you wanted. It doesn't feel much different from 20 years ago. Success doesn't make it all better. It just gives you a whole new set of challenges. And you don't know it until you have it. You probably don't have to worry much about paying the rent, but can you afford a publicist and an assistant?" Spencer now has two of each.

"The balance for an artist is such a great one—keeping a thick skin so that these power merchants will not destroy you with what they say and do, and at the same time maintaining your sensitivity, because without your sensitivity you don't have your craft. That seems to me almost impossible, like a delicate balance that's very hard to maintain."

And with his 45-minute nap each night, he maintains that balance between his television and his onstage existences. He said he has learned to love film work but finds an element missing—participation of an audience, which he said is like another character onstage. "The technique onstage involves being inside yourself and outside yourself. You have the out-of-body experience of keeping a pulse on the audience—stopping for a laugh that may come, knowing how to ride that laugh, not ruining the next line by saying it before. So you have to have eyes in front of you and behind you, in a way."

Spencer said he worked on Glimmer's physical attributes late in the process. "That turned out to be a really good way to work on this. I wanted to find the truth of what was going on in the character emotionally before I gave him any physical limitations. Then I started with respiration. Now I'm trying to working on internal organs and the feeling of an abused and swollen liver." He said he's also tapping into his own fatigue for the role, adding, "I'm not beneath using anything I can to get the result that I need."

As previews are ending and opening night approaches, he is still honing the physicality and polishing specific moments. One scene worked in Williamsburg but seemed to fall flat here—the scene in which Martin takes a hit of a joint, coughs, and starts to hand it to another character. The joke, Spencer said, is that Martin should stop smoking, but he pulls the joint right back and smokes it again. The bit got a laugh every night in Williamsburg. Why not in L.A.? The timing of the line, the placement of a chair, the movement of the character at the start of the scene did not let the audience see what was going on right from the start. Spencer said these have now been fixed.

Turkish Delight

For much of his present success, he can thank his agent and Sorkin. Several years ago, Spencer was finishing a film in Prague when his agent called him about a job replacing a Turkish actor in a Turkish play on Broadway, Pari Palace. He would have four days of preparation. After making sure the producers wanted the right John Spencer—definitely not Turkish—he saw and adored the work, which would allow him to play multiple roles, including his character's mother and an old harem woman. "A lot of my esprit and tenacity comes out of the little challenges I give myself," said Spencer. "I saw the play and thought, This would be a pisser to pull off, and to pull it off in four days is unheard of." The play needed to move but couldn't find a new home. Arthur Miller heard the news and offered Spencer a role in his new play.

Then Spencer was cast in the series Trinity. "I thought I'd work two times a week, make some good TV money. I'd just bought a house. And then this offer came." But Spencer said the public somehow wouldn't tolerate his working those two roles, and he made a "heartbreaking" decision not to take Miller's play.

One month later, Spencer's agent called, telling Spencer he'd found one of the best things he'd ever read—a one-hour drama called The West Wing. Spencer read 20 pages and likewise decided it was some of the best material he'd ever read. But he wondered whether the pilot would sell. Then his agent called with another "one of the best," a script titled The Glimmer Brothers.

It's been a long commute, Spencer said, having acted since age 16. He is now 54. He has never questioned his choice to act. And when young actors ask him whether they should pursue acting, he tells them not to bother. If you have to ask, he suggested, you're not hungry enough to act. He lists as his best roles his onstage characters in Still Life and Execution of Justice, his film role in Presumed Innocent, his television role on L.A. Law, and his two current personae. "It's always a journey and a challenge to hone it and make it better and get it to the point where it's seamless and it's just happening moment to moment. You're not pushing the train; it's driving you."

Spencer reluctantly excused himself to get ready for that evening's performance. He would soon be in makeup and costume, onstage, then preparing to return to the studio, to find his passion—and that delicate balance. BSW