CAST INTO CRAZINESS: How French Stewart's hard-and hilarious-work at a little L.A. theatre propelled him into a career-making TV sitcom role.

When I recently showed up at a Los Angeles eatery to talk shop with French Stewart, I admit that I didn't know a whole lot about the performer, who has become best known for his comedic depiction of alien dweeb Harry Solomon on NBC's 3rd Rock From the Sun.

As a responsible journalist, I did try to do my homework and find out some background on Stewart. The problem was that he remained much of an enigma. For example, when I ran a search of his name on one popular internet search engine, the only site linked to Stewart was the official website for Clamato, for which Stewart is the spokesperson.

The only other info I could dig up, besides his credits, was that he grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and that he was a graduate of the Academy of Dramatic Arts. Sure there were other fun items like his real name is French, that he's a huge silent film buff, or that he got his SAG card for playing Yogi Bear with Hanna-Barbera's Shakey Quakey Tour (a job he was apparently fired from for pulling his bear head off in front of children).

I did already know that Stewart had been a long-time member of the acclaimed Hollywood-based Cast Theatre, where playwright/director Justin Tanner has graced audiences with some of the best stage work in L.A. During his five years with the Cast, Stewart originated roles in such beloved Tanner plays as Pot Mom, Teen Girl, Happytime Xmas, and Party Mix.

What I didn't know or expect to find was that Stewart is a serious actor. In addition to his Cast credits, Stewart performed the classics after graduating drama school. His early credits include the Grove Shakespeare Festival's production of A Comedy of Errors and South Coast Repertory's stagings of Romeo & Juliet and Richard II.

But as I found out from talking at length with Stewart, it was his extensive time spent working with the Cast that provided the greatest backbone in his career. So important to Stewart is the theatre company, that he continues to return to the place that made him. Last year he did a benefit performance with Laurie Metcalf of Pot Mom and this week he begins performances of a short run of Tanner's Still Life With Vacuum Salesman, also starring Metcalf, at the Cast.

After this season's 3rd Rock winds down, Stewart can next be seen starring in the feature comedy Life Stinks with Bill Belamy. Stewart also currently provides voices for the new animated series Bob, the Devil, and God and for Disney Channel's animated series Hercules. His additional credits include guest appearances on Seinfeld, The Larry Sanders Show, NewsRadio, Caroline in the City, and Just Shoot Me. His film credits include Leaving Las Vegas, Stargate, Broken Arrow, and Glory Daze.

Back Stage West: How did you hook up with the folks at the Cast Theatre?

French Stewart: Justin Tanner has used the same group of people for the past decade, but I first met him through Lisa Beezley, who also does a lot of shows there. They needed somebody to come fill in when they were putting up Zombie Attack and I went in and did a reading with him and we just really clicked. Our sensibilities were similar. And we just spent the next five or six years doing plays.

BSW: Is there a play of Justin's that you connect with most?

Stewart: I'd have to say Pot Mom.

BSW: Somehow I knew you were going to say that.

Stewart: There's something that really rings true about it. I think he writes about tiny, little tragedies really well. It's about sort of daily life things. It's about people trying to get on The Wheel of Fortune, you know? It's about a dad who's growing pot in the backyard and doesn't want his children smoking his hemp. Justin writes about very odd, slice-of-life things that people attach to because it seems like their lives, in a sense.

BSW: Was it the norm for you to be in more than one of Justin's plays at a time?

Stewart: Yes, and it was nuts. We would have two plays running at once. You'd do one, and in the break, you'd tear the set down and put a new set up and then they would just bring in new people and you would do the next play. During that time, I think they figured out that doing things in repertory was the way to keep the theatre afloat.

BSW: Was that the best training you got-more so than your time at acting school or performing the Bard?

Stewart: I think so. Because you were in charge of your own props. You were working in the beer garden or selling tickets. You were putting the sets up. You were providing your own wardrobe. And you were doing shows out of necessity, realizing that this place was a business. It was about putting butts in seats and that's what it took. It was hard work, but it was the best training I could possibly have had.

BSW: During your years with the Cast, were you able to make a living as an actor?

Stewart: During the day, I was working at Kaiser Permanente doing children's shows. I would wake at six in the morning and go to some elementary school in Montebello and teach kids about good hygiene and dental awareness. And then I would get home by one or two in the afternoon, after doing three of those shows, singing and dancing with oversized toothbrushes.

I would come home and sleep for three or four hours and go to the Cast and either rehearse or do a play. So my days were broken up into two small days with two small blocks of sleep on either side, and after a while I just got used to it. I did that for five years.

BSW: While I'm sure you struggled, do you look back and think those were the greatest years of your life?

Stewart: It was the time of my life. And I wasn't suffering that much financially, because Kaiser paid really well. They gave me health benefits. I had a regular paycheck. I had a month paid vacation per year. But [my life] was crazy and it did feel like way too much work. I've always said that's the thing about being an actor-if you don't fall in love with the struggle of it, you're not going to enjoy it. You're going to get heartbroken. This sounds so stupid and almost "new agey," but enjoy the ride. That's all there is. Now I'm looking back on things that seemed really hard and they just seem right.

BSW: What is the struggle for you now?

Stewart: I find that there's a lot of maintenance involved with keeping things going. There's a lot of promos, a lot of interviews, a lot of talk shows, and a lot of strange hours. There's the photo shoots and the memorizing and appointments. I think right now it's balancing being, to a certain degree, a salesperson and being an artistic person, which don't always go hand-in-hand. But I didn't get anywhere until I kind of turned things into a business. I had to.

BSW: Did you make a conscious choice to become business-minded?

Stewart: It crept up on me over the course of about a year. I gradually thought, I don't have normal work hours. Nobody's going to do this for me. I'm going to have motivate myself. And sometimes you don't want to. It's easy to keep saying, "Tomorrow, tomorrow, and tomorrow." But until I started doing something for my career every day and making it more of a nine-to-five business, nothing happened.

A lot of people don't understand that you can't get what you want unless you know what you want, and if you're just randomly flailing around, it's hard. I think you need to package yourself. You have to figure out what you're good at and go for that. There's a certain degree of making a deal with the devil. I felt that to get anywhere I had to market myself as a certain thing.

BSW: Are you at all afraid of being perceived as 3rd Rock's Harry Solomon for the rest of your days?

Stewart: No. It's going to happen. It already has, especially with a character like that. The show has been so successful and you don't think about it, but it's around the world. We've got this reel of us looped over in Mandarin. And to a certain degree, it's going to cut me off from things until I show people I can do something different. So, yeah. I'll probably always be known as Harry. But, I can walk into any theatre and they'll let me do Willy Loman, just because I've got enough of a name that they're going to put tourists in seats! That's a great gift. And it hasn't messed me up. Like I did this movie last summer and it's not like 3rd Rock at all.

I think that old hackneyed idea of being trapped into any one thing is really over. Because now there are so many more options. You've got network. You've got cable. You've got independent movies. Big films. You've got all sorts of venues. I'm finding that I can always find somebody who's going to let me do what I want to do, just because I'm on TV.

BSW: How did your training at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts prepare you for what you do now?

Stewart: I value those days very much. There are a lot of times when acting is easy. You can just sort of do it and you know what you're doing. But there are other times when you can't get to the bottom of it, and that's when you need tools. And I think it gave me tools. A lot of people slide into acting and there are probably just enough acting savants out there who have a natural way and just sort of do it. But I was never that way. I need a blueprint for things.

My wife studied with [Sanford] Meisner and she was telling me that Meisner always said it takes 20 years to make an actor. And the more I look, the more I think that's really true. I'm fortunate right now in that I'm constantly working with people who are maybe just a little bit better than I am. Like right now I'm working with Laurie Metcalf and she's just unbelievable. I learn so much from her. It's nice to be in that situation where you're constantly having to reach.

BSW: When you got out of school, what did you do to get started? It seems like so many graduates don't know what to do once they leave school.

Stewart: It's always the hardest part. You never know what to do or where to go. For me, it was a matter of picking up a Back Stage West or a Drama-Logue and looking at what was out there. I thought, OK, what do I need? First of all, I need a picture. Then I got pictures and I said, "What do I need now?" It was sort of systematic. Then it was just a matter of thinking, When I get my opportunity, I'd like to be prepared. So I started doing plays. I mean, a lot of it is luck. A lot of it is random, being in the right place at the right time where you meet the right somebody.

BSW: What was your first acting job out of school?

Stewart: The first thing that I did out of college was to go to this place that used to be over on Santa Monica Blvd., around Western. It was the Galaxy Stage, and my friends and I found a play and put it up. You can always do that. Go find a space. Find some material. Find some friends. And put it up. It's going to take work, though, and a lot people bag out half way through.

I looked for a lot of short cuts-don't get me wrong-but in the end there aren't any. When I started doing plays at the Cast, I thought, Well, maybe somebody's going to see this. It gave me a venue to be seen, because Zombie Attack at that time was, and I think still is, the longest running show in L.A. I did that for three years and it was the base for everything. I knew it was a good part for me. I knew people were starting to know what it was. I could get people to come out and see Zombie Attack and I would get parts out of that.

But getting a TV job was only in the back of my head. It was always about making plays with my friends. I think that's sort of what it is now. Once the dust clears on the set of 3rd Rock, we're just enjoying rehearsing. We enjoy coming up with ideas or solving problems or untying knots. Whatever it is, it doesn't change. The package just becomes different.

BSW: What lead to 3rd Rock? Was it a matter of getting seen at the Cast?

Stewart: When we first opened [Tanner's] Teen Girl back in 1992, I had this huge black, bushy goatee and I looked like a lunatic, because I was playing a creep. And I got called in for an audition for The New WKRP in Cincinnati for some kooky morning disc jockey, which I got because I looked like a lunatic. So I did that for a year and once that was over, I went back to the Cast. By that time, the theatre was starting to get a name. We had built this thing up into a group that had a reputation. So it wasn't hard to get people to come.

But that was all based on the work. When the work is good, people will come. And if you concentrate on the work, everything else will fall into place-as long as you're doing the footwork. I would say, "I'm in a play." People would come down. They'd say, "We've got a part for you." Some agent comes down to see somebody else and they see you. You can end up getting an agent. I got my manager from the Cast.

So the Cast has been the cornerstone for everything. One theatre. One crappy, little theatre, that for a long time was next to a crack house. We've had moments where we'd be doing a play and suddenly the door would open and there'd be some drunken lunatic standing there wanting to know what's going on. Or you'd be talking to an agent who'd just seen your show and you're standing outside the theatre and, meanwhile, some deranged crackhead is chasing a woman down the street with an extension cord trying to whip her! But you know what? It tells me that there are no excuses. It tells me that that anybody can do this. Anybody can walk into a theatre, in some sub-par neighborhood, and have some imagination and make a life for himself.

BSW: What do you love most about acting?

Stewart: What I love is the exact same thing that I hate. It's so hard. And it's so inscrutable. I never honestly feel like I've got any kind of solid process. You're sort of channeling; you're dealing with things that don't exist. It's not like being an insurance adjuster, where you know what you have to do and there are guidelines. It always feels like there's no rule book, and that's what makes it fun, but that's also what makes it scary. And it makes you feel like, Everybody else knows what they're doing and I don't and any minute the doors are going to open and somebody is going to say, "Hey this has been a terrible mistake. You're a fraud. You're out.' I don't think I've met an actor who didn't feel that way.

To answer your question, I have no idea. I like it. I like the challenge of it. I like the adrenaline of it. I like the creativity of it. And I enjoy the fact that if you succeed, you succeed on a huge level and lots of people know it. And if you fail, you fall flat on your face in front of millions of people. It's unpredictable and it's exciting.

BSW: If you weren't acting, what do you honestly think you'd be doing?

Stewart: I've wondered that myself. And there were times when I was actually trying to figure that out. But to tell you the truth-and this won't be the most fun answer-nothing. And that's why I'm here. I think if that's not your answer then get out, because there are better ways to spend your life. You'll be happier. But I think you have to do it because you have to do it. BSW