Low-Keyed But Self-Assured Newcomer

Despite the fact that actor Michael Gladis has already had a featured role (admittedly small) in "K-19: The Widowmaker," a major-league Harrison Ford flick, Gladis concedes feelings of intimidation now that he's appearing in Lanford Wilson's "Fifth of July," Off-Broadway at the Signature Theatre.

Consider his well-known co-performers: Robert Sean Leonard, Pamela Payton-Wright, and Parker Posey, among others. Equally relevant, this play is surely his most high-profile New York-based project.

"It does make you awfully nervous," notes the extremely likeable 20-something actor, who bears a resemblance to a young Orson Welles. "And there's a good amount of pressure. But I don't think that pressure has any impact on my acting. The stage is the only place that's safe and sacred.

"And working with those [high-level] actors is elevating," he continues. "As much as I try to stay focused and in character, there are times on the stage—when I'm sitting there with nothing to say for 10 or 15 minutes—that I look around and say to myself, 'I'm so glad to be doing this. This is just where I want to be: in New York doing theatre.' "

In "Fifth of July," which bowed Feb. 3, Gladis plays an amiable but relatively reticent man among a self-dramatizing, showy bunch. Specifically, he is the lover of Ken (Leonard), a crippled schoolteacher, who has just had a nervous breakdown and is in the throes of further emotional turmoil when old friends and family members show up and bring to the surface unresolved conflicts. The play is set in rural Missouri in 1977.

"The other characters are competing for attention, whereas Jed just wants to be left alone with Ken," remarks the Houston-born Gladis, who meets with us in a Midtown coffee shop. "I can relate to that because I'm also introverted. And I'm perfectly comfortable playing a gay man, although I get plenty of ribbing from my friends at the poker game.

"What I find challenging, however, is putting a handle on Ken and Jed's relationship before their current crisis. I also find it challenging to just listen on stage and not emote. Just to keep it simple. That's always easier said than done."

Gladis, whose most notable performance to date was in the title role of Bertolt Brecht's "Baal," Off-Broadway at the Bat Theatre, suggests that "acting is a gradual layering process. First, I start with broad strokes and then work towards the finer strokes. It still takes me a couple of weeks into performance before I even feel I really know what I'm doing."

And Gladis is a strong champion of doing his homework. In preparation for Jed, a scientist who has an M.A. in botany, Gladis insists, "I did a lot of reading on gardening and spent time with a friend, a high-end floral designer, accompanying her on her rounds of restaurants where her floral arrangements are displayed. I'm only sorry I couldn't do more gardening myself.

"No, I never saw anyone else play Jed," Gladis underscores. "I had the opportunity to see the video of 'Fifth of July,' starring Jeff Daniels in my role. But I chose not to. I prefer that this interpretation be really mine. Look, every artist is a thief and if I felt I was having a lot of trouble, I would have seen the movie."

No Nonsense

Gladis is strikingly straightforward and refreshingly devoid of airs. On the one hand, he is a painter, guitarist, songwriter, and (by his own admission) a fairly accomplished chess player. But he is equally open about his time spent as a bartender, house painter, and handyman. And then there are his ambitions: plausibly grand, but also grounded.

On theatre: "I'd love to play the classics, but it's so contrived to say, 'I want to play Hamlet.' I'd be content to play any number of roles."

On television: "There's so much money to be made on a TV series, but I hope I'd be discerning in what I'd pick, assuming I had the opportunity. But being poor isn't fun. So I don't know. If I could make a good living doing what I love [even if the script were not perfect], I'd be hard-pressed to turn it down."

On movie fame: "No, I don't want to be a movie star, having seen what Harrison Ford goes through. It's so demanding. When he walks into a room, everyone wants a piece of his energy—a smile, a word from him. I view fame as an occupational hazard. Still, I suppose there are perks."

Gladis, who, as noted, brings to mind a young Orson Welles, has one major career passion and that is to play Welles; indeed, an independent film that is on the drawing boards now has already cast Gladis in the part. Regrettably, the producers have been unable (at least to date) to raise sufficient money for the project.

"I'd say Orson is my greatest influence," Gladis points out. "He teaches important lessons in audacity. I've underestimated how far one can get on audacity."

A Neo-Classicist Painter

Gladis was brought up in Farmington, Conn., the son of a sales and marketing executive in a small fiber optic telecommunications corporation. His early ambition was to be a painter and he showed real promise in a "neo-classicist tradition. I was influenced by the old masters and very much the draftsman," Gladis acknowledges simply.

Indeed, Gladis launched his college career at the SUNY School of Arts Design at Alfred University (one of the more intense art conservatories) before turning his attention to acting, taking a leading role in a college production of "12 Angry Men."

"We called it '12 Angry People,' " Gladis chortles. "I always enjoyed acting in high school and it was a great way to meet girls, not that I thought of acting professionally. But when I performed in the college production, I realized I liked it far more than painting in the studio."

Gladis switched gears, transferring to SUNY's New Paltz theatre program, earning a B.A. in theatre. Gladis stresses that his years as a painter have served him well as an actor.

"All art is a product of the moment," he says. "And all art entails walking the line between impulse and craft. You need craft to follow the impulse."

Following his graduation from college in 1999, Gladis arrived in New York City and within short order he was working fairly steadily. The turning point was his aforementioned appearance in "Baal," earning Gladis fine reviews, including one in The New York Times. Luck also played a role.

During the show's run, a major Hollywood casting director (Mali Finn) saw him in the show and ultimately cast him in the film, "K-19." Nonetheless, Gladis insists Finn's presence in the audience of an ur-downtown theatre was anomalous.

"Mali Finn is one of the few casting directors who will go to an Off-Off Broadway show at 10 pm, simply because someone suggests she should see it," he comments. "I sent out press kits, including sample reviews of my performance in 'Baal,' to between 50 and 100 agents. None of them came to the performance or responded to my letter at all."

No matter. Finn was so impressed with Gladis' performance in "Baal," she introduced him to a personal manager who, in turn, helped Gladis land an agent.

"My manager set up meetings for me with a number of agents and suddenly it was all very civilized. I was invited in and offered coffee."

At the moment, not surprisingly, Gladis' thoughts are focused on "Fifth of July" and, most central, his role in it, hoping he has brought to life a man who "walks to the beat of his own drummer, but doesn't feel he has to prove anything. He is a gay man in the '70s and very comfortable with what he is. Jed is a very bright man and he is also a very patient man. He is willing to take 20 years to make something beautiful [his special garden]. And I do believe the fruits of his labor will be spectacular.

"What you see with Jed is what you get," Gladis continues. "He is a good man. I hope audiences recognize that, not that I go out and play a good man."