Nathan Lane Pulls Back the Curtain on His Acting Process: ‘You Go Into Battle’

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“In the Envelope: The Actor’s Podcast” features intimate, in-depth conversations with today’s most noteworthy film, television, and theater actors and creators. Full of both know-how and inspiration, “In the Envelope” airs weekly to cover everything from practical advice on navigating the industry, to how your favorite projects are made, to personal stories of success and failure alike. Join host and Awards Editor Jack Smart for this guide on how to live the creative life from those who are doing it every day.

“Unless you try to climb these mountains, you’re not going to grow,” says Nathan Lane, addressing his fellow actors. Taking on challenging material—particularly material you may not have experience in taking on—is the only way for artists to advance their development and craft. “It doesn’t happen magically. You don’t wake up suddenly and say, ‘I’m a great, serious actor.’ You learn how to do this shit by doing the shit.”

A Jersey City native who’s learned on the job how to delight New York theater audiences for over 40 years, Lane knows what he’s talking about. Totaling three Tony Awards and 24 Broadway credits (including the recent “Angels in America” revival and Taylor Mac’s “Gary”), Lane is more widely known for his scene-stealing film work in “The Birdcage,” as the voice of Timon in “The Lion King,” or as a fan-favorite guest star on “Modern Family.” The six-time Primetime Emmy nominee, two-time Golden Globe nominee, and SAG Award winner now stars as a tough-talking detective on Showtime’s new supernatural-noir series from John Logan, “Penny Dreadful: City of Angels,” which he calls the most nuanced role he’s ever played on television.

And in his exclusive “In the Envelope” interview, remotely recorded with Backstage during the COVID-19 pandemic, Lane speaks particularly to the phenomenon that faces many working performers: being pigeonholed in one type of role. Taking on a character like Lewis Michener on “Penny Dreadful” is part of what the actor calls his “experiment” of the last 10 or so years; after a flattering but galvanizing magazine profile referred to him as the last of the “great stage entertainers” during his run in “The Addams Family” musical, he made it his mission to challenge both himself and his audiences’ perceptions of him.

“There are still people who treat me like I was some Ringling Brothers clown, who got out of a tiny car and went into acting last week,” says Lane exasperatedly. “It’s frustrating but...someone saw my work in the theater, in one of the great, serious roles of Hickey in [Eugene O’Neill’s] ‘The Iceman Cometh,’ and thought, ‘That is who I want to play this rather complicated detective.’

“Actors are so dependent on being cast,” he adds. “I was at least at a point where I could do something like that, I was very lucky. It’s hard because at first, you’re going to be met with resistance. ‘Why won’t you stay in the box that I’ve put you in?’ ” Asked if feedback his work has received over the years ever feels personal, he responds, “It’s all personal, pal. I got nothing else but me. This is the equipment.”

Lane also addresses the live feedback of a theater audience and how he steps onto the stage with such a commanding presence: “There’s this other sonar that you have at the back of your head, that even though as concentrated as you’re trying to be and dealing with your characters’ needs and wants and telling that story, you’re still hearing, ‘What’s the energy in the room and how is this translating?’ It’s always there. If you are in a big emotional moment, perhaps you’re not thinking about that, but especially in comedy, there is that part of the equation.”

How does Lane tend to approach acting? “It’s like going into battle,” he says. “You gear up, you go into battle, you’re going to try to convince 1,200 people of a story.... It’s a life and death situation, eight times a week.”

Conversation also turns to how and when live entertainment will return, and the effect that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the industry in general. “I think we are headed for a big change—some of it, I think could be positive.” Lane also reflects on his longtime friend and collaborator, the legendary Broadway playwright Terrence McNally, who passed away in March due to complications from the virus: “I owe him everything. He was a believer in me and felt I had more to offer from the very beginning. I’d have no career without Terrence.”

For insights on how to prove, to yourself and to others, that you have more to offer as an artist, listen to Lane’s terrific interview at any of the podcast platforms below.

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