A Conversation With Anthony Heald

Courtesy of Arden Theatre Company.

Anthony Heald is a wonderful actor who is currently starring in Gypsy at The Arden Theatre through June 25. He was kind enough to take the time to speak with me about his impressive and diverse career, as well as his first foray into Philadelphia theater.

How did you get involved in acting?

Both my parents loved theater. When I was a very young child they started a play-reading group at our house, in our neighborhood, in Long Island, New York. I’d listen to them read plays and imagine what was going on. Then they started in community theater and I helped backstage, it was a natural progression. I did some theater in high school. Then, when I got to college, I decided that this was absolutely what I wanted to do, and I’ve really never done anything else.

Did you study acting in college?

I went to Michigan State University. I took a lot of theater classes and acting classes but my major was in English and History. I didn’t think a theater degree would help me. I thought maybe I could teach, or something. Then, the first summer I did summer stock theater Jessica Walter asked me what my plans were. I told her that I might get a teaching degree and she said, “Well, then you’ll never be an actor! If you have something to fall back on, then you’ll fall back on it because it’s not easy being an actor. So, if you want to be an actor then be an actor. Don’t say, oh, along the way I’ll do this and that.” I took that advice and all I’ve really done is act.

How did you break into acting?

During college, I worked summer stock for four summers. In 1967 I moved to Sarasota, Florida and worked with the Aslo Repertory Theatre. That’s where I got my equity card and worked for, I don’t know, 16 or 18 months. Then Paul Weidner, the music director at the time, saw me and asked me to do Hartford Stage, so I did that, and things kind of happened from there.

When did you feel like you made it in acting?

Well, I keep feeling that over and over. (laughs) I remember when we were shooting the final scene of The Silence of the Lambs, in February of 1990, and I was about to go into rehearsals for the title character in Elliot Loves, written by Jules Feiffer and directed by Mike Nichols, and I was on the beach waiting to shoot this feature film and learning this 1,800-word opening monologue for Elliot Loves and feeling like, well, this is really…I’m sort of there. Of course, I felt the same thing four years prior when I opened on Broadway in Anything Goes. My wife and I had just moved into a new home, we had just adopted our son and I thought, this is it – I’ve obtained it. Then I thought the same thing 10 years later, when we moved to Ashland, Oregon and I started working at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I’m a very lucky person. I feel like every year has been even better than the one before.

Photo by Mark Garvin.

Speaking of Anything Goes, you were nominated for a Tony for your performance in that show. What was that experience like?

I have a pretty good sense of pitch and I’m musical, in terms of being rhythmic and understanding the musicality of language – that’s why I love doing Shakespeare. But I don’t feel confident about my actual singing voice. So, I steer away from anything that’s going to be too, kind of, vocally demanding. I can’t sing very high. One of the things that’s lovely about Herbie in Gypsy is he fits entirely in my range. And what’s lovely about Terry Nolan’s direction of Gypsy is that he allows the songs to grow out of conversations and let them have a conversational feel about them, so that’s made it a lot easier.

You’ve been nominated twice for a Tony award. How did it feel to receive this recognition?

It’s an absolutely thrilling experience to hear that you’ve been nominated for a major award. I don’t care what you think of awards, it’s a thrilling experience to get that. But in both cases I was working with an actor who was absolutely certified, guaranteed to win. It was very nice being nominated because I got to go to all of the parties, and I got to be interviewed and photographed and things. It’s always helpful in terms of being able to put it on your resume. But I didn’t have any tension on the nights of the awards because it was clear who was going to win. I could just enjoy the parties and not have to worry, am I gonna get it?

Throughout your career you’ve done a lot of work in television. I noticed you were in an episode of Murder, She Wrote in 1994. What was that like?

It was a very important time for me. I had just visited Ashland for the first time that summer, and I came back to New York with my family. Then I immediately flew back to Los Angeles to do Murder, She Wrote. I was feeling very cut off from my family. I was thinking very much about Ashland.

I have great respect for Angela Lansbury and it was a great television job, but it’s not what I wanted to be. When I went out there and had dinner with a friend who had relocated to Los Angeles several years before and was really unhappy, I told him, “You should really look at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I just spent a couple weeks out there and it’s a wonderful place.” I started to describe it and the more I did, the more attractive it seemed to me. Later that night I called my wife and said, “I think we should look into moving to Ashland.” A year later we did. During Murder, She Wrote I had this epiphany.

I hung out with one other cast member, but I didn’t really get to know anyone on that shoot. However, I was very impressed by the way Angela Lansbury and her family organized that production. One of the worst parts of acting in movies or television is the craft service area, which is filled with donuts and all sorts of bad things for you. You’re terribly bored so you congregate around this table of snacks and gorge all day long. And people are drinking coffee and soft drinks and having sugar highs and crashing. And on Angela Lansbury’s set for Murder, She Wrote there was no sugar allowed. There was no caffeine allowed. There were several crock-pots of rice dishes and stews and platters of vegetables. And I said to one of the crew guys, “Was this a hard adjustment?” And he said, “Yeah, we were all like, what the hell? But it makes life so much easier. We love it. It’s so smart because nobody is crashing from too much sugar at the end of the day.” So, I thought that was an interesting thing that she and her husband and son did with that production. The other two TV roles I know you from are Boston Public and Boston Legal. How did you start working with the creator of these shows, David E. Kelly?

I moved to Ashland in 1997 and started working in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival shortly afterward. I took a year off to make some television money, and I was doing an episode of The Practice and David Kelly wrote that show. He came down to the set and introduced himself to me. Afterward, some of the cast members told me that that was unusual for him to do. He didn’t often do that. And when I got back to my hotel that night, there was a message from my agent saying that Kelly wanted me to play a major role in a new series he was working on. I went in to talk to him the next day and he said that he wanted me to be in his new series. I asked him, “What’s the part?” He said, “Assistant Principal of a high school.” I said, “Who else is in it?” He said, “I haven’t spoken to anybody else yet.” I asked, “Is this for a pilot?” David responded, “No, it’s for a full 22 episodes.” So, I asked, “Can I read the script?” He said, “I haven’t written it yet.” (laughs) I said, “So, you’ve got a series and, so far, the only thing you’ve got is me.” We had a good laugh. But he’s famous for getting on a cross-country flight with an empty pad of paper and getting off the plane with a screenplay. He’s an enormously prolific genius. I took about three or four months discussing it with my wife and my family before deciding that it was something I needed to explore. For the first year of the series, I flew back and forth from Ashland, Oregon every weekend. Then, when it was clear that the show was taking off, my family and I moved to Los Angeles. That was in 2001.

Did you enjoy your experience on Boston Public?

I did. David Kelly ended his writing involvement with the show in the middle of the second season. Jason Katims took over for him, and he’s a very talented man. He’s done a number of really great television shows since then. But he was relatively new at the time. Unlike David, he really didn’t understand how to write for a character of my age. My character was meant to be in his mid-fifties in the show. In the first season there were some very interesting storylines that suited my character. But as the seasons went on and we got to 50 or 60 episodes, my character was doing things I didn’t think my character should do. It was a very enjoyable experience for about a year-and-a-half, and then it was a very profitable experience for another two-and-a-half years. Ultimately, I’m very glad I did it. Series television is very different from everything else because it’s open-ended. When you work on a film or you work on a play, you know the character’s parameters because they’re prescribed by the beginning and the ending of the story. But by its very nature, serial TV is a continuing story. So, your character is always evolving. Relationships are changing. That’s fascinating if you have real strong writing. If not, then you just have soap opera.

How did you wind up working on David’s other shows, The Practice and Boston Legal?

The Practice came first. It was before Boston Public, and then David brought me into Boston Legal as the same judge I had played on The Practice, which was just a wonderful gesture of loyalty, I think, from David. Then he did a show for TNT called Monday Mornings, about a hospital in Portland, and he offered me a spot on the show. My relationship with David was always positive.

What was it like working with James Spader and William Shatner, two brilliant actors, on Boston Legal?

It’s tough on a show like Boston Legal when you get into the courtroom. When you get in the courtroom, everything is very static. As a judge, I’m apart from everybody else. The only advantage I have is I don’t have to wear trousers. And I can have my computer up there, so between shots I can get stuff done. But there’s not the same camaraderie you get when you’re working on a scene that has some staging to it and interaction with your other characters. The other thing about doing courtroom scenes is it’s very hard, especially for the lead actors, to learn all that language and have it perfect. Every time you go into a courtroom they have these pages and pages of speeches. So, it was very hard for both of the leads to get through those speeches, without going through the agonizing process of retakes and retakes. That’s one of the things I loved about Angela Lansbury. When she had those long summations at the end of each episode of Murder, She Wrote, she’d have people standing there with these great, huge cue cards and she’d read them. And when we got to that scene, she very good-naturedly said to everyone new on the set, “I’m terribly embarrassed but I just can’t remember them. So, rather than waste all your time, I’ll do it this way.” Marlon Brando used to have his lines fed to him through an earpiece, so, ya know. (laughs) Both Shatner and Spader were very pleasant and nice people to work with and very professional. That whole Boston Legal family was a pleasure to work with. Also, when you’re doing a guest shot in a series, you feel like you’re visiting a strange country, where you speak some of the language and know some of the customs, but you’re basically a foreigner. But on Boston Legal they always made me feel welcome.

You were also in Postcards from the Edge starring Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine. Considering Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds recently passed away, what was that experience like?

I had done my first film in 1981 with Mike Nichols. He was directing Postcards from the Edge and he asked me to come in, along with Annette Bening, to read the script with Shirley MacLaine and Richard Dreyfuss. Then he wound up casting me in the role of George Lazan. We went out and shot it, and it was wonderful. I sort of knew Meryl from when I met her when doing Henry V in Central Park with Kevin Kline. Meryl came to see it and came backstage. Kevin introduced me to her and we had a nice talk. She was extremely gracious and nice when I came on to the set. Mike Nichols always runs a very congenial shop, so it was a great experience. Before this movie came out, I started filming for Silence of the Lambs and then started working with Mike for the Elliot Loves play. One day Mike said, “Tony, I’m editing your stuff in Postcards. I have good news and bad news. The good news is you’re really wonderful. The bad news is you’re barely in it.” (laughs) Basically, there’s just one little exchange between me and Meryl. But I figured I can retire now because there’s celluloid with me and Meryl Streep.

Earlier you mentioned The Silence of the Lambs. How did you wind up working on that film?

I was doing summer stock theater and I got a call that Jonathan Demme was doing a film called The Silence of the Lambs and that he wanted to talk to me. They told me I had two days. So, I went to the drug store and picked up a paperback copy of The Silence of the Lambs and finished it in one sitting. I was riveted. I drove down to New York and I met Jonathan. It was the first time I ever met him. But he’s a New Yorker so he’d seen all of the theater I’d done. (laughs) He started the audition, which was more of an interview than an audition, by saying, “I love your work. I’d like you to be in this movie. Have you read the book? What do you want to play?” I pulled my jaw up off the floor and said, “I’d love to do absolutely anything in this film. The role that’s most intriguing to me is the role of Dr. Chilton.” He said, “That’s interesting. Why?” I said, “Because I always play lovable nerds with a very trustworthy and charming demeanor. I would love to play somebody who’s a little slimy, a little nasty.” He said, “We’re going older with that role because we think we see him as being in his late-50s. Is there anything else you’d like to do?” And that’s where the conversation ended. Then, at one point, we did a reading of the script and I read the part of Hannibal, just to hear it. Finally, Jonathan said, “I want you to do Chilton,” and that’s how I got that role.

I assume it was a great experience working with Anthony Hopkins too.

At the very first reading, I sat across from Jodie Foster and I read the Hannibal role and I had an idea of how it should be played. (laughs) So, when they got Tony Hopkins I thought, oh no, he’s ruining it! Oh no, that’s terrible! That’s not the way to do it! (laughs) He’s such a charming man. We became really good friends during the shoot, but my opinion never really changed. I still thought he was doing a really weird thing with the role that just wasn’t going to work. I also thought that Jodie Foster was so boring. Wonderful person, but just so boring. Never doing anything – not realizing that the camera was picking up on all this gold that I was missing. It was a huge education for me. I went to the first screening of The Silence of the Lambs and came out very depressed thinking this is a real stinker. Then it went on to be the most transformative event of my professional life.

How did your career change after that? Did you, all of a sudden, start getting more opportunities because you were in such a high-profile project?

No, it was kind of the opposite. As a stage actor, I’ve had the opportunity to do a wide range of roles. That’s what I love, being a chameleon. In film, producers are trying to conserve the amount of screen time they have to devote to establishing minor characters. So, they like hiring people who the moment they appear on the screen the audience goes, “Oh, I know who that guy is.” They, kind of, get a negative feeling when they see you on the screen. After The Silence of the Lambs, that was a quality that was marketable for me. And those were the only roles I got offered. It got to the point where I did this beautiful audition for this role and they got it on tape and the director was thrilled. He took it back to the producer in Los Angeles and he said, “That’s that creep from Silence of the Lambs. I don’t want this character played by that creep from Silence of the Lambs!” As with most blessings, there can be a curse associated with it too. There are people who have enormous success with a particular role, but then they are bound by that role. So, Silence of the Lambs, kind of, did that for me. It’s really the only kind of role I’ve been offered ever since.

Then in Red Dragon you reprised the role of Dr. Chilton. How did that experience compare to working on The Silence of the Lambs?

Well, Silence had Jonathan Demme. Red Dragon had Brett Ratner, and he’s a wonderful man in a lot of ways. But he’s an economy director. He worked with a machete, where Jonathan worked with a scalpel. As we were doing the film I felt like, oh no. Also, Edward Norton, while he’s a wonderful actor, he has a real collegiate, boyish look to him. That character really needed someone who looked as if he’d seen the worst of the world and was affected by it. William Peterson, in Manhunter, which was the first version of Red Dragon, really captured that. I felt that Edward was miscast in that role. I also felt that Ralph Fiennes was so sympathetic in his role as Dolarhyde. I just couldn’t figure out where I was supposed to put my energy and my feelings when I watch that movie. It was interesting to do, and it was great to connect with Tony. The first day the cast got together, I got there a little late. Tony was on the other side of the room and he had a long ponytail. He saw me and he stretched out his arms toward me and said, “We get to do it again! We get to do it again! We get to do it again!” while dancing up and down. (laughs) He was a joy.

You’ve also narrated more than 60 audiobooks. How has that been for you, and how did you get involved with narrating audiobooks?

I started doing audiobooks in New York. The Pelican Brief by John Grisham was my first, and I had starred in the film adaptation of the book. Then I started doing all of the Star Wars books. When we moved to Oregon, I kept doing them. While in Ashland, I hooked up with a company called Blackstone Audio, which is one of the largest independent audiobook publishers. And I started re-recording their entire classics library. So, I was doing 10 or 12 books a year. Moby Dick, The Iliad, The Odyssey, Crime and Punishment. It was overwhelming – as well as some potboilers, advice books and things like that. When narrating audiobooks, you get paid by the finished hour. So, if you do a 10-hour book, you get paid for those 10 hours. But those 10 hours may represent 150 hours of prep time. You’ve got to read the book at least several times. Think about reading Moby Dick several times. Then you have to work on the specific material you’re going to do the next day in the studio – you have to do it the night before. You have to spend some time figuring out what you’re going to do with the characters. Then, overriding all of that, you have to make sure the reader is connecting with the author, not with the actor’s performance. It’s the story that needs to get told. It’s not the actor’s versatility that needs to be celebrated. So, the less I can do, the better. The more attention that’s on the words and the image that I’m painting, less on the specific accent that I’m using or the passion in my voice. It’s a difficult balance to find. I think I’ve found it a few times. But it’s always a challenge to fight against the instinct to perform. You shouldn’t perform. You’re right inside somebody’s ear. You just need to tell them the story.

Did narrating audiobooks come along because someone heard your voice and liked your tone or thought your voice had an interesting quality?

I think I was with an agent at the time, back in the early-90s, who had some connections within the audiobook industry. He pitched me and they liked the quality of my voice, and my maxim is that every job has the seeds within it to result in 10 more jobs, if you do it well and you’re pleasant. I did it well and I was pleasant, and I did a lot more jobs as a result of that. One thing led to another.

Do you listen to audiobooks?

No, they put me to sleep. Most audiobooks are way too slow and they’re too performed. You need the story to move along. If you want to really hear what a good audiobook is, listen to an author read their work. Listen to E.B. White read Charlotte’s Web. They fly through the book and do the subtlest things to their voices so you know exactly who’s speaking. But it’s not about performing that character. It’s about making it clear who that character is. And they’re masters at it. They’re my inspiration. There are very few audiobook readers that I’ve heard who come up to that standard.Gypsy at The Arden Theatre is your first time doing Philadelphia theater, correct?

Yes, that’s right.

What’s the experience been like, so far?

My wife grew up here, and we’ve been together 35 years so I’ve spent quite a bit of time in Philadelphia. I’ve often fantasized while on a walk through Philadelphia that I’m on my way to the theater to go to rehearsals or to do a performance. It’s been so great, and it’s been wonderful to connect with the Arden, which I think is the model of what my type of theater should be. To work with Terry, who’s a wonderful director, and to reconnect with Mary Martello, who I worked with 42 years ago. To tap into this Philadelphia theater world. My father-in-law is 99-years-old and lives by Fitler Square, and my sense is that I’m going to be spending more time in Philadelphia – so it’s wonderful to begin to open up the theater world here, to show people who I am and to learn who they are. Hopefully I can do more here in the future.

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