By Gary Wien
A conversation with Emmy Award winning actor, Richard Schiff, who will be returning to the stage in George Street Playhouse's production of "Underneath The Lintel". Schiff is best known for his work as Toby Ziegler on NBC's acclaimed drama "The West Wing". We caught up with Schiff as he was rehearsing shortly before the Christmas holiday.
This is a return to the stage for you after doing television and movies for a while. What was it about Underneath The Lintel that caught your eye?
Well, I've been offered a few plays recently including a replacement thing on Broadway and couldn't do it for whatever reason. So, I'm asking myself "What the hell am I doing 3,000 miles away from my family about to embark on a solo thing that's daunting and ridiculously scary?"
So, it's a fair question that I keep asking myself, but there's something about this material that's beautiful. And, if you're going to jump off a cliff and you're going to get into a danger zone there better be something worth exploring there for you. I think this play has its moments of beauty and there's obviously something in there you don't always know what. You can't necessarily express it all the time, but there's something that compels you to make a certain choice, which is kind of what the play is about.
Have you ever done a one-man play before?
No. I've read once years ago when I first started dealing with this acting thing that an actor alone on stage giving a monologue is the stress level of a test pilot during takeoff and landing. Then I ran into a fighter pilot who happens to be an actor now who was working with us on The West Wing in D.C. one day. He was an Air Force guy and we started talking about acting and I told him about that study and he said, "Oh my God, I believe it! I've been in dog fights and I've never been more terrified than the moment I was in front of the camera." So I don't know how true that is, but there's something like jumping out of an airplane about it that is interesting. You ask yourself how would you feel if you walked away from that challenge.
Is the show broken up or does it run straight through?
No, I might be going over to your program to see where I am next! (LAUGHS) It's not broken up. In many ways, I think it might be harder than if it was a one-man show that someone wrote for themselves because obviously they know the point and the material a lot better. I'm still learning it. I'll still be learning it three weeks into the run. I'll still be learning about this play and the story and the purpose of it.
It's got to be difficult setting up a play around the holidays. How much time do you have to prepare for this?
Oh... none! Literally, we had two days of rehearsal in L.A. and I think I had two weeks here in New York, but I got strep throat so I missed three days of that. Catching up an extra day or two so I'm not going back to L.A. for my own Christmas party. People are coming to my house tomorrow and I'm not going to be there!
It's not a lot and we're realizing how insane it is. Now there's a break and I'm going on a family vacation to Hawaii where I have no one to even run lines with. Then I come back and tech. So, it's pretty insane. It should be a fun rollercoaster. If you're going to do this kind of thing you really want to rehearse it for two or three months because there's a lot to explore. But that's the nature of the game - just trying to make the best of it.
You're one of the rare people who went from the directing side to the acting side...
I was always too afraid of acting to really pursue it so I got into the CCNY program, but I didn't act a whole lot. I probably acted in a couple of plays in college and was probably pretty bad or pretty stiff in them, but it was interesting to me. And then I went on one audition after college and got the part. For some reason, they made me the lead after about a day of rehearsal even though they had another guy. It was "Blues for Mister Charlie" by James Baldwin. A paying job! So, the first job was a paying job in Brooklyn and after that I got many offers to join people's companies and to do other plays. I think I achieved a lot and was probably pretty good in that role and I worked hard,. But I had to get to the theatre in Brooklyn at noon in order to begin warming up for my 8 o'clock curtain because it took me that long to get myself to a place of relaxation. I was just so terrified of it! I thought, "I hate this! I hate this! It's too terrifying."
I had directed a play in college and so I started pursuing different things. I began to assistant direct and stage managed. Just from people I'd meet driving a cab or at various places I'd run into actors and other artists and start talking. Next thing you know you're putting together a play and it's like "I'll direct it." So you start doing it because that door opens for you. And then we'd hire a theatre company and a repertory gang of actors that I'd like to work with and who liked working with me. We'd do the best we could under the circumstances of $800 budgets and whatever we could manage to get the rights to or new plays we could find. That was our way. Instead of graduate school we spent four, five years exploring theatre together.
What gave you the confidence to ultimately get back on stage?
Some of the actors I had started to work with all had the same teacher in common and his name was William Esper who ended up running Rutgers (Mason Gross) in New Brunswick years later. So, I went to talk to him about it and he goes, "well, you're an interesting fellow. Why don't you take my class." So I did, and ever now and then he would go, "you know Richard, you could do this."
I was there as a director, but he'd say "Schiff work!" so I had to get up and work. Twice a week, I sat there in terror and every week I got through it and through it again. By the end of the second year, I finally committed because he'd go, "Schiff you can do this if you want to." Meaning, if you wanted to have a career in this you can.
I'd go to auditions for agents because my scene partner would ask me to do the scene we were working on for agents and inevitably they'd ask me to sign. I'd go, "No, I have no interest." I kept turning away agents without realizing that they were actually hard to come by. Of course, when I decided to give it a shot I couldn't get an agent for a year or two!
Anyway, at the end of the two years we all got together and found some plays in my apartment that were sent to me because I had a theatre company. And in this one play there happened to be a good part for me. It was a big hit in Off-Broadway and that's how it started.
But I'm no less terrified than I was out at Brooklyn those years ago...
Do you think most actors are terrified each night?
I remember Anthony Perkins talking about throwing up each night before Equis. I've never forgotten thinking "that's not worth it." I can't stand throwing up! But I think so. I think some people handle it a little better. Just as there are fighter pilots who actually want to get into battle there are ones that want to just get out alive and ones who go "alright, I don't want to do this, but I'm gonna fucking do it!"
I've got to say that fans of Toby Ziegler and The West Wing probably won't be surprised to find you in a play about a character on a life-changing quest. It seems like something he might have done himself. Are you going to miss that show or do you think it was just time for you to move on?
It's been time for me to move on for quite a while actually. You know, the money was very good and that's what kind of drew me back because I felt like after five years of 70-hour weeks that I kind of deserved to get a little bit of a payoff. And the money got very good in the last two years. I wanted to leave and then we kind of made a compromise that I would come back and give them a story that they could use to lead me going out. They came up with firing him... That wasn't my idea!
Did you like the way they resolved Toby's character?
Between you and me - and you can print this - Toby wouldn't have done that in ten million years! But, you know, it's not my show.
I think the entire cast of The West Wing has been exceptional from the first season on.
And now it's even greatly sad because of John Spencer's passing. I certainly, honestly, don't want to go back for another season without Johnny there. I couldn't imagine The West Wing without Toby Ziegler and I couldn't imagine it without Leo McGarrity as well. It's just not possible. So, it might move on and become another show and that's fine.
It's important for people to know that I really, really loved this Toby character. And I really loved the people on The West Wing. Allison Janney is my soulmate on the set and John Spencer was just one of the most fascinating, wonderful human beings I've ever met. And Martin Sheen is singularly the best human being I've ever met. Tommy Schlamme who used to run the show and Aaron Sorkin and his writing and some of the writers who tried to fill his footsteps are truly wonderfully gifted and they're family and I love them to death. I just feel like it's time to get out of the kitchen once in a while. It's time to move on.
You've done films, plays and now a long running television series, where do you see your career going next?
Honestly it kind of depends on how this goes. If I hate this I may not come back to the stage yet again. I've done two movies in the last four months in Vancouver. It all depends on what opens up. I don't think I'll say, "I want to be a stage actor, I want to do Broadway." I have people in London looking for plays for me there and I might decide to go to the West End. Or I might try to become a good golfer. It all depends...
Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.