Here is my in-depth conversation with Tony Award-winning stage and screen actor DANNY BURSTEIN.
A veteran of 19 Broadway shows and a seven-time Tony Award nominee, Danny won the 2020 Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Musical for his performance in Moulin Rouge! as Harold Zidler. This role also earned him the 2020 Drama League Award for Distinguished Performance.
His other Tony nominations were for his work in Fiddler on the Roof (Tevye), Cabaret (Herr Schultz), Golden Boy (Tokio), Follies (Buddy Plummer), South Pacific (Luther Billis), and The Drowsy Chaperone (Aldolpho). He also has two Drama Desk Awards (Follies, Fiddler on the Roof), four Outer Critics Circle Awards (South Pacific, Follies, Fiddler on the Roof, Moulin Rouge!), and three Grammy Award nominations (Follies, Fiddler on the Roof, Moulin Rouge!).
Danny has appeared in over 70 movies and television series. His extensive film work includes roles in tick, tick... BOOM! with Andrew Garfield, and The Family Fang with Nicole Kidman and Jason Bateman. He has had recurring roles on several series including Julia (Stanley Lipschitz), Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies (Johnny Vavoom), Boardwalk Empire (Lolly Steinman), The Good Fight (William Schultz), and Evil (D.A. Lewis Cormier). His numerous other series credits include Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty, Central Park, Tales of the City, Fosse/Verdon, The Blacklist, Madam Secretary, and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
This conversation took place as Danny was preparing to begin rehearsals for a new Broadway play. More on that later!
How did you know you wanted to be a performer? What is your first memory of feeling like you were fitting into that?
Well, both my parents are teachers, and much to their chagrin, I hated to read as a kid. And my dad would just give me book after book, and I'd start them, and I’d get about 40 pages into them and realize that I was not going to finish that book. I just did not like them. And then finally my dad gave me a play, and I just loved the play. I loved the dialogue form. I loved people bantering and working out ideas, or not working out ideas. And it felt human to me, and it felt like I could relate to it. And after that, I read play after play after play, and really loved it.
And I had an English teacher who was directing a show while I was in junior high school, and he told me he'd like me to be in it. And, of course, I had no idea. I mean, my parents had about a dozen original cast recordings, and also some bizarre cast recordings, like Oklahoma! with Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald...
I know the one you're talking about!
[laughs] Yeah, that kind of thing – and a City Center production of Finian's Rainbow. And I enjoyed listening to them. And they had many recordings of Gilbert and Sullivan, which I also did appreciate as a kid – and still to this day, of course.
But after that one initial show with my English teacher in junior high school, he said to me, “Have you ever thought about going to the High School of Performing Arts?” And I said, “What's the High School of Performing Arts?” And he said, “Well, it's this incredible school where Liza Minnelli and Ben Vereen and Al Pacino went.” And I said, “Well, it sounds incredible! What do I have to do?” And he said, “Well, you have to perform a couple of monologues.” I said, “Great!...What's a monologue?” [laughs]
And I knew nothing about anything, and that started me on my path. I prepared like crazy for that audition. And the year I auditioned, over 4,000 New York City school kids auditioned, and 127 made it in, and I was one of the 127. I knew nothing about theatre in particular, but I just knew I loved plays.
When you talk about preparing your monologues, what did preparing look like for you?
That was getting the memorization out of the way, initially. You know, if you're working on a play – to this day it's hard – if you're working on a play it's arduous, and I try my best to get [memorization] the hell out of the way, initially, so I don't have to deal with it so much.
But that was first, because a friend of my father told me that when you audition, you have to know that monologue forwards and backwards. Like, if somebody woke you up in the middle of the night and told you, “Take it from that line,” you have to be able to do it. So, I was so obsessed with making sure I knew it. [laughs] And when I did wake up in the middle of the night, I would test myself. [laughs] So silly!
What were your monologues?
Yeah, I remember my dad had a book of classic American plays, and those two were in there, and I related to them. And I felt good. I felt like I understood the characters – this guy talking to his girlfriend on the phone about maybe getting married, and the other one was this tough street kid. And I could relate to both of them in their own way, and they were very different. So, I felt pretty good.
And when I walked in [to audition], I was nervous – I’d never experienced anything like that before. And after we finished that initial audition, they said, “Wait outside.” And then they asked me and several other people to stick around for an afternoon session, where they had an improv session with the students, to see how well they related and listened to other students and played with other students that way. And it went well, I guess, because about a month and a half later I got a letter in the mail. I was so nervous, my dad had to open it, and he read it out loud. And it changed my life forever.
So, I was thinking about timing – you must have been there when they were shooting the movie [Fame]. Were you a student there then?
Yeah, actually, I was an extra in the movie. It was the summer after my freshman year. And I remember dancing in the streets, running up and down the stairwell, and dancing in the lunchroom – that kind of thing. Yeah, it was fun. And it legitimized a lot of things, because all of a sudden people were, like, “Oh, the High School of Performing Arts, that's the Fame school!” And it somehow had some credibility after that, and it was fun to be there at that time. It really was.
Actors Studio folks.
Yeah, it was amazing. I remember the very first day we walked in, the guy who ran the drama department, a guy named Jerry Eskow – you know, I was just 14 years old – he said, “If you're not one hundred percent sure that you want to be an actor for the rest of your life, there's the door!” [laughs] And, of course, I'm 14 – what the hell do I know? But I actually looked up to see if anybody was going to walk out. [laughs] And I thought, No, this is exciting, I like this! I like a challenge. And I really got into it because of the storytelling more than anything.
Yes, you were talking about books being kind of a flat experience for you.
Dead words on a page, in a sense. When you started thinking about plays and acting, did you have that sensation that some people talk about, like, arriving at home? Getting slotted into a place that you fit into that you weren't even aware of, but now it's, like, oh, it's so obvious, this is where I belong? Is that what you experienced, being on stage the first few times?
I just knew that – I could cry – I just knew that I didn't have a place, and I didn't have a real focus. Honestly, as a kid I had anxiety about who I would be, what kind of person I would be. And all of a sudden, I found something that I loved to do, that I guess I was a little good at – I had a little bit of talent to keep me going – and I enjoyed it. I felt like I was a member of a club that I’d never been a part of before. I'd never been a part of anything where I felt like I fit in a hundred percent. And even to this day, I'm not sure I do. [laughs]
But I'm certainly sure that I love what I do. And it was exciting. And still, to this day, on some level it scares the hell out of me. But I enjoy the challenge, and I enjoy figuring it out like a puzzle, and making it make sense, and making it work. Even if it's a revival, I approach things the exact same way as I do a new piece – which I'm working on right now, which is particularly difficult. [Note: Danny is referring to Pictures from Home, a new play by Sharr White, co-starring Nathan Lane and Zoë Wanamaker, and directed by Bartlett Sher.]
So, when you're approaching a piece, a character, whether it's a revival or you're originating a role, do you find that you're going in with an intellectual analysis, or a sense memory, or a physical manifestation, or is it a collection of approaches, or do you rely on one more than any of the others, or does it depend on the role? I know that’s a complex question!
First, I read a piece, and I feel like I have to connect to it. I'm now at a place in my career...That sounds so pathetic! [laughs]
“Offers only, please!”
Yes, “I’m at a place in my career” [laughs] where I am offered jobs, and I can be selective about what I decide to do. And especially in theatre, I want to connect to the piece, because it means maybe six months to a year of my life that I will be dedicating to this. It's not like a television episode, where you shoot one thing for three days and you'll never see it again, and it's, you know, a decent paycheck, and you go, “OK, well, that's what that was about.”
Having said that, sometimes television, like the show I'm working on right now, is actually beautifully written and I feel very lucky to be doing it. [Note: At the time of this conversation, Danny was not at liberty to disclose publicly his recurring role on HBO’s Julia.]
You just never know. But with a play, you dedicate so much time to it, and it's exhausting, also. So, I first have to connect to the material. I read it over. Sometimes it scares the hell out of me, and that keeps calling me back.
That's a good sign for you.
Yeah. And then I have to find a way in. How do I get in? And that, to answer your question finally, is the thing that is elusive. That is the thing that is fungible. It just happens differently every single time. You never know what will spark something in you.
Sometimes you don't relate to these characters at all, and that's exciting. And you have to use your imagination, to imagine everything that happens in this play or in this musical, whatever it is. You know nothing about it. But that's exciting, to be so different. And sometimes it just is ridiculously easy, because you know the place where that person lives, emotionally.
Do you trust it when it's easy? Does that ever mislead you?
I try not to judge it, honestly. If it is easy, then it's easy. It depends. Everybody has their own process.
People talk about that story of Laurence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man. Dustin Hoffman stayed up for three days and then went to film the scene. [Note: Danny is referring to the torture scene in the dentist’s chair, in which Olivier’s character keeps asking Hoffman’s character, “Is it safe?” while he drills into Hoffman’s tooth.]
And [Hoffman] beat himself up, or whatever, and hadn't showered, and sat there, and Olivier says [to Hoffman], “My dear boy, why don't you try acting?” [laughs]
But it worked for Dustin Hoffman. It may not have worked for Laurence Olivier, and Laurence Olivier has his own thing and that works for him. So, I wouldn't argue with either one of them, because they know what lights the fire in them, artistically. They know what keeps it going, and they continued to feed it in their own ways. And I am of the opinion that, truly, whatever works in that particular time is what I'm going to use.
And sometimes it takes a while to fall into the groove. I remember doing Follies [Note: Danny played Buddy Plummer in the 2011 revival of the Stephen Sondheim musical at The Kennedy Center and on Broadway], and it was so damn hard to get in there. What did I know about someone who had been in a loveless marriage for 30 years and whose children hated him? What did I know? I didn't. And so it took a lot to get in there, in discussions with people, in discussions with the director [Eric Schaeffer] and Sondheim, trying to understand something.
There's a song called “The Right Girl”, and [Buddy] has this epiphany at the end of the number: “I don't love the right girl.” It's like, Oh shit, I'm not in love with my wife who I've been desperately trying to make love me for 30 years. How do you deal with that in that moment? And I wanted to use the word “fuck”, is what I wanted to say: “Fuck!”
And Steve [Sondheim] said [Note: here Danny does a spot-on Stephen Sondheim], “I understand why you want to say that word.”
I said, “Yes, 30 years in a loveless marriage, wife hates me, kids hate me, what else would you say?”
He said, “I understand. You can't say ‘fuck’. [laughs] You can say anything you want.”
I said, “Well...it's gonna be ‘shit’.”
He said, “’Shit’ it is. That's it. I just don't want the word ‘fuck’ in there.”
[laughs] So I was, like, “OK, I can make it work.”
But it was a real epiphany. Normally, there’s applause after that, because you go right into a scene with your wife Sally, and you tell her, “It's over. It is over.” That song brought me to that place where I finally have the strength to tell her it was over.
And normally there is a break for applause, there's a button. [Note: a button is a musical flourish at the end of a song which signals to the audience that the song is over and it’s time to clap.] “I don't love the right girl.” [And the orchestra goes] “Baaaaaannnnhhhhh!”
And I said, “Can we cut [the button], so I see her and go right into it and say, ‘Fuck/shit!’ [laughs] after that moment?”
And Steve was, like, “Are you sure? As an actor, don't you want that applause?”
And I said, “I really don't care about that. What I care about is making sure the story moves forward in that moment, and I don't want to lose that momentum.”
And even on opening night in D.C. at the Kennedy Center, he gave me a big hug afterwards and said all these lovely things, but then said, “Are you sure you don't want that button? Are you sure you don't want the button?”
I said, “Absolutely.”
He goes, “I think you're right. All right, as long as you're sure!”
Because that's what I care about more than anything. I was not one of those kids who – I have so many friends who, they go, “Come on, secretly aren't you one of those kids, you know, you were there, you picked up your award, and you pretended to say something in the mirror, your acceptance speech?” Never. Never. That's out of my hands. That has nothing to do with me.
What I love to do is high-five the [stage] doorman, say hello, get creative with the costume designer in the wardrobe session – I want to know everything that's going on around me so we can all be on the same page to tell the same story. That's exciting to me. The rest of it is just, you know – I secretly sneak out after shows, and I have for years, because it feels so artificial.
One of the greatest lessons I ever got was from a director named Jay Harnick, who was [lyricist] Sheldon Harnick's brother. Jay was a wonderful, wonderful director and founded a children's theatre company in New York called TheatreWorksUSA. And he directed a production of Fiddler [on the Roof] that I did in summer stock when I was 19 or 20. And we did it with Theodore Bikel, and a lot of the cast was people who’d done Fiddler on Broadway.
And I was a young kid, and I was playing Mendel, the Rabbi's son. And I had done Fiddler in community theatre as a kid, when I was 15 or 16, and of course it was all, “Fiddler!!” You know, schlocky. [laughs]
[Here I mimed enthusiastic “jazz hands”.]
Exactly! Jazz hands in Fiddler. [laughs] That kind of thing. It was not grounded in any kind of truth. I was just doing a musical. And the guy who played Mendel TALKED LIKE THIS!! [laughs]
And so that's how I came to rehearsal. And Jay said, “Bring it down! Bring it down!” [laughs] And I was doing what I thought was supposed to be done. You know, this is the thing, and you do your show, and after the show – after a musical – everybody’s saying, “Hey, wonderful job!” as you walk out, and you think, OK, well, that was interesting...! But it had nothing to do with the reality of the situation.
And [Jay] explained to me, he said, “Stop, Danny. This is what's going on. This is the Rabbi's son. He is the fly in the ointment. He is a prig. He is annoying. But he's a real person, and he distrusts this new philosophy that's coming out, and it scares him. Anybody who’s religious, it scares them. And his father's the Rabbi, for goodness sake. So, you have to take it seriously. And beyond that,” he said, “just you, Danny, dare to be disliked.”
Setting you up for a career’s worth of character acting. [laughs]
Exactly right! And I thought, Oh, of course. And it's what I preach, it's what I believe in. And he just nailed me. He completely called me out on it, and he was absolutely right. “Dare to be disliked.” I thought, Oh, of course. It has nothing to do with me. It has everything to do with the character in the story, and I should serve the piece.
And my favorite actors and directors have always brought the story back in that way and helped me in that way. And they have my highest respect, people who do that – who care more about that than being a “personality”, than being a star. I don't even know what that means, “being a star”. It’s always about the work. It’s always about the story that's going on.
I have another quick story...
I have too many, that’s the problem! [laughs]
Years ago, I did summer stock with Tony Randall, and he invited me to be a part of his National Actors Theatre on Broadway. And I was doing a play, Three Men on a Horse – that George Abbott wrote – with Tony Randall and Jack Klugman and Jerry Stiller, Ellen Greene and Julie Hagerty and on and on – great, great cast – and me. [laughs]
I loved Tony so much. He was a mentor to me. And I loved The Odd Couple so much – he and Jack were so good on it. And I said, “How do you account for your longevity? What made you guys great together?”
And Tony said [Note: here Danny does a spot-on Tony Randall], “Jaaaack, Danny just asked what made us great, what was the secret to our success.”
And Jack, who had just suffered with throat cancer – he had one vocal cord left – he said [Note: here Danny does a spot-on Jack Klugman], “We gave it away.”
And I thought – you see, again, I get emotional about these things – that was one of the most generous things they did for each other and for the people they worked with. And, also, telling me. Because when somebody would come onstage, they let them shine, because that's where the story was. They took a step downstage and gave a little turn upstage to let that person shine. And they did the same for each other.
And you've been in a position of leading a cast, where you have to set the tone, right? [Note: such as when Danny starred as Tevye in the 2015 Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof, co-starring Jessica Hecht as Golde, and directed by Bartlett Sher.]
And you have to display that generosity. You have to model that for everybody.
So, I take it that advice was sort of instrumental in your being able to figure out how to do that.
It was. It was, absolutely. It really was. Then there were other people that did that as well. Bernadette [Peters, who starred opposite Danny as Sally Plummer in Follies] was a wonderful example of that, and Alan Cumming [who starred as the Emcee in the 2014 revival of Cabaret, in which Danny played Herr Schultz]. And I did a play [A.R. Gurney’s Mrs. Farnsworth] with Sigourney Weaver and John Lithgow that's basically a three-hander, and they just led by example by their generosity and their fierce commitment to the story. [Note: a three-hander is a play that focuses mostly or entirely on three characters]
We were talking about arriving at the character. How do you know when it's arrived?
[laughs] I'm Jewish, you remember – does it ever? [laughs] The work never stops. I don't know that it ever does.
You're always looking for the afikomen. [Note: I’m referring to what sometimes is a treasure hunt game for children at a Passover seder.]
[laughs] Yes, that's it! I mean, I hope that if I'm in a run that lasts a year, that if you come to see it opening night, and you come back four months later, I'm going to be better, that the role will have gotten deeper and richer. And, again, if somebody comes back in another four months, I hope that that happens again. And then if they see the closing night four months after that, I hope that it will have grown in a significant way.
I did – well, I mean, I stayed because I was putting my kids through college [laughs] – but I was in [the 2008 revival of] South Pacific on Broadway and Lincoln Center for two and a half years, and in the last month, I “found the laugh”. [laughs] It's silly, but it was important to me, because it meant that I kept exploring.
All my favorite actors – I’ve always gone back to the same story, that they all tell me the same thing, that the most important part of acting is listening and being there in the moment. Because anything and everything will happen, and you just have to be ready for it when it happens. And the only way you can ensure that you'll be on the same page is by listening. You can never phone it in. You just can't.
And your scene partners have to be listening, too.
So, when you are playing around and experimenting and trying to get that laugh, they have to be trusting you and you have to be trusting them, and they have to be with you and not be thrown by it.
That's a relationship.
Yeah. I think of that Eva Le Gallienne quote, “You must listen with your blood.” [Note: Eva La Gallienne was, among other things, an actor, director, producer, and the founder of the Civic Repertory Theatre in 1926.]
And that hit me. It makes so much sense. Because you have to be a hundred percent present. So, you're not just reciting lines, you're actually in the moment. You're creating something beautiful and human and artistic because of that.
And, of course, you have be focused. Do you find that there's been a shift in the way live audiences behave these days, and is that ever challenging?
[Smiles] In what sense do you mean? Tell me what you mean...? [laughs]
Ok, I'm going to sound super judge-y right now.
Oh, go ahead. It's just us. [laughs]
People have sort of an entitlement now, and a sense that their experience is the only experience that matters anymore. Because they’re so self-contained, with devices and all, that it doesn’t respect the typical proscenium agreement that we think we have. I could be wrong, but I just do wonder about that. I think things have changed.
Yeah, there's a chance that you're right. I would say that there might be a chance, yeah. [laughs]
It's changing everywhere. It’s changing with people, too. With actors on stage – it’s there, too. It's very different.
When I started out, you had this idea that your career was basically starting out in an apprenticeship program. You were sitting there learning, and you wanted to be where you were. If you “made it” too fast, if you were just “famous”, it wouldn’t mean anything. I don't even know what that means, being “famous” – it is kind of meaningless, ultimately. But doing the work and learning how others did the work, and sitting there and taking it all in and absorbing it, and then making it your own, seemed to be what the gig was all about.
And now, there are so many different programs and schools that are pushing these people out – people who would have never, honestly, been there in other circumstances – and they all want to be famous first. And they have managers, and they have publicity people, and I just...I don't get it.
And the whole social media thing is bizarre. It's an individual thing. And to me, the experience is a collective one, or should be a collective one – where in the first 15 minutes, all of a sudden the audience comes together and is watching something and engrossed in something, together.
So it's not an individual thing where everybody is doing their own thing and taking pictures. It doesn't help the art form, all that stuff, because it is about people coming together, and learning and listening and being entertained. But maybe we'll learn something new from it – who knows?
That's rather generous! I'm pessimistic. But anyway, I know you’re beloved, and I wouldn't want to put you in a place of being a person who's sniping at anybody's audience, so enough on that.
Do you consider yourself an artist, in whatever definition?
I would say that I’m...[laughs]...I would say that my dad is a teacher and my mom is a teacher, and I consider myself, like, a union guy, you know? Somebody who's a family person who cares about his family and friends, who just wants to have a normal life, and wants to have the pension and health insurance. And I go to work every day to try and do my best.
Occasionally, you'll have a moment where it feels like something beautiful happens in the work, and that's very special when it happens. But you're trying your best to feel things and help the audience to have an experience. And so, I guess the answer to your question is, every once in a while.
But you never know how the audience is going to react. Sometimes you don't feel like you felt anything and it didn't go well, and then someone will come up to you, crying, after the show and say, “That moment when you did this was so beautiful and so moving.” And they were just ready for it, and it had the right effect.
But it's really, I guess, ultimately an act of giving, the art form, rather than taking. Because there are so few times when it actually is one hundred percent satisfying.
Do you feel like you get into “the zone” and it happens then?
Or is it more of a collective zone experience?
Yeah, the zone is the collective experience, yes. So you feel like you're in it, and the audience is, you know, silent.
[laughs] I remember Tony Randall came offstage after a monologue and he said [Note: again, here Danny does his spot-on Tony Randall], “Not one cough for fifteen minutes! Nobody! Everybody was silent!” [laughs] And he felt that, that he was in the zone and it happened, and it was beautiful. And he had to remark on it.
Because it doesn't always happen. So many times, this business can be so unsatisfying artistically, and that’s tough, but you do it for those occasional times where it really feels like you're knocking it out of the park and making an impact.
Are there things that contribute to that being more likely to happen for you, where it's more likely that you'll have that “zone” experience? Factors?
I don't know. There are so many factors, so I don't know. It's just alchemy in that moment, and you have to pray that the gods are on your side at that particular moment. Because sometimes you can feel like, oh, I'm here, and you know that it's not happening – that something lets it down, something falls. And once, of course, you become aware of it [laughs], that sort of breaks the spell, too.
I'm sure it's apocryphal – I have no idea whether it's true – there’s the story about Olivier and Maggie Smith, and they were doing [Shakespeare’s] Othello [at the National Theatre in London, 1964]. And the show was over and it went incredibly well.
And Maggie Smith knocks on Olivier's dressing room door, and he's still in makeup, and she says, “Hi, Larry, I just wanted to tell you that you were incredible tonight.” [laughs] This is such a terrible story! [laughs] And he turns around and he's crying, and he says, “I know. And I don't know how I did it!” [laughs]
But that's it – the greatest actor ever, maybe – he didn't know how he did it. It's all luck, in a way. And yet we try and capture it in a bottle, that lightning. But who knows? There is no right formula for it.
I was thinking about your response to “Are you an artist?” And I ask this of a lot of people, and people are uncomfortable with it, mostly. And I don't want to force you into proclaiming yourself an artist, but I wonder if you look at it from the other direction – in that, you are making art, right?
And you have an artistic sensibility, do you think?
I think I do, yeah.
And I venture to guess that you exist in the world from that place – as opposed to someone who doesn't make art, whatever art is?
How do you experience the world, given that paradigm?
I think on some level it's calling yourself an “artist”, as if you have this magic power that you don't, that you’re “more special” than anybody else in a certain way. And I think that's the aversion to it, because we're not. I don't feel that way. I'm a bricklayer – like I said, a union guy.
That's the way I see myself, just someone trying to do my best job. It happens to be in an artistic kind of a job. But that doesn't preclude the fact that I feel a certain way. And I want to take the profundity out of it and just make it as real as possible, and as normal as anybody else – that’s what I mean.
But I do wonder – I know I'm kind of pushing at this – but I do wonder if making art and being in the arts is a function of a collection of characteristics or personality traits, or the way that you perceive the world, or the ways that you filter information, or the ways that you pick up on things, that can make someone a person who's able to make art. Does that make sense?
Yeah, maybe. Maybe certain artists in certain art forms have a certain ability for extra compassion or empathy in a certain way. [laughs] Maybe. There are so few people who are really, truly brilliant, in my business, and in my life, and in the world, ever. [laughs] You think of, who are the great artists? Leonardo da Vinci, that's who I think of, and Mozart – people like that – and Van Gogh and Rodin.
That's where my heart goes to art. That's the way I think of them – as these people who just had this innate ability to create beautiful things, consistently, time after time. That's what a true artist is to me. I try to do that, but I don't feel like I succeed in doing that. But I'm not embarrassed to say that I love the endeavor of my life. How's that?
It's your decision and your definition! So, I imagine that curiosity about human nature is high on your skill list or your trait list – that you're curious, that you would approach a role with curiosity. Is that fair to say?
And does that translate into the rest of your life, that you find yourself being curious about why people do what they do and how they do it?
About human nature? Yes, absolutely. I'm constantly fascinated by people [laughs], and what they do, and what they say, and how they look, and how they walk. And I'm constantly making, as silly as it is, mental notes about, ah, gosh, that moment, I have to steal that hand gesture, I have to use that someday. That panicked look, that feeling, I wanna use that someday, I have no idea when.
I studied at the Moscow Art Theatre when I was a kid, in 1989. [Note: the Moscow Art Theatre was founded in 1898 by Konstantin Stanislavski, whose innovative work is considered to be the genesis of what’s now referred to as “The Method” or “method acting”, which was in his time a newly naturalistic approach to rendering characters and scenes.]
And I traveled through London and stayed in London for a few days, and then stayed in Moscow for a month or five weeks, and then came back to London for a few days. While I was in London – I was in grad school at the time, in 1989, at UC San Diego – I took a tape recorder with me because I wanted to record all these great London accents.
And one of them was this guy who was a bellhop at one of the hotels, and I asked him if I could record him, and he said [Note: here Danny speaks slowly in a spot-on Cockney accent], “All right”, and he said, “Well, my name is Geooooooorrrrge, and I’m from the Bow Bells region of London.” And I went, fantastic, fantastic!
So, cut to three years ago, when I was doing [the 2018 Broadway revival of] My Fair Lady, and I remembered that recording! And here I am playing [Alfred P.] Dolittle, and one of the lines was, “What's up there, George?” or something like that, so I went, “What's up there, Geooooooorrrrge?” Just holding on to that for 30 years so I could use that “Geooooooorrrrge”. That little thing, all these little moments that I kept in my “backpack”, and held on to them.
And when I walk into the rehearsal hall, and when I'm doing research for a new piece that I'm doing – it could be a revival, it could be anything – I throw as much information in my backpack as possible, throw it all in there and bring it with me to my first day of rehearsal. And then as the rehearsal goes on, I have all this stuff with me and I use whatever I need to use. But I want it to happen in an organic way.
And then I just let it go. Then I can put the backpack down, because I've sort of started to inhabit and create layers onto this person. And for me, it's all reality. It all has to be from a real place.
There is no, you know, I'm gonna go [in a fake cockney accent], “Oooiii! How ahhre you?” That doesn't work for me. I can do that, but it doesn't help me. I want to understand it first, and then incorporate it.
Tony Randall was in the original [1955 Broadway] production of Inherit the Wind [by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, in which Randall played reporter E. K. Hornbeck]. And the way Paul Muni worked, who played [Henry] Drummond – the way he worked was, every day he would come in with a different “look”. [Note: Drummond was based on famed lawyer Clarence Darrow, who was the defense attorney in the1925 Scopes “Monkey” trial, on which the play was based.]
And some days he would make his hair white, and some days he wore a very tight suit, had a stone in his pocket, gave himself a limp, or whatever. And he finally came up with this rumpled feel, and that day he was committed to using that particular feeling, that look, that whatever it did to him.
The way in.
Yeah, it was a way in. Because [Muni] didn't know what the right way in was, and so he kept playing until he found something, and whittled away and held on to what worked and let go of what didn't work.
And [Tony] said there was no pretense about it – it was just, that’s rehearsal. That's what you do in rehearsal. You go there to discover, and it's not about failure, it's about discovery, and having revelations about the character along the way. And if you have that kind of mindset, which Tony had never seen anybody have before, then what you might discover is limitless.
So, it's kind of an exciting way to approach it. I've never been at that point where I've, like, All right, today I'm going to be completely white-haired, today I'm going to be whatever...
There's a fearlessness and an adventurousness in that...
...which also has to have a basis in trust, that you feel safe to do that.
I think it's such a fascinating phenomenon, that balance of safety and fearlessness. It is foundational, but it also is a kind of a teeter-totter-y thing, too – you don't want to get too safe, but you don't want to get reckless...
...so that it's working for you and it's working for everybody else, that kind of pushing instinct. How do you experience that?
One of my favorite directors is somebody I've worked with a bunch, Bartlett Sher. Bart, of course, prepares like crazy, and then walks into the rehearsal and is willing to throw it away, just because he reads the room and sees what the actors and the designers are bringing to the table. And sometimes it's better than what he had previously thought of, and so he's willing – this is what I love about him – he’s willing to jump in the sandbox with you and play, and get dirty, and figure it out, and wrestle with moments to make them as honest as possible.
When you're working with somebody like that, then your imagination completely takes off and you want to play – it’s called a play, after all – you want to play as much as possible.
So, notes from Bart would be, like, “OK, all right, in this moment, let's talk about what's happening here. That was great, and this is great, and this doesn't work, but that really worked, and that was really beautiful when this happened...”
Notes from Michael Langham were, like [indignantly, in a posh English accent], “What the fuck are you doing? What the fuck are you doing? All right, try it again...!”
“This is not how we do it at the Old Vic!” [Note: the Old Vic is an illustrious London theatre which was established in the early 1800s.]
Yes, exactly right – it’s all “park and bark”. [Note: this refers to an acting style of standing in one spot on the stage and orating, instead of naturalistically moving and speaking in ways that are truthful for the character.] That's the way they do it. And it was hard. It was hard working with somebody like that, because you don't feel protected, and you don't feel safe to try the things.
And to me that's the whole fun in rehearsal. It's like a painter not being able to go, Nope, that didn't work – erase erase erase – and put a little stuff to clean that part up and fix it, and constantly change, and rework, and make it better.
And that's the beauty of, especially, live theatre – you’re able to do that. That didn't work at all, and I’m gonna work on it, and tomorrow, when I do it again, I think I can make that moment work. That is the beauty, because it's a living art form, and to me it's so special – it’s so transformational – because it's so immediate and only happening once.
What is that old line, that actors sculpt in snow? And that's that beautiful feeling, that you know that this moment is so special, and there's only one of it. We can try and recreate it tomorrow, and we will to a certain extent, but it will never be exactly this.
Well, you would hope it wouldn't.
So, when you're doing screen work, you're dealing with such a different beast, not only because of the scale of things, but because you don't have the whole arc of the character already decided for you – like, beginning-middle-end.
You’ve only got that moment in that slice that you have to deal with.
Well, it depends. It depends on the director. Because sometimes they will have a rehearsal. There are directors who I respect immensely, like Sidney Lumet, who was just a genius at rehearsal beforehand. And he would have a three-week period to rehearse things and block things out. His book on directing [Making Movies], by the way, is just great, it’s really good, I’m sure you know...
...where he said the first day of shooting, his first take, he always does something innocuous, something easy, and just a throwaway kind of scene, where he sets them up, he knows exactly what he wants. It’s somebody walking out of the door of a building, and they walk across, the camera pans and follows them, and he goes. “OK, great. We're keeping that. Let's move on.” And everybody goes, Oh, shit, we'd better stay on our toes! This guy is going to move quickly, so we’d better bring our ‘A’ game! It's so smart, the way he works things. And he – and the crew, and the cast – is ridiculously prepared by the time they start shooting.
It depends on who you get. You want that to be the norm. It's often not. But hopefully if you go into a film situation, you will have worked things out, speaking to the director about where you think the guy might go. And in film you have a little more leeway. You have a little more time to explore, so you may not just do three takes, you may get a chance to do twelve. And this way, it gives the director and the editor a chance to see how far they want to take things, because you've given them a variety of choices.
In television, that's really not often the case. It's, really, “time is of the essence”, and you have two or three takes for each setup. And you should walk in the door – I do, anyway – with a good idea of what the scene is about. But yeah, you never know.
And if you're dropping in as a day player or as a guest star...
Oh, it’s so hard.
...you have to make yourself fit into that universe that’s already been established, and you don't necessarily know where things have been or where they're going. And so it must kind of feel like you’re molecules bouncing off each other, and you don't know what all the molecules are necessarily going to make, you’re just that molecule. It must be really challenging.
It's true, it's very hard. I saw an interview once with [British actor and director John] Gielgud, and he said when he directs he only hires older actors to play smaller roles, because they walk in with their own history already...
...as opposed to someone who is green and might not know. No offense, “Green”. [laughs] But yeah, you know what I mean!
None taken! When you're onstage, are you aware of seeing yourself from across the room? Do you have a sense of that? Are you watching yourself?
I try not to. I don't, literally or figuratively. I don't. I try not to think about that. Sometimes in a rehearsal, I'll see what I'm doing. On a camera, if I look at a playback, I'll see what I'm doing and can actually go, I'll fix that. I think when you're onstage in the middle of a moment, you're trying to be there a hundred percent of the time. There is always a little bit of “the Little General” in the back of your head that is minding the store and making sure you haven't turned into somebody totally insane. [laughs] But yeah, that keeps your reality in check.
Because there are so many factors, you know, doing a play. You can't take a step this way, you can't take a step that way. The lighting only hits at number five, oh god, and I'm at five and a half, so I need to move over here. [Note: Danny is referring to how actors need be in the right places on the stage at the right times, according to predetermined lighting specifications and other factors.] There are so many little moments, while you're trying to be real, all those technical kinds of things. But besides that, I try not to be that self-editing at the same time.
When you think about yourself in the timeline or the trajectory of you as a performer, are you at a place with your skills, and with your craft, that surprises you from where you thought you would be, in terms of what you're able to manifest for yourself in the art that you're making? And are there things that you wish you could do better, or that you would like to continue working on further in that trajectory, in the scale of your artistic development?
[laughs] Yeah, I always wish I were better, always, in everything! In the acting, the singing, god knows, and the dancing, when I do a musical – I always do. But what I think I bring to the table is a certain honesty and a certain integrity to the piece, and that has kept me going.
It's not because of my singing ability that Sondheim worked with me several times, and [John] Kander and [Fred] Ebb, and [Sheldon] Harnick and [Jerry] Bock, and Cy Coleman, and Marvin Hamlisch. It's because I love lyrics. I'm musical, but I love lyrics, and I tried to tell the story of their songs. And that, in a way, separates me.
I’ve never really had a singing lesson – I don't know what that is, exactly. I try not to think about it. I don't have a very pretty voice – I sound like a Jewish guy from the Bronx, that's how I sing – but I'm musical enough to get past most people thinking about that, because they're too busy listening to what I'm saying. And that's how I've gotten by, and I know I bring that to the table.
Do I wish I sang better? Sure. You know, my wife [Rebecca Luker] was someone who opened her mouth and her heart fell out, just like that – and some people have that – where she would just read a piece of music and it would be beautiful, like that, from the first time she was doing it. Me, it takes me a week to get the song under my belt and, you know, I just don't have that, so it made me have to figure out a new way.
Do I wish it were easier for me to get a song under my belt, or a piece of music? I guess so. Do I wish I were a better dancer or mover over the years? I guess so. But my awkwardness in all of that stuff has served me well, because it's just about, I kind of feel like I'm an average guy doing these things, and people can relate to it because of that. And then I play, and try and be different.
What is hard for me is, it's always a struggle, because I never choose anything easy. Sometimes I wish I did. But I never choose the easy way to do something. I have to really understand it. And they’re always epic roles [laughs], and they’re exhausting three-hour shows that people come up and they go, “How did you ever do that show?” I'm attracted to those kinds of roles.
“I did it twice today. What are you talking about?” [Note: Most Broadway shows perform six days a week, with eight performances total per week. Typically, Broadway shows have performances Tuesdays through Sundays, with matinees and evening shows on Wednesdays and Saturdays.]
Exactly! Yeah. But I don't know how else to do it. Those are the roles that I'm attracted to – the roles that really have something to say – and I feel honored that I've been able to do it all these years.
Do I hope I get better? Yeah. I continually try to be more honest, and in the moment, and real, and try to listen as much as I can. So that's always the goal.
I think the rules of the game, no matter what you are doing – whether it's television or film or theatre – the rules of the game are different, but at the center of it, you're always trying to be honest and simple. And that usually takes care of everything else.