John Douglas Thompson on Iceman Cometh

Taking Time from Rehearsing Satchmo to Discuss O'Neill

By: - Jul 20, 2012

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For interviews with actors, the norm is that they occur to promote a current production. It is rare when an actor and critic interact outside the margins of marketing and publicity.

In 2008 his Othello initiated a dialogue which has continued for the past four years. There was an agreement to discuss his work which led us to performances in Hartford, New York, and Chicago as well as the Berkshires.

This ongoing project has included interviews as well as background conversations. We have discussed his upcoming role in Satchmo at the Waldorf a first play by the Wall Street Journal critic, Terry Teachout. This past winter we shared a number of CDs focused on Armstrong, King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton and other early jazz artists.  The play  will have its premiere at Shakespeare & Company in August.

In the pursuit of this unique undertaking boundaries have been pushed on both sides. What are the limits? Are there inappropriate questions? How does an actor preserve his privacy? Are there aspects of the craft that remain trade secrets? Probing deeply with challenging questions can at times prove to be combative.

There has been discussion about the process and format of this dialogue. Early on I took notes which meant disrupting the conversation. John felt that I was missing nuance and good material.  

That led to using a tape recorder. Perhaps that is now becoming too literal. It is difficult to punctuate the cadence of natural speech. As an actor Thompson has a meticulous approach to text. It entails studying each word of a script which is different from the spontaneity of a transcribed conversation.  

This evolved into a decision to edit for continuity and to collaborate on the final text while retaining its spontaneity. The process has morphed from an interview to a sustained dialogue and collaboration.

Recently we were in Chicago and attended the final weekend of The Iceman Cometh at the Goodman Theatre. The dialogue that follows connects Joe Mott in Iceman with Thompson’s prior title role in O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones.

This is the first of two segments.

Charles Giuliano I want to know everything about Iceman.

John Douglas Thompson We don’t  have enough time for that. I could talk about Iceman for a whole year. You saw it. You know how explosive the experience was. It’s vast, what O’Neill was writing about, and profound.

CG It took almost a year to see it. (Four and a half hours in four acts)

JDT Back in the day, when they were writing plays of that length O’Neill was trying to write plays that explored the human condition with depth. People could sit and listen to these plays, not just for two and a half hours, as we do today. It takes time to see an O’Neill Play, that’s part of the event.  Nowadays we don’t have that kind of patience. So, to do a play like Iceman, in a city like Chicago, in a theatre like the Goodman, for that audience, was a very exciting experience. That the audience would stay there attentively; listening to every word, waiting to get back to their seats after each intermission. What they were experiencing was the humanity of O’Neill’s characters and understanding them in a profound way. I don’t think I’ve been in a play like that before; with that length, and at that depth. It was really like going back in time for me. To an era when those kinds of plays existed.

CG Can we talk about working with the director Robert Falls and that great cast with Nathan Lane and Brian Dennehy? What specifically did you get from Falls?

JDT I don’t think you have another theatre director who understands O’Neill as well as he does. Obviously, I have worked with other directors who understand O’Neill but Falls is exceptional because of his breadth of experience. He has done several other O’Neill plays, including Iceman, more than once. His knowledge of the play and how it works was very extensive. He understood the play as an opera which is how he directed it. If you look at the play you can see the resemblance where all of the characters get to have their aria. He was really meticulous in his directing. What I learned from him was that you have this kind of play with a lot of information. There are a lot of characters talking about their lives and interacting with one another. It really needs to be staged as if it’s an opera. Bring in various instruments here and bring them in down there, bring in the louder sound, and so forth; then you have the human voice coming in. He was really specific with that. That’s one of the things that made the production so successful.

CG Let’s talk about the interaction with other actors particularly Nathan Lane as Hickey. His performance drew mixed reactions.

JDT I think Nathan’s performance was quite incredible. I watched it every night and you’re talking about a true professional. There wasn’t a moment in any performance when he wasn’t giving 120%. I thought he nailed Hickey. From day one, he was already on top of that play, on top of that information, on top of that character. For me, who had never seen the play before except on a video, never experienced it as an actor before, I was able to see what you need to bring to make O’Neill come alive. That’s what Nathan was doing. It was the same thing with Brian Dennehy. You get in the same room with those guys and you begin to understand the parameters. What an actor can actually bring to great writing. And what great writing can bring to a committed actor.

CG There were so many vignettes. You could go up and down the line with all of the individual actors. As you said they all had their arias. Let’s talk about your aria and the familiar but difficult topic of race. It’s the period. One feels a lot of racism in the characters but not necessarily in O’Neill. Not even to go to your character, Joe Mott, one of the other characters is constantly referred to as a Wop.

JDT The racism is all over in that play. The South African guy, to the Italian, the Irish and to the negro. That’s what I found when researching the play, that he was an equal opportunity employer. When it came to all the Isms everybody got it. That’s what made my existence, Joe Mott’s existence in that community, even more profound. It wasn’t just him.

CG What the heck was Joe Mott doing in Harry Hope’s saloon?

JDT  We did this great exercise, the whole cast collectively, which I hadn’t done since drama school. All of the actors come up with a back story about how they got to Harry Hope’s bar. What events in their lives led them to being in Harry Hope’s bar. Doing this we all seemed to intersect with one another, even though we weren’t trying to do that. We would say “Now I know you, and I understand why you’re a friend of mine.” From this exercise it became clear to me how I hooked up with Harry, and all the other denizens of the bar.

Joe Mott was a gambler. In my back story he ran one of the Black and Tan clubs, that existed in various parts of New York City from the Bowery to Harlem and certain neighborhoods in between in the early 1900s. He got in good with the people at Tammany Hall. They allowed him to open a gambling joint. He would be able to deliver black votes. He could help to get people in office. Many blacks were coming into cities like New York and Chicago. The great migration (from the South) was going on at that time. So someone like Joe Mott  could deliver votes to keep a specific politician in office. I paid my graft, I treated them the way they wanted to be treated when they come into my club. I made out pretty well. So Joe Mott was entrepreneurial. A smart guy.

However, I feel the negro community turned on Joe because he was doing more for the politicians in Tammany Hall than he was for his own people.  Eventually, they didn’t vote the way he wanted them to vote. And the politicians at Tammany Hall didn’t get what they wanted, so they ran him out of business. And that’s it.

CG That’s not in the script. That’s your back story.

JDT That’s what actors have to do. So that’s what happened before I got to Harry Hope’s.

CG When you develop a back story are there notes and resources to draw on?

JDT I didn’t draw this out of my imagination. Joe Mott is actually based on a real friend of O’Neill’s named Joe Smith. The research is pretty extensive. I built a story which was most likely to be true. There were black owners of Black and Tan clubs who ran gambling houses back in that day. So this was all based on historical New York fact. I just put Joe Mott inside of that. I began to thread my character as he related to Harry Hope. How he got to Harry Hope’s. Because the play starts with all of us already there.

CG At this point in your career why would you spend several months in Chicago, leaving your base and primary opportunities in New York, to play a role in an ensemble production in which you are not a marquee player? Reading the reviews, however, you were always noted for your powerful aria.

JDT My motivation was Eugene O’Neill.

First. That play is rarely done. It comes along once in a decade if that. I wanted to be a part of this experience because it’s probably not going to happen for me again. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Secondly, as I had with The Emperor Jones, I wanted to continue my exploration of African American characters in Eugene O’Neill’s plays.

CG Are there others or just those two?

JDT There’s two more. There’s one The Dreamy Kid (one act, 1918) and All Gods Chillun Got Wings (1924).  But the major ones are Brutus Jones in The Emperor Jones  and Joe Mott in The Iceman Cometh. This is a part of my continuing exploration. Then I got the chance to work with Nathan Lane and Brian Dennehy, when is that going to happen again in my life?

You don’t care about the role. You don’t say, oh, this isn’t the kind of role I usually play, that goes out the window. This is a collaborative effort. As you sat and watched that play you could see how the collaboration of all the other actors made that play something special.

CG You said the same thing about playing a minor role in King Lear with Sam Waterson.

JDT They’re all good parts. At some point maybe I will play Lear. To be on stage, to get an opportunity to work with someone like Sam Waterson, Nathan Lane, Brian Dennehy, those are opportunities to work with the icons of our business. Everyone knows who they are and the great work they have done. As a young professional I want to see these guys. I want to work with them.

CG How well do you now known them? What kind of camaraderie develops out of working for months together on a play?

JDT There’s a great camaraderie that develops because you get to know each other within the context of what you are doing in a rehearsal room. Sometimes friendships are forged, bonds are made. You remember those people after the play is over. It’s not like you become best friends. That’s not the relationship I’m talking about. It’s more of a working relationship. The hope is you’ll work together again down the road because you have an understanding of what you can deliver, and a mutual respect for one another.

CG O’Neill was of his time and surrounded by racism in America. You have now performed in Iceman and Emperor Jones. How do they reflect his views? You seem to feel that he was different and can you say how?

JDT Absolutely. He understood the plight of the African American in this country very well as a writer. He understood the complexity, the subtlety of it, the various shades. He conveyed what African Americans had to deal with in this particular country. If you look at a character like Brutus Jones, and particularly, Joe Mott, it’s not a one dimensional character that he has created. Both are multi-dimensional characters who express their feelings, emotions, and the impact of racism on their psyche. So I don’t think of O’Neill as looking on black people in a stereotypical way, he went deep.

From my study of Joe Mott the character came from a good friend of O’Neill’s named Joe Smith. He was married to an Irish woman down in the Bowery section of New York. When O’Neill went on binges he would spend time in Smith’s apartment. O’Neill would be close to death and Smith would nurse him back to health. O’Neill knew African Americans not just as second class citizens but as human beings, and afforded the humanity they deserved. He was the only writer at that time who tried to articulate their journey.

Link to Part Two