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SPALDING GRAY

SPALDING GRAY

Where: his apartment. 11 am.

       Spalding Gray is a multi-talented man who acts, tells stories about his life in the form of monologues all across the country, and writes books based on these stories which have been translated into several languages. But while critics and the media try to find the proper category to place him in, Gray is busy trying to comprehend the world around him by doing all of those things.

"Everyone says to me 'Are you a monologist?' and I say, 'Well, that's what someone called me.' I think that everyone has to do that in order to write about me, but 'monologist' sounds too formal, 'storyteller' sounds like a folksy kind of thing, and ‘humorist’ implies that you can expect humor when you don't always get that. I was hoping that they would finally be able to say, 'Spalding Gray did this . . .’ without defining it. It'll be my way of working. Although I'm sure there are people in barrooms all over America that do what I do, but they don't sit in front of an audience. So it is a unique form because I'm the only one that I know that is doing direct, personal, oral autobiography."

For someone who is so adept at fostering the performer/audience relationship, it seems only natural that Gray would be the perfect choice to play the Stage Manager in the Lincoln Center production of Our Town, but the public television broadcast posed a new problem.

"I found it very difficult to do the Our Town film because I relate so well to an audience. As soon as they put the camera on me--it was a Steadicam that was moving around me--it was very distracting because there was no point of view. There was no audience there! But I tend to have real problems with machinery. I'm not a modern kind of guy. I'm much more romantic.

"I think there are two very different kinds of actors. One relates better to a live audience. The others come alive in front of the camera and have this total transformational, photogenic relationship with the lens. I find that I'm the opposite of that. I've been in front of a live audience for thirty years now, so I know that well. It's a terrific craft to learn good film acting because you have to energize yourself in other ways--be they a certain amount of narcissism, a certain amount of pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps that I don't quite understand yet, or working off of the other people, which is important. Rarely do you see acting where the person becomes a total conduit to the character. It's almost a mystical thing the way Meryl Streep is so different. I just saw A Cry In The Dark recently again, and she's incredible. It's a touch of genius there.

"I'm bringing so much of my conscious self to roles. I'm rarely surprised by the choices that I make when I'm acting. I don't go into what I call a 'transformational realm.'" Gray recalls playing a doctor in the film Beaches. "I said to Bette Midler, 'Now wait a minute. I'm supposed to be an obstetrician, right? What is that?’ And she goes, 'What?! Didn't you research this role?' I said, 'No, Bette. I just wait until I get in the scene.' Then you see that the scene is so 'other' than what my normal life would be. I've got a doctor's outfit on, and I just start speaking as me. Somehow the setting and the costumes inform me in a subtle way.

"When I sit down at a table to play 'Spalding Gray,' I have the plaid shirt on, and I fall right into that. That's the most I can say about it. It's still a mystery to me. All I know is that when I get at a location, and I get into costume, I begin to act."

 

One of Spalding Gray's latest projects is a new book he is writing called Impossible Vacation.

"It's an autobiographical novel. It's in the first person, but I've changed the characters’ names to try to get close to some fiction and free it up. The central male character can’t commit to his girlfriend, can't get married, and can’t have a baby with her. He feels he needs to learn to hang out as a single male and have this kind of perfect vacation. That's what he's aiming for, but he's never had it before. Finally, the one time he did get away, his mother killed herself--which is my life story, actually. She left some money, but he decides that the money is a shrine to his mother. He finally gets the courage to take the money and spend it on a trip to Bali. 

"The whole book is this huge odyssey that starts in New York and goes through Australia, where he gets stuck because there's a plane strike. Finally it gets to Bali; there he finds a holy man, does the funeral rites for his mother, and then returns to New York. He keeps going back in his mind to his childhood. So it's one of those things where it's going forward, but it digresses in huge sections." 

 

Of course, he would not be the same Spalding Gray that we all know and love if he did not have a few monologues up his sleeve. The latest one will be called Monster In A Box (Footnotes To Impossible Vacation).

"It's about all the interruptions of my book, including Hollywood, Nicaragua, Moscow, Leningrad, and playing the Stage Manager in Our Town."

There is even another idea for a monologue that Gray has been thinking about for a while--Washington and the democratic process.

"One of the reasons why I want do that piece is to answer the question for myself, why I'm more stirred up by the arts than I am by politics. Every time any politician starts talking to me, I start to get cross-eyed and fall asleep. The use of the legalese language, the obvious lying to get them elected no matter what. Show me the politician that's going to say, 'I don't think I'm right for this job, but I'd love to have you vote for me anyway.' There's no humility in it, no admission to any kind of human frailty.”

On a broader level, the proposed Washington monologue brings out a completely serious side to Spalding Gray-- one that fears for what our world is coming to.

"I do think that things went way down hill in a major way in America around the assassinations of Martin Luther King and the Kennedys. It made me very paranoid that there was a side of America that we were completely unaware of.

"I was watching something on television where they were showing what would happen if there was a nuclear war. They were showing how many weapons would go off at once, and how the top of the Earth was like fireworks of hydrogen bombs. So I have to ask myself, 'What is that impulse about?'

"This may be an oversimplified view, but I think that when the unconscious urge in human kind loses continuity and faith in the idea of a continuation of the human race, and they begin to think that there is nothing beyond their own death, they get anxious about their own fatality and want to take the whole world with them. It's nuts! They think that if there's nothing when we die, then why should we wait to die? What's happened is totally beyond me, and I know that it influences the way we all live our lives now and the way we think." 

 

The main purpose of Gray's work, however, is to make people laugh. He does it by skillfully allowing his audience to laugh at him, instead of resorting to the insulting approach.

"I would never make fun of anything or anyone who could not make fun of me back." He also possesses the ability to tell a story, whether verbally or in print, in a manner that is indefinable because it is his own.

"We are brought up to believe that everything has to be so manipulated structurally. That you have to be given ‘and then this happened, and then you won't believe it, and then this…’ I'm not real keen on plot manipulation. What is the terrific need for fiction? Not that I dislike fiction, but when so much is going on in one's life that could simply be reported on, it could therefore help other people." 

If it is true that laughter is the best medicine, then Gray is the doctor who prescribes his own remedy. His creativity is one-of-a-kind and unmatched by any of his contemporaries. It is only a matter of time before young actors, writers, and performers from all over will say that their most major influence is Spalding Gray. 

 

The second part of this interview was done moments after the real one for a satirical humor publication called Idiotic Drivel, which has suffered from college budget cuts. Our conversation was conducted in a purposefully silly manner, so just have fun with it.

TH: What's your favorite color?

SG: As soon as there has to be a favorite something it narrows it down. But I tend to go with those earth things. The darker greens, browns.

TH: Who's your favorite cartoon character?

SG: Felix the Cat. I like the way he mumbled. He was always scatting, (does a good Felix the Cat imitation) just like that. He never said any words.

TH: Your favorite musician or group?

SG: I used to like the Talking Heads very much, when they were all together. I like the new Paul Simon album, which isn't so new now, but I listen to it a lot. I dance to it.

TH: I wore my cassette out!

SG: Graceland, yeah, it's a great album. (thinks for a moment) I went to the Bob Dylan concert when he was here up at- What's that theater?

TH: The Beacon Theater.

SG: Yeah. I could not understand a word he said. So I went out and bought his album--you know, the new one--because I was curious. It’s growing on me I have to say. The ballads on it are nice.

TH: I can't deal with that too much.

SG: I can't either.

TH: (does a bad Bob Dylan imitation) I can't deal with that.

SG: (laughing) I know exactly what you mean.

TH: But you're right, he does grow on you.

SG: So I'd say Graceland. I also warm up to zydeco music, and I like B.B. King very much. He's one of my favorite blues people. I grew up on jazz. I just went crazy for jazz. I had a huge jazz record collection, but I don't listen to it as much as I used to now. I'm really into spoken word. I listen to a lot of books being read on tape. If I'm just cleaning up around here, I'll put on this. (gets up to show a cassette on the table) A Brief History Of Time. It's incredible! 

TH: I try to get these too, but I always pick by the reader.

SG: Oh, right. That's a good idea. (puts the cassette away and sits back down) Anything else?

TH: Your favorite movie?

SG: (grunts, then laughs) This is so hard! These are the hardest things because I like so many different films. Recently, I could count the films that I liked actually because there are so few of them. But certainly Do The Right Thing and Crimes And Misdemeanors. And I feel like I have to say sex, lies and videotape, although I didn't like it as much because I had heard too much about it before I saw it. That blew it for me.

TH: Favorite food?

SG: But favorite all-time film is what you're asking I guess. One that you keep going back to.

TH: (in a late-night disk jockey's voice) "And now let's take you back.”

SG: (still thinking) I've seen Ironweed three times. I like Ordinary People. See, this idea of favorites, I've always rebelled against it because it's so limiting. What's favorite at one point, isn't favorite at another. Foods, in general, I like things that are spicy as a kind of rebellion against my New England bland cooking. Certainly, Indian food and Thai food.

TH: Yuck!

SG: No, you don't like that?

TH: Give me a cheeseburger any day.

SG: Oh, I like that, too. I like soups.

TH: I'm getting hungry now. My stomach is growling. Your favorite song?

SG: Favorite song? (thinks for a moment, then cracks up laughing)

TH: (laughing) I'm really sorry! I didn't know that these questions were going to be that difficult for you.

SG: These really are! Nothing comes to mind! You thought I would be able to do it really fast? You'd be able to, right?

TH: Pretty much so.

SG: What's your favorite song?

TH: Um... um... (laughs)

SG: (laughs) Uh-huh! 

 A loud noise bangs from outside his living room window.

TH: What was that?!

SG: That's just the wind blowing the shutters. 

TH: Was that supposed to happen?

SG: (starts laughing) You're very reactive to these different sounds in here!

TH: Well, I'm not used to hearing shutters and machinery clanking. Do you brush your teeth up and down or side to side?

SG: I used to do them side to side, but now I'm up and down.

TH: Do you have a middle name?

SG: No. No middle name.

TH: Okay. That kills that question. Do you have the toilet paper roll underhand or overhand?

SG: The toilet paper just sits on the toilet. It's not on a thing, so I just pick it up and pull it off. (starts to chuckle a bit) I never thought about how I do that!

TH: What would you do if you won a million dollars tax-free?

SG: (laughing) It's not a lot of money now, is it?

TH: (laughs) Let's make it ten million.

SG: No. A million dollars. All right. Actually, that's a good question. (thinks for a long moment) These are tough questions. Oh, my. Well, I don't want to retire because I like doing what I do.

TH: No, no! You can't. Stop saying that!

SG: Okay. I would probably buy a large house somewhere outside of the city, and then give some to charity. 

TH: Last, but not least. Who would you like to see play you in your life story if they ever made it into a film?

SG: That's another hard question. (bursts out with laughter) God, I can't answer these! Who comes to mind? Jimmy Stewart. (starts laughing) Or me!

TH: (laughs)

SG: Um... David Byrne. Yeah, that's it.

TH: Okay. That's it. AAA 

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PETER RIEGERT
 

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Wednesday, 20 November 2019

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