Where: his dressing room (Second Stage Theatre). 1:30 pm.
Edward Herrmann and I have met for the first time at this interview, and long before I put the batteries in my old Panasonic, he is already chatting up a storm about everything from the play he is starring in to dealing with pushy autograph hounds. Before we start, I show him where the STOP button is in case he needs to say something off the record. His eyes light up.
"Now that's a first! That you give me access to the shut off button." I explain that I always do that, and he laughs, "No, I mean most people don't."
During the interview I notice his eyes shifting over to the tape recorder every now and then, and it is only a matter of time before he could no longer resist it. He hits the button and tells some juicy gossip about a particular someone, and I think, "This guy really enjoys a chance to have some fun." And what could be better than that?
Edward Herrmann's vast talent and involvement in top-quality projects have placed him high above the ranks of other contemporary character actors. Many of his peers would back away from doing a PBS special or a classic play because of the lack of commercial appeal, or they wouldn't even be considered for such work in the first place. Giving a recent example, Herrmann explains how his professional decisions are sometimes more dependent on circumstance than actual choice.
"I was at Williamstown for about ten or eleven years straight. But I was supposed to go up to do a show the year before last, and I had to pull out to do Born Yesterday. And I hate committing to something and pulling out at the last minute. So it isn't the theatre that's difficult. I can usually get a play if I would like. It's the way the business is structured. The longer you stay out of the television and movie loop, you're not a bankable commodity to them. Especially at my level, even though people know me.
"It's hard out there,” he says with a disarming smile. "But I think for the next two or three years I'll concentrate on film and television. Unless..." He thinks for a long moment, and then candidly states, "You like to think that you're in control of everything, but you're not. This is something I learned a long time ago. I did a movie with Laurence Olivier once called The Betsy. It was forgettable, but a lot of good people were in it, and doing the picture was wonderful because of him. I got to know him reasonably well. We'd go out for dinner and drinks, and he'd talk about the choices that he made. And it was clear that his professional life was just as chaotic as any of ours.
“The choice of this material came along because it was presented to him. He needed a particular vehicle because he felt his career was going in the shadows, and he was terrified he wouldn't get the part. And that's not the perception you have of Laurence Olivier. Because you look at his career and you see these wonderful arcs of how he did this and this, and then he chose this. Not at all. You take what comes and do it the best you can. There are times when you can turn material down, and you do try. I’ve turned an awful lot of stuff down over the years, and sometimes not wisely because I thought, ‘Well, this is not artistically respectable enough.'
"It sounds fatalistic, but you don't know. You don't have a lot of control. People think that Hollywood has total control. Well, they do and they don’t. I mean it’s like a revolving door out there. How decisions are made out there is baffling to me.”
Everyone who has not been under a rock for the past twenty years knows that Herrmann is one of the tallest actors around. He carries his six-foot five-inch frame so well though that it is neither threatening nor oafish, and Herrmann doesn't see his height as a hindrance at all.
"It's almost never bothered me one way or the other. I suspect I have lost parts because of my height. But there are certain physical restraints that you can't overcome, and you shouldn't waste your time. I may not be right if I'm reading for a part that’s like the star's pal, and I'm too big. But I did The Great Waldo Pepper with Redford, and he's not a tall guy. And there was no problem there. But I've never felt that it was a tremendous liability. I get more typed because of social background. That's dogged me more than my height."
This last statement is no exaggeration. Since starring in the award-winning miniseries Eleanor And Franklin, Edward Herrmann has played more than his fair share of historical people and priggish, stuffed-shirt types. But if directors and casting people would bother to look past his studious glasses, they would see that Herrmann's eyes have a devilish look in them. It gives him a quality that suggests he is ready for, and willing to do, anything. Anything, that is, besides the upper-crust stereotype that has nothing to do with his real background.
A brief Herrmann Family history lesson is now in order. "The irony of it is that all of my family is from Indiana, from the other side of the tracks. My mother's father was an Irish drunk. I adored him, but he had a serious drinking problem. My grandmother was the only one in the family who had a steady job in the Depression. She worked for the welfare department in Indianapolis. It was real tough, tough times for them, and they were broke half the time. My father's people were a little better off. They were German immigrants. His father was a bookkeeper and owned a drugstore, and his mother was nurse.
"My parents moved up to Michigan just before the war, and they bought a little house in Grosse Pointe. They were upwardly mobile. They worked very hard, and they wanted the best for their kids. So I grew up in Grosse Pointe, but I went to a public high school there and I went to Bucknell University. I didn't go to an Ivy League school.
"But I think what hit people mainly was the first thing they saw was FDR. And that reputation, not necessarily Roosevelt, has dogged me all along." He then exclaims, "Oh, I like to break out of it! That's why I love Lost Boys so much. Lost Boys has done more for me than anything else over the last five years. It's an important thing, especially in Hollywood. And I like Overboard because I can play this nitwit. I love comedy and wacky parts. When I first started out, I thought that I’d be stuck playing comedy my whole life. It's all I did in rep. I played loonies, crazies, oddballs, pirates, anything. It was only after this television thing that people--" He stops himself and sighs, "There's not a lot of imagination in this business. Surprisingly, since it's based on imagination."
Edward Herrmann is a very smart person. But there are basically three types of "smart" people in the world. The most common are the ones who know a lot of facts, figures and trivia. They can wow you with the gross national product of Mozambique and the chemical components of marshmallow Fluff. But ask them about something conceptual, and they won't have a clue. Then there are the "smart" intellectuals, who are pretentious enough to believe that their bookshelf and their schooling make them superior human beings. They can quote Nietzsche and drone on about the existential duality of mankind. But ask them about something that requires common sense, and they'll be stumped.
The third, and rarest, "smart" person is the type that Edward Herrmann is: one who can relay information and explain its significance. While his conversation is peppered with references to poets and political systems, he mentions them so off-handedly that you never feel like you are being spoken down to by him. He just speaks as if you are already in the know.
Herrmann's knowledge of film history would put any cinema studies professor to shame, especially when he discusses how modern-day filmmakers need to relate to actors. So all of you aspiring directors take heed because the man knows what he's talking about.
"The need for actors doing a film is to have a director who knows how to tell a story. Storytelling the way Frank Capra or John Ford or Ernst Lubitsch could do it is a lost art. They knew what was necessary to put the story across. If they weren't particularly good with actors, they knew how to set an actor. John Ford's classic actor was John Wayne, and he could take Wayne and put him in a landscape and a situation where Wayne would shine. He was a different director entirely than George Cukor, who could reach into an actor and pull a performance out of him that you didn't expect.
"So directors have to have acting as one of their tools. They must learn how to act. They must understand what an actor needs in a scene. What a character is. How the character changes in a scene. Who the character actually is, and how he's maneuvered and manipulated throughout a scene. They have to know how to get a performance and what to suggest to an actor to make a scene work. Know what a scene is about before they go in because actors often miss it. I'll often miss. I’ll often be begging for some direction because I know a lot of interior things that are going on but I don't have the eye out there to see what it looks like. And you need that.
"And a director should know the best stage work. He should see good plays and good acting so that he knows, 'Oh! That's what can be. That's what can happen.' But I've also seen good acting on screen completely ruined by a bad shot. So it's taking the jewel and setting it in a setting properly. They have to know both.
"But ninety-nine times out of one hundred in a big Hollywood movie, it ends up that the star (for want of a better word) has the tail wagging the dog because they have the power to fire the director. Most directors don't have the authority that Ford or Capra did. They could fire Jimmy Stewart like that," Herrmann says with a snap of his finger. "And they would. Most directors can't do that now, and I’ve seen movies go really seriously amiss because the stars begin to skew the story to what they think they need, whether they know what they're doing as an actor or not. And unless you have a director who knows the story he or she is trying to tell, you have a real problem because then it becomes a power play, and the director will just give in most of the time because he wants the job. He doesn't care and the star doesn't care, as long as the picture sells.
"But I don't think directors know what kind of stories they want to tell. Storytellers like George Stevens knew how to take a story and say something deep about life even if it was a light piece. And the great ones like Ford and Capra, whose virtually every film hits two or three major archetypal points about the meaning of life. Whether it is a western or a comedy or whatever, they can take anything and transform it. And that's what you hope for. In fact, the only other time I did Roosevelt was for John Huston, only because I wanted to work with John. I'd never get a chance otherwise. The results may be a little tedious, but I still get kids who say, 'I just saw you in Annie.' So it's still a charming thing, but just to be around him and see how he worked. He didn't work with the actors much, but he hired the old school in Hollywood—actors who knew what they were doing and had all kinds of experience like Spencer Tracy.
"When a director would start to direct him and suggest all kinds of things he could do, Tracy would smile and say, 'I think if you want that you should have hired somebody else. This is what I think the scene is about, and this is what you'll get.' And he would rehearse and rehearse, but he wouldn't do more than two or three takes. That was it. If you didn't get it, it was your fault. And the most annoying difference between young and modern directors and old directors is the number of takes and angles. They'll cover a scene, then they'll mess around with it in the cutting room, and they want all kinds of options.
"I've talked with some of the guys who've worked with Ford, and he knew precisely what he wanted. He made scores of movies throughout the twenties. Some of them were pretty terrible, but he learned what to do with a camera, and he didn't have to worry about talking to the cinematographer all the time. Most directors that you have to work with are constantly talking to their cinematographer because they don't know how to shoot a scene. They don't know what it'll look like, or what a particular lens will do.
"How do these young punks get to be directors?" Herrmann asks, exasperated. "Who do they know? What do they know? They have no technique. They've watched some movies, but they don't know how to make them. Yes, film schools can teach young directors about cameras. This is a very big thing. But they have to take the major step, which is--What's your philosophy of life? What do you want to do with yourself? What kind of stories do you want to tell? How do you want to affect people?"
In order to keep their insecurities at bay, there are actors who trick themselves into believing that they know everything about film acting after doing a few movies and gaining some notoriety. But even with critical praise and over two dozen feature films under his belt, Herrmann is confident enough to proclaim that he is nowhere near mastering his craft.
"I'm learning more, which is how to relax in front of a camera. What you need to do and don't need to do. The preparation and the energy you don't need. The problems that you don't need to solve or even bring to the set. You need to be very clear about what the scene is about underneath the text. Who’s doing what to whom? What's really going on? Then latch onto that for all your worth. Play that because the camera will pick it up. And make sure that the director knows that, and that you can position yourself so that what you know the scene is about can be shot. How to take advantage of the shot that you do have is important. When I do get moments, I'm getting to know more and more what to do with them, so that's helpful.
"But I still have a long ways to go. I'm not in the same league as Tracy! I just have so much to learn. I'm not in the same league with Claude Rains or any of those wonderful, old actors. I keep looking at the ease and the precision with which they did things. It seemed so effortless. In Claude Rains' case, he worked extremely hard at it. Some of the great Warner Bros. guys, they did it effortless because they were having fun. And that's what I want to do more and more is just bring a sense of fun and keep working."
When asked what he loves the most about his life, Herrmann points to a small, framed photo of his daughter and beams proudly, "That little child right there." He also mentions his folks and the rest of his family, and then adds, "I love what I do. I love acting. Like everybody else in the world, I don't like a lot of the stuff that surrounds it. I don't like the hustle and the bullshit and the lies and the cruelty involved in the business. But it's part of life, and it's a profession that will grow with you. In fact, you'll be running to catch up to it because there are those things that you keep working at that are much bigger than you are, and you think, 'Oh, well. Okay, I could solve two out of the hundred problems in this script.'"
Herrmann chuckles, then quips, "And you're fucking lucky to do it! Most of the time it's not successful. If you look at a lot of movies from some of the great actors, only about a half a dozen from each of them are truly memorable. A lot of Bogart's movies before he did High Sierra were forgettable. But it was all part of learning and getting rid of the baggage that was necessary for him to do those really sublime things that he did later in his life.
"Because acting uses more of you than any other art and you're constantly refreshed by it. Time after time I run into people who, in their mid-life crisis, are dying because they don't believe in what they do. They've had their family. They've accumulated a certain amount of money and possessions, and they hate what they do. Then they have affairs and buy expensive toys and try to travel, instead of doing something that is rooted in a religious sense of the world. That there is something divine about what you do, and that you're connected to something that is far more important than you are. And that's the inner dynamic of what refreshes me about acting and what I do. Even if I do a bad job or a part that I think, 'Oh God. I don't want to look at that,' I was trying for something."
Whether or not he is in a critical or commercial hit really makes no difference because whatever Edward Herrmann "tries for" in his work always turns out to be a winning achievement. AAA
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