On Monday, Richard Schiff faces the press as he makes his West End debut in Underneath The Lintel, a spiritual play in which the actor plays a small-town librarian on a journey of discovery. It has become a very personal journey for Schiff himself, as he felt compelled to bring the play to London after performing it in New Jersey, and turned down a Broadway role to do so.
Recently, we asked readers to send us their questions for the former star of US presidential drama The West Wing, and the response shows what a large fan base he has on both sides of the Atlantic. Given the man’s penchant for conversation, we didn’t have time to ask all the questions you sent, but he did answer many of them. In response, here Schiff talks to Caroline Bishop about the challenge of a one-man show, his time on The West Wing, his love of audience reaction and his grief for late colleague John Spencer…
Pat: Why come to London and not go on Broadway or elsewhere?
RS: We got quite a reaction [in New Jersey], some reviews that were nice, and I got offers to do it all across America. For some reason I just said I only want to do this in London and I don’t know why. I think the London audience will particularly appreciate this material. There is something about the experience of taking this particular material to the London audience that was exciting and challenging. I had some hard choices to make because I had other offers. For some reason I just got stupid about my career and turned down the other offers, but smart about life experience I hope, and came here.
Elaine: I saw Underneath The Lintel in New Jersey, how different do you think it’s going to be performing the show in England as opposed to the US?
RS: I think the people in England have a great sense of history and this play kind of delves into the world of the past and how things tie together. So I think an audience will appreciate that. But I don’t think people will be talking to me quite as much. The New Jersey audience is a particularly interactive one, they tend to not be able to keep quiet.
The very first moment on stage in New Jersey – I hadn’t been in a play for six years and I was somewhat terrified – the character comes out and is a little bit shy. His first words are ‘So, right’ and this woman not very far back in the audience goes ‘Louder!’ It was like a warning, like ‘Louder, don’t make me say this again!’ I was like, Oh my God I haven’t even started yet and this woman is shouting at me! So that’s New Jersey and I love them for it. But I’d expect a little bit more of a respectful response here in London.
Cally, Ithaca, New York: How do you feel about doing a one man show versus acting with the large cast from The West Wing? Is it strange going out alone?
RS: I loved the people I worked with on The West Wing, phenomenal actors. We’d feed each other. If you get a little lost or you’re searching for a little inspiration all you’ve got to do is hook into Allison [Janney, who played CJ] and you’re right back in it. That’s what you do on stage… It’s like being on a great basketball team and all of a sudden you find yourself alone under the basket and the guy got you the ball. That’s his job. You make the great play but it’s all because the other guy set you up. You don’t have that in a one-person show. So it’s very different and it’s much harder. I think it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done creatively in my life. It’s very, very different and very challenging and very rewarding in its own way.
Lee Richards: Do you feel the growth of the mega-musical is having a negative impact on the opportunities for good straight drama to get produced and performed in the West End and on Broadway?
RS: I was asked [by] someone from the BBC, ‘what makes you think anyone would want to see your play because we have 24 musicals playing?’ And I said well, because there are 24 musicals playing, you might want to see something different. A great musical is a great musical, so all power to the musical. But nothing quite moves me like a phenomenally compelling drama or a comedy or a funny drama, which is what this particular play is. It takes you on a very different kind of journey. It’s a little bit more personal, it’s smaller, more intimate.
One shouldn’t be exclusionary of the other. I strongly recommend that people who only see straight plays should pop in to see one of these great musicals and those that only see musicals… I guess commercially musicals are easier to sell, it’s probably a safer journey for people, they are going to have fun or at least hear a good song. But if it’s any consolation I do sing once or twice in this show, somewhat briefly.
Jenn: I saw Underneath The Lintel in New Jersey last year and was mesmerised by your performance. Will you be coming to Broadway anytime in the near future?
RS: Eugene O’Neill’s father played the Count of Monte Cristo for 25 years and went insane. So there’s a limit as to how much I want to do one character in one play, but I would certainly love to go to Broadway in something, if not this. New York is my home town and I always dreamed of going there. I turned down a Broadway play actually to come here to London. A very good play and a very good role, but this was already in the works. So hopefully another opportunity will come along soon.
Harriet Carroll: Do you prefer drama to comedy when performing live?
RS: I did a couple of comedies way back when, and had a blast. There’s nothing quite like feeling you can control when an audience laughs and how much they are going to laugh. I like the sound of 300 people, 800 people, 50, however many are out there, all laughing together. To hear the crescendo of the laugh and as it dies down, it’s like music. I love being in an audience that’s in tune with the people on stage, it’s a great give and take.
You can feel it in drama, it’s definitely a palpable relationship when people are with you on stage. You can feel them breathing and you can feel their emotional responses if they are there. And that’s a different and more intimate relationship.
Miriam Diesendruck: What can you share with us about your experience performing on The West Wing, with that cast, creating that character?
RS: This experience with these particular people was phenomenal. Martin Sheen is probably one of the best human beings I’ve ever met, John Spencer one of the most loving, he was a man who adored acting. And Allison Janney is as talented as they come. Wonderful actors would come and be guests on our show and they were just all very grateful for [series writer and producer] Aaron Sorkin’s words and the phenomenal stories that we were able to write and the level of quality.
Had I known that we were going to go on for seven years I might have picked a cheerier guy. But the interesting thing is that at the final auditions for the network the other guy who was a finalist was Eugene Levy [of the American Pie films] who is a very talented and funny actor. He would of course very brilliantly have taken the character in a whole different direction. He would have been the comic foil, the one that Aaron would have relied on for all the humour, and here I took them on a very dark and complex path. It was just the way I saw it. The only thing I could imagine was the absolute burden, the tons of weight that you must feel with the burden of the future history of the world on your shoulders. People’s lives are affected and that’s what I felt more than anything, that if I was in that job I would really have to wonder about the consequences of my actions. That made a very complex character. I also thought, isn’t that interesting that I’m developing this character who finds it very difficult to communicate on a one-on-one basis and is filled with personal tornadoes that he wants to hide from the world and finds it very difficult to have a normal conversation with someone, who is the director of communications. I thought that was kind of a fun twist on his character.
Angie: If someone said pick a play and parts for yourself and Allison Janney, what would you choose?
RS: We did for charity a fundraiser for the theatre festival in California. They gave me half of Death Of A Salesman and I was playing Willy Loman and Allison was playing Linda, his wife. I’ve always been very attracted to that play and very moved by it. Working with Allison on stage with that play, people who reacted to it said oh my God you guys have to do this play at some point, which would be fine by me.
Also, I’ve always told Allison that she and I should do this little one-act by Bernard Shaw. There’s these two people on a shipliner, who – as they call it in those days – make love on the deck, which is their way of saying they shamelessly flirt with each other, and they’re both married. I always thought this would be a blast to do it with Allison.
The honest truth is, whatever Allison wants to do with me on stage, I’m there.
Tom Powell: Is there a scene or episode in The West Wing that you consider to be your best/most memorable, and why?
RS: There are a couple that always come to mind. [Allison] was doing this episode about her father and she kind of broke down and she looked at me, tears were still in her eyes after the scene was done. She gave me a big hug and said I couldn’t have done this with anyone else so thank you. I had a similar scene a couple of years later in the episode in which my brother had committed suicide and I had the scene where I break down. I remember the way it unfolded I couldn’t control myself, I couldn’t stop, I was so vulnerable. I went right back at her and I said ‘you know what, you once said you couldn’t do this particular scene [without me] well there is no one on this earth I could have done this with, except you. So that’s memorable for me.
But the one episode that people talk to me about is the Korean War Veteran, it was the first season Christmas episode. I [was] talking to this homeless man who was somewhat slow, mentally challenged and wasn’t getting what I was saying, it was a beautifully written scene in which I say ‘listen you don’t understand, I’m a very powerful man’. There’s something that I did with that line, I found myself utterly embarrassed to be saying it out loud. I realised that it was a defining moment. I realised, wow this is who this guy is. He is someone who, when he has to say the words ‘listen, I’m powerful’, is embarrassed. So I remember that moment because it set my direction for the next six years.
Karen C. Blansfield, North Carolina: How has John Spencer’s death [He played Leo McGarry in The West Wing and died in December 2005] affected your views on/feelings about life, acting, and theatre?
RS: First of all I was devastated, shockingly devastated. I wrote [in a speech to be read out at Spencer’s memorial] how I was doing this one person play in New Jersey and I told everyone on The West Wing of this decision and everyone said, are you out of your mind? Why on earth would you do that? The only person [he pauses, emotional] who reacted differently was John, he grabbed my arms and said ‘oh my god that’s fantastic, you’re going to kill ‘em, this is so good for you’.
He was someone who attacked you with adoration and love. He loved acting and he loved actors and acting with you. He used to say when I act with you I forget I’m acting. It was the greatest compliment I could get from anyone because he is so brilliant.
When I was backstage, first time in six years, doing this monumental, colossal task, doing this one-man show, John was very much in my heart and my mind and I would just think about John, what he would do backstage. I would talk to him, I had an ongoing conversation with him and I felt his presence and I still do. He’s a very, very powerful influence. Whenever I get a little down on this lifestyle you gotta think about John Spencer because no one loved it as much as he did.