Jeff Smith 11:30 a.m., Sept. 2
Jonathan McMurtry: thoughts on acting
I recently interviewed Jonathan McMurtry about the professional actors fund named for him at the North Coast Rep. I couldn't let him get away without some of his thoughts gleaned from six decades in the theater, about which - ahem! - he should write a book.
Actors he respects most: Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud.
Olivier: "You could call what he did 'heroic' acting. Isn't done anymore. He could make absolutely unforgettable choices - large ones, letter perfect. He had a daring like no one else."
McMurtry recalls the scene in Othello where, as Olivier speaks the line "the pity of it Iago, the pity of it Iagooooooooooooh" in a low voice, he presses his forehead against a wall, as if trying to push back Othello's cuckolded horns.
"Such a surprise," says McMurtry, "and so right! When I read a part for the first time, I remember Olivier and always want to know where the surprises are, what's there I didn't expect.
"Some critics said Olivier was too mechanical. I never saw that. I guess they didn't like his perfection."
John Gielgud "Hard to define. If Olivier was a trumpet, Gielgud was a stringed instrument. And so very charming. He spoke like a greased tommy-gun. It's incredible he could get so many words out - and have them all be so clear! Language just rolled out of him."
McMurtry has a radio version of Gielgud's 1936 Hamlet (considered by many as one of the 20th century's greatest performances). Whenever he listens, he hears a "zealous verbal eloquence, which I believe is unmatchable."
"And he had those Ellen Terry eyes - and could cry on a dime."
McMurtry saw them up close. He played Richard II at L.A's Theatre 40. One night, Giegud was in the audience. During the dungeon scene, the king has a soliloquy. McMurtry envisioned the people he talked to in solitary confinement. He liked the choice at the time.
"Gielgud came up after. Tears streaming down. He said he very much appreciated my performance, but that I was 'a bit naughty in the dungeon scene.'
"I also need to mention Ralph Richardson. Another great actor and an unbelievable 'prop actor.' He worked so beautifully with whatever he had around him. In the film Richard III, he made a sandwich, a dagwood - you know, one of those three-layer jobs? - from scratch!
"And in one take! He spoke and sliced the bread. Spoke and piled this onto that. When he finished his speech, he stuck a toothpick on top. Brilliant!! I've used it in my Shakespeare classes to make a point concerning mundane activity in the style of Chekhov." Who is McMurtry's other favorite playwright.
McMurtry won the L.A. Drama Critics Circle Award for his portrayal of Uncle Vanya. As he prepared for the role, he kept Richardson's prop work in mind, and also the best advice he ever had for acting in a play by Chekhov.
"He's all about routine, daily life, ingrained habits. Little things happen onstage, the big ones off. When I was at RADA (the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts), a teacher - I wish I could remember her name! - wanted me to do a speech from The Seagull. Before I began she scattered a deck of cards all over the classroom floor.
"'Okay,' she said, 'as you recite the speech, I want you to find the ace of spades.'
"That's pure Chekhov," says McMurtry. "It's funny because your activity contradicts what you are saying, which is probably about some kind of yearning."
More like this:
- From blushing bridegroom back to cold-blooded killer — July 9, 2014
- A next step for San Diego theater — Jan. 31, 2013
- Hoodoo Love at Mo`olelo Performing Arts — June 17, 2012
- Unabashedly Ribald — July 20, 2006
- I Wanted to Tap People on the Shoulder — April 7, 2005