News & Articles
2008-2009, Volume 2
by Martha Lavey and William Petersen
Martha Lavey: Billy, two years ago, you did Dublin Carol with Amy Morton at Trinity Rep in Providence, Rhode Island. How did that come about?
William Petersen: The Artistic Director at Trinity Rep, Curt Columbus (formerly the Associate Artistic Director at Steppenwolf), sent me the script for Dublin Carol. I had not been able to do a play after I started CSI, so I wasn’t going to read it. I hadn’t been reading any material—no movies, no plays. I didn’t want to get interested in something and then not be able to do it. There just wasn’t enough time. I only had 8 or 9 weeks free in the summer, which would have required a short run.
But while I was in Chicago for a few days, I got sick with the flu. Stuck in the house, I read the script and immediately knew I would have to do this play. I went to CSI’s producers and I said, “Listen, I have to have this time off – November, December, and a little part of January." So we got Liev Schreiber to come in and do four episodes.
It was a lovely little cocoon that Curt and Amy provided in Providence. I didn’t know anybody; I didn’t have any outside distractions or demands on my time. I just concentrated on the play, nothing else.
And it was good. I said, “Amy, you know, we should probably see if we could do this again someplace, because it’s a perfect little Christmas play. It’s sort of the antidote play for Christmas.”
ML: I was talking to Amy recently and she said, “It’s A Christmas Carol!”
WP: It’s the dark Irish version of Dickens, if you can imagine. I’m certain that author Conor McPherson said, “OK, I’ve had enough of Scrooge. Try this one!” It is a nice alternative for all the people who basically go through Christmas in a very difficult emotional state. There should to be plays for them, too. You can’t always just go and get perked up in the theatre at Christmas.
ML: Yes! There’s so much resonance. (McPherson also set The Seafarer at Christmas.) So many people are dealing with the holidays as a period of reflection that introduces regret.
WP: And depression over the fact that we’re told to be joyous. We’re not happy, but we should be happy because -- look -- there’s Santa!
ML: Right. Now, in Dublin Carol, your character, John, is a lonely alcoholic, his drinking just one aspect of a much larger impulse towards isolation, of refusing the human connection.
WP: Thing about McPherson that’s so fabulous is that regardless of the situation, his plays—the characters in his plays—are so compassionate and you feel compassion for them! You cannot help but love his characters, regardless of their situation or condition.
As an actor, I could identify with John. Actors have a fear of responsibility. You get into acting because you don’t have to do anything for more than two months. It’s fun; it doesn’t feel like work.
ML: When did you make the transition from the stage to the screen?
WP: 1983 through 1984. That whole year I was in rehearsals during the day and performing at night. Literally the whole year. I did Belly of the Beast at Wisdom Bridge Theatre with Bob Falls, which was remounted for a little while at the Goodman Studio. I went right from Belly of the Beast to Goodman’s production of Glengarry Glen Ross, from Glengarry to Remains Theatre’s The Time of Your Life, and from The Time of Your Life to Steppenwolf’s Fool for Love. While I was doing Fool for Love, Steppenwolf went to New York with Balm in Gilead.
ML: Were you also in the original cast of Balm in Gilead?
WP: I played Tig in the original production at the Hull House Theater. Then I played Joe in the remount at the Apollo Theatre, filling in for Fran Guinan.
ML: Did you go to New York with it?
WP: No, I didn’t want to go New York with it, and I didn’t want to go to New York with Glengarry either. I was happy to do Time of Your Life and then Fool for Love with Rondi Reed and Randy Arney. We had the whole theatre to ourselves, just us: Rondi, Randy, me, and the Cubs! That was the summer of 1984 when the Cubs were playing great. We had a ball over on Halsted Street!
I finished Fool for Love around the 4th of July, and went up to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario to do A Streetcar Named Desire. While I was doing Streetcar, director Billy Friedkin (The Exorcist, French Connection) cast me his film in To Live and Die in L.A. Soon thereafter, director Michael Mann (The Insider, The Last of the Mohicans) asked me to be in Manhunter.
I had a much higher profile after those films. It got weird; I started to feel more pressure. People started coming to the theatre because they’d seen me in movies.
ML: When our ensemble members return to the stage after an absence because of their television or film careers, they feel pressure at the beginning but end up thinking, ‘Oh gosh, these people care about me as a theatre actor.’
WP: Once Dublin Carol opened in Providence I felt that way. It was wonderful and reinforced what I had always thought. That’s why I told Amy, “We should do it in Chicago; we should do it for a Chicago audience.”
ML: You’ve appeared in a Chicago production of David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow previously. Did you read his New York Times article about the show’s current revival on Broadway, “Drama That Brings Home the Bacon?” (He mentions CSI.) What did you think about that, about the tension between commerce and art in Hollywood?
WP: David did the TV thing—he’s wanted his whole life to do the TV thing—because at the end of the day he wanted to be one of those players. He wants to be an artist, wants his work to be protected, wants to nurture it. But he also really wants to be a big schmoe on the street! He wants to have many assistants and throw his weight around at lunch.
ML: Television, I’ve come to realize, is the ubiquitous medium. Being known on television has a much wider reach.
WP: You know, CSI is big all over the world. I went down to Tahiti for a week and walked into this little thatched-roof hut on the beach. There were two Tahitians behind the bar, and they both went, “Grissom! Gil Grissom—in Tahiti!”
ML: What do you do then, Billy? How is it that you hang onto your actor self?
WP: Well, I didn’t make a movie until I was 32 years old. I didn’t have an agent. I never sought out Hollywood; Hollywood came, literally, to the theater in Chicago, and said, “Would you like to come and do this?” Plus, I didn’t care much for the scene in L.A., and I was never a part of it.
I feel differently about the Chicago theatre audience than I do about anybody else. I’m fortunate that the people that I grew up with are still running the theaters in Chicago—you, Bob Falls, Dennis Zacek, and Barbara Gaines. In the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s the theater it was a place where you cleaned the floor, hung up the drapes, sold the tickets, and then you went backstage and put on your costume! That was great, that’s what keeps you grounded. I know where Malkovich comes from, so when I see him in the beret and the scarf, I have to laugh! That’s what great. That’s what keeps everybody in the right place.
It’s wonderful to see Bob Falls go to New York and have huge success, it’s wonderful for people to see my TV show, it’s wonderful that August: Osage County went to New York. After I saw August in New York I said to a whole lot of people, “This is the culmination of 30 years of work! This has been built piece by piece over 30 years to culminate in this moment for Steppenwolf Theatre Company.”
This is exactly why you have an ensemble. This is exactly why you nurture writers. This can only happen under those elements! That’s why I always come back to Chicago. That’s why I’ll always stay in Chicago.