Although he maintains that he’s “not quite a celebrity,” Austin Pendleton owns one of those instantly recognizable faces that make him a frequent focus of “Hey! You’re that guy from…” encounters. Whether you’ve pinned him as any of a number of stammering milquetoasts, evil scientists or academic types, the bespectacled character ace is a familiar presence in numerous movies (“A Beautiful Mind,” “The Front Page,” “My Cousin Vinny,” “The Muppet Movie”), TV shows (recurring roles on “Oz” and “Homicide”) and stage productions (the original Broadway cast of “Fiddler on the Roof,” even). To those who do know the name, Austin Pendleton is a true powerhouse of the contemporary stage — an award-winning playwright (“Orson’s Shadow”), Tony-nominated director (“The Little Foxes” with Liz Taylor) and respected acting teacher (with NYC’s prestigious HB Studio).
Having appeared onstage with Olympia Dukakis last year at Red Bank’s Two River Theater (he also received a Lifetime Achievement Award at a recent edition of the Garden State Film Festival), Pendleton returns to Monmouth County as director of “The Speed Queen,” the one-woman play (revolving around the confessions of a female death-row denizen) opening this weekend as the latest mainstage production at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. In a phone conversation from Chicago (where he serves as an ensemble member of the acclaimed Steppenwolf Company), the multitalented multitasker brought Jersey Alive up to “Speed” on projects many and various.
TC: You maintain one of the busiest schedules ever seen — your New York production of Arthur Miller’s “American Clock” just closed, and now you’re rehearsing “The Speed Queen” at the same time that you’re shuttling off to Chicago to work on a Steppenwolf project.
AP: Even by MY standards it’s busy…the Steppenwolf thing is a Cormac McCarthy play called “The Sunset Limited.” It played out here and closed at the end of last June; now they want to play it in New York for a month, just as we begin previews of “Speed Queen.” So, I won’t be there at the opening night in Long Branch, but I’ll be there for the first preview performances.
TC: Anne Stockton (playwright and star of “Speed Queen”) is very excited that you’re involved with her project — to the point where you not only stayed with it through the workshop and reading stages, but have also been taking an active hand in helping her adapt and shape Stewart O’Nan’s source novel for the stage.
AP: I first worked with her as a coach, but then as I got interested in the material, I got to working with her on the adaptation. In the play and the novel, her character is talking into a tape recorder, telling her story to a famous novelist — if you see it, you can figure out who it’s supposed to be. She talks about her mother and father, she talks about her lover, her other lover, her victims — without her just imitating the other people, all of those characters have to be brought to life.
TC: What’s different in this show since you brought it to NJ Rep as a reading last year?
AP: We’ve done a lot of cuts and rearrangements — we keep going back over the novel and finding new things. We’ve added a certain use of music — it’s like constantly re-editing a movie.
TC: In addition to your various stage projects, you’re also in a new movie called “Raising Flagg,” in which you’re reunited not only with Alan Arkin, but with his son Matthew, who you directed in the play “War In Paramus.”
AP: I actually filmed that one in Oregon in 2002! A lot of movies seem to either never come out, or show up eventually on DVD…after awhile, you lose any sense of realistic expectation. There’s another film that’s just come out on DVD, under the title “Dirty Work,” or possibly another title. In it, I get to play a character who’s very unambiguously evil. Anyway, I’ve known Alan Arkin for, oh, 45 years…Alan directed me in a play on Broadway in the 1960s!
TC: You’ve worked with some of the most legendary directors in the business — Billy Wilder, Mike Nichols, Otto Preminger, Peter Bogdanovich — so who made the biggest impression on you? Who inspired you to become a director yourself?
AP: Certainly Jerome Robbins…a giant; he directed the first two shows I did in New York. And Alan Arkin, actually. Also Nikos Psacharopoulos, the guy in charge of the theatre in Williamstown. He got me started as a professional director.
TC: You also got to act alongside Orson Welles in the film “Catch-22.” Did your meeting him give you the idea for “Orson’s Shadow” (a play which presents the conflict between Welles and Laurence Olivier when they collaborated on a real-life production of “Rhinoceros”)?
AP: Not at all; I was asked to write it by Judith Auberjonois…she wanted her husband, Rene, and Alfred Molina to be in it. They’ve actually never done it, and I wrote it with them in mind.
I was drawn to it because I had a hard time with (Welles). He was an unhappy man; he insisted on being able to direct his own scenes. He haunted me for years…I thought perhaps I was unfair to him, so I began to play around with (the script), and it took me three years to write!
TC: That play has much to do with the ways in which the offstage world affects the onstage world — would you say that, despite the best efforts of any actor or director, the two worlds are intertwined? And is that a good thing?
AP: They almost have to be intertwined…work, to be good, has to be personal; it has to come through whatever the person is going through. Sometimes you feel a deep connection to the material, and you don’t always know what it is. You’ve got to use that feeling as a springboard; try augmenting it with your imagination.
I’m “old-time religion” when it comes to acting…I like it when actors conceive things with intensity. Fear of going “over the top” is a creeping sickness in this business!
TC: In your film career at least, you’ve often been cast in the role of the NERD, for lack of a better word. Yet when it comes to your parallel career as a director and a teacher, you’re not that guy at all — you’re an authoritative, take-charge, multitasking professional. Are you something of a drill sergeant — an R. Lee Ermey beneath the skin?
AP: Anyone who directs is, at the bottom, a drill sergeant I guess. As a teacher, I insist upon certain things. Pace, which you mentioned earlier, is often the X element that’s missing — when it’s there, it pulls people into the ensemble; makes them work together.
TC: So who, in your opinion, are the great character people on stage and screen today?
AP: Alan Arkin — he’s wonderful. Kevin Spacey — he’s terrific. William H. Macy — he’s extraordinary. And Barbara Etta Young, who I directed in “American Clock” — she’s continued to grow. It’s always a pleasure when people like that are allowed to do lead roles. Their work gets richer and richer.
TC: Here you are, a member of the Steppenwolf group; a faculty member at HB Studio — and you’re working now with a smallish, nonprofit company on the Jersey Shore. It’s an association that must mean a lot to you…
AP: Well, you go where the work is, whether it’s “Broadway” or Broadway, Long Branch.
TC: Still, if Austin Pendleton puts his stamp of approval upon a regional stage scene that was once considered a dinner-theater backwater, then folks down here must be doing something right.
AP: Listen, Manhattan as a hub of theater is in a little bit of trouble…the quality, the aspirations aren’t always there. People like (NJ Rep founders Gabe and SuzAnne Barabas) have that aspiration to quality…you’re drawn to what they do. Their energy, spirit and standards are wonderful…if (people) see these things regularly, they’ll catch on.