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The actor discusses his new role opposite Edie Falco in The True
Although Michael McKean made his name on TV (he was Lenny on Laverne & Shirley) and in Christopher Guest mockumentaries (This Is Spinal Tap, A Mighty Wind), he's been a regular on New York City stages over the past 15 years, segueing smoothly between musicals and plays, comedies and dramas, on Broadway and off. He was an Edna Turnblad replacement in Hairspray, headlined Tracy Letts' comedy Superior Donuts, and portrayed both FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover and Senator Robert Byrd in the Tony-winning historical drama All The Way. Now he's Off-Broadway playing another real-life politician: longtime Albany mayor Erastus Corning II in Sharr White's The True at the New Group. The profanity-laden play is inspired by the complex relationship between Corning and Dorothea "Polly" Noonan (Edie Falco), his tough-talking lobbyist. Set in the '70s during a particularly challenging Democratic primary, the rapid-fire one-act explores what it takes to win and the impact rumors have at the polls -- and on people's personal lives.
Michael Musto: Is doing theatre a luxury for you or a necessity?
Michael McKean: It feels like a necessity, and I do love this city -- it's my hometown. Even when they pay you very little, it's ironically wonderful that someone pays you to go and hang out in your hometown. My wife [Annette O'Toole] works here a lot. She's doing Tennessee Williams' A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur at the Theatre at St. Clement's. We look at each other and go, "We ain't getting rich today, but we're doing what we love, and it's more fun every time."
Musto: Off-Broadway has traditionally been an edgier, less expensive answer to Broadway. But nowadays, many of its productions seem to reflect the same need for marquee names. Does that concern you?
McKean: Fortunately, that's not my side of the business. If I read something and they're interested in me and it's something I want to do, that's why I do it. If you trade in name value like stocks, you're going to go broke because it flips around -- who's a name, who's not -- and it's so uninteresting to me. There are casts playing today all over this town and other towns, full of names that are not names. But they're my heroes. If one person buys a ticket because of my or Edie Falco's name -- we're not there for that, we're there to tell a story.
Musto: The True opens with a crackling scene with you, Falco and Peter Scolari as Noonan's husband. Later, you have a fiery confrontation with Falco. Both scenes involve hair-trigger timing and, at times, layered dialogue. How do you achieve that kind of precision?
McKean: It's always seemed to me that it happens when you're being directed by someone who wants a certain thing but lets the actors find it. Scott Elliott is amazing -- we just love him. I don't think we ever gave any thought to it, other than to feel it and make it real. There's a lot of overlap to it, which, as an old Howard Hawks movie fan, is kind of my bread and butter. And we're working with a real thoroughbred: Falco, who's in every frame. She's awesome.
Musto: I've seen you in two other political plays: the 2012 revival of Gore Vidal's The Best Man and All The Way, about Lyndon B. Johnson's civil rights acts. Do your views on our country's current political situation impact your performances in any way?
McKean: J. Edgar Hoover was a historical figure, you gotta go by that. Hoover said almost nothing about President Trump. [Laughs] I did Yes, Prime Minister at the Geffen Playhouse, which was also a political play. Knowing almost nothing about British politics, I had to go into it as a character. I think I stumbled upon a string of political plays. I did Father Comes Home from the Wars, the great Suzan-Lori Parks play. I played the worst white man who ever lived. There was a very political angle to it, but it's not a play about politics, it's about a guy fighting to keep the old South alive, a losing battle. The True is not really about the politics. It's about a complicated, one-of-a-kind relationship. It's not His Girl Friday, but it's about a man who's beginning to feel power slip away and a woman who is -- at the risk of sounding sexist -- trying to mother hen this guy and corral him to get his shit together.
Musto: Isn't it also about the effect of gossip and rumors?
McKean: Absolutely. I did a show years ago, and it was one of those things where "everybody knew" the leading man and lady were doing it. Everyone swore up and down -- though I was not one of them. Well, it wasn't true. So the power of "everybody knows" is zero, and besides, who gives a shit?
Musto: Two seasons ago you did The Little Foxes with Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon, who alternated in the roles of Regina and Birdie. Did you need to re-modulate your performance as Regina's avaricious brother Ben depending on who was playing each part?
McKean: Probably, but I didn't make note of it. I guess there was a certain slight difference of tempo to it. They're both pretty amazing actors. I knew that either one of them could break me in half. They're so powerful that poor old Uncle Ben, even though he fancied himself the biggest cock on the block, was at their mercy, because both versions of Regina are much smarter than he is.
Musto: With Cynthia now in politics, that feels like a political play.
McKean: Of course it was. It was about a smaller fishbowl, but it's all about having domain over people. You do it with money if you're a swindling store owner, or with armies if you're a politician on the world scale.
Michael McKean and Edie Falco in The True. Photos by Carol Rosegg.
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