From the Archives: When Sam Shepard’s True West Came to Broadway

From the Archives   From the Archives: When Sam Shepard’s True West Came to Broadway
 
Looking back at the Tony-nominated Broadway debut of Shepard’s classic work, which featured stars John C. Reilly and Philip Seymour Hoffman swapping roles nightly.
Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly
Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly

Digging into the archives, we unearth the original articles printed in the Playbills of yesteryear...

Before Cynthia Nixon and Laura Linney earned Tony nominations for alternating as Birdie and Regina in Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes, John C. Reilly and Philip Seymour Hoffman did the same thing (and also earned Tony nominations) in the Broadway debut of Sam Shepard's True West. In this April 2000 interview, both actors talk abotu how director Matthew Warchus convinved them to tackle Shepard's "dissection of his own psyche."

Just what do we have in this chaotic Sam Shepard comedy about sibling rivalry, which has landed on Broadway? Is it The Tales of Hoffman or is it The Lives of Reilly?

Truth to tell, True West is both. Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly play both of the battling bros—Lee and Austin—jumping from the drifter brother at one performance to the screenwriting brother at the next, switching back and forth for the duration of the run.
It went that-away in London when director Matthew Warchus revived—and refereed—Shepard’s 20-year-old opus at the Donmar Warehouse, so he’s repeating the chore for Broadway. Talking his two leads into an extra performance each is a special art, not unlike selling ice cubes to Eskimos, and Warchus knows what buttons to push.

“Matthew had a great point of view,” recalls Reilly. “He said, ‘It’s not like you’re taking on two roles. It’s like you’re sharing the work load.’ In the old days of English theatre, this was done a lot. Olivier and Richardson would do it all the time. One guy would play Othello, and one would play Iago. Then, the next night, the reverse. It’s not very common here.”

Another consideration facilitating this casting stunt is the symbiosis of the two roles. The brothers are not all that dissimilar, although they begin at opposite ends of the spectrum. “They become very similar at a certain juncture in the play, then they pass each other,” notes Hoffman. “What’s great is the two brothers become each other by the end of the play. The screenwriter yearns to be freer, and the drifter craves stability.”

The creative coming together of characters and actors started a few months back in a rehearsal hall on West 16th Street—in identically the same room where Warchus made Art two years ago, obviously a lucky place for him since that wound up with the Tony for Best New Play—a category that True West, new to Broadway, curiously qualifies for.


In the actual application of the rehearsal process, Hoffman contends the double-casting makes sense. “We would do a couple of scenes together as one character, then go over them again as the other character. I would be playing Austin and learning about Lee by osmosis. Through John rehearsing it, I’ve learned information that I needed to know.”

Reilly nods in agreement. “Yeah, even though you’re focusing on the character you’re playing at the time, you can still hear the conversation the director is having with the other actor, so you’re just picking up all this information—but you’re never obligated to take the discoveries of the other actor for your own. Paying the one role is pretty consuming, so you’re not really watching what the other person is doing. I watch Phil’s performance when we’re acting together in scenes, and I enjoy what he does. It’s not like I’m noting the different changes that he does and ‘How am I going to do that differently?’ It’s just I enjoy being in his presence and the reality of his work, but I’m focused craft-wise on the part I’m playing when I’m doing it. It’s been really an enriching experience.”

Warchus hedged his bets by picking his cast carefully. “Sam wrote the play as a kind of dissection of his own psyche, so I think Matthew deliberately looked for people who’d be a balance of the two characters,” figures Reilly. “Phil and I are certainly that. In talking about our personal experiences, we realized a lot of both characters are in us.”

Both actors have appeared in all three feature films of Paul Thomas Anderson (Hard Eight, Boogie Nights and Magnolia) but only did scenes together—glancingly—in Boogie Nights. Still, these projects were enough for a friendship to develop off camera, and an unfaked friendship was Warchus’ prime consideration in casting.

A prior history was not only helpful, but Reilly admits he “wouldn’t have taken the job without it. I happened to meet Matthew first when he was in L.A. He liked what I did, but he said, ‘I can’t just ask you to do it if I don’t have some idea who’d be your brother. Who would you suggest?’ The only person I could think of who (a) could do it and (b) I could get along with was Phil. I told him I wouldn’t have done this without him.”

Enter Hoffman: “And I wouldn’t have felt compelled to do it until John said, ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if both of us did this?’—because it’s too intimate. To play both parts is a very intimate thing to do because you’re exploring the play twice, from both angles. You have to have confidence and a respect for the person you’re with—respect, mostly. You must know the person. I can’t imagine doing this with someone I didn’t know.”

Happily, he (and we) won’t have to. A Mutual Admiration Society’s gone Trust West.