Caught In the Act
New York Actors Face To Face
Interviewer: Don Shewey
Years before he was immortalized as the Man of Steel, Christopher Reeve appeared on Broadway with Katharine Hepburn in A Matter of Gravity, held down a continuing role on Love of Life, and lounged nearby while William Hurt skinny-dipped onstage at the Circle Rep in My Life. Every summer he can, he joins the star-filled acting company at the Williamstown Theater Festival in the Berkshires, even crooning tunes in the festival's cabaret tent after hours. He prides himself on the versatility his Juilliard training gave him. And lest anyone confuse him for a brainless hunk, he speaks about his craft with earnest articulation.
Still, his image remains formed by his iconic presence in Superman, Superman II, and Superman III. When he was filming The Bostonians, he was frequently embarrassed to be stopped outside the studio by mobs of teenage girls while his costars, legendary actresses such as Vanessa Redgrave and Jessica Tandy (the original Blanche DuBois) walked by completely unrecognized. Even on the set, Tandy tended to go unnoticed as she sat quietly in a corner in the makeup and costume of a much older, feebler woman. One afternoon, during the shooting of an outdoor scene, a silence fell over the set as the sound crew strained to hear if any aircraft threatened to intrude upon the scene. "Is it a plane?" asked someone, and a tiny voice from Tandy's corner called out, "No, it's Superman!"
When we met, Chris wasn't feeling especially super. He had ground down a disk in his back and was in a lot of pain, especially since he was performing eight times a week as Count Almaviva in Andrei Serban's strenuous production of The Marriage of Figaro at Circle in the Square. So he sprawled out flat on one huge sofa in his airy Upper West Side duplex apartment while we talked.
Did you always want to be an actor?
Since the age of twelve. Growing up in Princeton, New Jersey, I was exposed to theater at an early age, and it became part of my life. I was invited to play small parts at the McCarter Theater, that grew to bigger parts, and pretty soon I realized I was committed to this. I felt it was something I could do that nobody else was doing - the way look kids look for some kind of experience that sets them apart from the group. By the time I was fifteen I had worked as an apprentice at Williamstown, and at sixteen I got my first real professional job. I got the grand total of $440 for an eleven-week summer season in Boston at the Loeb Drama Center. I thought: This is it. When I was a senior in high school, my mother and I had a little negotiation - I wanted to go to professional school, Carnegie Tech, Northwestern, Yale, one of those. She said, "Please don't do that, please go to college. You need time just to read some books and think and have friends."
So I went to Cornell and read English and music theory and skied for four years and went off on acting jobs in the summer. I picked Cornell because of its inaccessibility to New York and temptations to work. I had an agent by this time, a very important New York agent named Stark Hesseltine, who was starting to send me up for things. I was meeting David Merrick and Joe Papp; Lynn Stalmaster, who eventually cast me in Superman, was constantly calling me in on big movies, things like The Great Gatsby and The Godfather. But by this time I had the idea of balance in mind. Many of the actors I knew seemed very limited as people. They were so career-oriented and so obsessed with getting ahead, that really didn't have much else going for them. I began to see the point of being able to discuss other subjects, to be interested in history and politics and government and music and Russian and French. So the decision to go to college was a good one. After I got out, I quickly picked up the professional pace again. I went to Juilliard for one year, but I dropped out at the end and said, "I've held back for ages, and I'm now going to call myself a full-time actor and go for it."
I was living on a budget of $40 a week, so I wouldn't spend more than $20-25, so I decided to get some money right away for security. I took a job on a soap opera, Love of Life, for two years. Suddenly I was making $750, $1000 a week. Whoa! That was incredible. While did it, I also appeared all over town in plays - at Theater for the New City, Manhattan Theater Club. Then Stark got me an audition for a Katharine Hepburn play called A Matter of Gravity. This was a big ego boost, because she decided she wanted to see [he does his Hepburn imitation] "all the new actors in New York." Out of all this "modern" talent, she decided that I should be her grandson. Of course, everybody thought that was my big break. Now I'd made it. My friends were looking at me as if I was a big star. In fact, I was supporting Katharine Hepburn in a Katharine Hepburn play. When the play closed, suddenly I felt a terrible letdown. I quit the television show in June. Two years on a soap opera is plenty. If you stay on a soap opera too long, you get used to - oh, I don't know, making heavy drama out of pouring coffee.
Then somebody suggested, "You should be in California. You really have it to be in the movies." So I hopped on a red-eye and went. California was a shock to me. I couldn't believe the things that people took seriously out there.
What do you mean?
I remember being up for a series called The Man from Atlantis, about this guy from Atlantis who's part fish. They said, "God, you mean you don't want to go up for that stuff?" I said, "No, I don't. You have to understand. I'm a deadly combination of a preppy and a snob, and I just don't get this stuff. Leave me alone."
I had gotten my pilot's license a couple of years before. I took all my savings from that soap opera, and instead of getting a decent place to live, I spent $4000 on a second-hand little airplane called a Cherokee 140, which is like Volkswagen engine with wings on it. This for me was freedom. So when I was supposed to be going to callbacks for The Man from Atlantis, I'd be up gliding in the Tahachapi Mountains at 12,000 feet. I could not make myself take it seriously. I'd been nurtured on a classical theater that had value, and I just couldn't see cashing in. To play those parts, all you had to do was show up and look nice. That's not enough to justify getting out of bed. I was looking for a greater challenge. I look at those six months in 1976 when I was in California as the nadir of my professional life, when I was completely without enthusiasm and just couldn't get motivated at all.
Finally I said to myself, "I really belong back in the theater." So I put the sleeping bag and food in the back of this little Cherokee, took two weeks, and flew across the country. As soon as I was back in New York, I felt the energy, the electricity, the excitement, and I found my mentor, Stark Hesseltine, saying, "Well, we wondered how long it'd take you to come crawling back here." I had two auditions immediately. One was for a play at Circle Rep called My Life--Bill Hart was playing the lead, Jeff Daniels was also in it - and the other was to play Harker and stand by for Frank Langella in Dracula. I went to both auditions in one day, got both jobs, and immediately went to work in this play My Life and thought: Ah, I've landed again! I'm happy, busy, busy, busy.
I say all this as a prelude to what's coming next, because suddenly, having been reestablished in the theater, I got another one of these temptations - to go and screen-test for Superman. I remember sitting in the dressing room with Bill and Jeff, saying, "You'll never believe what happened today. The phone rang. They are going to make a movie out of Superman." They said, "Which? Shaw's Superman? Or the one with the cape that goes 'up, up, and away'?" We all had a good laugh. Movie? That sounds ridiculous, it would be stupid. Then I began to think: Well, at least I can read the script. Bit by bit I was getting hooked. I read the script, and I immediately saw a way to play this guy as a gentleman and a scholar in the old-fashioned sense, as opposed to just a muscle-builder.
Then I heard they've got Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, Susannah York, and so on, and they're going to shoot in London, and I could probably bag a quarter of a million dollars - good-bye! I went to London and screen-tested for the part. The idea of going to London for the weekend struck me as unheard-of, outrageous. But a part of me just had to try something terribly unlikely. The screen test was the first week of January '77, and we started shooting March 28. I left the play January 15 and went to London and trained for two months.
Were you a bodybuilder before?
You wouldn't catch me dead in a gym. No way. I was 6'4" and I weigh 190. By July of that year, I weighed 215, and it was newly acquired muscle. The oddity is that I really saw Superman as a performance opportunity. It was an interesting challenge to turn people's expectations around. They're expecting it to be a cartoon, a joke, camp, something laughable - and with a little luck we can make it romantic and stylish. I think we were able to do that. What I underestimated, though, was how much the role means to the public at large. For me, it was a really fun job, but for them - the world is looking for heroes, and it's hard to let go.
In retrospect, I sometimes think that right after Superman I tried a little too hard to experiment. It's not coincidental that right after Superman I played a gay Vietnam veteran with no legs in Fifth of July on Broadway, a psychopathic homosexual in Deathtrap, a crooked priest in Monsignor--I went into a kind of denial of the hero side of me. I played a lot of people you had varying degrees of sympathy for, but you probably didn't want to be. It was not my conscious strategy. It was what I needed to do. Everybody has a basic need to define himself for the world, not the other way around. Why is it, for example, that Gerard Depardieu, as soon as he's proclaimed a great romantic French actor, suddenly puffs up to 250 pounds? He has another idea of himself inside. Very few people - only Arnold Schwarzenegger that I can think of - will say, "Yeah, I'm exactly the way you think I am, and I'm going to cash in on it."
Supeman is nothing more than a popular retelling of the Christ story, or Greek mythology. It's an archetype, watered down and made in vivid colors for twelve-year-old's mentality. It's pop mythology, which extends to the actor, then seeps over to a demand that that actor reflect the needs of the worshipers. The worship doesn't only go on in the temples - it goes on in the streets, and restaurants, in magazines. But, you know, I'm from New Jersey, I'm not from Olympus or Krypton, so back off 'cause I can't take the responsibility. The theme of my life at the time was: Screw you, people, for needing me to be more than what I can be. By all means, pay five dollars and go see the movie, but leave me alone. I do think that's fair.
How much does your being tall have to do with your becoming an actor?
I'm very na•ve on that account, because of my father. My father is a very well rounded individual, somebody with a very, very strong intellect who's physically imposing as well. Today we think of the intellectual as sort of a reedy, dusty type with a pipe who's not able to cross the street very well. And we think of the athlete as being thick-headed. When you find both of those aptitudes in the same person, it can be disorienting. My father had that problem for ages. He just doesn't look like somebody who's a Russian scholar and a major poet. So to some extent he impressed on me that you are not responsible for the way you look. I'm not complaining - I'd rather be attractive than ugly, for sure. But you can't stand back and say "That's my identity" and just get a free ride out of it. And this culture does give a free ride to good-looking people. Because of his work ethic or his own needs, my father communicated to me that you must find something more difficult and go chase it.
But being a writer or scholar doesn't depend on how you look, while being an actor does.
Somewhat, but not as much as you think. I look at Vanessa Redgrave, a striking beautiful woman who's never been limited by her looks. There's nothing she can't play. All that really matters is your ability to communicate the truth as you understand it. And this will transcend appearance. Unfortunately, you don't often get the chance. Richard Dreyfuss once said to me, "If your nose is on sideways, they think you're a better actor, because they sympathize with you more. But a guy like you, you don't look like you need help. So if you come out and play a character who's in pain, we are going to doubt it unless the acting is so good that we can't deny it." That's the challenge for all "good-looking" actors.
You can make a lot of money just looking good - that's the Robert Redford story, I think. He has a lot more talent than he lets you know about, and never plays anyone unsympathetic. He's decided to be the fair-haired boy. I'm bored by that, and I'm condemned to this fascination with seeing what else I can handle. The real challenge, which very few physically attractive actors accept or care about, it to see how deep I can go, to get people to forget what I look like. The actor is a ball of Silly Putty - you twist it, put cookie cutters in it to make whatever shape you want. This, combined with the teaching I got from my father, convinced me that you are not limited to your physical shape. You can move forward.
When the interview was over, we left his building together. It was the middle of the afternoon, and the elementary school on his block had just let out. Suddenly we were engulfed by kids yelling, "Look, look, it's Superman! Christopher Reeve, Christopher Reeve! Hey, Superman!" Chris turned bright red, trying to ignore them. Finally, he wheeled around and yelled "Boo!" at a bunch of kids. What none of them noticed was that, on his way to the chiropractor to deal with his bad back, Superman was limping.
1986 NAL Books