After winning a Tony for Take Me Out, taking aim in Assassins, and making the beleaguered Sweet Charity watchable, Broadway’s favorite comic actor has gone Off Broadway for the rural farce Pig Farm (by Urinetown’s Greg Kotis), where he plays an oddly menacing EPA agent. Boris Kachka asked him about this career twist.
So this is a change for you . . .
I guess the big thing to say about Pig Farm is that none of us knows if it works, and we’re going in blind. It’s in the tradition of Urinetown, kind of—but that’s a pretty small tradition. It’s possible that it can fail.
Are you looking to do more serious roles?
Yes! When I got cast in this, I was like, “Yay!” and then “Fuck!” I’d much rather wrench my guts out eight times a week than come back from not getting laughs for two hours.
But there’s less pressure Off Broadway.
There are values on Broadway that are dangerous: It’s got to be Best Musical, it’s got to make money, it’s got to run a certain amount of time. Nowhere in this, of course, is there any mention of quality.
Was it Sweet Charity that turned you off? You had to renege on The Constant Wife when it reopened.
No, it was fun—it was a riot. But I hate singing. I hate dancing. I enjoyed doing Cabaret and Assassins, but I would wither up and die in The Music Man.
You do lots of movies, too, though not as the lead.
Well, I’m moving beyond the one- and two-scene range. The downside is, I tend to go up against really big actors. If you have a choice between me and Stanley Tucci, you’re going to go with Stanley Tucci.
Were you up for his role in The Devil Wears Prada?
I was up for the movie. But I don’t even know—what part did he play?
The design-director mentor.
Well, then it was that.
And it’s another character-actor role. Do you mind that label?
I take it with pride. We don’t have the burden of pretending to be attractive. And the lead is always opaque: The guy’s always nursing sorrow for a dead wife or a dead child, is always intensely quiet, and has one bad habit. When Johnny Depp plays it, it’s really interesting. With Tom Cruise, you know exactly what you’re gonna get.
You have a lot of side projects as well.
I’m making a documentary about street musicians. I want to make [one] on the phenomenon of religious simplicity in this country, which I loathe.
You also build Joseph Cornell–style art boxes for friends.
I love it. I’m a little bit of an obsessed artist, and I’m not very talented. But isn’t Suzanne Somers a bad painter?
She’s a bad poet.
Okay. And Tony Curtis paints. And Paul Newman makes salad dressing. Everyone’s got their expressive mode. Or maybe I’ll just adopt babies. That’s a good hobby.