Carnies With Teeth: Morgan Freeman and Peter Gallagher

Photo: Amy Arbus

When Clifford Odets wrote The Country Girl in 1950, he was still fighting to win back New York after a bad stint in Hollywood, and his play was appropriately focused on the finances—and backstage battle-of-the-sexes chicanery—of show business. Mike Nichols is resurrecting this very Broadway cautionary tale about a washed-up actor, his shrewish wife, and the hotshot director who thinks he knows everything; Morgan Freeman, Frances McDormand, and Peter Gallagher star as the knotted and mutually destructive trio. Freeman and Gallagher hadn’t met before the production started, but Nichols seems to have known they’d be simpatico. They spoke with Katie Charles.

There were parts of the play that initially seemed old-fashioned, like the toll taken on the strong woman behind the scenes. But then you went into previews right after the Spitzer scandal broke …
Morgan Freeman: Hey, go back to Clinton. Same thing. What do they say … Peter Gallagher: Well, they say behind every great man is a very surprised woman. What’s cool about this show is that it’s a world that we all know. It’s not like we’re surgeons or rocket scientists or gold miners; we’re theater people. M.F.: Carnies. P.G.: We’re carnies with teeth. I was doing a scene once in Nantucket, in a graveyard, and an old Yankee lady pulled up in a station wagon and said, “We don’t want you here. We don’t want you and your carnies here. Get out!”

What’s the working relationship between you two and Mike Nichols?
P.G.: Mike said an interesting thing. He said he always tries to cast the same person—what he means is that the way we work, our sense of humor, is not totally alien. We’re all alike. Morgan and I just met, but I feel like I’ve known you forever. It’s like done, signed, sealed.

Morgan, what are the challenges of getting into character as an alcoholic?
Nothing. No challenge there. But he’s really not an alcoholic. He’s a lush.

What’s the difference?
M.F.: He’s never had to detox. He’s just had to be stopped. That’s the major difference between an addiction and an overindulgence. His problem is that when he gets very insecure he satisfies that sense for a brief period by drowning it. I’ve had enough experience with being drunk to know how it feels. One thing I was very aware of once were the fumes. You wake up the next morning with the headache and think, “If I could just get away from those fumes, I’d be all right.”

In the play, Frank and Georgie are eking out a living in a sad tenement. Did you ever live that way?
M.F.: Absolutely. In San Francisco. Single-room occupancy. The kitchen was the size of a small closet, with a little two-burner hot plate. The bathroom was down the hall, and there was a glory hole in every stall. I was working for the post office to get my stake to go to Paris. But I stopped in New York.

What was the challenge of playing Frank?
M.F.: Somebody said to me, “It’s going to be interesting to see you play a character like Frank Elgin. Because you’re so powerful.” More people see you in movies than ever see you onstage, and the characters they’ve seen, I can walk up walls, stand up to lightning and shit. That kind of moral fortitude—people always want to confuse you with the characters you play. [To Gallagher:] Have you ever done a soap opera? I was on one for a year, and you are that person on the screen. P.G.: I did one, for three days. I broke my wrist, so I had to be out of [a theater production] for a while, and they asked me to be in this soap—to play an Olympic pole vaulter with a broken wrist. I’d be walking down my street, and I was assaulted by old ladies: “You have some goddamn nerve.”

Do either of you ever feel dogged by your big roles, playing Seth Cohen’s dad on The O.C. or Red in The Shawshank Redemption?
P.G.: Thank God I’ve been around the block a few times. I waited a long time to do television. I had a blast when I was doing it. But the show didn’t last very long. And now I don’t even remember it, really. M.F.: It’s all over the map. It started with Easy Reader, on The Electric Company. Which used to terrify me, because that’s when I was drinking too much, and I was terrified of becoming Captain Kangaroo, the icon of children’s television. P.G.: I think you’re almost out of the woods. M.F.: Almost.

The Country Girl
Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre

Carnies With Teeth: Morgan Freeman and Peter Gallagher