Mr. Wyman, we all know you as a brilliant stage, television and film actor and a former President of the Actors' Equity Association. However, it seems that you plans were quite different when you were attending Harvard University. How did it happen that you became involved into the Broadway production?
When I enrolled at Harvard, I first planned to be a lawyer, then my plans changed to being a law professor, then a professor of English Literature. I had previously dismissed the idea of being an actor as being both too difficult/chancy a career-path and (my view at the time) a waste of my exceptional intelligence. My plans to be an English professor were derailed by Harvard's telling me that my grades in English were "too erratic to warrant having a senior member of the faculty read my thesis" - so I would be unable to graduate from college with honors and would have to start my climb in academia from the bottom of the graduate school ladder. This made being an English professor almost as hard as being an actor, so I decided to try my hand at becoming a professional actor - giving myself until I turned 30 to become successful (an eight-year hedge). I attended an acting school in NYC for two years, and then began auditioning for work. I was cast in a season of non-union summer stock and then got my first union job in a touring production of a Broadway musical. I was then cast in two productions at a well-known Connecticut summer theatre, and one of those two productions transferred to Broadway, beginning my Broadway career and bringing me to the attention of agents and casting directors.
Tell us a bit about your childhood. Did your raising in New Jersey somehow influence your future development as an actor?
Although my parents were not particularly well-to-do, we generally lived in well-to-do NJ suburbs that had excellent school systems, so I was given a quality education and drama was part of the curriculum. I remember playing Revolutionary War hero-turned-traitor Benedict Arnold in a biographical skit for history class in seventh grade. I remember two things in particular: 1) the girl I liked played Arnold's wife and 2) when I died as Arnold, she covered my face with a blanket which, because I am so tall, uncovered my feet when it covered my face, causing the class to laugh. I have been pursuing laughs ever since.
One of your most famous Broadway parts was Freddy in the 1981 revival of My Fair Lady. What steps did you have to take to get this role? With all this business competition on the market, how much effort does it take for a young actor to become part of the Broadway сommunity?
My Fair Lady was actually my fifth Broadway show, so I was well-enough-known to get an audition for the show through my agent. That is the first hoop an actor has to jump through to get a Broadway role: getting represented by an agent. Only a few thousand of the tens of thousands of actors and aspiring actors-to-be in New York have an agent. The second hoop an actor has to jump through is being selected by the casting director from the perhaps 200 people submitted by various agents to be one of the few dozen people seen for that particular role. The next hoop is auditioning for the casting director and being one of the five to ten people chosen to come in for the director, producer and star. I somehow managed to navigate all these hoops and to convince Rex Harrison and the director to pick me. There is another hoop to jump through for most actors in order to “become part of the Broadway community”: learning to sing. In the last thirty or forty years, musical comedies have become the predominant form of entertainment on Broadway. Every spring there are half a dozen dramatic plays starring famous actors from TV or film produced on Broadway for a three-month limited run, but the preponderance of productions - and all the productions that run for more than a year - are musicals.
Tell us about the routines of a Broadway actor. What did your working schedule look like after you had been chosen for the role? What hardships did you face?
Broadway shows are rehearsed for a period of five to six weeks: four weeks in a large rehearsal studio with an outline of the set taped on the floor and then one or two weeks in the actual theater. In the rehearsal studio, actors work six days a week from 10 to 6 with an hour off for lunch; at the theater, the last week is usually noon to midnight with a two-hour meal break. Once a show is up and running, we perform eight times a week with one day off a week. We are required to be at the theater half an hour before the curtain time. The greatest hardship for an actor is figuring out how to make ends meet when one isn't working - and most actors are not working most of the time. While minimum salaries for actors on Broadway seem relatively munificent, most Equity actors are not only not working on Broadway (considerably less than 2% of Equity actors work on Broadway during a given year), they aren't working - period. In any given year, about one-third of Equity actors work for even one week onstage. Most working actors do shows for theatrical organizations that pay one quarter to one-third of the Broadway minimum. These modest wages would barely suffice if the actor worked at these theatres 52 weeks a year, but most actors get one or two eight-to-ten week jobs per year at these theatres. The average income of an Equity actor is less than $20,000 per year -- well below what the US characterizes as "poverty level." Almost every actor has to have some sideline work -- referred to as a "day job" or a "survival job."
Is the inner workings of Broadway theatre different from any other theatre? In what ways?
Broadway theatres are commercial enterprises, intended to make as much profit as possible. Most theatrical enterprises in the US, especially outside of NYC, are "not-for-profit" organizations. Broadway theatres are set up to make Money; making Art is a possible tool or a possible by-product. Not-for-profit theatres are set up to make Art; making Money is a possible by-product or possible tool. Broadway theaters are physical buildings that may house a different show or several different shows every season. The only consistent employees are the stage hands, ushers and box office staff. These theaters are rented to shows produced by various limited liability corporations set up by producers. These limited liability corporations are funded by investors who hope to make a profit from their investment. Broadway producers have a modest number of staff (as well as a few outside contractors) hired temporarily to manage and run that show. Not-for-profit theatres are organizations that exist to produce seasons of several plays/musicals and that may well own a specific theatre building (or two). They are funded by philanthropic gifts and donations from individuals and foundations and corporations that wish to support the Theatre. These individuals and organizations expect no return on their money.
Does Broadway try to create modern interpretations of classical literary works? If yes, to what extent does it deform the original idea of the author? Does it produce any conflicts with the directors?
Broadway, as noted above, exists to make Money. Classical literary works do not make Money (which is why your money-grubbing correspondent has only accepted one Shakespeare job in his life. ;-)) Classical literary works are sometimes mounted in those springtime three-month limited Broadway engagements, and sometimes these productions are modern interpretations (e.g. Ivo van der Hove's production of Miller's "A View From the Bridge"). Most Shakespearean productions -- whether on Broadway or not -- are "modern interpretations." Sometimes such interpretations can be viewed as twisting the meaning of the author, but such interpretations are a subjective point of view and defensible as such. Directors with a strong, iconoclastic point of view tend to work in the not-for-profit theatre and only very occasionally on Broadway, where producers tend to aim for the broadest possible audience and are therefore reluctant to offend anyone. As for conflicts between director and theatre/producer, those are generally straightened out before the director is hired: the theatre/producer usually has a pretty good idea of what he/she/it is going to get from the director.
Performing on stage differs a lot from being a screen actor. Do you think that these fields help you to realize your acting potential in the same way? Which one do you prefer?
I think there are lessons to be learned from and applied to both stage and screen, and the acting called for in each endeavor complements the other. Both call for emotional honesty and truth of character, but in different ways. I admire boldness on stage and simplicity on screen. I like the money I make in film and TV, but I prefer the roles I get in the Theatre. (You can read a column I wrote for our union journal "Equity News" entitled "Why I Do Theatre." http://www.actorsequity.org/aboutequity/president_archive23.asp)
You appeared in many popular plays, TV-shows and films: Catch Me If You Can, A Tale of Two Cities, Phantom of the Opera, My Fair Lady, Die Hard With a Vengeance, Planes, Trains and Automobiles etc. What is, in your opinion, your best part and the most underrated one (perhaps they coincide)?
I think I did my best work on Broadway as Thenardier in "Les Miserables" and I also feel very good about my work as Lennie in "Of Mice and Men" at the Pittsburgh Public Theatre in 1978 and as LBJ in "All the Way" at the Asolo Theatre in Sarasota, FL earlier this year. My favorite role was Patrick O'Reilly in "The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940," which I did first at the Circle Repertory Theatre off-Broadway and then on Broadway. My character was pretending to be an Irish tenor at an out-of-town backers' audition, but was actually a Nazi assassin sent to track down and kill a cross-dressing secret agent who had gone rogue. My accent was this delicious mix of Irish vowels and German consonants.
As a former President of the Actors' Equity Association, you dedicated much time and effort to the improvement of working conditions of its members. What was this job personally to you? Did you manage to achieve your goals?
I am very proud of my five years as President of Actors' Equity. The job was a chance to repay the membership and the industry for the previous 35 years of opportunity: a chance to be of service, to give back. I achieved some goals. I made connections with other labor leaders in the US and with other acting union leaders across the globe. I helped our membership celebrate 100 years of professional American Theatre by speaking at over 30 events at cities around our country during our Centennial Celebration in 2013. I helped negotiate contracts for actors on Broadway and Off Broadway and in regional theatres that put more money in their pockets and protected them in the workplace. I built a relationship of new-found trust and respect with the Broadway League, the trade association that represents our Broadway and touring employers. I helped initiate the effort to put Theatre in Los Angeles (which is currently almost entirely done in small, 99-seat theatres for as little as $7 to $11 per show) on a more professional and remunerative footing. This effort is still ongoing (and the subject of a lawsuit by some of our members against the union and its leadership), and the anger engendered by those who felt the union's leadership was out to destroy Los Angeles's unique theatre scene resulted in my losing my re-election bid last year. So, we shall see what results are achieved in Los Angeles, and although I am disappointed in my inability to communicate to the Los Angeles members that I truly believe there is a place for Art as well as Commerce in their local theatrical environment, I am proud of my efforts to lead the conversation of change.
What projects would you like to take part in in the future? Who would you like to collaborate with?
Thanks to my unions, I have a defined benefit pension (actually I have three of them -- from Actors' Equity, from SAG and from AFTRA) which provide me with enough money to pay most of my bills. Consequently, I can be more selective in choosing work opportunities, and I hope to focus more on Art than on Commerce. Last year I did a new play at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut, and this past winter I played Lyndon Baines Johnson (another President) in "All the Way" at the Asolo Theatre in Sarasota, Florida. They asked me back this winter to play LBJ again in the sequel "The Great Society," but I chose instead to do a new musical in Toronto, Canada that is planned for Broadway next season. I hope to return to the Asolo and I hope to get another crack at "The Great Society" somewhere. There are many directors I would like to work with -- Sam Gold, Joe Mantello, Mary Zimmerman, and several others.
What advice would you give to the actors who are only at the beginning of their way?
I have actually just written a 126-page book on "How to Be a Successful Acting Person." Here is a selection The three most important words to your success? Network, network, network. Remember the connections that attending well-known theatre schools and colleges can bring? Well, you don't have to wait until college or acting school to begin making connections. You may have useful connections through your high school, your home town, your parents. What show biz folk are connected to your high school? Your town? Do your parents or anyone else in your family know people in show biz? Reach out to these people. Be courteous. Be gracious. Praise them and/or their accomplishments. (Here's the dirty not-so-secret secret about show biz folk: we all have egos; we all worry that we're not quite as great as we'd like to be; we are all willing to believe it if someone tells us we're great.) Make a request. The request may be simply to be able to e-mail them or phone them again in the future. It may be to ask them to forward an e-mail of yours to a colleague of theirs. It may be to ask them if you could treat them to a cup of coffee or a lunch to ask them a few questions. And then -- whatever their response -- thank them. If you have their mailing address, send them a written thank you note. Rinse, repeat. Praise people, ask them for advice, thank them. Show biz folk are not only susceptible to praise or even arrant flattery, they also like to proffer advice. And everyone likes to be thanked.