October 17, 2008
By Dany Margolies
Seeing couples onstage together can be quite a treat — think the Lunts and the Cronyns. Not to raise expectations too high, but now Los Angeles audiences can look forward to a local married couple in How Cissy Grew, written by Susan Johnston and directed by Casey Stangl, playing at the El Portal Forum Theatre Oct. 18-Nov. 23.Said couple is James Denton and Erin J. O'Brien. He is currently best known as the blazin' plumber Mike Delfino on Desperate Housewives, but his résumé also includes his sturdy work as Judge Augustus Ripley on Philly and dozens of other screen credits. O'Brien is best known for her stage work, primarily in NYC, with credits at Manhattan Theatre Club, the Public Theatre, and New York Shakespeare Festival. The two play marrieds whose baby is abducted and returned.Denton and O'Brien sat down with Back Stage before rehearsals began to discuss their work on the play and their philosophies and practices in general.
Back Stage: Were you a kid who had to be on stage?
Erin O'Brien: I started as a singer, singing in the church choir, and I always got the solos, not because I was the best singer but because I was the loudest. Did musicals throughout high school. I went to University of Minnesota Duluth and got my Bachelor of Fine Arts, where I did mostly musicals. Took a year off to work as an apprentice at the Children's Theatre Company of Minneapolis, which is where I'm from. Got into NYU graduate acting program. Once I graduated from graduate school, I think my first gig was Adventures in the Skin Trade, directed by and written by John Tillinger and James Hammerstein — which was an utter failure. I talked to my Jamie when we started getting into [How Cissy Grew] and getting really excited about it, and I said, "You know, I've never been in a hit play. I've been in 40-50 plays. Jamie and I met doing a play, how I met and fell in love with him. The play was Asylum, by a buddy of mine, Brett Rickaby, who I went to University of Minnesota Duluth with and went to NYU with — I kind of followed him to NYU. And then we immediately did another play by one of Jamie's best friends, Michael Petty, who wrote a play called Locked Up Down Shorty's.
Back Stage: And were you a kid who wanted to be an actor?
James Denton: No, God no. No, I kind of stumbled into it really late in life. The first play I ever saw I was actually in. I grew up in a town called Goodlettsville, Tenn., outside of Nashville. They talked me into being in a production of Our Town when I was 23. I was an advertising salesman for six or seven years out of college. I was doing community theatre just as a hobby after that because I really enjoyed it. And then I was almost 30 and hated my job, and enough people said, "You should try this; you could do it." And you don't want to ever wonder. So I lost my mind one day, went in, and turned in my notice. I was selling advertising for a local TV affiliate in North Carolina. I moved to Chicago, which was the best thing for me because if I had gone to New York I probably would have given up quicker; whereas in Chicago, there's so much theatre, and if you're willing to work for little or nothing, you can work. I was in Chicago five years and did 16 plays. It was a pretty good education.
Back Stage: But you lost the Tennessee accent apparently, and you have lovely enunciation. So you took an acting class along the way?
Denton: Never even set foot in a classroom. I tried to in Chicago. I signed up for a class and got cast in Streetcar and thought, "I'd better take this." So I never had any instruction — which I have mixed emotions about. I felt really uneducated, just out of respect for the craft. But at the same time, those 16 plays I did in Chicago with 16 different directors and everybody from Brecht to Tennessee Williams was pretty good. When I was in Chicago I realized that if I didn't hide the accent it was going to be nothing but Beth Henley and Tennessee Williams.And you still hear it. In fact, every television show I've ever been on, by the end of the run they've made the character Southern — to sort of explain why you can sort of pick it up in me. But I had to get rid of the worst of it or I never would have worked.
Back Stage: To get back to training: Most actors say they learned the most from being on stage, not from schooling.
O'Brien: This is what we learned in graduate school. To get into graduate school you have to have a pretty remarkable bag of tricks. And then for the three years you're in graduate school, they don't let you dip into your bag of tricks. They cast you as the 83-year-old. And then when you get out of school, it's about discovering, "Oh yeah, that was in my bag of tricks." "Oh yeah, that was something that was really easy for me to play." So I think it's really interesting, the having to get rid of your bag of tricks thing and then to get it again.
Back Stage: How much did you audition?
O'Brien: I auditioned a tremendous amount coming out of school. I had general meetings and other things. I hated it. I hated walking into the room and thinking, "Please like me, please like me!"
Denton: I love to audition. It's one of the things I miss the most, being on a television show. I was a salesman; I've got a really thick skin. I'm very in touch with my flaws and my shortcomings. And I'm not really too offended by what other people think. So I loved going in. It was like a sports analogy for me — going in and fighting for a role, going in as a salesman and reading the room, figuring out who the players were and how to attack it. It didn't always work, obviously. But my first agent [Sandy Bresler at] Bresler Kelly commented that I had a shockingly high success rate for how little experience I had. And it's not because I'm a good actor, by any means. I approached every audition as a sales meeting. I was extremely prepared. And since I've auditioned actors as a director, I've realized that's really uncommon, disappointingly.
Back Stage: Do either of you worry about finding your next role?
Denton: I never worried about it. I've looked at every acting job I've ever gotten as the last one, which I think is healthy because you don't spend the money and you don't do anything stupid. I have friends who get on a TV show and go buy houses and cars, and I just cringe for them and feel horrible. We were ready to move to Montana after Threat Matrix. I was 39 or 40, and thought, well, it was fun. I had been a series regular on three shows and had a lot of luck. We were really investigating getting out of town. And luckily I had been with ABC for a long time, done two pilots for them, two series. And I was the only person they tested for Mike Delfino [on Desperate Housewives]. So I was really, really lucky. But, yeah, I think you have to look at each job as if it's your last and just be prepared to do something else. If you can't handle that lack of security, I can imagine you'd be miserable.
O'Brien: I left acting a long time ago to get into the fitness industry. I like teaching people how to exercise. It's been seven years since I've been on stage, and I'm really looking forward to being in a play and having the "play" experience, and being on stage with him.
Back Stage: How did How Cissy Grew come to you?
O'Brien: There's something every fall called FallFest, where NYU alumni get together and share. And Susan [Johnston] and Casey [Stangl] put up 15 minutes of a little play called How Cissy Grew. We saw it, and I was incredibly moved by it, and they saw me in a film and thought, "Oh, she'd be good in the role of Darla." So they wanted to do a reading of it later, to see if there was going to be any interest, and they called me and said, "Would you be interested?" And they said, "Oh, by the way, how about your hunky husband?" Every time we've done the reading — we've done two staged readings now — it's kind of been a magical, in my opinion, evening.
Back Stage: How did you find your Cissy?
Denton: We had a really great actress in our readings, though we wanted to find somebody who was closer to the right age, which is really tough. We even had the casting director try to find a teenager or early-20s girl that had the fierceness or the edge, the ferocity that Cissy had to have. It's a tough part to fill in L.A., but we found one in Liz [Vital], and she's fantastic. We [auditioned by] recommendations, we had a casting director help us: Scott Genkinger, who casts Housewives, sent us a few people. We saw a lot of Cissys.We did have Megan McNulty, who had worked with friends of ours. We had seen her in a play, loved her. Physically, she didn't look like there was any way she could be our daughter, which we kind of wanted — which isn't necessary. We don't want to get hung up on it like you do on TV and in film. But it's nice.
Back Stage: What did you work on when you were doing the staged readings? Did you have notes for each other?
Denton: We certainly were not like Fred Willard and Catherine O'Hara in Waiting for Guffman: "And afterward, she gives me notes." No, we all discussed it together. But so far they've left us alone individually. And with a three-week rehearsal process, and the play's only 70 minutes, that's probably the reason we can get away with it. And it flies. It's a play with 34 scenes. It jumps around, from moment to moment. Erin compared it to dumping all the photos out of your photo album on the floor.
One of Casey's great things, we have found, is that she is very concerned with transitions. So all four of the actors are going to stay on stage the whole time. And we'll be responsible for jockeying the stuff around. It's a very minimal set. Plus, in a way, the characters will be witnessing, overhearing, observing the moments themselves. I think that will be a cool convention.
Back Stage: That's a long time on stage, no water, no concentration break.
Denton: I did a play in Chicago called Mariposa, where I played an artist with a block; I couldn't paint, and I stood at an easel for an entire play. And that was a little scary. But after the run of that, I felt like, okay. But if I hadn't done it, I might be a little more leery. But [here] the work is so evenly divided among the four of us, and there are plenty of scenes I'm doing nothing except helping with the transitions, as is Erin. The boy, played by Stewart Calhoun, has less to do. He plays a New York boy and a West Virginia boy that is involved with Cissy, and a couple of other small roles.
Back Stage: What do you admire most about each other's work?
O'Brien: I like his ease with himself and his ease with language and his ease with being onstage. I've never seen him "act." And I think that's why he's been so successful in his career. He never had to learn a technique, so he never had to fall back on a technique. He's a wonderfully naturalistic actor, and everything that comes out of his mouth is really realistic, and it's very challenging for me to respond to him as realistically as possible, which is kind of nice if we're playing husband and wife. You don't want to draw on your personal life to an nth degree, but it's kind of charming if you have an inside joke between the two of you or a comfort or an energy between the two of you that you can bring to the stage. I saw Liam Neeson and his wife, Natasha Richardson, do a play at the Roundabout, Anna Christie, and I think it was before they were dating, but seeing them on stage and seeing their energy with each other — and it wasn't even a sexual energy, it was an intense attention energy — just having that energy between you two is….All right, so go ahead. What do you think about me?
Denton: Oh, wow. Almost just the opposite, in a way. And I think that says a lot that we're attracted to things about each other that we felt weren't our strengths. Like Erin said, she feels the need to be more natural or react in a certain way, and why she acts with a chip on her shoulder. I think it would be hard for you to play mousy roles. You had to find a way to get stage presence out of a 4-foot-11 frame. And so you always have this power on stage, even if it's just your nose a little bit in the air, you're a little bit loud and a little bit tough. But you almost act with a chip on your shoulder — actually that's a compliment. But it gives you a power. You found a way in your youth to get a lot of power out of a tiny little person. I don't know how, because it's not volume.
Back Stage: How do you warm up, and any pre-show superstitions?
Denton: One thing I used to do that I thought was kind of fun, when I lived in Chicago and the first role I got cast in was Stanley in Streetcar. It was a 200-seat house. I was so far out of my league. Every opening night from then on, in all 16 shows I did in Chicago, the day of opening night I would take the "L" down to the Loop and walk around downtown Chicago on the river, just to be in the city and remind myself that I belonged. It's like, "Okay, you're in the city, you can do this." It became my ritual, to walk around downtown about an hour before we had to go in for opening night. Which is odd for me, because I'm not a superstitious guy, but I miss that about when I lived in Chicago. But now I don't really do anything particular. Do you?
O'Brien: I do some Alexander Technique stuff and breathing stuff. I do vocal warm-ups. I do articulation warm-ups.
Denton: Ma me me me mash my M&M's.
O'Brien: Absolutely! I was in Quilters when I was in college, and they sing a song, "Land Where We'll Never Grow Old." I sing that song before every show.
Denton: I had a ball bearing that I found in tech week of Streetcar that I put in my pocket for the entire run. And I kept it and had it in my pocket of every costume of every play that I did in Chicago. So I guess I am a little bit superstitious.
How Cissy Grew is presented by D-I-Y Project in association with SeaGlass Theater at the El Portal Forum Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. Thu.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m. Oct. 18-Nov. 23. (818) 508-4200 or (866) 811-4111. http://www.elportaltheatre.com/.