Before he hit 25 Reed Birney was already a Broadway star in a hit show that wasn’t even a musical. In 1977 Albert Innaurato’s blue-collar Philly with a gay-twist comedy Gemini had moved uptown to the Little Theatre, where it settled into a long run on the strength of a crass and unavoidable TV spot (“I’ll just pick!”) and the hint of hipness, reassuringly danger-free. At the center of it all was Birney’s Randy Hastings, all-purpose lust object. I was about the same age at Gemini‘s opening night, and, like Birney, found myself 39 years later in the same theater, possibly the same placement on opposite sides of the proscenium in what is now the Helen Hayes Theatre (though probably not for long, another story).
Randy is not the adjective that comes to mind on first view of Birney’s Erik Blake, in Stephen Karam’s extraordinary drama The Humans, which is a favorite to win the Tony for Best Play on June 12. Erik and his wife (the incomparable Jayne Houdyshell) have driven in from Pennsylvania for Thanksgiving dinner at the bi-level subterranean Chinatown apartment their younger daughter has just moved into with her boyfriend. For the young couple, it’s romance incarnate. To Erik, it’s the Second Circle of Hell.
What is it about Thanksgiving dinner with the family that brings out the morose in writers? Have I just answered my own question? Think of Blythe Danner and Roy Scheider helplessly surveying the miseries of their appalling brood in Bart Freundlich’s The Myth of Fingerprints. The Humans crackles with wit but it’s in the service of a ghost story, or several, not the least haunted subjects of them being Erik himself, whose secrets will be revealed as inevitably as the beer cans piling up outside the fridge as the evening unfiolds.
Between 1977 and 2016, Birney has lived the actor’s life. Not the one of discovery, fame and fortune. The one of hard work, disappointment, rejection and months of self-doubt that suddenly become years until, at long last, the patience and work and humiliation that is the actor’s lot finally, finally yield fruit. Birney’s resurgence is remarkable except for the simple fact that he’s so good — whether as Kevin Spacey’s beleaguered veepee on House of Cards or as a nominally straight-white-family man who spends his weekends in crinolines and silk at a secret Catskills getaway for cross-dressers in Harvey Fierstein’s poignant comedy Casa Valentina. Or as a perfect, perfect Uncle Vanya surrounded by younger actors like Michael Shannon, in Annie Baker’s toothsome adaptation of the Chekhov play. Don’t talk to Reed Birney about time passing and lost opportunities. These days, he’s in damn heaven.
DEADLINE: Let’s start in the present with The Humans. I don’t want to litter our talk with spoiler alerts but I hope we can talk about the pivotal aspect of your performance in which the play takes a dramatic and unexpected turn. Your transformation seems to me extremely, particularly calibrated in the card-dealing way that Erik’s personality is exposed.
BIRNEY: I think that the beer helps with that. He’s so anxious, and having a couple of beers loosens him up and his guard gets down. I think a lot of people in the audience think, when that moment is approaching, that I had touched a student — we’re so used to seeing that in movies, it goes to that place. Yet the much truer and
“Because the movie didn’t succeed, nothing happened. It became quite scary, really. There were two times in my career when I went for a year without working, and one of those years I went for a year without an audition. And you start to really lose your mind, you start to worry that you’ve made a terrible mistake, when nobody’s buying what you’re selling. And it was hard.”
weirdly braver thing is to have it be something way more common, and in that Irish Catholic family truly the worst thing he could do. So I was struck by how smart Stephen [playwright Karam] was. And of course really that’s what has to be. It can’t be anything else, because then it’s not the play, it suddenly becomes another play. Working on it, I am still struck at how meticulously crafted it is.
DEADLINE: Something that’s even clearer after several viewings.
BIRNEY: Yeah because you get to see how all that stuff, all the overlapping and the false starts is so smartly crafted. I feel like the luckiest actor in the world that I get to be in this play, honestly, because I’ve never done anything like this. I’ve never played a blue-collar character, basically a janitor, and was nervous about it, I’m not going to lie. I just thought…
DEADLINE: More nervous than in Casa Valentina?
BIRNEY: OK, I was nervous with that too. Casa Valentina, we had two days of a makeup intensive. We all showed up together and they put wigs and makeup on us, and we all were shaking. It was really something how primal that, your masculine identity, is, and how we cling to it. And they were asking me to let that go. I guess I was scared in a different way. But then I realized that what janitors look like a lot, they don’t all look like Fred Flintstone, they look like a lot of different people. I will say [director] Joe Mantello was so brilliant in directing this play and directing me, the way he kept asking me to go deeper and deeper and deeper.
DEADLINE: How did your group deal with the subtext of 9/11, which overshadows the play?
BIRNEY: In truth we didn’t talk about it much. Just as 9/11 is revealed so artfully in the play, it didn’t really need to be. We all knew what that was. I suspect I wandered around that neighborhood. But we didn’t talk about it a lot. We only had two weeks of rehearsal.
DEADLINE: Say again? For the Roundabout [Theatre Company, where the play had its premiere before moving to Broadway)?
BIRNEY: Yeah. We opened the season, so they had actually built the set for us and we were able to rehearse on it, which saved a lot of time. But it was two weeks. That was a first. I’d never done that.
DEADLINE: Can you talk a little about the middle period, when you were continuing to be a working actor but I imagine not getting the kinds of role you’re getting now.
BIRNEY: It was really hard. I came out of the gate pretty quickly, pretty well with Gemini and [the film] Four Friends with Arthur Penn. And then it all went away. I did Gemini for a year and a half, and it was really too long. I was young and I didn’t know how to do that. I didn’t have that much to do in the play and because it was so outrageous it got out of shape quickly. No one was minding the store. It was painful to watch it fall apart like that. And then Four Friends was going to be a big deal, and it opened and every agent in America called me up to work with me, and I had just signed with [ICM superagent] Sam Cohn, and they said, “Oh well, we can’t compete with that. Good luck, that’s fantastic.”
And because the movie didn’t succeed, nothing happened. It became quite scary, really. There were two times in my career when I went for a year without working, and one of those years I went for a year without an audition. And you start to really lose your mind, you start to worry that you’ve made a terrible mistake, when nobody’s buying what you’re selling. And it was hard.
DEADLINE: How did you survive?
BIRNEY: I tried to leave a couple of times because I just thought, I can’t, how stupid am I to continue doing this thing? I even went to a career counselor once in ’94. It feels recent, but it wasn’t. And she had successfully “rehabilitated” several of my actor friends. After four months she said, “I got bad news. You’re an actor. There’s nothing to be done.” Terrible, terrible. The thing that really changed everything was Blasted in 2008. In so many ways it empowered me as an actor in a way that I didn’t know I could be. And it also exposed me to a whole generation of these brilliant 30-something playwrights and directors who had no reason to know who I was.
DEADLINE: Boy, talk about rough. That was a violent, no-holds-barred plunge into the abyss.
BIRNEY: I almost turned it down because it scared me so much. And I didn’t know people had been waiting 14 years to see it, and I didn’t know anything about it. And then I thought because it did scare me so much, I thought I’d better do this. How can I ever complain about my career again if I turn something down because it scared me? And then the transformative moment was, I took my clothes off like the third day of rehearsal because I thought, I can’t do that thing that people do of waiting till tech, because I would be out of my mind by then. And I didn’t die! It was thrilling.
DEADLINE: You did Circle Mirror Transformation and then Annie Baker did her adaptation of Uncle Vanya for you.
BIRNEY: I don’t think I’d ever even seen it. All of my dream parts as a young actor were young men, and I never thought about playing older guys. I never saw myself as older. And P.S., I never got to play a single one of my dream parts, they all came and went, not one. But it turns out the older parts are better. And if you had said to me when I was in Gemini and 22, “Just wait till you’re 58, things are going to be amazing”? Now’s my time. I think that I actually have the soul of an older character person, and I was stuck in this juvenile’s body playing callow young men for decades. I was 32 when I played my last teenager. I was so sad. I just thought, this can’t still be happening. I can’t be playing kids anymore, and goofballs.
DEADLINE: Do you get much feedback from people after seeing The Humans?
BIRNEY: People wait after the play. I think the play affects middle-aged men in a huge way. More than one person has commented that they have never seen so many men crying in the theater before. I think that’s great. And maybe these are men that, their wives brought them to the play and it wasn’t their idea to begin with. A very good friend of mine came and we went out for drinks afterwards. In the middle, a propos of nothing, he said, “I’ve heard my father crying in the dark.” Brutal.