Reed Birney has become a ubiquitous presence on New York stages, appearing in some of the most celebrated new plays of the past few years. He received a Drama Desk Award last May for his work in three critically acclaimed dramas: A Small Fire at Playwrights Horizons, and Tigers Be Still and Dream of the Burning Boy at the Roundabout Underground. He also starred in the controversial, wildly popular 2009 production of Sarah Kane’s Blasted at Soho Rep, and was a member of the Obie and Drama Desk award-winning ensemble of Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation. In addition to a host of other Broadway, Off-Broadway, TV, and film credits, he is the recipient of an Obie Award for Sustained Excellence in Performance.
Birney is a richly versatile actor that younger, aspiring performers in New York look up to, and one young playwrights consistently gravitate toward — an actor, director, and playwright’s actor, if there ever was one.
He spoke to the Days of Yore over popovers on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
You were born in Delaware, but raised in Western New York?
Right. In ninth grade we moved to Buffalo, which even now I can’t really believe. My dad was an Episcopal Minister, but he had done mostly administrative work. He would assist bishops. So we went from Delaware where he had a parish over to the diocese in Western New York. And it’s a nice place, I guess, but I just never saw myself as anybody who spent any time in Buffalo. But then… I did. I went to high school there.
Did you always know you wanted to act?
I’m one of those little freaky kids who knew really young. I remember saying to a group of grown-ups at 5, I’m going to be an actor, and they all laughed. “He’s adorable and weird!”
So you were one of those kids putting on puppet show performances and things like that.
Yeah, the puppet show guy. But I feel like I had this epiphany. I went to see The Wonders of Aladdin, I believe, with Donald O’Connor. And I seem to remember thinking: That’s for me. I want to do that. Why? Who knows.
Did your dad ever make you perform at church?
It never was tied in that way, but it was interesting because he didn’t have a parish most of my life. Whenever I would see him preach, though, I was amazed by how much of a performance it was. Like: That’s my dad performing. That’s not the guy I see at home.
Was that weird?
It was a little weird to see. Like – why is he talking like that? I still think it’s very weird to see people you know in a play. I can’t work on auditions with my wife, because it feels silly. I’m being someone else. It doesn’t feel quite right.
So you do a bunch of plays in high school and then head to college for acting?
I did. I went to Boston University for two years and then dropped out. I thought: I could be treated this badly for free. So I came to New York and went to Circle in the Square, a theatre school here. And it was terrible. It was really about getting grant money to keep the theatre open, that’s the only reason it was there, I think. So I was unhappy there, too. But I got my [Actor’s] Equity card doing children’s theater — two of the worst shows ever written.
What were they, do you remember?
Two soft rock musicals. One was called Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and the other was Swiss Family Robinson set in America. And they were an hour long. And we traveled from Maine to Florida in – if my memory serves – an unheated station wagon. No iPods or Walkmen. Just the radio.
And each other.
And each other, right. A real sad, unhappy group. I was 20. I only lasted at Circle for 3 months and then started doing these shows.
Was it a resistance to education or more of an impatience to get started doing it professionally?
I just think I was ready to go. I was a cutie-pie, you know? I thought, I need to strike now while I’m young and cute. But the youth culture had not begun yet, so there really wasn’t much of a premium on being young and cute at that point.
Really? I thought that was always a premium.
No, they still had 30-year-olds playing 18-year-olds in movies, at that point. So I was sort of on the wrong side of the fence. But then when I got a little older, I suddenly became too old. Funny how that works.
So you toured with these shows for a few months.
Yeah, and they paid a little bit. Like $350 a week, maybe? It was produced by the same people who produced Chicago, but this was before they’d moved up to Broadway. They basically sent us out on the road and forgot about us. We’d be stuck somewhere in Louisiana, you know, with everything folded up into the back of a truck. It was pretty gruesome. The guy who played King Arthur was 40, and he was the driver, and he was a Vietnam vet. He was an angry dude.
Would he tell a lot of stories?
He just got very very dark. Imagine being this 40-year-old vet and this is the best job you’ve got…
The thing is: A lot of new York is filled with the guy who was the star of all his high school plays. You just come to New York and assume it’ll keep going like that. But the other thing that happened – and this is sort of telling – one of the reasons I dropped out of BU was because somebody came up to me at school and said, “They’re doing a musical version of Look Homeward, Angel on Broadway next year, and you would be great as Eugene.
A producer came up and suggested this to you?
No, just a classmate! He was like: you should go up for that, you’re good for it. I was like, “Great idea! I’ll just go do that.”
That easy. So how did you finagle an audition for it?
Frances Sternhagen was a family friend and I wrote to her and asked if she could get me an audition and she did. She helped a lot. So I snuck down to New York one Wednesday and went and sang for everyone around a piano. They were perfectly nice, but in my 19-year-old mind, I thought…I got it. They were gonna do Look Homeward, Angel at Circle in the Square the following winter, and…
You thought: this is in the bag.
Right, I thought: I’ll drop out, I’ll be at Circle in the Square, and then I’ll be on Broadway. So then I started to become obsessed with Thomas Wolfe [the author] and reading all his stuff. I came to New York, changed my life, went to Circle in the Square. And then my memory is — let’s say the first day of classes — they suddenly announced, they’re not doing Look Homeward, Angel, they’re actually doing Where’s Charley.
So I was like … great! Fantastic! So the show was being postponed. And then I got this children’s theatre tour. Went out on the road but was still just completely obsessed with Look Homeward, Angel. I was going to be the guy, you know? I would write letters to the composer. We went near Asheville, North Carolina on the tour and on the day off I took the bus and spent the night at the boarding house [featured in the book, which is now a Thomas Wolfe Memorial]. There was a point, I think, where if they had done the play and not cast me, I would have killed myself.
So even the mere possibility…
I was the character. I thought I knew more about it than anybody in the world. I needed it.
But, it’s an interesting thing — and part of a lesson that actors learn over and over — When I got back from the children’s theatre tour, a year went by, the show hadn’t been done, but then somebody said to me, out of the blue, “Oh I read in the paper they’re actually producing Look Homeward, Angel.”
Like the same classmate. He followed you around.
Yeah, exactly. But no, so I wrote to the composer and said, “I’m still interested if you’re still interested.” So then they called me in again, and I sang for them again. It was for a summer of backer’s auditions. And then, they hired me! They did. So I spent that summer of 1976 performing for backer’s auditions in New York for producers and money people as the guy. As the guy I dreamed about. It was going to happen. Amazingly, as part of this publicity stunt, we flew to Asheville and did the audition IN the boarding house, and Wolfe’s only living relative, his brother, came to see it.
So it all worked out.
Well, wait. There’s more. What nobody told me is: Everybody doing the backer’s audition they wanted. Except me. They wanted Don Scardino. He was acting then, he directs 30 Rock episodes now. He was in, but he didn’t want to do the backer’s auditions. I was just a placeholder.
And I’m in this acting class the whole time. And in this class with me is Mercedes Ruehl and Sigourney Weaver (before they were famous.) But I credit this class with everything I know, it was taught by a man named Gene Lasko. We did a showcase one year and a couple of Sigourney’s classmates from Yale came to see the showcase, and they said Sigourney’s next play is a play at Playwrights Horizons — at the time the second play ever at Playwrights Horizons — they said, “Would you like to play her brother in that play?” Well, it turns out it was a play called Gemini.
Which ended up going to Broadway, right?
Well, not yet. We were rehearsing in this unheated building in Times Square. And Look Homeward, Angel was announced — it was going to be done first at the Northport Dinner Theatre in Long Island. And Gemini was 9 performances at Playwrights Horizons, that’s all it was. And I remember coming in to this building and being so bummed out — thinking: All these guys are going do this show, I’m in this stupid showcase, I’m a loser. I went out to Long Island to see Angel and Frances Sternhagen was playing the mother. And it was actually … it was terrible.
Well, that must have felt kind of good, right?
Yeah, but I still wanted to be in it. [Laughs.] But then Gemini gets done, and a producer picked us up to go back into rehearsal after Christmas and do that play out in Long Island. So we go out there, do it, and the last performances Marshall Mason and Lanford Wilson come see, because they had lost a play at Circle Rep and needed a play, like, tomorrow. So then we came back and opened at Circle Rep, and it’s a huge hit. The hardest ticket to get in New York. The play moves to Broadway, where it runs for 5 years.
Look Homeward, Angel finishes its run, takes them another year to raise money for Broadway. Then they opened across the street from Gemini, a year to the day we opened that show. There was this huge one-year-anniversary party – Liza Minnelli, blah, blah, blah, all these people. We finish the show that night, go to the opening night party of Look Homeward, Angel, and I’m there when the scathing review comes out. And then it closes the next day.
Across the street from you. Well, so what does that whole story say? Does that say something?
I guess the key moment is me crying in rehearsal [for Gemini] saying, “I’m in this piece of shit, Gemini, and I could be in Look Homeward.” The point is…we never know. We never know. And the lesson we learn over and over again, as painful as it may feel, is that we’re all exactly where we’re supposed to be.
I’ve had to relearn that lesson over and over again since then. It comes to a point when in your 50s and you don’t have enough money to pay your bills and you say, this was a terrible mistake.
Do you still think that sometimes?
No. Not anymore. There have been 3 times I’ve tried to leave, and the last was in 1986, when I was being crushed by it. I felt like, they’re not getting me. Nobody gets me. And I don’t know what to do. So I took a trip around the world. In May of ’85, I was walking up Broadway just…I felt myself shrinking. Dying. And a little voice said to me, “Go around the world. Go see all the things you’ve always wanted to see that you never let yourself see because you wanted to be an actor.” I was 31.
Were you married at this point?
No, I was living with a woman, but we seemed to have an aversion to talking about a future. I said to her, I’m not going on this to break up with you, but I think it will be useful if we have anything survivable. She of course left me over the course of the year…married a guy who she’s still married to.
So you were gone for a year.
A year to the day. I moved to Paris for 5 months, my grandmother had died and I had a chunk of money, so I had that. I only knew one person there. And the day I arrived I was waiting to get the key to my apartment from a friend I went to high school with, who was the head of Columbia Pictures in Europe. He was a distributor. And he said, “Did you make a movie called Crime Wave?” And I said, “Yeah its terrible!” And he said, “Well it’s opening here in a month, do you want to do publicity for it?” And I said, “Sure! Why not.”
[Laughs.] Look at that! So you were suddenly a movie star in Europe?
Sort of, yeah. For a moment. Film Festivals, red carpet, all that. The movie was still terrible, but I met all these amazing French people. I was there for 5 months, so the rest of the time I was in Paris, I had this fantastic social life. But then I took off with a backpack and went to Greece, bummed around islands for several months, went to Africa, Zimbabwe, went to Bali.
Did you find yourself missing it when you were gone?
I just came to the realization that I’m an actor. For better or for worse. And, you know, you have the same feeling sometimes: It’s like, why am I an actor? I will never understand it. But part of my despair was: I thought I’d been given a gift to take care of. And I was a bad caretaker of the gift. I wasn’t coming close to my potential, and that I’d fucked it up. So I finally don’t feel that way anymore, but only in the last five years.
Do you think that comes from – when you’re younger you feel an inherent cockiness that you feel like your career should be a certain way that it never is? And then its harder to accept the way things are?
I’m sure that’s a huge part of it, but there’s such a learning curve, where you figure out how the business works. And just cause you want it, doesn’t mean you’re going to get it. It’s a great blessing and a great curse. I think we are leading more examined lives than maybe our friends are.
It makes you ask questions every day – why you’re doing what you’re doing.
Yeah, it does. There are enough examples of guys who just come out of school, were in a parking lot, like Brad Pitt, and get discovered and it’s like: how does that work?! He was in a diner! Should I go to a diner?
Spend more time in diners, yeah.
I should go to diners more. [Laughs.] Sigourney told me this story about how, in the 80s, Mel Gibson did this Mutiny on the Bounty remake. And it put him on the map. And Christopher Reeve had turned it down, and he was at a party just flipping. out. Like – “That Mel Gibson is napping at my heels.” He was incredibly threatened, like another cute young guy was coming to take all his part. You know, it never stops. Never stops. It’s a mental thing, especially in your 20s or early 30s and you don’t know that yet, not really: that everybody goes through this, no matter how successful you are.
So back from your round-the-world trip. Did you plunge right back in to things when you got back?
Well, I get back, and one of my first auditions back I see a guy I always saw at auditions. And he goes, “Hey Reed, what’s up? What’ve you been doing?” And I thought: Oh, I haven’t missed a thing. It’s still all the same.
And of course it’s not something you’ll ever regret: going around the world.
Right. It had completely changed my life. And then I got back on track. But years go by, and its still all about perseverance, about not blowing your brains out. Things didn’t really change for me. You get into horrible debt and you get a job that gets you out of it. And that’s another lesson to learn: somehow or other, eventually, it’ll all get taken care of.
Did you work other day jobs?
The only one I ever did was work in an ice cream parlor across from Lincoln Center for about two months. It was no fun. In my early 20s. And then once, at a particularly low time, I worked in the subscriptions department for Lincoln Center for about…two weeks? Two weeks. That was in the 90s. I was so broke, and a lot of other actors worked there, but it just wasn’t for me. I couldn’t do it. I thought I’d rather struggle than hurt myself doing that.
So what turned things around?
Honestly, stuff didn’t really change for me until I was about 50. I got a job at Steppenwolf in Chicago doing a beautiful play called Theatre District with the About Face Theatre Company. And after that I got Homebody Kabul[by Tony Kushner] at Steppenwolf, with Tracy Letts. I was the father. And then we went from there to the Taper [a theatre in L.A] and Maggie Gyllenhaal played my daughter in that. And then we brought that to BAM. And then Tracy, after working with him, he asked me to do his play Bug, in New York.
I loved that play. How was that process, rehearsing that?
Most of that rehearsal process I thought, this was the biggest flop I’ve ever been in. I don’t know who these people are, I’m in a community center, it’s over. We were supposed to start previews Saturday and Amanda Plummer, the lead actress, quit on the FRIDAY before. She just quit. So they called Shannon Cochran who had done it 8 years earlier in London — she flew in on Sunday and they started rehearsing the next day. On Wednesday, Brantley [NY Times reviewer] saw it and it got a rave. Huge.
After that, my stock had changed somehow. People in New York thought of me differently. It was an important time.
And now you get to do things like Blasted, one of the most controversial and biggest things I remember since being in New York…
Yeah, after that play, I feel like I can do anything. I remember my wife wasn’t going to see it, but when everyone started talking about it she said she wanted to come, but she wasn’t going to tell me when she was coming. After she saw it, she said, “I watched you in the play and thought, there was a man who was giving everything he had to his work, and there was nothing left over.” But I don’t know, I felt so energized doing that play. When people came up afterward, in whatever Blasted state they’re in. They saw me in the lobby and I’d be like, “Hey! Where we going? Let’s go!” And they’d be like, what are you doing? How can you be like that after doing that play?
“How are you even standing?”
Yeah, but the thing was: It did everything you want a play to do. It was like playing cops and robbers. I have a gun, I shove people against the wall.
It’s so far away from your life.
Right, I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, I’m not English…
You don’t get sodomized by guns.
Right. None of that. It’s a different thing. Small Fire, Dream of the Burning Boy, those plays were harder to shake off at the end of the day, because they’re so much closer. What if you had a son who you never spoke to? And he died? That would be awful. If your wife went blind and you had to describe your daughter’s wedding to her? You know, harder to shake than Blasted. At least for me.
What would you tell young actors starting out today?
I think people need to be studying, need to be in class more than they think. It’s important to have a support system. So important. And not just people you meet waiting for EPAs. You need to have consistency – people who know you and like you and who you feel you can be an artist with. You’re meeting people who will have careers, who will remember you. You’re acting together. Because I was never able to go to parties and cultivate “cool friends,” I was never interested in a career like that. If I was going to be famous, it was going to be as a great actor. That was what’s important to me. And it still is.
It’s a long process, a long time to learn that your life is more important than your career. And at the end of the day, I have to be with myself. I remember early on, when I was in that showcase with Sigourney [Weaver], one of my brothers was getting married in the middle of it, and I was going to miss a weekend of performances to go to this wedding. And the girl in my acting class said, “Why are you missing it?” I said, “I have to go to my brother’s wedding.” And she’s like, “I would never miss a play to do that.” And I just thought…what are you talking about?! That’s crazy. At the end of the day, you have to make choices you’ll be proud of down the line.
Interview by Lucas Kavner
Photo by Matt Harrington