Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The Actor: A two-time Tony nominee and Obie Award winner, Anthony Heald (rhymes with “field”) worked exclusively in theater for more than a decade before playing character parts in film and television in the mid-’80s. His signature turn as the pompous asylum-keeper Dr. Chilton in The Silence Of The Lambs typed Heald in what he calls “sleazeball in a suit” roles, although a long association with David E. Kelley offered more varied opportunities on television, especially as Boston Public’s stuffy but sensitive vice principal Scott Guber. This year Heald will return to the stage opposite Bradley Cooper in the London production of The Elephant Man, and then tackle King Lear at the California Shakespeare Festival.
Anthony Heald: By ’96 my wife and I had been married for 10 years and we had two children, and we were living in Montclair, New Jersey. Coming in and doing theater when you’re living in Montclair means you have to leave the house before 6 and you don’t get home until well after midnight. On weekends, you can’t get home between the matinee and the evening show. So I was missing a significant amount of my children’s lives, and we vacationed out there at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and I thought, “Wow, this is really nice.” Then I thought, “Well, why not move? Live in a small town that’s got the biggest theater in the country, and just say goodbye to the New York grind.” So we did that for three years.
Then I was thinking I’ve got to top up the coffers a little bit, so I’m going to take a season off and try to do some film and television work. I was doing something on The Practice, and David E. Kelley told my agent he’d like to have me play a lead in his new series. And after thinking about it for quite a while, because it was a big change, my wife and I finally decided that it made sense.
For the first season, I flew back to southern Oregon every Friday, and then back to Los Angeles every Sunday night. I did that July through December, and then finally by January I said to my family, “I can’t do this. I can’t be away from you. So, please, we all need to move to Los Angeles.” My kids were upset, because they didn’t want to be pulled out of their schools. They’d been in Ashland for four years, and now we’re going to move again? So I promised them that my son would finish high school and my daughter would finish middle school in Los Angeles before we would move back to Ashland.
The A.V. Club: The work you did on Boston Public was wonderful, especially your scenes with Chi McBride. It’s like watching two great musicians playing a duet.
AH: What was wonderful about working with Chi was that he and I have entirely different work habits, entirely different approaches to the whole business. We would show up in the morning to work on a scene, and when we went onto the set to discuss the scene and work out the staging, I was already in full costume, I had gone through makeup and hair, I had all the lines learned. Chi would saunter onto the set in his street clothes, saying, “What’s this scene about?”
Then after they got everything staged, while they were lighting, we were sent back to our dressing rooms. He would learn his lines, come onto the set ready to work, totally loose, totally, “I’m going to try it this way, I’m going to try it that way, I’m not sure what I’m going to do, I’ll ad lib some stuff.” Very free, very kind of improvisational. Whereas I’m a theater guy. I do it by the numbers. I learn the lines as written. So I gave him a great deal of structure while he was working, and he pushed me out of my comfort zone and threw me things that I wasn’t expecting. So we each brought out a different side of the other that wouldn’t have been there if we hadn’t been working together. It was good.
AVC: Tell me about David E. Kelley. So much of your television work has been on his shows.
AH: Very hands-off, in terms of he never shows up on the set. David’s very loyal. He finds people he likes, and he reuses them. Kathy Baker did Picket Fences, and then she came on our show. When I was doing my first thing for him, which was a judge on The Practice, I almost turned down the job. It was a straight offer [without an audition]. I read the script and I called my wife and said, “They want me to do a judge on The Practice.” She said, “Great!” I said, “Yeah, but it’s a judge that’s when they’re in Los Angeles. So he’s not a judge who could repeat. And it’s only two episodes, and then that’s it. I’ll never reappear. I think I should turn it down and wait for something that has more of a possibility of an arc, or a judge in Boston who could reappear. Plus, I have this line I say: ‘I don’t know how you do things in Massa-chu-setts.’ ‘In Massa-chu-setts’? I have no idea how to do that.” She said, “You have to do The Practice. It’s my favorite show. You have to!” So I did. And it changed our lives.
AVC: Boston Public was your first gig as a series regular, after three decades in the business. Did it take some getting used to?
AH: It was interesting. My attitude as an actor, because I’m a stage actor, is whatever the director tells you to do, you try it. You don’t resist what a director is giving you. So in the second year of the series, about the fourth episode, one of the producers came up to me and said, “Tony, David Kelley watched the first episode of the year. Hated your work. Just hated it. Just thought you were terrible.”
I said, “What, what, what? Why?” He said, “He thought you were way over the top. That you were way too big. That you were burlesque.” I said, “But, but, but, I was just doing what the director told me to do. He kept pushing me to be bigger. That’s what he was after.” He said, “Tony. Don’t do what the director tells you to do. Are you crazy?” He said, “You play this part 22 episodes a season. These directors come in and direct once a season, maybe twice. Who knows more about the character, you or them? You have to guard that character. If you have any problems, come to the producers. But don’t just blindly follow whatever a director gives you to do.”
And about a week later, Chi and I were shooting a scene in his office with this other director, and the director said, “Okay, this scene, the staging of this, I want you guys to come in from the corridor. You come in and then Chi, you come around the desk….” And Chi said, “What time is this, that this takes place?” “It’s late night at the school, I’m pretty sure…” Chi said, “Then what am I doing in the hall? Am I coming from the bathroom? Am I out there picking up trash off the floor? If it’s nighttime, I’m in my office finishing the work, so I can get home. I’m not out walking in the hall. I’m starting this scene, I’m behind my desk.” So I said, “Whoa, okay, that’s how it’s done.”
AVC: One great thing about Kelley’s writing is that it feels like he’s responding to what the actors are doing. He’s not just issuing the pages from on high, he’s watching the actors and letting them inspire where he’s going to take the characters and the stories.
AH: Mm-hmm. It’s creepy. The word was that he had hidden cameras in the elevators.
AVC: Oh! So, watching the actors even more literally!
AH: I started the process, after my son became bar mitzvah’d, of converting to Judaism, and I think I mentioned it to Fyvush Finkel. But shortly after I began the process, David wrote a scene in which my character takes exception to a student calling him a Nazi, and says, “You may not be aware of the fact, but I’m Jewish. And for you to call me a Nazi…” He somehow knew, and wrote it in. And I would always play classical music in my dressing room, and that became a thing for Scott Guber—him playing classical music. When he wrote the thing for [Guber] to conduct, they got a conducting teacher to come work with me for three weeks. We shot it in the Pasadena Civic Auditorium with the Pacific Symphony Orchestra. It was mind-boggling.
But he stopped writing for the series shortly into the second season. I don’t think he really understood what he wanted to do with this intersection between the adult world and the adolescent world. And I think the series wanted to be more serious than he wanted it to be, in a way. We had a couple of episodes that first season that were, I thought, terrific. One was about the whole concept of saying “nigger” and who can say it and what does it mean. But then by the second season, he stopped writing for it, and they brought in Jason Katims, who was quite a bit younger than David. He’s been doing a wonderful job with Parenthood, but the writing for my character really suffered. [Guber] started doing things like having an affair with a former porn star and it was like, oh, come on.
AVC: There were so many cast changes on Boston Public, which can imply a troubled set. Was it?
AH: The show was in trouble. We got so blasted by the Parents Television Council over the whole issue of Nicky Katt, who played Harry Senate, having a gun in class, and in the first episode he shoots the gun off. The Parents Television Council started a campaign against us right from the start, and it really cut into our demographic, it cut into our advertising revenue, and it put the show in a very bad place. And so we were constantly trying to expand the audience.
Halfway through the [first] season, they fired Joey Slotnick and Tom McCarthy, who were two wonderful people, and great characters. But they were both identified with the dating-a-student thing, so my character fires them. Then, bringing in new people. They’d brought Jeri Ryan in, who was totally not in the world that I thought we were creating. She was a completely alien creature, you know, this stunning blond bombshell. Finally we got Michael Rapaport, and it was like—the show became about the strange relationships and families and life outside of school that the teachers had, not the intersection between the tamers and the untamed, which I think is where the series wanted to live. So from the middle of the second season until the middle of the fourth season, when we were canceled, it was basically putting in the time.
AVC: What was the first thing you ever did on camera?
AH: I came to New York in ’79, and for the first year it was terrible. I couldn’t get anywhere. I was working as a phone order processor at Lincoln Center, I was doing telephone surveys for advertising firms, I was working as a busboy. Then I got a chance to audition to be a contestant on The $20,000 Pyramid, and I got on, and I won $20,000. So I used that money to take a trip to England and to get my mother one of the first VCRs.
But I also took a soap opera acting class with Stanley Soble. It was 10 of us, and we’d do scenes in front of a camera, and then we’d watch the scenes and take them apart. So that got me feeling a little more comfortable working with the camera, and then I got a couple of bit parts on One Life To Live and As The World Turns. The things that all young actors in New York used to cut their teeth on.
Then I finally got an agent, and the agent was with ICM, a big agency. He got me in as a potential—they had written a new role in a film that Mike Nichols was directing. They needed a new actor to go down there and do this new scene, and they took Richard Jenkins, me, and some other guy. They flew us all down to Dallas, and we were driven up to somewhere in Oklahoma or Arkansas and met with Mike Nichols, individually. And I ended up getting the part, so I did a day with Meryl Streep. You always think, when you work as a day player on a film or a TV thing, like you’re visiting a foreign country, where you know a couple of words of the language and a few of the cultural abnormalities, but basically you’re a stranger in a strange land. The next several films and TV things that I did were also that experience.
AH: It’s funny, I got the call from my agent to audition for that, and I read the script, and my character was an undercover narcotics agent. I said, “I don’t think I should go in on this. I’m way too old for it. How could you believe that my character could pass as an undercover narcotics agent in a high school?” My agent said, “There are going to be a great many people in your career who are going to type you out: ‘No, he wouldn’t be right because he’s this type, or he’s this age.’ Don’t you do it to yourself. You don’t know what they’re looking for. They said they want to see you. Go in, do a good job. You never know.” So it turns out they wanted an actor who looked too old to be a high school student, and I ended up working with Arthur Hiller, who directed it. And he then offered me what at that time was my biggest film role, in Outrageous Fortune. So it was a real learning experience in terms of going in on whatever they want to see you for, as long as the material doesn’t offend you.
AVC: It’s surprising that you were cast in a movie starring Nick Nolte, because people say you look a lot like him.
AH: I was standing on the set the first day we worked together, and he walked past me and did a double take. He came over and said, “We should play brothers sometime.” And I said, “Fine!” When he did the Barbra Streisand thing, The Prince Of Tides, they had a father character. Brad Sullivan ended up playing it, but I thought I’d be perfect for that, because there’s a family resemblance.
AVC: You went on to work with Mike Nichols again.
AH: I worked with him on Postcards From The Edge and then on Elliot Loves [on stage]. He loved this play, which was by Jules Feiffer, and he got a reading together with Richard Dreyfuss and Dianne Wiest playing the two lovers, and Cleavon Little and Judd Hirsch and me and I forget who else reading the friends. Mike described the play as a play about a man who gets totally fucked over by women
Then, a couple of years later, we did a reading of Postcards From The Edge at his office, and Annette Bening and I were kind of doing utility outfielders. We were playing all the extraneous parts. This was before Annette really got big. After the reading, Mike asked Annette and me to stay, and said, “I’d like you two to consider doing Elliot Loves.” Then she got another film. It ended up being Christine Baranski, which was much better for me, because I knew her.
He put together a great cast: David Hyde Pierce, Oliver Platt. And we went to the Goodman [Theatre] for six weeks to make sure it was working right before we took it to the Promenade. Tony Walton doing the sets, Ann Roth doing the costumes. And I kept thinking all the way through rehearsals: There’s a problem with this play. I don’t think these characters behave the way people their age would behave. I feel like Jules has written a play about people of his and Mike’s generation—listening to Modern Jazz Quartet, reading Playboy. It just doesn’t fit with my generation, or younger, because I was playing younger. And I thought there’s a real problem with the second act, that the fifth scene doesn’t fit with the other scenes. But it was Mike Nichols, and he didn’t have any problem with it, so I never said a word. Then we opened in Chicago, and the reviews said exactly what I said.
We made one change the whole time we were in Chicago: We changed the word “taxi” to the word “cab.” That was it. We made one interpretive change. I had an 18-minute monologue that started the show. It came up, pin spot, total black, 18 minutes. It was him talking about his love life, and I had been directed to be a schmo. And Mike came back the fourth week or fifth week in Chicago—he’d been gone for a week—and said, “I’ve had a real epiphany. You need to do that first speech as the world’s greatest cocksman. Absolute confidence. You’d fuck anything that walks.” Not change a line of the speech—18 minutes—[but] do it in a totally different way. Anyway, when we got to New York, we ran 28 performances or something. It just died.
AVC: What did you think of Mike Nichols as a director? Did he live up to his reputation?
AH: I loved working with him. A very courtly, pleasant, social man. His direction took the form, as I remember, mostly of anecdotal shooting the breeze. After we’d take a break, he’d tell stories, and then we’d go back, and a lot of the stories related [to the work]. I saw it as a kind of gentle, indirect way of directing. But he never dealt with the serious issues. And he now described the play, because he was [recently] married to Diane Sawyer, as a play about a man who leaps across the chasm of loneliness into the arms of a woman! The play hadn’t changed a bit. [Laughs.] So I was disappointed.
AVC: Did you have a larger role in Postcards From The Edge originally? You’re only in it for about 10 seconds.
AH: He was actually cutting that movie while we were in rehearsals for Elliot Loves. He came in one day and said, “Tony, I have good news and bad news. The good news is, you’re wonderful in the movie. The bad news is, you’re barely in the movie.” There was a much longer scene that went on, and it got cut down to those two lines. But there’s celluloid with me and Meryl Streep and nobody else, so I can safely retire.
AH: It was a great object lesson, because Shelley Long was the kind of actress—and there are a lot of performers like this—who make decisions about how to play things at night, alone, in front of their mirror. Then they come in and do those things. Then there are other actors who make no decisions about how to play something until they’re in the moment, looking into their scene partner’s eyes. So they’re completely available for whatever happens. And those are actors who tend to avoid getting into patterns. Bette [Midler] totally personified that kind of acting.
Arthur Hiller would do 15 takes of the same thing, and he would print all of them. So you’d watch the dailies the next day—he always encouraged the actors to come watch the dailies—and you’d see Shelley do take after take after take after take, exactly the same. Down to the millimeter. The hand movements, everything. Bette would do it angry, happy, sad, giggly. A million different adjustments. Every take was different.
When you do that, you give the director and the editor huge resources with which to assemble a performance. Because our job as actors, especially in front of a camera, is almost like textile artists. We spend so much time getting the right texture of yarn, and working out the color scheme, and binding off the weave, and making it just right, and we do that and that’s our work that we’ve done and then they take it and thet cut it up and stretch it and dye it and put it into a tapestry. And nothing bears any resemblance to what you thought it was going to be. Your performance is no longer yours.
The Pelican Brief (1993)—“Marty Velmano”
The Client (1994)—“FBI Agent Larry Trumann”
A Time To Kill (1996)—“Dr. Wilbert Rodeheaver”
AVC: Right, the editor and the director make the final decisions about your performance. They’re always going to choose the take you didn’t want them to use.
AH: Almost always. [Laughs.] I was so pleased when I did my summer of Grisham—I did The Client and The Pelican Brief, both in August —and Alan Pakula had me in a scene where I’m on the phone with Denzel Washington. He’s called me to tell me that they’re going to print a story that I’ve been responsible for the Supreme Court justices being assassinated. We’re in this office and Alan has set up this shot, and had Denzel call me from a cottage by the shore where he was taking the day off to feed me the lines. But he did a master, a medium, a close-up, and then he did a tight close-up, and I thought, “Why is he going to all this time and trouble? I’m on the phone with Denzel Washington. The coverage is going to be entirely Denzel.” Then when I saw it, the coverage is 80 percent on me, and almost all of it was the tight close-up. That was not at all how I thought that scene was going to be shot.
AVC: Some actors say they can estimate how much they’re going end up in the final cut based on how much time they spend in the same frame as the star.
AH: You know, I’m kind of lucky in that I don’t place much value on my film work. So I don’t get bent out of shape about that stuff. I’ve liked very little that I’ve done in front of a camera.
AVC: So why are you seemingly in every John Grisham movie from the ’90s?
AH: Well, Joel Schumacher did two of them. I don’t know, just happenstance. Luck of the draw. I do a lot of book recordings, and I did record the book The Pelican Brief, so I felt very connected to John Grisham for a while there.
AVC: In The Client, you share your scenes with so many wonderful character actors: Tommy Lee Jones, Bradley Whitford, J.T. Walsh, William Sanderson.
AH: That was a disappointing experience, in a way. I’d met Joel when we were doing Elliot Loves in Chicago, and he’d worked with Ollie Platt on Flatliners, and Kevin Bacon and Kyra [Sedgwick] had been in that. [Sedgwick wasn’t in the movie but was probably around the set because she’s married to Bacon. —ed.] So Ollie and Kevin and Kyra and Joel and I all socialized in Chicago, and Joel and I hit it off. A couple of times he’d called me about a movie, and the movie ended up not happening. Finally he called me about The Client and said, “This is actually going to happen. I encourage you to read the book. You’ll be playing the part of Larry Trumann, and it’s a good part.”
So I read it, and Larry Trumann is a great part. So I signed on. Then I got the first set of revisions, and a third of my role had been reassigned. The lines were now being said by Tommy Lee Jones. Then the next revision, another 20 percent of my lines were now being said by Tommy Lee Jones. The deal was that the screenplay, as written, had Susan Sarandon’s character as the primary lead. But Susan had never carried a film. She’d done Thelma & Louise with Geena [Davis], but that was a shared [lead]. To have her as the top-billed star was scary to [the studio]. So they took Tommy’s part and beefed it up, and they did it mostly by taking from me. I ended up being basically window dressing, with almost nothing to do. I found it frustrating. Very frustrating.
The real joy of that situation was getting to work with J.T. Walsh. I had worked with him early in my career [in The Beniker Gang, 1985], and he was drinking at the time, and he was a terrible person to be around. By the time we did The Client, he’d achieved sobriety, and he was the most wonderful, gracious—just a true prince.
AH: I was working at the Berkshire Theatre Festival, doing Betrayal, and I got a call from my agent that Jonathan Demme wanted to see me for Silence Of The Lambs. The agent said, “Read the book.” So I went to the drugstore and got a paperback of Silence Of The Lambs. Read it in one sitting. Sat up all night. Then I drove down to New York the next day, went into Jonathan’s office, and he greeted me like and old friend and he said, “You know, I’m a New Yorker and I see theater all the time. I’ve seen everything you’ve done, and I really love your work. I’m very anxious to work with you. I want you to be in this movie.” You never have an audition like that!
He said, “What do you want to play? You know the book?” I said, “Yeah. I’d love to play Dr. Chilton.” He said, “Well, Chilton needs to be in his late 50s, so we’re going a good deal older than you. Is there anything else?” I said, “One of the Smithsonian bug guys, that’d be great fun.” So, a couple weeks later, I get news. We’re going to do a reading. Jodie Foster has been hired as Clarice, and Gene Hackman has been hired as Hannibal. The day before the reading, I get a call from Jonathan: “Gene Hackman has dropped out. His daughter doesn’t think it’s the right role for him. So we don’t have a Hannibal. But we still want to do the reading. Jodie is flying in. This is not an audition, I would not cast you in this role, but to help us out, would you, tomorrow, at the reading, read the part of Hannibal Lecter?” Sure! So the first time we read the script, I was sitting across the table from Jodie Foster and I was playing Hannibal. I just had a great time. After the reading Jonathan took me aside and said, “You can play Chilton. You convinced me.”
A few weeks later, we’re going to do another reading. We now have the person who’s going to play Hannibal Lecter: Robert Duvall. Well, that fell through, and finally it’s going to be Tony Hopkins. And I thought, “Tony Hopkins?” Because his film career was in the toilet. Then we did a reading and I sat watching him doing it and I thought, “He’s terrible. He’s terrible! That’s not the way to do it!” Because he wasn’t doing it anything like the way I did it. Then during the shooting of it, I kept—I loved him. I found him a beautiful person to be around. But I just thought he was so wrong for the role. And I had a great time doing the movie, but when I saw the screening, I thought, “This is a disaster. They’re all so excited about this film, but it’s not scary to me, it’s not believable.”
AVC: When did the light bulb go on? Or do you still feel that way about The Silence Of The Lambs?
AH: I still don’t like it as much as everybody else. It was the reactions of other people that made me realize that maybe it was better than I thought.
AVC: So what was your take on the character of Hannibal Lecter?
AH: I can’t remember. I was in a total dream state!
AVC: Deep down, did you think that maybe you would end up playing Hannibal after that reading?
AH: No, I knew absolutely this was not an audition. My hope was that what happened, might happen. That he would say, “Okay, you be Chilton.” Because that was by far, head and shoulders, the biggest film responsibility that I’d ever had.
AVC: Tell us more about the actual shooting of The Silence Of The Lambs.
AH: I was doing The Lisbon Traviata up at the Promenade, with Nathan Lane, Dan Butler, and John Slattery. Dan Butler, who played my lover in the show, was one of the Smithsonian bug guys in Silence, so he went out to Pittsburgh before I did, to shoot his stuff. He came back reporting on how it was going, and then it was my turn to head off to Pittsburgh.
The very first day on the set, there was a scene where I interviewed Jodie in my office, and we head down to see Hannibal, and Jonathan just made me feel so warm, so appreciated, so supported. He had apparently had a horrible thing happen the day before, where the lab had messed up and they had lost an entire day’s work. And when Jonathan found out about it, he burst out laughing and invited everybody over to his hotel room for pizza, which tells you something about who he is. I had brought a video camera to capture some moments from the set, and I started to shoot Jonathan just relaxing. He knew I had a young son, and he said, “Dylan, hi, I’m working with your dad, and I think your dad’s a wonderful actor.” Just so sweet.
And a great technique that no other director I’ve worked with has used: In order to keep things fresh, he’d wait until a shot was set up, and we’d run through it, and all the camera moves were working, all the focus pulls were right, the performances were where they should be. Six or seven takes in, he’d call action, and then he’d come in front of the camera, right up to you, and he’d come in close, and he’d whisper an adjustment, like “Your bladder is about to burst” or “She’s got the worst breath.” Some extraneous adjustment that you don’t have time to process that becomes layered onto everything else and affects everything else as you kind of play with it, improvise with it, while still staying within the lines. It’s one of the ways he was able to get spontaneous, real performances in the midst of shooting and shooting and shooting.
AVC: What was it like working with Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins?
AH: Jodie, I thought, was sweet and bright, really supportive, very warm. And I took every moment I could to watch carefully what she was doing, and I was firmly convinced that she was terribly boring—there was nothing, she wasn’t doing anything! [But] Jonathan didn’t show dailies, so I wasn’t seeing what she was actually doing on camera.
Tony was more a case of just being so crazy about him as a person. One of the first nights we worked together, we were shooting the scene where I’m lying on the bed in the cell and I’m playing with the pen: “They scammed you, Hannibal!” It was a night shoot and we wrapped about 11 o’clock and Tony said, “I’ll see you down at the van.” Then as I was getting out of costume, a P.A. came running up and said, “We forgot to do the insert of you leaving the pen.” So I got back into costume and I said to one of the other P.A.s, “Tell Tony that I had to stay and that he should head on home.” So we spent 45 minutes doing inserts and I went down and got out of costume and makeup and went down, and Tony was still sitting in the van. I said, “Didn’t you get the word that I was [delayed]?” He said, “Yes, but I thought I’d wait. It will give us a chance to chat.”
AVC: It feels like you kind of unlocked something in The Silence Of The Lambs—like you tapped into a kind of malevolence and arrogance that you’ve made good use of since. Or, to put it another way, when I told a friend that I’d be interviewing you, he wrote back: “Great weasel!”
AH: [Laughs.] Uh-huh. Well, when I told Jonathan in that first meeting that I wanted to be Chilton, he said, “Why?” I said, “Well, I always play lovable nerds. Chilton is a much more complicated, less sympathetic person, and I think it would be exciting, for me, to explore that. I think that my sort of boyish, pleasant demeanor would set up a nice contrast with what’s coming out of that character’s insides.” Well, what I found was that it locked me into a certain type of role. It’s a sad fact that screen time is very expensive, and any way that the producer can limit inessential screen time in terms of setting up the story or establishing the characters, it’s to their benefit. So if they can they cast a secondary role with somebody who, the minute the audience sees them on the screen, they already have an established series of responses that are built in. So that the producer doesn’t have to spend a lot of time establishing that I’m a nasty guy, that I’m a sleaze-bucket, that I’m a weasel.
AVC: But you’re a talented enough actor to find creative approaches to those stock characters.
AH: Yeah, but I’ll tell you, I was doing Love! Valour! Compassion! [on Broadway] in 1994, and I got a call from Phyllis Huffman, the casting director, that Betty Thomas, the director, was doing a TV movie called The Late Shift. [It was] about who would take Johnny Carson’s place, Letterman or Leno, and that they wanted to see me for the part of Mike Ovitz, the agent, for a scene with David Letterman. This was a good scene, a four- or five-page scene, and one whole page was this aria by Ovitz, where he basically seduces Letterman to become his client. I really worked on it, and I went in to the audition and it was one of those auditions where you just can’t do anything wrong. It’s like you’re a hawk flying over a landscape and you can see every single rodent and you swoop down and nab every one. It was just perfect. I got done with it and Betty, the director, just literally jumped out of her seat and said, “Oh, my god, you nailed it, you nailed it! Nobody’s been able to make that speech work!” I mean, it was a phenomenal experience. She said, “But you’re doing a show on Broadway.” I said, “I’m out the end of July.” She said, “We don’t start until the first week of August. This is perfect!” I went out and had a steak dinner.
Two weeks go by, and I hear nothing. So finally I called Marilyn Szatmary, my agent at the time, and said, “Marilyn, whatever happened to The Late Shift?” She said, “Oh, Tony, you don’t wanna know.” She said, “Betty brought the tape back to L.A., she went in to have a meeting with the producer, she said, ‘I found my Mike Ovitz.’ She pops the tape in the machine. The producer says, ‘That’s that creep from The Silence Of The Lambs! I don’t want Mike Ovitz played by that creep from The Silence Of The Lambs!’” [Treat Williams played Ovitz instead. —ed.]
AH: It’s a film that takes place in 24 hours, and like with any movie, you’re shooting out of sequence. You shoot what set you’re in. My very first day in Vancouver, we shot the scene in which my character dies. The very last day, 17 weeks later, we shot the scene that leads up to that. My character went through a very minutely detailed deconstruction as the movie went on. His hair started to get mussed, he lost his tie, his shirt got ripped, his glasses got broken. And I sat down with the continuity person and we worked out a chart, so we knew exactly how that deconstruction was going to happen, and then tried to stay with that so that it made sense.
I developed a very serious infection, a staph infection in my foot that I got from my infant daughter, and so I was laid up for a good portion of time. I would have to have a nurse come to my apartment every eight hours, or to the set, and give me antibiotics intravenously. And I was not allowed to go out and socialize, and this was right at the key time when everybody in the cast was bonding. So I felt extremely isolated. I was inactive, so I was ballooning in weight. So it ended up not being a terrific experience. I was excited about doing it because it was more money than I’d ever been paid, before or since, for a single project. And then it ended up being a movie that just did not [get seen]. It was about a cruise ship disaster, and it opened a week [actually a month —ed.] after Titanic. Nobody cared.
AH: I hated the script and the story [of 8MM]. I just thought it was so ugly. And again I play a sleazebag in a suit. But I thought, well, I’ll be working with Nic [Cage]. I had had two good two-person scenes in Kiss Of Death, one with David Caruso and one with Nic Cage, [who] was a sweetheart, and was a dream to work with. Very collaborative, and I was not expecting that. So when Joel [Schumacher] asked me to do 8MM, he said, “I hate the first scene between you and Nic, and Nic doesn’t like it either. So I want the two of you to work on it.” So Nic faxed me an idea that he had for how the scene should go, and so I wrote some stuff and faxed it back to him. When he came to New York to shoot it, we got in costume and makeup and Joel said, “We won’t get to you guys for about two hours, so why don’t you go into Nic’s trailer and actually work out the dialogue.” And I was astonished that Nic treated the situation as a collaboration between two equals. There was no sense of “I’m a movie star and you’re a day player, and this is the way I’m going to do it.”
I violated one of the basic rules of acting on 8MM. One of the very first things they teach you in drama school is: Always die in a comfortable position. I don’t know if you remember the scene, but Peter Stormare has got a crossbow and I’ve got a gun on him. He shoots and gets me in the chest, and I shoot and get him in the neck. He falls face down on the floor. I, on the other hand, am shot through the chest with an arrow, and it’s pinned me to the side of a limousine. So for the next two days of coverage, I had to screw on an arrow and lean up against this [car]. Whereas Peter’s double was lying on the floor and Peter was off in his trailer watching movies. So always die in a comfortable position. Or so your face can’t be seen.
AH: They recreated the [original] set [of Silence Of The Lambs]. They had to make a whole wig for me. I had a buzz cut, because I was still doing Boston Public. We had our first meeting in Dino De Laurentiis’s office. When I walked in, Tony [Hopkins] saw me and he started dancing across the room, singing, “We get to do it again! We get to do it again!” He’s so silly. It was wonderful having the opportunity to work with Tony again. He actually had me come into the set while he was filming something of his and had me feed him the lines. He was very reassuring.
But the movie was really problematic, I thought. Because Manhunter is such a good film of that book, and what made it a good film is the guy who played the FBI guy, William Petersen, brought the weight of the world: a man who had seen the underbelly of society and had been deeply affected by it and changed by it. Whereas in Red Dragon, you had Ed Norton, who looks like he just graduated from high school. He’s got this exuberant, youthful, optimistic kind of demeanor. So I didn’t buy his character’s dilemma.
AVC: Brett Ratner, the director of Red Dragon, used you again in his X-Men sequel.
AH: My agent said, “I’m not sure if you should do this. It’s only one scene.” I said, “It’s a favor for Brett Ratner. I should do it.” It was going to be one day and it ended up being four days. For a 45 second scene, we worked four 16-hour days. It took forever. After every take Brett wanted to look at the video. Everybody else had to gather around and look at the video. So it was just a long process. It’s one scene!
AVC: It’s one scene, but there are two Anthony Healds in it.
AH: I know. I did make screen history: I am the only actor ever to head-butt himself.
AH: The main thing I remember about X-Files was the “Gilly board.” Gillian [Anderson] is very short, and David [Duchovny] is taller. When the two of them were walking in the distance, and they were getting closer to the camera, they would have a ramp called the “Gilly board,” and as they walked closer to the camera Gillian would get on the board, gradually getting taller. I’ve been watching The Fall, that wonderful series she does in Belfast, and remembering those days. I never watched X-Files, so I had no idea that my character was filling in a crucial piece of the story puzzle in the arc of the show.
AVC: You were in the final episode of Cheers. What was the atmosphere like on the set?
AH: Actually, they shot another episode afterward—the penultimate episode, which was a much more intimate episode. They wanted the last episode, which had a lot of people in it, have that not be the last experience for the cast. We were also supposed to have Bill Clinton make a surprise appearance, and we didn’t know until the last day that he was not going to do it. I knew Kelsey [Grammer]; I’d worked with Shelley [Long]. So it was pleasant. And Ted Danson—when you’re the lead in the series on a weekly basis, you’re going to have guests who come in, and the best leads are hosts. They welcome the guests, they make the guests feel comfortable.
When I did Cosby, I was the major guest star. The first day of table work, Bill Cosby wasn’t even there. The second day of table work he sat right opposite me, and after three or four hours, finally during the break I said, “Dr. Cosby, I just have to tell you how thrilled I am to have this opportunity to work with you.” And his response was: [Heald mimics Cosby nodding curtly, then looking away]. Ted Danson, on the other hand, when my wife and kids showed up at the studio the day we were going to film, they came in, he saw them, he said, “You must be Tony’s family. I’m Ted Danson. Come on in. Here’s the green room. There are some snacks over there….”
AH: I had just worked with this wonderful director, Amanda Dehnert, on a production of Julius Caesar that was mind-boggling. I thought it was going to be a big flop. Turned out to be a huge hit. But it was very unlike any kind of theater I’d ever done. I thought, I’ve got to see theater, I’ve got to get out and really explore. I was feeling like I was too conservative in my choices. So I was in New York for the Under The Radar Festival. While I was here I met with the people at CSC [Classic Stage Company] for a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and then then I got a call from my agent saying, “They want you to do Theseus and Oberon.” And I said, “Fabulous! Fabulous! But I’ve got to call my wife.” So I called my wife and she said “Yes, yes, yes.”
Then that night I got a call from my agent, who said, “David E. Kelley has written a new series called Monday Mornings, and he wants you for the lead. It’s a hospital thing, and you’d be the [administrator].” So my agent sent me the script and I read it and I called my wife and said, “You know, it’s basically the same kind of character as Scott Guber. It’s the disciplinarian, it’s the stern guy everybody’s afraid of, it’s the martinet. I just don’t know if I should do it.” She said, “Well, you really want to do Midsummer.” I said, “Yes, I do.” And she said, “Then do Midsummer. But write to David Kelley.” So I called the agent and told him I was going to pass. He was very unhappy with me. Then I wrote David Kelley and explained that I had the chance to do this off-Broadway production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It was a very good letter. And as a consequence, or just because Kelley’s a nice guy, he wrote this character for four of the 10 episodes, so that I could still be involved.
AVC: Playing another sleazebag in a suit, though.
AH: Yeah, except he was my favorite sleazeball in a suit I’ve ever played. I found a kind of a Southern [inflection], a little bit of a good ol’ boy to it. I hit upon that when I was running lines with my wife. She always directs me. She’s terrific. And she encouraged me to go with this folksy, kind of a Columbo [approach].
The Elephant Man (Broadway/London, 2014-2015)—“Ross/Bishop How”
Inherit The Wind (Broadway, 1996)—“E.K. Hornbeck”
AH: It’s a wonderful company. It all comes, as it always does, good or bad, from the top. If you’ve got a real asshole in the lead, you’re going to have a tough company. [But] if you have a sweet, talented gentleman like Bradley Cooper…
AVC: What’s he like as an acting partner?
AH: He’s totally and always, in my experience, in character. Before we make our first entrance together in a scene in Brussels, and I eventually desert him, we’re waiting up [stage] right to come on, and I come on before him, slightly. While we’re waiting, he rests his head on the back of my shoulder and does these kind of verbalizations of [John] Merrick’s voice, and I can feel the vibrations in my shoulder. Then I go out and start the scene. It’s a little point of connection. There’s another scene we have in the second act, where we come on and we kneel by his bed and study the Bible. So I always choose a different psalm each night, and when we kneel down either he reads the psalm or sometimes he puts his head down and I say, “John, are you too tired to read? Would you like for me to do it?” “Yes, Bishop.” Then I read the psalm and he responds. This is all done totally sotto voce, with very little movement or anything. It’s just to keep the scene alive for us.
AVC: Prior to that, your last Broadway role was in Inherit The Wind, with George C. Scott.
AH: I’m such a Scott fan. When I had the chance to do this, my first attitude was to turn it down, or to turn down the audition, because it was Tony Randall’s theater and Tony Randall played the part that I played in the original production of Inherit The Wind. Then Tony Randall called and said, “Play Hornbeck.” I said, “How can I do that? You played it.” He said, “Yes, and I was brilliant! But I’m too old now, so you play it.” I don’t like the play very much, and I’d played Hornbeck before, but I thought, I’ll be working with George, and Charles [Durning].
But then George showed up and he was very sick. He was in poor health through the entire process. He would miss rehearsals. Tony Randall was his understudy. Finally, one performance, after we’d opened, in the second act George was in the middle of a huge, big speech that Drummond has, and like the air going out of a balloon, you could just see him starting to diminish and lose energy. Finally he turned to the audience and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m sorry, but I’m about to faint.” So Garret Dillahunt, who was playing the defendant, and I both jumped up and we took him by the arms and walked him offstage. A hush in the house. The stage manager gets on the loudspeaker and says, “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re going to at this point take a brief, unscheduled intermission.” Tony Randall was sitting in the house. He jumps up and says, “No we’re not!” He runs down the aisle—76 years old—leaps up onto the stage and says, “Let’s just take it back about six lines.” So Garret and I drop George and [rush] back into place, and Tony, in street clothes, finishes the show. So there were unusual circumstances in that show. But George was a sweetheart. I had an old high school friend who just worshiped him, and I told George that he was coming to see the show, and George said, “Let’s all have dinner together.” He was a good man.
AVC: You said earlier that there aren’t many of your film performances that you’ve liked. Which ones are the keepers?
AH: The scene with Marty Velmano in The Pelican Brief. It plays in such tight close-up, and I’m saying one thing and my face is reading something else. I love that scene. That one worked. There was a scene in Boston Public where my character has a crush on Marilyn Sudor, the music teacher. And she is having a relationship with the principal, and I’m trying to cause problems in that relationship. So I have a long scene where I’m being openly supportive of him as a partner for her, but I’m also dropping a few little subtle digs at him. The director was one of the producers. We were going to do it all in the music room. And I said, “I feel like the character’s being duplicitous in this scene, and it’s very hard for me to play that if I’m sitting talking to her. I have no way to pull away from her. It’s so direct.” I said, “If we were walking, so that we were both looking forward, and I could take some things to her and take other things out…” He said, “Oh, that’s a good idea. Let’s see what we can do with that.” So we tried some staging things, and he said, “I think we’re going to try to do this in one.” It was a good two-and-a-half-minute scene. So we shot it: I would say something to her, and then we’d go turn front as we were walking, and you’d see her reaction to what I just said, and you’d see me processing the fact that I just said it. We did it in one take. It was perfect—it was utterly perfect. All the things I wanted to express. So I liked that. I loved the scene in Monday Mornings with Bill Irwin, when I’m asking him about him harvesting the organs with my client.
I think that’s got to be about it. Maybe three scenes.
AVC: Well, what’s the most embarrassing role on your resume, then?
AH: Maybe Accepted. With Blake Lively and Jonah Hill and Lewis Black. Wonderful cast. I just was terrible in it. And there were some TV things that I thought were just terrible. There were some episodes of Boston Public that I was terrible in. The most embarrassing thing? God, I’ve put it out of my mind. Out of self-preservation. Suffice it to say, most of what I do on film, when I see it, I cringe. And I’m sure if I saw myself onstage, I’d cringe. I expect a lot of myself. I guess that’s one of the reasons I prepare so assiduously, because I’m just so afraid of fucking up. Of missing what could be a spectacular moment, or a choice that would have made the scene work.
You know, I became an actor because I love solving problems. I’m a big crossword puzzle person. I love doing research. One of the reasons I became Jewish is because I love text study. I love going into rehearsals day after day for three, four weeks, trying stuff, coming back the next day, building on that. So many times I’d drive home from the studio [after] shooting and I’d be thinking about a certain moment, and I’d think, “Oh, I know what to do!” And I never get a chance to visit that moment again. But in theater, I get to visit it every performance. You learn the vocabulary, you know what the parameters are, so then play with it. You can say, “I’m going to take this pause a little longer this time.” My God, when I do that, this happens, and this opens up. It’s thrilling. It’s thrilling! Live performance, there’s nothing like it.