Mike Nichols: “I’ve learned, over the years, to be honest with actors. If you don’t know something, tell them. Don’t fake it”

One of the few plays that is universally recognized as a masterpiece, Arthur Miller‘s Death of a Salesman has had numerous Broadway productions, starring iconic actors like Lee J. Cobb, George C. Scott, Dustin Hoffman, and Brian Dennehy as Willy Loman.  The latest production stars another acting luminary, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and is directed by legendary director Mike Nichols.

Nichols spoke to the New York Post about directing a play full of “fights, seductions and negotiations,” what he learned from his idol Elia Kazan, and how Hoffman helped him overcome a crisis of confidence.

Though this is a new production, Nichols has retained some elements of the original 1949 Broadway production directed by Elia Kazan, which Nichols himself saw as a young man. Nichols has a long history of idolizing Kazan, who he later studied under.  Nichols explains, “Kazan was my hero.  When I came to New York, I studied at Strasberg and all these directors had different definitions of acting and directing. Harold Clurman said acting is reacting to imaginary circumstances as though they were real, which is very good.  And Kazan said directing is turning psychology into behavior, which is also very good.  I didn’t even know I was getting interested in directing. I was acting. But I remember thinking that Kazan is someone I can learn from.”

When Nichols and Kazan later struck up a friendship, the two actually hardly talked theater.  Nichols reveals the discussions were a bit more… intimate.  “He always wanted to know if I screwed all my leading ladies.  If only…”  Nichols explains that unlike Kazan, who infamously bedded actresses, he felt it wasn’t proper, saying, “Whether you f–k them or not, it is what happens.  It’s no joke. It can’t be helped, especially on movies, because you’re together all the time. You accept that the feelings are there, but you don’t take advantage of them because it would be horrible and idiotic.”

In a curious turn Nichols confesses that it was he, not his lead actor, who felt nervous about the production.  He says, “I hadn’t done a play in a long time, and I was unhappy the last time I did one [the poorly received 2008 revival of The Country Girl].  I found I was very nervous one day, and I couldn’t get out the things I wanted to say.”  But Nichols was soon reassured by Hoffman, who told Nichols about a particularly rough time he had with a play.  “He said that to me so I would not feel bad about falling apart,” says Nichols. “I’ve learned, over the years, to be honest with actors. If you don’t know something, tell them. Don’t fake it.”
Death of a Salesman is now in previews at the Barrymore Theatre.  It runs through June 2.

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