Interview: Margaret Colin, star of Broadway’s ‘Arcadia’: “I stick to what my first impulse is when I read the character”

Margaret Colin may be familiar to you from shows like Gossip Girl, Chicago Hope and the canceled-to-soon Now and Again but her TV and film resume are no match for her 25 year stage career. Works by Tennessee Williams (Sweet Bird of Youth), Shakespeare (Hamlet) and Broadway shows, A Day in the Life of Joe Egg and Jackie (where she portrayed Jacqueline Kennedy in her Broadway debut) are just a sampling in her long career.

She’s currently starring as ‘Lady Croom’ in the Broadway revival of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. Directed by David Leveaux and also starring Billy Crudup and Raul Esparza, the show shifts in time from 1809 to the present day and features original events as they occurred in the past, and a reconstructed account that is painstakingly pieced together by modern-day historians.

I could have talked with Margaret for hours and quite frankly, she’s incredibly lucky I let her off the phone at all. She’s a truly great actress who has so much to offer actors. We talk about Arcadia and how she got involved, how she creates a character and working with the amazing Tom Stoppard.

For the full interview – and I totally recommend this one, click the audio link above or download it from iTunes

Arcadia, such a great cast!  How did you get involved in the show?

Margaret Colin: I got involved because I met with David Leveaux to play Lady Croom. I’d seen the production 15 years ago, and frankly it went right over my head. They come at you with rapid fire British accents and an extraordinary speed and facility and if you miss it, you miss it. So, when I said that to Tom Stoppard, he goes, “Well, now you’ll be the one to lob the ideas over everybody’s head.”

So, a wonderful thing that happened that was part of the project to begin with was that it would be accessible, and basically David wanted real things to happen on stage between real, fleshed out people, not stereotypes of what English people are like. Not stereotypes of any sort of real people genuinely being confused, genuinely exchanging information, genuinely falling in love, so therefore the piece becomes much more accessible, and I think that’s why we’re having the success we’re having and so many people are not having the ideas go over their heads because they engage with the characters.

What was the rehearsal process like for you? Is Lady Croom someone you immediately had a handle on or did she take a while to come out?

Margaret Colin: I think she’s still coming out. I think I’ll probably get the hang of her by the time we close. She’s terribly funny. Rehearsal process was incredibly unusual because our English counterparts Lia [Williams] and Tom [Riley] and Bel [Powley] were delayed for 2 or 3 days before they could join us at the start of rehearsal in January. So we had Tom Stoppard in the room, giving us a tutorial almost for 5 hours for  2 or 3 consecutive days about all the ideas and the relationships and why he chose one word and what he thinks works here. So, had he been anyone else but the brilliant and entertaining Tom Stoppard I would have been bored to death listening to anybody talk for 5 hours. But he’s a genius and he’s a genius that likes to show off, but it was wonderful. An enormous resource. So, coming to Lady Croom that way was fantastic.

You went to Hofstra? Where you a theater major there?

Margaret Colin: Yes. Drama and dance. Drama-rama major, that was me.

When did you get your first professional job?

It was The Edge of Night while I was still in school.

I didn’t finish, I didn’t graduate from Hofstra. I have an enormous group of friends, dear friends, from Hofstra still and we had a memorial service for Dr. Richard Mason who died a couple months ago, several months ago, and he was our Professor and our Director. He was so influential and so beloved and so infuriating, so part of the reason I think I was so employable was because he started to work with me as soon as I landed there as a freshman and I was cast very quickly. I was still a teenager, like 19 I think when I got The Edge of Night and that was simply because this wonderful man came backstage and left with the agents, no he sent his agents card backstage and said, “I think you’re ready to compete if you wanna meet with my agent I’ll set up an appointment, just call them.” And I did and I did an audition for them, and it was an agency called Oppenheim-Christie. I don’t think they’re around anymore. And the first audition they sent me on was The Edge of Night and it got opposite Kim Hunter, for God’s sake.

You booked your very first audition?

Margaret Colin: Yeah. I did and that was very nice.

Wow!

Margaret Colin: Yeah, it was good, it was wonderful. It was 6 months and it was in New York and I commuted from Long Island where I was raised to Manhattan where I stayed in my aunt’s apartment on the Upper East Side and walked to work on East 44 Street. So it was, it was great, I was learning like crazy from everybody around me and certainly I learned on the job, camera work because I’ve never been in front of the camera before.

From there, then you went to As The World Turns?

Margaret Colin: Yeah, there was a little time off in between the two of them, and then I went back and pick up some more credits at Hofstra and auditioned some more through that agency, and then the next audition was ‘As The World Turns’ that I got. I mean there were many in between, but yeah, but I got ‘As The World Turns’, and the stayed there happily for several years, like 2 or 3 years I don’t recall, before I met Justin [Deas]. Then I met, I worked with Larry Bryggman and Don Hastings all these really wonderful actors. I was working with brilliant actors and fell in love and married one of them. So, yeah, and it’s just a series of auditions, here’s the material, go get ‘em. And then I think I moved in to the city when, once I’d been on ‘As The World Turns’ for a couple of months.

You have my dream life. You live in New York, you’re doing theater, television.

Margaret Colin: You know, when I was little I wanted to be in love and I wanted to act and I’ve spent most of my life in both of those wonderful states. I’ve been really, really blessed and really, really lucky and I work hard.

I also suffer from, as I mentioned, various anxieties and during long stretches of these many decades I thought that it was over. “It’s been 9 months I haven’t had a job, I better go do a television piece.” And what I of course love doing is film and theater, so I really like that, it’s a shorter term commitment, it’s an opportunity to explore different actors and different characters and also to work with better and better artists. More and more artists at the top of the, at the cream of the crop and learn from them. So, that’s a joy. That you can be in that company and then now, it’s helping younger or not necessarily younger, but newer artists in film and independent film, and certainly being the established actor, with people making their Broadway debut, it is great. I mean, it is, like I said about 6 times already, I learned from, I learned on the job as well as in Hofstra, with the training I got there but it was working with the ridiculously talented actors with extraordinary experience on stage, off stage, in film, on television, that I learned in those early days of the soaps. So, now it’s at least my opportunity to do that and to keep pushing forward with what I can bring at this stage of the game.

So, the whole adage that it was gonna be over when you were 30, it’s gonna be over when your 40 hasn’t really applied, because I’m really blessed, and I’ve had a lot of really great breaks from some really talented and generous people who’ve helped me, and continue to see what I can bring to the party.

But having said that, I’m also very eager to go meet with people, audition for people who I think I shouldn’t have to audition for because there’s a body of work out there. But it quickly becomes in this new era if you want it, you have to go get it. It’s like the recession hit show business as well. If they continue to have, they being producers and casting people in studios, continue to have something you want, you would want like to play this part, so if you go in and you meet with them and you can have that experience. And, when I read the Stoppard play and I saw that Billy  was going to be attached to it, and then Raul was going to be attached to it, and then, when I met with David I thought, “Well, this should be a beautiful challenge that would keep me stimulated and growing for the length of the run.” It’s sexy and articulate, and its extraordinary ideas about why we’re here and what are the functions in the society and also in science that makes life possible. So, I figured I could handle that. I could handle thinking about that for a couple of months. And it’s wonderful. I mean, it’s really very, it’s sexy and very mentally stimulating so that was a good idea.

Your process of creating a character, has it become more of a shorthand for you or do you still struggle at times?

Margaret Colin: Oh I do, I do struggle at times with people I don’t really know. And then it’s also the demands of each individual character. When you’re working on something as fast as a television series whether its daytime or night time, my initial interpretation is the one that is the strongest and I bring that to the party. And usually they’re expecting one of the many schizophrenic visions of Margaret Colin that exist to show up and flush out their script, so I stick to that. I stick to what my first impulse is when I read the character and what I can bring to her and why I should play it rather than any other actor.  That’s just instinctual and based on decades of experience. But when I was younger or a new mother or fresh off some big success or coming out of some lull in my work, you bring different things. Like I said, the multiple personalities of who I am and so now I certainly don’t bring the same character qualities as I did when I was 19, so I’m more conscious of choosing which aspects of me to bring to a character.

And then I went through the pleasure of working Estelle Parsons at the Actor’s Studio and that was a re-investment in the kind if work that I really love; character building and script analysis and really trusting that I am once again enough. And as Estelle says often, “I don’t know what I do, I just do what I do.” And I think that’s pretty good. When I played Jackie, in Jackie there was an enormous amount of material available to research –  Jackie Kennedy Onassis – that was wonderful. There was a quality of capturing her demeanor, capturing her vocal pattern and so I could do that. But if I’m going to create like a John Patrick Shanley role and I know that she is a military wife and it’s in the 70’s and for like Defiance, I can research that, from pictures of Camp Lejeune and listening to tapes of what that particular southern accent would sound like and looking in books and magazines of the time that helps me to go from the outside to the inside to create that lady.

But for Lady Croom, in a commercial production, we have designers for the clothing, we have set designers for the world we live in, we have wig designers for what our hair will look like and I have to elbow my way back into the boat, if you will, but they have designs so that I can steer this Lady Croom through Arcadia. And that went with a lot of vocal work as well because she has a great… Lady Croom a great facility with language, and turn phrases, with the British accent and the period aspect of it because as you know these characters are in the 1800’s. Those were a lot of technical requirements, and they remain technical requirements every time I get on that great stage after I climb those 4 flights of stairs. So, this characters quite a healthy terrific challenge, and I created it starting from my first impressions and then going through all the things I just described to you.

For Lady Croom, do you have a notebook that you keep or is your script just littered with notes?

Margaret Colin: Yes, my script is littered with notes. That notebook stuff, I don’t know how they… I’ve seen the kids do it, I’ve seen Raul do it, I’ve seen them take their script to apart and tape into a whole other script, they put pictures in there for inspiration, I’m like, “That’s really cool!” Absolutely no time or interest in doing it, but that’s really cool. So, I scribble notes on the margins, and on the flipside of the page of the script that I’m working on.

What is your advice to actors?

Margaret Colin: I think you have to be passionate. I think you have to be curious. I think you have to be compassionate. I think you have to be really curious about the human condition. I think L.A. is a really, really tough town, I know it is to get work. It’s a great place when you got a gig, it’s really hard when you don’t, because it’s all about the business. The whole town is about the business. When we live there regularly I used to think our cleaning lady had better business connections than I did. So, to go out and refresh and re-create yourself, to be inspired, that’s the key.

Our library is stock with acting books and autobiographies and plays. We go to the theater very often. When we see films, we’re talking about the acting, and not so much about the business. I think this passion for fame and this need to be, to expose yourself so readily, is not the actor’s friend. I think if you want longevity in the business and you want to work in the business you have to have something on your mind more than fame and exposure.

When I talk to kids in high schools or grade school or junior high they’re very surprised to learn that becoming famous is not why I wanted to be an actor. I mean, I wanted to be an actor because creating an alternate reality and or character in front of the camera, exposing us all to how other people might think, and how other people might live. And so therefore we grow in compassion, maybe we don’t have to make the same mistakes that the actor that I’m watching is making or maybe we could have more compassion for that person because after all that’s just a human being.

So, if you loose track of all of that while we’re trying to do 90 million sit-ups and fit into the latest designer jeans and get into our very hip footwear, whether it’s my sons all-stars sneakers or if it’s stilettos, if we loose track of all that then we have no interpreters, we just have pretty people walking by. I don’t think there’s any longevity in it for an actor that way.

If you think you should train more, you should train more. If you’re the best actor in the room, get in a better room, get in a room with better actors. Dialogue, don’t be afraid to form an opinion. Educate yourself so that you can form an intelligent opinion, so that’s my advice.

 

Arcadia is playing at the Barrymore Theater, 243 West 47th Street. For ticket information, click here

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