Last week, I had the wonderful opportunity to head down to Signature Theatre to have a chat with Charlie Pollock, who plays the title role in Elmer Gantry, (opening October 7th,) recently on Broadway in Violet and on TV’s The Good Wife. James Gardiner, Publicity and Community Relations Manager for Signature, lead me to a conference room on an upper level of their complex. In this room adorned with cardboard cutouts of actors in former Signature musicals and mantles full of Helen Hayes Awards, we waited together as Charlie finished a conversation with the playwright. Rehearsal had just let out, and the playful banter of actors and creative team made for a charming soundtrack as the time passed. When he joined us, I was struck by his piercing blue eyes and amiable demeanor. I could tell that this was going to be a great conversation.
Alan Katz: Let’s start out with who you are and what you’ve been up to…
Charlie Pollock: I’m playing Elmer Gantry in Elmer Gantry. Until a month ago, I was doing Violet on Broadway, which was awesome. Before that, I got a nice little recurring on The Good Wife. But also, until recently, and I think that has bearing on this piece, I was on staff at a church for 3 years as a worship pastor. While I was doing that I was still working, I did Shakespeare in the Park two summers ago, but I was like literally full-time in a church.
AK: Not in the way Elmer is though.
CP: No, I mean, hopefully not, but it has been really interesting to dive into this piece, which is not about religion but religion is sort of the context that it’s in. To have all of my experience and all of my baggage, good and bad, with the church thing.
AK: So, what has your journey been with the play?
CP: Three or four years ago, my friend Ed Dixon who has recently had a show produced in DC [Cloak and Dagger at Signature], was thinking about writing a version of Elmer Gantry, and had talked to me about doing it. So, I read the novel [by Sinclair Lewis], but that didn’t go anywhere because, I guess, the rights were all tied up. But it got stuck in the back of my head. So when this iteration came around, the casting director cast me in something else, and she sent it my way.
I sort of have a rule that I don’t go out of town. I’ve got three kids and a wife and a very happy life in New York, and I’m happy to stick around. But she was like, “This is a great role. This is a great play. Read it.” So, I read it, and it was fantastic. But I don’t know if I can go out of town. She told me to think about it. I would love to, but we were in previews for Violet, so we were rehearsing all day. My wife’s 40th birthday was right around when they were auditioning in the city, and I was throwing her this big surprise party. They wanted to see me that Monday, my one day off, when I was organizing the party. I said “You’re right, it’s a great piece. I adore it. I’d love to play this role, but I can’t. I’ve got this life thing to do.”
Laura, the casting person, called my agent and said, “Look, they’re willing to hang around until Tuesday. Just tell Charlie to get in the room. Just get in the room. He doesn’t have to prepare anything. Just walk in.” We throw the surprise party, and on the way home, I’m thinking about Elmer Gantry. So I reread the play again and did work on it. I couldn’t not at that point. I had never met Eric [Schaeffer] before, but we have a zillion friends in common. I walked into the room, and the minute I started doing my Elmer thing, immediately, the energy changed. I think we felt this magic thing happen.
So that went great. Then they asked if I would meet with Mel [Marvin], the composer. I don’t even know if I sang when I first auditioned. So they wanted to see if the music fit in my voice. I went and sat down with Mel in between shows on a Wednesday. He started playing, and I started singing, and then we just started jamming. An sort of instant love connection. It was clear that this was meant to be.
AK: It’s so great when that happens. Well, from that initial work with Elmer Gantry, what has he become? Who is he?
CP: He’s so lost at the beginning of this play. I’ve never played a character who is so at sea. And to go on this journey with him, we’ve had two run-throughs now, to go on this journey, and start from…he has nothing. He has $22 in his pocket and is basically homeless, drifting. Then to weasel his way into this world, and find literally the place where he wants to spend his life…
I left rehearsal yesterday after the first run-through, and I was talking to my wife. I told her, “I feel awful. I feel bad.” She asked, “Why? Did it go poorly?” I said, “No, it actually went really well. I think it went poorly because of the journey Elmer goes on. Where he ends up, it’s tragic. It’s heartbreaking.” When you’re putting a play together, there’s scene work and you work chunks, but to put it all together and understand the gravity of this guy’s journey, it was a lot.
AK: It sounds like you identify with him, at least a little bit.
CP: I’m from Texas, and I come from a long line of storytellers and “self-made” people, who…and they’re not mythmakers, they’re hustlers. Man, being a young actor moving to the big city, I had no credits I went to the University of Texas, so no fancy education. I had to hustle so much and Elmer is a hustler. And I absolutely understand that part of him. He’s going to do whatever it takes to get what he wants.
Then there’s also this church thing. Whatever his faith is, it is an area of confusion for him, and I have certainly been through journeys. I grew up in the church and then walked away, then came back strong, so I really understand the ebb and flow of that faith relationship that is a part of which, along with the hustle, fuels him. I think it clouds him a little. I also understand that obsessive love thing and finding a root with someone. In my own life, I’ve been fortunate that I’ve got this amazing family that has rooted me. But we all have those dark nights of the soul and think about what would happen, I absolutely see how I could find myself wandering without this root of people. So, there’s a lot of things Elmer and I have in common, I’d like to think I’ve made some better decisions but…
AK: How does Elmer fit in his world? What’s it like and how does he see it?
CP: Physically, and time period-wise, it’s in the 1930’s, so it’s the Dust Bowl. There’s all these people cast at sea, and he’s just another one of them. I think he, unlike a lot of people — he actually has a line in the play “There’s some men you can buy when they’re down. I’m not one of them.” He has this innate belief in his ability to hustle; he thinks he’s going to win this Depression. He really does. Like he’s going to be the one guy who comes out on top. When this revival blows into town, he sees his opportunity. “I used to be a pastor. I can do this thing.” This is a perfect hustle. I’m going to go win this thing. He sees himself, until the very end of the play, as a guy who’s going to succeed because of the conviction of his wits. He’s going to be smarter than the next guy, he’s going to hustle.
AK: The thing about hustlers is that in order to have a hustle, you have to have a mark. So, who’s his mark in the play in the play?
CP: I think in the beginning, he thinks Sister Sharon [played by Mary Kate Morrissey] is his mark, but it gets turned around, like a lot of great hustle stories. Like the movie The Grifters, you never know who is actually winning. This hustle gets really turned around on Elmer and things start getting out of control. He finds himself on the wrong end of it.
AK: You’ve told us how Elmer views the world, but how does the world look at him?
CP: He presents himself in this really slick package, but at the beginning of the play he’s just another driftless guy. Then he finds himself onstage at this revival, and everyone buys into it. People buy his hustle. They go, “He’s the real deal. He’s clearly gifted by God.” He just steamrolls his way through. And he is gifted, he really is. The speeches that he gives, he is gifted. He is exactly like, being from the church world, he’s exactly like a lot of those guys. If he really believed what he was saying, if he believed he was telling the truth, his life goes in a very different direction. But because there’s this undercurrent, it is part of his undoing.
AK: Do you know Elmer Gantrys in the church world?
CP: Not personally. I know of some. I know guys who are for real gifted and can attract a crowd. Until I got to know them, I wondered if it was real because they are so good. But then when you get to know some of them, they are the real deal. At least as far as I can know anybody’s heart, they seem like they’re in it for the right reasons and they really believe. There are famous examples, of course, but I don’t know any of them personally.
Closes November 9, 2014
4200 Campbell Avenue
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AK: You sound like you are really a person of faith. Is that something that defines you?
CP: Absolutely. I hope so. Among my circle of friends, if you ask them a defining characteristic of me, I’d think that’s one of them. You know, when I left the church, I left because the situation changed, not because my heart for the church changed. I still love church. There’s a lot of guys who wash out of ministry and wind up hating it. I didn’t go that way. As soon as things started to turn I was like, [slaps hands on the table] I’m out. I don’t want to end up hating church, end up hating God. I see my life as absolutely ordained by a higher power. Three weeks after I quit this job [ministry], I was on The Good Wife. A month after that, I booked this new Broadway show. So, I was like, “Oh, alright, I guess this is all going to work out.” It felt right; it felt like something else was guiding that,
AK: Do you bring some of that to this role?
CP: I think so. But I also have to be careful that I don’t bring too much of it to this role. My time onstage (I was more of a worship leader, but I did do some preaching) and my exposure to charismatic preachers helps inform Elmer’s preaching moments, but I think its a trap for an actor to bring too much of their worldview into a role that they’re building. When I’m Elmer, I have doubts, and I don’t really buy what I’m saying. As Charlie, I can look at some of the things he’s preaching and say, “That’s right on.” When Elmer’s saying it, there’s a little something else bubbling underneath it, a disbelief.
AK: You have to separate yourself from the character?
CP: Which is actually an interesting jumping off point for a character. When you’re getting into a character, you have to understand what’s similar and what’s different. You can use those things as your mile markers, as your grounding places. That’s one of those great things, when I step into Elmer, I try to put that belief aside for a second.
AK: Is that wrapped up in how you approach a role, approach acting, your technique?
CP: It’s funny. I’ve got a friend who is a multiple Tony Award winning actor, we had a conversation one time while we were strolling through this vineyard in Italy. It sounds very awesome and poetic, but we were talking about acting. I told him, “I have to find a role that’s just right, these things in common that I can connect to, or these things that are so far from me that I can connect to that.” He’s one of the greatest actors of his generation and he said, “I don’t even understand what you’re talking about. I can do anything.” I said, “Well, yeah, but, for me, I have to find these markers I can cling to or push away from that give me momentum.” So that’s part of my process is looking for those things.
AK: Are you generally a musical actor?
CP: My training was as a BFA in Acting, there was no music training at all. But because I sing, its the path of least resistance. Going back to the hustle, I moved to New York, and my first agents didn’t even know I could sing. Then one day, they asked, “By the way would you do a musical…?” I, said [nonchalantly], “Yeah. Sure. That’s okay.” Then suddenly, this world opens up. I love singing and acting in musicals. I think my reticence as a young actor was that I never had the opportunity to work on a musical like Elmer Gantry. I never had the opportunity to work on a musical like Violet or Urinetown.
When you see what musical theater can be, it really is addicting. Some plays you push the emotion to a certain place, and it has no place to go. But in a musical, you can push it to a certain place and then blow it out with a song. That to me, there’s nothing better, ah, it’s so great! Let it soar! It can be bigger than earth! That to me is a really beautiful art form. Growing up, you do the musicals you do in high school, and you’re like “Ugh. I want to do Sam Shepard.” Elmer Gantry is like that kind of play. I’ts like a Clifford Odets play that happens to have a great score.
AK: Tell me about that score, tell me about the music.
CP: It’s all over the place in the best way. There’s a lot of different styles, but they’re all character-driven, and they’re all distinctly American styles which is one of the things I’m drawn to so much. Especially things that sound like the West, though that sounds goofy to me. There’s a sense that runs through this score that is very Western: a Charles Ives sort of thing. Then this Southern blues thing, and then this proto-rock and roll. That’s all rooted in the American experience. You can see a gospel thing and a jazz thing and this blues thing all coming together into one. Mel does an incredible job of not being so devoted to one particular style.
AK: So there’s a variety there; does your love of that come from Texas?
CP: Absolutely. I grew up surrounded by gospel music, but also great blues and country western and real rock and roll. When I moved to college in Austin, it was a crazy melting pot of musical styles in this strange, amazing place. You can walk down the street and you can hear anything. I had several bands and all these different styles. I really got into that. So when I hear a score like Floyd Collins, Violet, or Funhome, I resonate with that American sound.
AK: So that’s a great reason for someone with your background to see this show. What about us stuffy East Coasters? What would you tell someone from DC if they asked why they should see the show?
CP: I think the East Coast, especially New York and DC, they’re very educated towns. We’re more aware of the dark power of religion that our brothers and sisters in the Midwest and South don’t quite see the same way. Elmer Gantry is a good exploration of what faith means, how it can control and how it can corrupt. From that literari standpoint, it’s really interesting.
AK: What challenges you the most about this play?
CP: Part of it in the beginning was that separation of my faith from the role. I asked myself how I was going to authentically say and act these things. Also the score is incredibly challenging. We were joking about it the other day. We figured out I was singing two octaves and a third. So vocally, it’s a huge challenge.
AK: So you mentioned before we started recording that you just came from talking with the playwright, Lisa Bishop. Is that something you’ve done before, even though it’s not a new play?
CP: But we’re treating it like a new play. There are things that are wildly different than [the Ford’s Theater production of Elmer Gantry] in 1996. The interim between that time and now, the creators have been stewing on it. John Bishop, who was the original Book writer, died, and his wife Lisa has taken over. She was able to look over all his drafts and cull them. Even drafts that he was working on up until his death. She’s able to get in there as a writer and get her voice in there. I’ve been fortunate enough that I’ve gotten to collaborate on a lot of new musicals in the reading and workshop level. I love to get in and wrestle through things. To be in a room where creators actually want my input, asking “How does it feel?” “Does it feel good?” “Does it feel phony?” It’s one of the things that makes me feel like an artist, and not just a performer. I love to dive in and help people realize their vision.
AK: What’s it been like preparing very first play in DC?
CP: It’s funny. I rolled down here on a Sunday night. I’m staying in an apartment in Alexandria that looks over the city, and I can see the Washington Monument from my balcony. And that’s the closest I’ve been to it so far. [laughs] Because right on Monday morning we jumped in. My family came into town today, actually. So hopefully we’re going to get around, now that I think I’ve finally cracked the role. At first, I felt like I was in boot camp. Honestly, the play is massive. 114 pages and Elmer is on 110 of them. I felt like I owed it to the process to be devoted. So I’ve been very monastic since I’ve been here. I look forward to digging in here. I’ve been to DC before, but this is different. This community is great; these actors are great people. So getting to be a part of this community is awesome.
AK: That’s really great to hear. A few words that stuck out at me in that last exchange were “boot camp” and “monastic.” Is Eric Schaeffer your drill instructor or abbot?
CP: He’s absolutely not. He’s so warm, and he’s created a really inviting room. I’ve been my own drill sergeant. My refusal to be lazy in this process. It’s all self-imposed. There are things that could be fun about getting away from the wife and kids for a while, but I’ve had to say, “No. You’re here to figure Elmer out.”
AK: You’re away from the kids and the wife, that’s got to be hard.
CP: It is. It is. I miss the heck out of them. My wife and I have been talking about it a lot. I can’t imagine being able to devote the mental energy that I’ve devoted to this and be home in New Jersey, riding the train back and forth, coming home and doing homework and bath time. Luckily, my kids are still at an age where they’re wild about me, so when I come home, it’ like “YAY! Daddy’s home!” and they’re on me until the moment they go to sleep. You know, when I read this, and first started having conversations with my wife about Elmer, and she read the play, she was actually the one who gave the ultimate sign off. She said, “You can’t not do this. You have to go do this. We have to invest in this as a family. This is important.” That’s a lot of love, and it says something about this piece, that it inspires this, you have to go.
AK: That brings up an interesting point. Elmer doesn’t have a family, but he does have someone that he loves. We talked a lot about the religion in the play, but what about the love? What is Elmer’s love like?
CP: He sees this woman who he is instantly taken by, but he also sees a mark in her. But then, as he works with her and gets to know her and sees her passion and her belief, it eats away at all the walls he’s built for himself. He allows her hooks to get in him very deep. He honestly thinks that he is going to be with this woman for the rest of his life, that he has found his place. He wants to set down his roots with her, that his roots are her.
Today, we were running through this moment in the second act when she steps away from him. When MK, who plays Sharon, stepped away, she was cold about it. It was devastating. It is devastating to hear her say, “Yes, I wanted you, but that’s not God’s will. And that’s not how it is going to be. I’m separating myself from you.” He’s completely lost again. He’s put all his eggs in this basket and she pulls it away.
AK: Do you see some of that love for your family in Elmer?
CP: Absolutely. I think my wife and I are codependent in the very best way. We’ve been together for 20 years in November, married for 17 and a half. To endure in that and to flourish in that, you have to put all your eggs in that basket. I can’t imagine if she were to ever be that cold with me and remove that, the kind of black hole that I’d fall in. So I see that in Elmer.
AK: We’re about wrapping up. Let’s end it with a Viola Spolin game called Ruminations. You talk about the huge journey Elmer takes during this play. I’d like your present circumstance to be Elmer at the end of the play. So, without spoiling anything, I’d like you to think back to Elmer in the opening moments, when he is at the train station and directionless. What would that experienced Elmer say and do for the Elmer at the beginning of the play?
CP: On the surface, they wind up at the same place, but the Elmer at the end has actually found what he was looking for and lost it. But there’s a glimmer of “At least I know what to look for now.” That’s exactly what I would say to him. “Here’s the thing to look for. Go find love. It’s not the hustle. It’s not survival. There’s a deeper, richer thing. It’s not a spiral anymore; it is a line.” To me, that’s the image, when I begin – it’s a circle, there’s no horizon. But at the end, he’s got his eyes fixed on something. We don’t know if he’s ever going to find it, but now he knows what to look for.
AK: Thank you so much for joining me this evening. Go visit your family!