Since the beginning of his career, Tony Goldwyn has established himself as an incredibly versatile actor. From NY to LA, Hollywood to Broadway, Mr. Goldwyn’s acting talent has graced both coasts as protagonists, antagonists, and everything in between. Tonight, on the small screen, you can catch one of his commanding performances in Scandal at 10/9c on ABC, where Tony plays the complex President Fitzgerald “Fitz” Grant. And then tomorrow, you can see him on the silver screen as Abnegation leader Andrew Prior in the sure-to-be blockbuster Divergent!
MC: When did you catch the acting bug?
TG: When I was in high school. I auditioned for the high school play because it seemed like something fun to do—and that was kind of it.
Did anyone or anything inspire you to pursue acting as a career?
My parents used to take me to the theater a lot and that got me really turned on.
Did you see a show that really perked your interest in particular?
Hmm let’s see. So many. A Chorus Line, a production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Many different ones but those two in particular I remember making a big impression on me.
You have a BFA from Brandeis University and you also studied at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. What training did those schools provide you with to help set you up for a successful career?
Brandeis was a college acting department, so it wasn’t professional. Although, there was a great acting teacher at the school at the time who was one of the best acting teachers I’ve ever had. And then, I did a lot of plays—that was the main thing.
Studying in London, that was more classical theater training, so it was a lot of Shakespeare and giving you the tools to do much more ambitious material. By the time I got out of school and tried to start a profession…I knew my way around Shakespeare a bit and got my voice pretty well trained. I had a good basic understanding of those techniques that I still use to this day…
You have so many cool projects going on right now! For example, Divergent comes out on Friday. What was so funny is that I literally finished the book and then ten minutes later I got the email saying we could do the interview—that was really cool and kind of trippy.
So how, if at all, did you use the book to create your performance?
It was really helpful. It’s kind of a gift when you’re doing a movie to have that kind of source material. I would say that the movie is really faithful to the book, so a lot of what is in my character’s world in the book, was actually in the script. It really helps you fill in the whole world that Veronica [Roth, the author] created.
You find out things about the character’s backstory, history of the thing, and the intricacies of the Divergent world. You can’t put all of that into a two-hour movie, so it becomes a guide, a bible for the whole world.
Is it easy to look at the book and take from that but still stay true to the script that has little changes in the story?
Yeah, because Neil Burger, our director, he has to take a strong point of view about how he’s going to construct a three-dimensional world out of this book. The other thing is that they’ll often, in movies, compress things that might happen over a long period of time or take two events and put them together into one. That’s just necessary in terms of legitimate format. In this case it was very, very well done in the screenplay.
Sometimes it’s a problem. You go, “This is not as good as the book.” [Tony laughs] Or, “This sort of violates the spirit of the book.” But in that case you talk to the director and say, “Have you guys thought about improving this?”
But in Divergent it was a very good screenplay and, like I said, really faithful to the book. Neil just took his own point of view of bringing the book to life in terms of the visual design, the wardrobe, and the actual tangible elements. But in terms of the characters and what their relationships are and all of that, it was very, very faithful.
As an actor, how do you feel about the rise of the dystopian genre that’s really becoming quite prevalent, I guess, in films and books?
Well, I think it’s always been really popular—with Hunger Games and now Divergent, it’s a real resurgence. But [in] science fiction from centuries past, from 1984 to…2001, The Space Odyssey, this genre of the futuristic and often dystopian future has always fascinated people—particularly young readers, I think. We’re all fascinated by: what happens if the world as we know it falls apart? How do people survive? How would I survive? If you sort of reconstruct a society into one of the forms that it could take, often it’s a political commentary as Divergent is. You get what seems like a utopian society actually is kind of a fascist system, you know? [Tony laughs]…It’s always an interesting way of looking at ourselves through stories in a fantasy future.
Did you draw on anything from your experience playing President Fitz Grant to play Andrew Prior who is also a political leader?
Well, only that really. They’re really different. I think that it was helpful to have spent a year or two being the president [Tony laughs] and having thought a lot about being a leader in that way. It kind of was a natural—it was something I just felt comfortable with, that felt familiar to me.
The thing for me mostly, because I have two daughters who are not too much older than Tris, so the idea of being the parent of an older teenager who’s about to launch into the world was something I really related to as a person.
Yeah, the thing with both Andrew Prior and Fitz is that I feel like they both are very complicated and can be seen as both sympathetic and unsympathetic. How do you go about playing these characters that aren’t clear-cut good or bad?
I always prefer that. First of all, I think that that’s the way people are; no one is one thing. Characters that have contradictions in them are always the most interesting and the ones that I like to play. My approach to them always is to take their side…to be their advocate. You know, with Fitz you’ve got a guy who has a real problem: he’s been thrust into this position of being president and he’s in a really complicated, messed up marriage with a really difficult woman [Tony laugh], and he’s in love with somebody else. He’s tried desperately to be true to that but it’s tough. So you can judge him for his behavior but it’s not so easy to judge him—you care about him, too. He’s human.
They made Andrew as someone who is torn between trying to keep the social structure afloat and wanting his daughter to stay within the fold. But also the idea of losing your child is the worst thing you could possibly imagine. He’s struggling with a couple of different things. I think in the book I wasn’t quite sure how to interpret Andrew and Natalie [Prior’s] world Abnegation. I wasn’t sure, in the book, if it was a very rigid type of world [where people were] repressed. In the world that Neil Burger’s created, in our Abnegation, in the movie, it’s an interpretation of it that is much gentler, more “Zen like” than it might have been. That may have been Veronica’s intent but when I read the book I wasn’t sure, it could have gone either way where they were cold and austere where as, our world is much more kind of Buddhist [Tony laughs] kind of serene and simple, very spare, it’s all very minimalist. It’s kind of beautiful and comforting. You want Tris to stay with her parents in one sense but you want to have her have this adventure, too.
I think as an actor, the theater is my favorite medium to work in, and as a director,film. But I love doing all of it. It’s the fun of the job that I get to go and do a lot of different things. It’s sort of like when I became an actor I wanted to play all kinds of different parts and do all kinds of different material. That’s what I do switching hats. So as an actor in the theater a lot of times, first of all, you have a relationship with an audience and a live experience, which is very exciting. And you tend to work on material that’s more literary—the lines are more complex, it’s more challenging sometimes. Although, a show like Scandal it’s a verbal workout that we get to do because we have these two or three page speeches [Tony laughs]. It’s very theatrical so that’s almost like doing a play.
You transition very easily from film, to TV, to stage. How would you compare working in the three mediums? Do you have a favorite?
Directing a movie is just an extraordinary experience because it’s such a big thing and you interface with so many people. It’s so creative. The collaboration of it is really great. But I must say that I like doing all of it. I like directing television, too.
How has being a director affected your acting?
Oh tremendously, yeah—in several ways. The first thing is it gave me an understanding of the whole process that I didn’t have just as an actor. Particularly directing film and television, I started to understand all of the machinery around me and what everybody did and how everything fit together, which I think I hadn’t really understood as an actor. It demystified it for me and actually made me relax and understand how what I did really contributed. It just gave me a greater understanding of the whole process and how I fit into it as an actor.
Also, working with so many different actors I started to absorb other people’s processes. You get intimately involved with other actors when you’re a director. As [a director] you really become their helper and colleague in a different way than when you’re acting with them. I learned a lot from that. It just gave me perspective. And it’s telling a story though a different lens. The more I act the better director I am, so it’s both.
What are qualities that you’ve liked in the directors that you’ve worked with that you try to bring into your directing style?
Well, I guess the way I’d answer that is, when I first directed my first film, I really thought: I really don’t know what the hell I’m doing [Tony laughs]. I thought: well, I just want to be the dream director that I would want as an actor, that I’ve often not had. What that meant for me was being very collaborative and not dictatorial but really asking for everybody’s collaboration. Making everybody feel empowered to be creative and then guiding them to that. Also, knowing you feel very exposed when you’re an actor and you put it out there, actors are quite sensitive. You need to be empathetic and supportive even as you’re guiding someone to a different choice perhaps than what they were doing. And as I’ve worked with other directors, I absorb some of their visual ideas, how they tell a story visually. Whereas I, as an actor, approach everything just as the character… But as I get more experienced I realize that there are many different ways to express an idea in terms of composition, all of the different technical things you can do visually to help tell a story. So, I’ve learned a lot from the other directors that I’ve worked with. You learn from everybody’s work.
What’s your advice for aspiring actors and directors?
People tell you, “Oh it’s really hard” and of course it is. But if you have a burning passion to do something, commit to that 100% and work as hard as you possibly can on pursuing that passion. That commitment will either lead you to what you think you want or lead you to something you didn’t even know is out there. By just following that passion, it will lead you to something you’re supposed to do.
A lot of people and a lot of people’s parents tell them, “Well you need a plan B.” I’m not a believer in plan B. I don’t think there can be a plan B. There can only be a plan A and then Plan A will lead you to a different plan, maybe, that you don’t even know about. To be acting out of fear is something that I think a lot of people who want to be artists battle with and I know I did as a young person. I learned that…even if you do exactly what you think you want to do, it never looks like the thing you thought it was going to look like [Tony laughs], it looks different. You may achieve your dream in the way you thought of it, it will probably lead you to another dream you probably didn’t know about. That’s the thing I think is most important for young aspiring artists. ♦