ERIC LANGE: AN UNFORGETTABLE ACTOR

There’s a witty line in The Country House—and I’m paraphrasing here—that says, “There aren’t Broadway stars anymore, there are stars on Broadway.”  This is an all too familiar reality for theater goers…and it’s not a bad thing, just true.  But, Eric Lange is a Broadway star… and also a film star, and a TV star, because Eric has the kind of talent that most celebrity “stars” cannot match.  You know, the whole thing’s funny, quite honestly: I knew his work prior to seeing The Country House, and I bet you would, too.  He’s been in countless movies and TV shows.  In my case, when I looked up the cast of The Country House the night before I saw the show, I noticed, hey, Sikowitz from Victorious is in this!  In a weird, somewhat sentimental way, Eric’s a little piece of my childhood.  If you watched Victorious, Mr. Sikowitz—Hollywood Arts High School’s beloved acting teacher—is a character you just don’t forget…just like Elliott Cooper, the character he’s currently playing on Broadway.  After this performance, all I’ve been thinking about is, wow, Eric Lange would be an incredible Hamlet.  He’s a guy who can do it all.  I mean, isn’t that what a star is: an unforgettable actor who has the power to perform and transform seamlessly into a diverse cast of characters?  I think so, and by the end of his interview, you will, too.

MC: When did you catch the theater bug?

EL: When I was in middle school; I always liked to imitate things as a kid.  I was always in show choirs, singing and dancing groups.  But, my freshman year we were in our own school and there was no show choir.  My buddy said, “I’m going to this Drama Club meeting.  Do you want to come?”  And I thought, whatever.   I went with him and there were all these very eclectic people there who were all extremely confident.  I was like, how are all you oddballs so extremely confident?! And whatever you guys are doing, I want to be doing that.   So I stuck around and auditioned and I think I was an understudy in a musical first.  It was The Robber Bridegroom, which I don’t think anyone has done since.  I remember distinctly opening night—or the night I went on—that the curtain came down in the show and I heard applause and the curtain came up and I remember very distinctly sitting on that stage and thinking, this is home.  That was it.

I did theater, then, through all of high school and then early in my college career.  I went to Miami University and got a BFA in acting and theater.  But I remember going to Cincinnati and seeing a tour production of Les Mis and walking out of that just crying and saying, “That’s what I want to do with my life.”  So dramatic, of course!

What did you learn at Miami University that set you up for such a successful career?

Doing it, [actually acting], is more important than anything.  I had great training there: a couple of really key professors that pushed [me].  I got to be in so many plays.  I would do whatever anyone would ask me to do.  We had Main Stage productions, Second Stage productions, and grad students would be directing One Acts in a black box—and I’d be in all three of them at once.  It was exhausting.  I never left the theater.

But, I was constantly being challenged in new ways with new characters, and working with different directors and learning their language.  Finding people you like to work with, and finding how you create a role when you’re not getting much direction at all—learning to trust your instincts.  I think…I got a great education there in part because I just got to [act] all the time.  It didn’t give me time to doubt myself a whole lot.  I just had to go to the next rehearsal and push on.

You’ve had the ability to have recurring roles on multiple shows at once.  Do you think that bouncing around from show to show, in college, helped you with playing a few characters consistently on TV?

When television airs it’s not always the same as how it’s shot.  Usually, I’m doing one job at a time and that’s what I prefer, to be honest.  The older I get the more of a control freak I become and I really like to devote myself to one thing.  It was even hard, I was up late last night, putting an audition on tape for a new show, to be sent to LA and had to walk off stage, go and grab dinner with a friend, and then come home and suddenly try on this different guy and put it on camera. It’s tricky, but sometimes it’s a nice break if you’ve been doing the same thing for a while. Like this play, I’ve been doing Eliot for quite a long time so it’s kind of nice now trying on a different soul.  I’ve learned to try and trust my instincts as quickly as possible and that’s pointed me in good directions 90% of the time.

Did you have any odd jobs when you were first starting out?

I moved to LA three months after college.   I packed everything in my car and drove to Los Angeles.  I had looked at grad schools and been accepted to a few, but I was just a little concerned that I could be the best actor on the planet, but if I didn’t know how to market myself and I don’t like this business, then it didn’t really matter…When I first got to LA, I wanted to find something that was performance based…I couldn’t get a job waiting tables because you actually needed a resume for that.  So, my first job in LA was as a tour guide at Universal Studios on their trams.  It was great.  It was long.  I would do five, six, or seven, forty-five minute tours a day sitting over the engine on the tram talking into a microphone to people who are mostly not listening to you.  But, I was on a studio lot and it helped keep my head in that part of the town. It kept me focused on where I wanted to be eventually.  It was a fun enough gig.  It could have been worse!

I was very lucky in that I got a commercial agent pretty quickly, in LA, and started doing commercials relatively [early on].  I was also a transcriber on an old show called Hard Copy, which was one of the original reality news shows like TMZ is today.  I had to type every one of these interviews out.  Oh, it was a horrible job!  But it was flexible and I could go to auditions because that was the key again, keeping my eye on the prize.

Have you worked on the Universal lot since and had one of those full circle moments?

Oh yeah, I’ve worked on that lot and watched the tram go by and felt, man, that’s surreal.  It’s pretty wild to stop every now and then and look back and see how far you’ve come.

When I was in school, a group of us, fifteen of us, drove to New York from Ohio…and went to Times Square.  I snuck away from the group behind this police station and I and rubbed my Yankees hat on the ground as sort of a way of getting some New York DNA on my hat—maybe someday I’d be back here.  My first night after being back in New York [for The Country House], I was walking back to my apartment and I saw that police station and I was like, oh my God.  That’s the spot I rubbed my hat twenty-two years ago.  And look, here I am, I’m on Broadway!  It was such a surreal moment.

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Eric (center) on opening night of The Country House

Wow, that is one of the coolest stories!

It was a full circle thing for me and I was like, wow, I did it.  I’m here.  I’m on Broadway.  And then someone said to me, “Now imagine what this version of you can tell the you twenty-two years in the future.”  Like, where are you going to go next?  Now that’s the really cool thing.  You can look back all those years and say, “Holy mackerel!  I made it to here.”  If you had told me that then, I would probably have laughed at you.  But what would I be told now about the next twenty years that I would laugh at now?  It’s fun to think about.

What would you have told the person you were back then who was embarking on a career in show business that you know now?

Oh God.  It’s not going to be perfect and try not to take things so seriously and be open.  I don’t know.  Like I told you, I’m a bit of a control freak and some of that just has to do with managing expectation: wanting things to go a certain way…When you’re limited like that, when you see an opportunity, you always see it as one certain thing.  But, if you go into it open, you realize, well, this is great!…Maybe I was all those things then, but that’s the advice I would give myself.  That’s a great question!

How did your part in the Country House come about?

I had been doing a lot of TV and film in LA.  The last play I did was seven years ago.  I was just starting to itch.  In TV and film, you make little pieces of a puzzle all at different times—usually two pages of dialogue at most and you’re shooting small, little scenes that get put together into something big.  You start to wonder if your stamina is still there to do a play.  I was itching…Then [the] Geffen [Playhouse] sent my manager the script, and he sent it to me.  I read it and I cried…I thought, this is the play and I called them and said, “I’ve got to do this play.”

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Sarah Steele, Eric Lange, and Blythe Danner in the Geffen Playhouse run of The Country House

This was four days before the auditions, I locked the door to my house, I went over the material over and over again, and memorized it and did research on depression.  I did everything I could possibly do to get in this guy’s [Elliott Cooper’s] skin.  I went in and gave it to them and I met with Dan Sullivan, the director, and I thought it went well.  Dan’s a guy of few words and he said, “That was great.”  That was it and I didn’t know.  So, then, I had a callback the next day to put the same thing on tape for Donald Margulies, the playwright.  They sent that to New York and they sent that to MTC and to Donald.  I got the Geffen run, and we did it, and here we are in New York on Broadway.  It’s crazy!

You’ve said that you feel more connected to this character, Elliott, than any other you’ve played.  What work did you do to develop him (if any)?  Your performance is so effortless.

Thank you.  I think we have a lot of similar damage.  When I was a kid I was really skinny and I had these big ears.  They stuck out like satellite dishes!  I got teased a lot for them and a lot of people marginalized me because I wasn’t in the cool crowd.  I had friends but I always felt sort of an outsider, a little bit.  Early in college, I started losing my hair, so I developed a sort of self-deprecating sense of humor…to ward off some of the things I might be feeling otherwise.

I see Elliott as someone who has sort of been made invisible, unseen, or unappreciated.  I’ve always been sensitive to kids who have been bullied because of my experience.  So, what you do is develop these little pieces of armor that you wear and that’s how you get through life.  Unfortunately, a lot of people wear that armor a lot longer than they need to.  So, Elliott’s one of those guys who’s worn his armor way too long and just wants to be seen for the best part of himself.  But, he isn’t showing the best parts of himself to anyone.  I get all that, and I just have a real soft spot for people who feel themselves invisible like that.

I credit my parents for keeping me sane.  If I had had different parents I might be a complete wreck today!  Elliott’s got all this stuff around him that you can easily say, “He’s a shithead.”  I’ve had people come up to me and say, “Man, I just hated you.” And then this woman said, “I’ve got to go write my son when I get home because I may have contributed.”  And then once you see the end, there’s a catharsis for him and people are like, “Holy crap, I completely misjudged this guy.”

There’s that quote, “If you really knew your enemies, you’d pity them.”  There’s always a story in someone’s interior that explains their behavior and if we all understood that about each other it would be a much better world.

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Eric and Daniel Sunjata in The Country House

Did you work with Donald as a team to figure out Elliott, as well?

Well, I liked a lot of what was there already.  I asked Donald, at one point, if it was in anyway modeled after him, because he’s a playwright, obviously, and he said no.  But basically, Donald would be there in rehearsals and we would go through it and go through it.  When you read something it can be like, absolutely I can act this.  But the more you say it, some things just didn’t come out of your mouth the way you feel is comfortable.  I didn’t doubt [Donald] much ever because he’s such a good writer, but when it happens enough times, he would go back to his computer and come back with a new line and I would say, “Yeah, that’s much better.”  It was nice to have the playwright there not to change the lines all that much but to get a real sense of [the character].  You know [Elliott’s] real tricky because he acts the opposite way from what he wants a lot, so it was great to have Donald there to ask him, “What were you thinking here?”

And, I hope I showed Donald a little more of the guy he created.  Maybe it’s a shared thing.  Maybe he saw something that he didn’t realize was there, too.  But, man, it’s great.  You work on Tennessee Williams or something and you can’t just turn to him and ask, “What the hell?”  I think it’s just a natural part of doing a new play.  It’s the key difference.

New plays always require a lot of care and exploration.  They’re big onions and you’re peeling back the layers to find what is there.  It was really nice to have the three and a half weeks of previews to just refine and refine and refine.  As good as it was, there’s always work to be done on a new play.  That’s the nature of it.

What’s your pre-show routine?

I eat about an hour and half or two hours before the show, so I’m not digesting during the show because I can’t spare the energy.  I live right around the corner from the theater, so my commute is about a minute.  I get to the theater about a half hour early and get in hair and there’s this ginger tea that our stage manager makes and I get a cup and take it up to my dressing room.  I have fight call every night because David [Rasche] and I have that fight and we have to run our choreography.  Then, I get changed and then put goo in my hair because I wake up in the show with bed head.

Then, I go down and do this funny thing.  I go to the stage and take my slippers off and I go to the curtain.  I put my hands up on the curtain and I just listen to the audience.  It’s like listening through the window or the dinner party you are about to go into.  Are they loud, are they quiet, are they tired?  I just try and sense them before the curtain opens.  It’s become a little ritual.  Then, I do my stretches and a little bit of a vocal warm-up on the stage…It’s so funny to sit there on the set knowing that the only thing between you and all these people is this piece of fabric.  I just sit there and get my head on straight for the play.

What’s your advice for aspiring actors?

One, do it for the right reasons.  If you have a passion to act that should be explored and pursued.  If you have a passion to be famous, you’re doing it for the wrong reasons.  I see that a lot in young people that I’ve worked with.  They’re very disenchanted if they haven’t made it in the first year…When I moved to LA, it was eight years before I got an agent that got me an audition for TV and film.  Eight years.  After I got a manager, six months later I was guest starring on The West Wing.  It took me a long time and I don’t know if everyone gets that that’s not untypical.  Ten years is the number, for some people, before they’re really up and running.  It took me another three or four years after those eight before it was a regular occurrence that I was working.  So, if in your heart of hearts you just want to be famous, go get famous another way.

Two, If you have a passion to act, my advice is to do it as much as possible: take classes, be serious about it, treat it with respect.  Be as good as you can because the day that the door opens for you, someone lets you audition for a job, and you’re there and you don’t know what you’re doing, you might not have that door opened again.  And even if you get the job and you only have one skill, you only have one tool in your tool belt to get into character, then you probably won’t stick around very long.  It’s about longevity and being as good as you can.  Like anything, you do get out of it what you put into it.  I’ve certainly worked very hard.

I’ve been in LA about twenty years now and whenever I get an audition, I retype the whole thing no matter how many pages it is.  I type my lines in bold, the other lines in italics, I break paragraphs down…move words around so that they spatially look different on the page.  I’m really specific about shoes for an audition—clothes, it has to be the right shirt.  I do whatever I can do to give myself every opportunity to get that job.  I think that’s how you have to pursue the whole career.  You have to put the work in.  It’s a difficult, difficult, stupidly competitive business.  But it’s the best when you get to do it all the time.♦

Photos via: EsquireBroadway.comStage and Cinema, and Variety

 

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