BWW Interviews: Chatting with DETROIT's Darren Pettie
Anyone who follows the theater scene in New York realizes that hardly a year goes by when actor Darren Pettie isn't appearing on Broadway, Off Broadway or regional theater. He's also been seen on television in "Mad Men", "Pan Am", "Castle", "Gossip Girl", "Brothers and Sisters" and a host of other shows. Not only is he one of New York's busiest actors, he's one of its finest, too. Take, for example, his performance two seasons ago in THE MILK TRAIN DOESN'T STOP HERE ANYMORE. As the enigmatic Christopher Flanders, Pettie was required to utter the single syllable word "Boom" to emulate the crashing of the waves upon the rocks surrounding Italy's Divina Costiera. Other actors in the role have faltered here, but Pettie imbued the line with authority and conviction that were never apparent in previous incarnations of the work. "Thanks," responds the actor via telephone. "There were some nights that I was very self conscious about that line."
Currently appearing in Lisa D'Amour's new play, DETROIT, Pettie is sharing the stage with David Schwimmer, John Cullum, Amy Ryan and Sarah Sokolvic. It would be hard to imagine five finer actors gathered together in any production. It's a play that is human, thought provoking, irritating, astute and sublimely funny all at the same time. It's also packing in the crowds at the Playwights Horizons Theater. Chatting on the day the New York Times ran its rapturous review of the play, Pettie sounded remarkably relaxed and loquacious.
A native of Andalusia, Alabama, Pettie had a peripatetic childhood as his family moved from one small town to another-each one more lacking in arts programs than the others. It wasn't until his senior year in high school that Pettie found himself in a school where one of the teachers started a drama program. Pettie and one of his buddies took the class because they thought it would be easy. To Pettie's surprise, he found himself enjoying it. "I really loved it," he explains. "I was at an age where I didn't know what I wanted to do but wound up going into the Navy after high school. When I was in the military I started to see the world outside of my little corner and a buddy of mine was from New York, so we made several visits up here. I caught some shows and acting kept coming back to me. Finally, I realized it was something I loved. Now, I can be a very lazy person, so I understood that whatever I did for a career had to be something I really loved doing. I'm really not that good at hard labor. I was fortunate to discover this crazy career but it took me a while because I didn't grow up in a place where anyone knew how to go about doing it. I also had a lot of fear."
"I wound up in California after the military. I was supposed to go to college out there and I started taking theater courses. I had a teacher who thought I was pretty good. She told me I had to go to New York for training if I wanted to be a real stage actor. I asked her how I'd go about it and she explained that I'd have to audition for schools. The one that she mentioned was Juilliard, which I'd heard of but never thought of as a theater school. I auditioned and I got in. I came to New York and that's pretty much how it all started."
Upon being graduated from Juilliard, Pettie was cast in the ensemble of a production of MEASURE FOR MEASURE at the Delacorte Theater. "I was one of the gentlemen who followed John Pankow around and had a total of three lines. It was a great experience," Pettie recalls. It was during the run of this play that he was cast in his first major role Off Broadway. "It was in four one act plays that Doug Wright had written called UNWRAP YOUR CANDY. It was a really good experience," Pettie says. Thus began the string of roles the actor has played. Looking back on his career at this point, Pettie realizes that he's accomplished quite a bit but in a recent conversation with a fellow actor he mused, "We never feel like that, so it's great to know other people feel we're accomplishing things. We're always concerned about when our nest job is coming and how we'll keep a roof over our heads." Is there a secret for being cast so consistently in quality productions? "I don't think there is a secret," he says with a laugh. "It's a matter of being available. It's easy to get bent out of shape about the ups and downs of this career. I try to be as grateful as I can about getting any work; whether it's a guest star on a TV show, a part in a movie or a great Broadway play. It's all been fulfilling. I keep auditioning the way I did when I first got out of school. Luckily, I get offers now, too, because people have gotten to know me better. I guess another good thing is that I try not to take myself too seriously. When I do, that's when I have a hard time. Keeping peace of mind is important if you're going to sustain a career."
The Roundabout Theatre's recent production of Tennessee Williams' THE MILK TRAIN DOESN'T STOP HERE ANYMORE was Pettie's most recent stage appearance in New York prior to DETROIT and he has nothing but fond memories of it.
"First of all, working with someone like Olympia Dukakis is a great dream for any actor," Pettie says. "Not only does she have a wealth of experience, but at the same time she's playful and open off stage. She was always present and always there. Of course it was a pleasure to be working with Michael Wilson, who is a director I think very highly of. Also, I had had not done any Tennessee Williams aside from scenes in acting classes. That was my first time doing a Williams play and to even though it was one of his lesser known plays, it taught me how to trust the material. It was a vehicle that certainly had its challenges, so I had to let go and trust in what Williams had written. Somewhere I'd read that Williams himself felt he had not fleshed out the character of Chris Flanders. It was one of those parts that I had to let go and see what happened. With a director like Michael and a co-star like Olympia, my job was made that much easier.
The production of MILK TRAIN became a ripe topic for theater message boards not only for the performances and the writing but also some full frontal nudity provided by Darren Pettie. Was it the first time he'd played a nude scene on stage? "To that extent, yes," Pettie explains. "I admit that I was self conscious during the first few performances but after a while I didn't even think about it that much. Of course I felt a bit uncomfortable when my mother came to see the show," the actor recalls with a laugh.
"When Michael Wilson came to me about the nude scene, he explained what he was thinking," the actor remembers. "We talked it out. Originally, I was going to wear just a towel, but there were so many sides to that character that he felt it was only appropriate to ratchet up the sexual tension between the secretary and Chris. Chris was a character who thought he could read people very fast and when he saw Blackie (the secretary) with the pencil in her hair and those librarian glasses, we felt that Chris would try to shock her a little bit and maybe loosen her up. That's what we were trying to achieve there." Then Pettie adds, "Always trust your director."
Are there are similarities between the character of Christopher Flanders and Kenny, the character Pettie is currently playing in DETROIT? Pettie takes a moment to consider and comments, "Both of these guys have incredible inner turmoil. They're trying to change the directions of their lives. What I find different is that Kenny realizes that things aren't going to change, he starts to dive back into what he knows. It simultaneously soothes him because it's the life he knows, it also makes the fireball a little hotter. With Chris, he felt like he really needed to change-had to change-but still he had to hold on to some of his old identity by stealing the jewelry at the end. Oh yes, there are similarities in the two characters in that they're at their own crossroads and they've done what they needed to do in order to survive. However, one thinks it's okay if I stay in this world and the other thinks he has to keep moving but he can't let that world go."
What drew Pettie to this production of DETROIT? "Well, I was out in LA," he says "and I wasn't looking to do a play because I wanted to do some TV and that sort of thing and they were looking for people for this production. They thought I was really right for the part and they wanted me to throw my hat in the ring. I looked at the play and I worked on the scene between David and Kenny. I really began to like it. I'm drawn to characters who are really flawed and to a certain extent I could identify with Kenny. I'm always looking for characters that I can have an emotional connection with. This role is that of a deeply flawed person with a dubious past. The more I worked on the audition, the more I wanted to do the play."
After the rave review in the New York Times which called the play "a delirious, dangerous bacchanal", .there is a chance that the limited engagement of DETROIT, which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, will be extended. "They're working out a few details; David and Amy may have a few things that they're dealing with, but it looks as though we will extend. However, there might be a few nights that we go dark to accommodate previous commitments. The situation here at Playwrights Horizons is that there's always something else coming in." In that same review, critic Christopher Isherwood called Pettie's performance "excellent" and singled out his marvelous monologue for being "hilarious" [while] "subtly threaded with envy and a hint or two of unspoken hostility."
Now that he's had some experience playing Tennessee Williams, has Darren Pettie ever thought of playing Stanley Kowalski? "You know, I had auditioned for that part twice, one was for a production directed by David Cromer and once for another regional company. The problem with that role is that I've seen the movie with Marlon Brando so many times and he was one of the finest young male actors we've ever had and I just can't shake his performance. I'd love to do the role but I keep picturing Brando in that role. In my mind it can't be done better." Still, with the right cast and the right director, Pettie would make a fine Stanley. In fact, he'd probably be brilliant.
One role that Pettie would love to do is Shakespeare's Scottish King. With his murders, bloodshed and memorable soliloquies, and over-all manliness, this might be a fine fit for Pettie. It would be a far cry from the role he played in BUTLEY opposite Nathan Lane when he made his Broadway debut several seasons ago.
One way or another, Darren Pettie will surely be seen on the boards in future productions. He's one of New York's most reliable actors and for those who are unfamiliar with him, his performance in DETROIT is one that shouldn't be missed.
DETROIT is playing at the Playwright's Horizons, located at 416 West 42nd Street. (212) 564-1236. Or go to www.playwrightshorizons.org.
As alluded to by Mr. Pettie in the interview, DETROIT is extending its run at Playwright's Horizons. After a hiatus next week, it resumes for two final weeks October16-28.