BWW Interviews: Talking with 'One Arm' star Claybourne Elder
Claybourne Elder has been a professional actor in New York for only a few years, but his career has already been studded with milestones. He worked with Stephen Sondheim on his first job in New York, a featured role in Road Show that he got without an agent (he'd learned about the audition from a casting notice he saw at the Equity office). He has since costarred in two new musicals that generated buzz with their regional premieres—the Frank Wildhorn-scored Bonnie & Clyde and Richard Maltby Jr. and David Shire's Take Flight—and been a leading man for Kansas City Rep, playing Cliff in Cabaret and Cinderella's Prince in Into the Woods.
Now Elder joins such legends as Marlon Brando and Laurette Taylor by originating a lead role to much acclaim in a Tennessee Williams play. He is starring off-Broadway as Ollie Olsen in One Arm, which director Moisés Kaufman adapted from an unproduced screenplay Williams wrote in the 1960s, based on his own short story. One Arm traces Ollie's journey from the Navy to death row, where he finds himself after being convicted of murder. Once the light heavyweight champion of the Pacific fleet, the beauteous Ollie turns from boxing to hustling—with a mostly male clientele—after he loses an arm in an automobile accident.
In reviews of One Arm, Elder has been lauded for his "simmering performance" (Entertainment Weekly), "considerable charisma" (Backstage) and "endearing sincerity and merciful restraint" (New York Times). But this young man who so poignantly conveys Ollie's melancholy and anguish is actually full of cheer off stage. "I'm a happy-go-lucky Mormon kid from Utah," Clay tells me. He's the youngest of eight siblings in a "yours, mine and ours" family, he says, adding, "I'm one of the ours." None of his siblings pursued performing as a career, although four of them became psychologists. Clay spoke more about his upbringing, his work so far and his current role in an interview with BroadwayWorld.
What have you discovered about One Arm and what it meant to Tennessee Williams?
The short story was published in 1942, and in '67 he wrote the screenplay. He and Elia Kazan planned on [producing] it. There were several drafts in the '60s. In the '70s, interestingly, he and Lanford Wilson collaborated on a screenplay—a totally different version that we didn't draw from. The year before he died, he was making handwritten changes to the screenplay, still trying to get it produced. That's 40 years of his life he was thinking about and working on this project. He said in a letter to Kazan that he thought the film could never be made in the United States, because it was too conservative.
When he was writing the short story in the early '40s, he went to Mexico to write for a while. He was coming back across the border with his trunk, and in his trunk was a stack of manuscripts he'd been writing. When he got his stuff on the other side of Customs, he was looking through the pile of manuscripts and One Arm was missing. He assumed they had taken it because of the subject matter. And he yelled—he tells this story in a letter—and screamed. The quote he said was "This is my life's work, and existence without this manuscript is unthinkable!" They were trying to appease him, they sent him back to the hotel to make sure it hadn't been left there. He decided to look through his trunk again, and he realized he had tucked it underneath, like, some pants somewhere else in his trunk. He was a very flamboyant person in communication, maybe known for hyperbole, sure. But it was that important to him.
So how did you find this perfect role for you in a play that didn't even exist?
Moisés and I had worked together on Into the Woods at Kansas City Rep, and during that time he was working on Laramie Project: Ten Years Later. He knew that I had studied dramaturgy in college, so he and I had some conversations about that piece and just started having some conversations that were really good. And he said to me one day, "I've been working on this Tennessee Williams screenplay for a long time, and I've been thinking about bringing it around again. I think you might be right for the part." It wasn't like: "Here, let's do this project together, kid!" He sent me the short story and the screenplay—I fell in love with them, of course—and a few months later we did a workshop of the play in New York for a week. Now here we are a year later, and it's up at the New Group. It's kind of amazing to me how it appeared out of nowhere.
Have you done Tennessee Williams before?
This is my first time, other than in school doing scenes.
Does Ollie remind you of any of Williams' famous characters?
Absolutely. So many. I have people come up to me and say, "I can't believe how much like Brick you were...," "I can't believe how much like Blanche you were...," "I can't believe how much you were like Laura in this scene..." I guess it's that way with anyone with a canon of work like that—you start to draw the lines between who people are and who they represent.
Did you watch or read anything Williams wrote in preparing for this role?
I've seen all the iconic films. But when I started this, I tended to stay away from other representations of his work. I did watch two movies that I found very influential for this role: Midnight Cowboy and Midnight Express.
Midnight Cowboy's also about a Southern-born hustler. Midnight Express because of the jail setting?
Because of the jail and also because Tennessee Williams mentioned several times that he wanted Brad Davis [the late star of Midnight Express] to play the role. So it was interesting to me to get a feeling for who that person was and what Tennessee Williams was thinking.
Midnight Cowboy, there's a lot of lines to be drawn. Elia Kazan and Williams were writing letters back and forth about the [One Arm] screenplay, and Kazan compared it to Midnight Cowboy. But it's like the Midnight Cowboy that comes through in the places where that story lacked.
What was it like working with Stephen Sondheim as a newbie to New York theater?
So awkward. The first day of rehearsal, it was like the meet-and-greet. Everyone's standing around with plates of fruit and croissants, and we're supposed to mingle with each other. I didn't know a soul and was feeling totally terrified. Stephen Sondheim was there, and I walked up to him and just kind of stood in front of him and didn't say anything. He was looking at me, I put out my hand and shook his hand, and all I could say was "Thank you." He was like, "Yep." And I just turned around and walked away. It was the most awkward interaction of my entire life! But it got better after that; it got more comfortable. He was there almost every day, watching and changing and noting. He'd walk in and sip coffee and read the paper. I'd just be sitting there...trying not to stare at him for the first week. He would come up and give me vocal notes, like sing things to me—like, "You're singing [to a tune] 'Dun-dun-dun-dun-da,' but you need to be singing [with a very slight difference in stress] 'Dun-dun-dun-dun-da.'" [I was] like, Can I get a recorder?
Mormons are big on Broadway right now—at least fictional ones. You're a real Mormon. Did you go on a mission?
I was raised Mormon. I went on what is called a performing mission. I went and did plays about Mormon things, in Salt Lake City and all over the United States. The Mormon church puts such a huge emphasis on the performing arts. There's a huge community of fantastically talented people who were raised Mormon and are here performing. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir—they have open rehearsals sometimes. If you go in that enormous building and hear that enormous group of people, it is remarkable.
So have you seen The Book of Mormon?
I haven't seen it yet. I was out of town when they opened, and then I came back to town and started rehearsals for this right away. My head was buried under the sand the whole rehearsal process for this show. Now that I may have the chance [to go], it's the Tony Awards and nobody can get a ticket. I'm going to try.
Did you audition for it?
For Elder Price. I think I'm still in their mix, maybe.
So do you consider yourself more of a musical performer or dramatic actor?
It's funny: Somebody asked me whether I feel like a musical-theater person doing a straight play. But when I did Road Show, I worried that people were going to think, What's this dramaturge doing a musical for? I don't know what I would define myself as. I went to school to study textual analysis and now I'm an actor. I always loved doing plays, but when I came to New York, there's so many more musicals, and it's so much easier to get jobs in musicals. I love doing it, but I have a real passion for the straight theater, which probably comes from my background.
Why did you major in dramaturgy and directing in college instead of acting?
While I was in college, I was working for a nonprofit that set up English schools in communities around the world. I spent seven months in China and seven months in Russia. I'd go away on these experiences and feel like, "Oh, I have to change the world!" and come back and decide to study a different thing. I went to several different colleges. I was studying environmental biology at one point—for about a semester. But kept coming back to theater in different ways. For about a year and a half I was an acting major. I had taken all the capstone acting classes and felt like there was more I wanted to learn. I had a dramaturgy professor who kept saying, "I think you might be good at this." She became my mentor and brought me into it. I spent the last part of my college career delving into that and being a dramaturge on school projects. It remains one of my biggest passions; I love that kind of work.
Does the dramaturgy background influence you as an actor?
There's lots of different kinds of actors. I'm a dramaturge actor, and I think that being a dramaturge actor provides me different tools than an actor who would have another style. It's this ability to focus research into a visceral experience. The way I experience a role in my body, I can directly draw from research that I do. Like, for this show, I spent a lot of time watching boxers, I read a history of boxing, to see how they held themselves and moved, and took it all into my body. I use that to characterize who Ollie is.
What about getting accustomed to Ollie's physical handicap?
It sounds so cheesy and Methody, but I did walk around my house just using my left arm. I'm right-handed—that's the arm that's missing. Even just for show safety, I wanted to be more nimble with my left hand. I spent a lot of time trying to just use my left hand for things. Walking my dog, for instance. It provides a lot of insight into just how difficult that is to deal with every day.
I read about "phantom limbs" on the Internet. What it's like to have a missing limb right now is not what it was like to have a missing limb in the '60s—it's hard to find that research. Today, prosthetics are so good, and it's not seen as much as a handicap as it was then. So the research I did do was on people who had lost limbs in their lifetime, as opposed to from childbirth, and I read what that experience was like.
Much is made in the dialogue of Ollie's physique. What did you do to prepare for that aspect of the role?
There's one woman in our show, Larisa Polonsky, and she's a personal trainer. She is in fantastic shape. I was talking to her one day in rehearsal about how I know how to work out in the gym but I really want to get a good ab routine. And she was like, "All right, every day I'm going to work you out. I'm going to kick your ass!" So every day before the show she puts me through the most intense ab workout. It involves lifting my legs all over the place and stretchy bands...it's about 15 minutes, but 15 intense minutes. She's amazing, and I owe her. Hugely. I also spend two hours a day at the gym. I haven't changed my diet much. I still eat cupcakes, I love food way too much to stop eating. Instead, I just spend more time at the gym.
Did you also have some "verbal" training for the show?
There are three Ollies in the show—the boxer, after the accident and then in jail—and in dialect I wanted to make sure it reflected these three distinctive things. Working with the dialect coach, he was like, "Why don't we play with where you put your voice?" Like, in a higher place when he's younger. Toward the end he was able to bring this darkness to my voice in a way I hadn't explored before. When my mother came to see the show, she said to me, "There were times when it didn't sound like you were speaking."
Is it true that even some unused props are part of your getting into character as Ollie?
After we started rehearsing on stage, Moisés was like, "I really want you to make this jail cell yours. So why don't you come up with a whole bunch of things you might be doing in that cell?" I have about 10, 13 objects in the room to play with, so I thought about each of them and how I would react and manipulate them. In solitary confinement, they don't give you anything. All of the things ended up being incorporated in the show. I asked for, like, the table and bowl and washrag—which is part of the show—and another stool in the room. I wanted a little container of rubber bands, because Ollie gets all these letters and is very particular about how the letters are organized. I stopped using them before we went into previews, but they are still there and they are a very important part of the cell to me. So there's this little container of rubber bands for me to use, but I don't ever use them.
What special preparation did you do to play Charles Lindbergh, a real person, in Take Flight?
Charles Lindbergh wrote so many books, there's so much about him. He was one of the first international superstars ever. I read like a maniac for a month before—the books he wrote and one that was written about him. I called the bookwriter, John Weidman, who I knew from Road Show. Because he was writing it, I knew this was not going to be a classic telling of Charles Lindbergh—the guy with his hands on his hips by the plane, smiling—so I knew I had to be careful how I was researching. He kind of guided me in what to read and what to prepare. During previews, Lindbergh's grandson came to the show. We had some pictures taken together, and it was kind of eerie that we sort of looked alike. And he said to me, "You really captured my grandfather."
About a month and a half after the show closed, I was in Washington, D.C., for a wedding. I'd never seen the Spirit of St. Louis. It's hanging in the Smithsonian, so I made it a point to go. I spent about an hour standing there looking up at the plane. And I backed up into somebody: John Weidman, who had never been there before either and happened to be there on the same day. Bumped into him, literally, standing below the plane. It was one of the craziest coincidences. So we took pictures of us with the plane. It was strange to look at it and say [pointing as if to parts of the plane], "I know what that gear is... I know why this mirror is there..." I wanted to talk to people around me, 'cause I was so excited: "If you only knew how much I know about this man now..."
What's next for you?
I'm working on a production of Bonnie & Clyde that's coming into Broadway this fall, is what we hear. We're still waiting on an actual date and theater. I play Clyde's brother Buck, which is the Gene Hackman role in the movie. I did two out-of-town productions of Bonnie & Clyde: at the Asolo Rep last fall, and we did it at La Jolla [in fall 2009].
Ultimately, do you want to direct?
Perhaps that is something I would do later in life. But right now I'm so excited about the chance every day to create a piece of theater as an actor. That's an experience that sometimes you only get to have for a certain number of years in your life. So I'm going to live that as much as I can, and who knows what the next act will be and when that will come?
Photos of Clay, from top: in a headshot; as Ollie in One Arm with KC Comeaux (left); in 2008's Road Show, with Michael Cerveris (middle) and Alexander Gemignani; in Cabaret earlier this year in Kansas City, with Kara Lindsay as Sally Bowles; with Todd Lawson in One Arm; as Charles Lindbergh with the company of Take Flight, produced by New Jersey's McCarter Theatre in spring 2010. [Photo credits: One Arm, Monique Carboni; Road Show, Joan Marcus; Cabaret, Don Ipock; Take Flight, T. Charles Erickson]