BWW Interviews: Actor Bruce Davison Talks About His Role in Coward's A SONG AT TWILIGHT
Actor Bruce Davison certainly needs no introduction. He has starred on stage, screen and television in a multitude of complex roles over the last almost 50 years. He is most remembered for his early film Willard in the 60s and his stunning Oscar-nominated role in Longtime Companion from the early 90s. Davison is currently onstage in Noel Coward's A Song at Twilight at the Pasadena Playhouse, co-starring Sharon Lawrence and Roxanne Hart. In our chat, he talks about his wonderful role in the Coward play and other fascinating career tidbits.
Tell me about A Song at Twilight and the character you are playing in it.
The play is Noel Coward's King Lear and his most complex piece. I play Hugo Latymer, a closeted writer who hesitantly accepts a visit from his former mistress. She's writing her autobiography and wants to use his love letters. He refuses, which leads to confrontations about past secrets and repressed lives.
What challenges, if any, are you experiencing in playing this role?
Language, stamina, and filigree rococo language is quite a lot to master especially with an upper class British accent - as well as to try to maintain a character that is so shut down emotionally and still covey a sense of truth about him that will be interesting.
How does it compare to others you have played?
It's the hardest - people often don't realize the amount of work that goes into creating a character that carries a play - The Elephant Man was a piece of cake by comparison. After six months of doing The Elephant Man on Broadway I was doing it again in Westport while doing Hildy in The Front Page with Brian Dennehy at the Long Wharf ... at the same time. Hildy works very hard supporting all the characters - in contrast, all the characters work and support the Elephant Man. In reviews, Hildy is hardly mentioned - I thought it was my best work - while with the Elephant Man - every gesture, every move is raved about - it gave me an understanding of what people don't understand about what goes into playing a role.
You have had a wonderful stage career in New York and Los Angeles. I saw you in The Elephant Man Broadway early on and also playing Tom in The Glass Menagerie with Jessica Tandy. Talk a little about the latter experience.
Hume Cronyn played the role of Tom on Broadway, and he was a great mentor to me. I did the The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial with him on Broadway in the 1970s; Henry Fonda directed. During the time I was doing The Glass Menagerie I was lost in the part of Tom - my mom was dying in Philadelphia, and I was playing Tom for real - going home on a train and leaving my sister with my mom in Philadelphia - and I couldn't get near the part - I was emotionally shut down - Hume took me aside and told me "It's not important what you feel - what is important is the performance and the words - simplicity and the words are all you need." He then told me the story of the death of his father in 5 minutes at the end of which I was in tears. Hume then said, "I put no emotion into that - I just told you the facts. That is your job - you have one of the greatest written passages to do that for you. So find your light, and say the words."
I later directed Hume in his last film Off Season for Showtime, for which he was nominated for an Emmy. I wish he were here now to help me with Hugo.
Another highlight was The Cocktail Hour, which you did here in LA. Talk a little about that and working with Nancy Marchand and others in the cast.
I have a picture on my dressing room table of them. Keene Curtis and Nancy were great influences on me - another great theatrical family. We played together for over 400 performances and I always think of them when I see that photo sitting there. Holland Taylor played my sister in that production as well.
What is the favorite role you have played onstage? If more than one, mention them. Why these choices?
The Elephant Man was a great sense of rebirth for me in the theater and of coming back after having a rough time in Hollywood. Doing Streamers in Westwood was great as well. For films, Longtime Companion certainly, and Ulzana's Raid, directed by Robert Aldrich. I got to live every young man's fantasy of chasing Apaches across the vast expanses of the West along with costarring and riding alongside Burt Lancaster.
Which playwrights are among your favorites? Why?
I love Pete Gurney (A.R. Gurney) - I know him personally and got to work with him. Other favorites are Ionesco, who I got to know when I worked with him in Stockbridge, and Tennessee Williams. I wish I could have met him - he died just before I did The Glass Menagerie.
Longtime Companion brought you an Oscar nomination and was a wonderful performance. I know the battle against AIDS remains close to your heart, as it figures into the charitable side of your career. Talk about that film and others related to the issue that you have done.
I started with The Normal Heart before Longtime Companion - and I was inspired by Larry Kramer who went on to create Act Up. I never thought anybody would see Longtime Companion - it was a little movie of the week for public TV - I never thought it would even make it on the air much less have a theatrical release - but because of Tom Rothman and Sam Goldwyn it went on to achieve the success it did - I did Randal Kleiser's film It's My Party and worked with a lot of earlier groups when they were starting in. I worked with Henry Heimlich when we thought Malaria therapy might be a solution to the AIDS crisis - I also worked with American Rights and APLA in the early days - when my agent manager and commercial agent all died - during the late 1980s and early 1990s; it was a holocaust.
As you are aging, do you have a role that you feel you must play like King Lear? Or are you just satisfied with the work that comes your way?
I am just satisfied with the work that comes my way - King Lear would probably kill me - I watched Lee J. Cobb do it - I was a spear carrier at Lincoln Center - I used to watch him come sliding down that highly raked Ming Cho Lee set - I thought he would get a hernia!
Talk a little about your recent TV work - A & E's Those Who Kill and Last Resort.
Last Resort was the last resort - they ended up blowing us all up - the network didn't want to continue which was too bad - I thought it was a great series and I loved working with Andre Braugher, but you never know. Those Who Kill finished its first season and is about to have a reboot - we will see how things go - I play Chloë Sevigny's twisted dad - it's a fun role.