BWW Interviews: Actor French Stewart Discusses His Role as Buster Keaton in STONEFACE
Actor French Stewart will repeat his role as Buster Keaton in Stoneface, written by his wife Vanessa Claire Stewart, at the Pasadena Playhouse beginning June 3. The play will costar Daisy Eagan. Stewart, best known to TV audiences for 3rd Rock from the Sun, the middle and other sitcoms is a wonderful dramatic actor, and as Buster Keaton in Stoneface, which sold out houses for months at Sacred Fools Theatre in 2012, he just shines.
Tell us about Stoneface, what it tells about Buster Keaton's life and what this role means to you.
The main thing that we wanted to do was to show him, the best and the worst, just bumps and all, his actual life. We spent a lot of time with his family. They were worried that it would just be another version of...just Buster Keaton.
Who does his family consist of at this point?
Grandchildren; it's sort of an extended bunch...they're very protective and we've gotten to be very close with them. We didn't move away from any of the hard parts about his life, but we were fair about them. That's all they (family) really wanted. I had always wanted to play Buster Keaton, and my wife (Vanessa Claire Stewart) is a wonderful playwright.
And she also plays a wonderful Keely Smith (in her Louis and Keely Live at the Sahara) too.
And she's the shyest person you've ever met. She just bangs out a great work of art. (we laugh) I was worried that I was just too old to do the tricks, and she said "Well, play the drum's metal part" and then she just wrote it for me. It's been a wonderful thing and taking it from the Sacred Fools, which is our sort of little home theatre...
It was brilliant there. I loved the whole execution of the play. Watching it was like watching a silent movie; it was so beautifully done.
Thank you so much. Taking it to Pasadena, we want to...
Let's talk about that later. First, I want you to tell me more about the challenges of creating Buster Keaton., his personal life as well as his career.
The challenge for me is that...we wanted the show to be full of...(pause) There's a lot of physical danger in it; we do a lot of physical stuff. When we drop the house, you know, if I'm not in the right spot...I actually get pounded into the ground. It's an actual threat, and we're going to drop a much bigger house at Pasadena. We wanted to take physical chances and emotional chances and just lay it all out there. It's very physically demanding, and this is the first time I'll have to be doing two of them in a day.
OK, how will it translate to the bigger venue of the Pasadena Playhouse stage?
The theatre is so dramatically different, and so much larger, so it's got to change. We want to keep the handmade charm of the smaller show and just blow it up for a larger venue.
Has Vanessa made any changes to the script?
Yeah. There were certain things we wanted to tighten up, We've got a new cast member, Daisy Eagan; she's just wonderful. We're just trying to do a better version of it. Clean up some things in the script that weren't working, and we'll have a chance to clean up certain acting things that weren't working...
Can you mention any changes without giving too much away?
A lot of it has been in language nuance. We've also added another scene where you get to see a younger Buster Keaton act his best. We felt like we leaned pretty heavy on his hardest, and we really wanted to be able to see him at his best. We've also added a little bit more Chaplin stuff. But, most of it's nuance.
Is this your greatest role to date?
I feel like it is. I feel like it's the one that's most important to me. On TV, I'm mostly going to be just a goofball. That's fine...but on stage people know me differently. I'm able to do anything. The role is a good use of me and my physicality, and I get to show some emotional range.
How do you feel about Voice Lessons?
It might be my favorite. It's such a weird little punk song. (laughs) An hour and fifteen minutes of just mayhem. I think it's Laurie Metcalf at her best. It's so great to play straight man to Laurie Metcalf.
Your reactions to her were priceless.
(laughs) I'm really proud of it. It's one of those things we've never quite figured out what to do with. You can't really take it to Broadway. Off-Broadway, maybe.
It would work Off-Broadway!
Nobody's ever complained about a show being too short. I sure haven't. I like to go in, sit down and have an hour fifteen of just craziness and then go have some drinks. It says what it says; it's not King Lear. Every now and then we pull it out. We tried to do it a couple of months ago, but because of schedules...Laurie's doing Broadway... anyway, I just love that show. It's my friends' favorite.
I saw you do The Nerd a few years back at the Colony. But that's closer to the schtic you've done on television, don't you think?
It was clearly kind of a big house commercial thing. That play is what it is. I remember seeing it when I was young and thinking it was delightful. But then the first thing you realize about doing it, is that it's really dated. And you have to embrace that. If you don't embrace the fact that you're showing a snapshot of time in the theatre, then you're going to kill yourself, because you're going to try to make something relevant that might not be. It was really just a matter of recreating a snapshot, big dopey fun.
Talk a little about 3rd Rock.
I have a lot of gratitude for having had that in my life. It was really joyous from beginning to end. A lot of theatre people getting together and cranking out a one-act play every week. Just like smart/stupid. You do plays and then you get this show and suddenly you're going on Oprah! and meeting the President and going on The Tonight Show. It changes your life and...it's given me everything.
You worked with some great people. John Lithgow!
The main thing was that Lithgow is such a gentleman.I only saw him get angry maybe once; the rest of the time it was just steady, steady, steady. If your leader is steady, you're fine. It's the same thing in Mom. Anna Faris is a nice person and she leads by just doing her job well. She and Allison Janney got along great; no girl on girl violence! (we laugh) It's been very joyful and it's going to be nice to come back again. If you ever get the chance to work with someone like Chuck Lorre (producer), he understands the venue; he knows how to do it. He's very efficient. It's been like going back to college in a way; you learn somebody else's way of doing things and you grow by it. It's fun. It's been nice. I've got a ten-month old baby and I want to be in town. I've always found what I want in the theatre and occasionally I can find it on TV. I've always made my living doing that and I'm very grateful.
Stoneface. What are the plans? To take it on the road?
Yeah. My wife and I are invested in it. We're building it. We'll own the set; we'll own the design. Our plan is to move it maybe off-Broadway and then Broadway. Just build it and make it as big as possible. I'm usually pretty honest with myself...what I'm in, whether it's pretty good or not. This one I just feel it. I'm very proud of it. The sharper and finer we can get it, the better it will be.