BWW Interview: Courtney B. Vance Edits the Lucky Guy
Courtney B. Vance, veteran of stage and screen, knows that Tom Hanks isn't the only Lucky Guy performing on Broadway this spring. Vance read for the part of newspaperman Hap Hairston, a bigger-than-life editor during the tumultuous tabloid wars of 1985-98, when The Daily News, The New York Post and New York Newsday battled for the juiciest headlines of the day.
The play, written by the late Nora Ephron and directed by George C. Wolfe, tells the story of Mike McAlary, who rode a tabloid comet from beat reporter to columnist to a Pulitzer Prize that he won just months before his death at age 41.
"I did the reading for it a year and a half ago and really didn't know what would happen," he said. When the Lucky Guy people finally got back to him, it was with an odd request. "They wanted me to gain 20 pounds," he said with a laugh, to more accurately reflect Hairston's burly physique. Vance remained trim, but the rest is tabloid history - Hanks was cast as McAlary and Vance as Hairston.
Vance's portrayal of McAlary's editor and bar-rail buddy has won him major plaudits, but he deflects credit for the praise. "The play is flat on the page," he said, "but George brought it to life with his amazing direction and staging. None of us in our wildest dreams could imagine it ending up visually like it is."
Yet Vance almost passed up the opportunity to work with Hanks and Wolfe. "I have a set of twins at home and I was a hair's breath away from not doing it. The attraction to me was George and Tom, and the painful part of it was not having Nora here," he said. Ephron died last June of complications from acute myeloid leukemia.
Vance was no stranger to the volatile newspaper wars that colored the city during the time of the play's setting. "I was in the city doing SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION, but honestly I didn't pay that much attention to the news then," he said, adding with a laugh, "probably because I was just exhausted working so hard." Vance commuted from Brooklyn to Manhattan and though he didn't buy the papers consistently, he remembers reading Page Six and the sports section of The Post. He still doesn't buy the tabloids, he said, preferring to get his news from The New York Times online.
Vance described the energy rush he feels each performance. "I've done a lot of theater and I know that it's a different audience each time, who doesn't know the story and we have to tell it." The performance is grueling and no one can predict how patrons will respond. "For example," he said, "last night the audience just wasn't responsive, they weren't responding as vociferously as others. But our job is to just let the story wash over them-we know where our journey leads and where the payoffs are and the audience responds in their own way.
"My job is to tell the story, not show the story." The play inspires him every time he goes on stage, he added. "We know not to get thrown by audience reaction. Some nights they'll be guffawing all over the place especially when McAlary's wife Alice," played by Maura Tierney, "recites the stops on a Long Island Rail Road line. Some nights maybe the audience is from out of town, and doesn't know the LIRR stops," Vance said.
Vance described the relationship between his character and that of Hanks as a love/hate one. "They loved each other, closed bars together and Hap was his Svengali in some ways. Hap was the teacher, he showed him the ropes and then the nature of the relationship starts to switch. Hap was a black man in a white world, there just weren't that many black editors around then."
"The life of an editor is not a glamorous one," Vance said. "You're a fixer, you make things better. Hap was the guy in The Shadows-I tried researching him and he was like a ghost, I couldn't find anything on him. How tragic was that to be as brilliant as he was and not ever known?
"He lived hard, lived fast and was an amazing, amazing editor," he said. "People will now rediscover him and learn how amazing and crazy he was in the context of that time. You can't judge him by 2013 standards.
"It was a special time in the city, a lot of crime, no Internet, just newsprint," Vance said. "And all that drunken Irish stuff-he was a brilliant guy in a white world and the shame of it is that he lived so hard he burnt himself right out.
"But I can't give George enough credit for setting up this incredible world for us to inhabit," Vance said. "We all call him 'Boss,' even Tom."
LUCKY GUY is playing at the Broadhurst Theatre.