BWW Interviews: James Naughton Talks THE WORD, CITY OF ANGELS Reunion

In the new film "The Word," a man's otherwise perfect life is destroyed when his son is kidnapped and murdered. He finds himself torn between avenging his son's death and moving on with his now hollow existence. Two-time Tony-winner James Naughton plays F.B.I. agent Mike Sheehy, who is tasked with hunting down the boy's killer. "The Word" opens in New York and Los Angeles this week.

Last week, I spoke to Naughton about the film, his iconic role as the original Billy Flynn in long-running "Chicago" revival, being a part of a family of performers, and whether or not there is any truth to the rumors of a "City of Angels" reunion concert.

BWW: How did you get involved with this film?

Naughton: I had an agent who said a casting agent had called, and they sent me a script and asked if I was interested. I thought, "This is kind of cool," and it was being made in Connecticut, which is where I live, so it was sort of a no-brainer.

I have to admit, the movie was a bit of a rollercoaster, I think I suspected that nearly every character was involved in the conspiracy at some point, but I have a feeling that's the feeling that you guys were going for.

I think it's pretty straight forward as a mystery. A child's kidnapped and ends up murdered and sacrificed, and it's a difficult situation for everyone to deal with. What was fun for me was getting to play an F.B.I. agent. Most of my stuff was trying to control the guys that were beneath me, sort of the senior F.B.I. agent in the movie. We were basically in that little room, in a building in Bridgeport, Connecticut for about a week. The other actors were very good, so it was a lot of fun to work on.

One of the things that I thought was really fun, even though you didn't actually have any scenes together, was that you were in a movie with Maggie Lacey, whom you directed on Broadway in "Our Town." Did you two cross paths at all when filming?

I think we were on the set together one time. She's a lovely young lady, and I like her very much as an actress. I obviously like her a lot, I cast her. We had a wonderful time doing that show; I have a very special place in my heart for Maggie Lacey, both as a young woman, and as an actress.

Well, she is great in this movie, and as that was her Broadway debut in "Our Town," you played a pretty instrumental role in her career from the beginning.

I'm a great appreciator of Maggie, she's terrific. That whole experience with "Our Town" was about as wonderful and positive of a working experience as I've ever had.

Why is that?

Well, the people who were involved, the people I cast in it were all a bunch of wonderful folks. It was a celebration of Paul Newman's return to the stage after 36 or 37 years of being away. I never thought it would happen. For 20 years I had talked to him about trying to get back on the stage, and finally it was "Our Town" that did it. It was just a delight, everything about that experience was delightful.

You've obviously had great success on the stage as an actor and as a director, but over the last few years, many of the projects we have seen you in have been on screen. Where do you see your career going at this point?

Well, you know, people always ask you the question, "Which do you prefer? Working on the stage or working in front of a camera?"

I've always answered saying, "Whichever one I'm not doing at the moment is the one I'd rather be doing." If you're on a stage, you're thinking, "Oh my gosh, eight shows a week. Get me out of here, get me a movie, or a TV show."

Then when you're doing that, you think, "Oh to be on the boards again." I think it's kind of human nature. I have been fortunate enough to be able to do a little bit of both. It's nice to have a balance in your life. Now if I could just figure out how to work at home, or around my home, more frequently. That would be ideal.

Yea, not every movie, or TV show, or play happens in Connecticut, does it?

No, unfortunately, that's true. But it would be nice to live and work in the same place. I'm doing a one-man play in the Berkshires at the moment; at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge. I'm living in a house here in the Berkshires, I've been here since the end of June, and my show closes this weekend. So, this is what you have to do if you want to live and work in the same place, you have to go find a place. The Berkshires are pretty sweet.

Absolutely, not a bad place to spend a month and a half.

And my daughter directed the play, which was nice too.

Oh wow, that's got to be fun. Is it your personal story, or are you playing a character?

No, I'm playing a character; a guy who goes to visit his father in the hospital, and the father is incubated and comatose, and can't hear anything. He's barely alive, and the son goes and sits there.

In the play I make five visits and I sit and talk to my father, and you discover that the father was abusive, and my mother is crazy, my wife just left me for a younger man, and my law practice is failing (laugh), and the play is funny. It's very smart, and very funny, and ultimately very, very moving. It's a one-man piece, so I've learned this thing, it's 90-minutes of very intense talking. I've been working on it for months now.

What is the play called?

It's called "Cedars," it takes place at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles.

And it's great that your daughter is directing it, how has that relationship been with your child being the one telling you what to do?

Well, it's been wonderful actually. How it came about, Kate Maguire, who's the Artistic Director up here, at first I said to her that I didn't want a director. I was afraid someone would come in and just start messing around, and the writer didn't want one either. We've both directed, so we thought we could just do this ourselves. And Kate said, "No, you're gonna want someone. What about Keira?"

And I said, "That's an interesting idea." The last few things I've done, both musical and dramatic, Keira's given me the best notes of anybody, so I said, "Yea, that makes sense, let's do it." And she was wonderful. And in reality, when you do a thing like this, it is kind of a collaboration among the writer, the director, and the actor.

So it's been great, we've been able to live together in this house, with her three-year-old little boy, and her husband would come up on weekends, so it's been wonderful.

Your family is so filled with people who work in entertainment, what are those family gatherings like? Is everybody clamoring for attention, or are they all more reserved when they aren't performing?

Well, I'm really lucky, I'm really close to all my family, and we all hang out together. It's the family business, so we share a vocabulary. My son, his wife Kelli (O'Hara), and their two children are living with me now, because Greg is directing the play that follows me here. So, I had my daughter and her little boy for the first three or four weeks, now I've got my son and his family for the next three or four weeks.

That sounds like a nice summer vacation then.

Yea, it's quite wonderful.

So, now that you've been back on stage for the past month or so, are you itching to get back on camera, or has it rekindled some desire to be on stage?

(Laughing) That's a good question. I don't know, but I'm working harder than I've ever worked in my life. If you can imagine doing a one-man play, where you're the only thing talking for 90 minutes; and it's very intense talking too. It's not just lollygagging. It's a very emotional, highly wrought situation. So, we'll see if I ever want to work on the stage again, but it's been very, very rewarding, and a lot of fun.

Speaking of working on the stage, I have to ask, there have been a lot of rumors about the possibility of a "City of Angels" reunion concert in the future. Is there any truth to that, or just wishful thinking from fans?

Actually, I've been trying to get that to happen for the last few years. This year happens to be the 25th anniversary; we opened in November of '89, and there was a lot of interest in us, the original cast, coming together and doing a concert version of it. There is a production that is going to happen in London...

Right, at the Donmar Warehouse.

Yea, this winter. And those producers put the kibosh on it. They didn't want any competition.

I would think that a one-night concert would do a lot more to generate interest than competition.

I agree with you, and there are a lot of people who think that it would be in their interest to do it, but they don't feel that way. And so the question is whether or not that production is going to have a life in the United States, and if it doesn't, then I think we might get our chance to do our little revival sometime next year.

Is it just the occasion of the anniversary, or was there something special about that show and experience that makes you want to revisit it after all these years?

Everybody associated with that show loved the experience. Our company was very close, we had a wonderful time together. We think we did something that was kind of special; it was certainly special for all of us. We all run into people who say, "My God, why don't they do a revival of that show?" because people remember it very fondly. So, all of us would like to do it. We were going to do it as a benefit for City Center, or as a benefit for Broadway Cares: Equity Fights Aids, but the reason we wanted to do it is that we are all still working, and we love each other. We just think it would be so much fun to get together for a night and do it.

I would imagine that there would be many, many fans who would agree you; me being one. I'm not sure that there was ever been a more catchy showtune than "You're Nothing Without Me." If I hear that song once, it's stuck in my head for weeks.

Well, every once in a while someone will ask Gregg Edelman and me to come out and do it for someone's benefit, or something, and we do, because we love doing it, and we love doing it together. So, maybe we will get a chance to do it again.

I kind of got diverted off of the questions I wanted to ask about "The Word," so I want to get back to those, but there's one more of your previous shows that I have to ask about; when you got involved with "Chicago" did you ever imagine that it would have the life that it's had, poised to become the second longest running show in Broadway history in a few months?

Well, at the time, that came out of the Encores series, and I recall, on the opening night of the Encores show, standing backstage waiting to go on, and after the opening number, "All That Jazz," the audience roared, I mean they literally roared. It was a wonderful sound; you don't hear it very often in the theatre, but they roared back at us. Then they roared like that after every single number that whole night, and I realized that this thing was very special.

I started to think about what it was that was special, and I think that after so many years of musicals that there were helicopters or falling chandeliers, and that kind of stuff, this was pure performing, right in your face. And I think the audience was starved for it, and they realized how great it really is when you see something like that. To everyone's credit, it's still going strong, and I think that's wonderful.

And you actually went back into it for a few weeks about eight years into the run.

They were hard-up, they didn't have a Billy, and they said, "Any chance you could go back and help us out?" and I said, "Umm...... yea, why not? It might be fun." And the other thing is, I am an original investor in that show, so I'm still making money from it. It's been very, very nice. It's also the only show I've ever invested in.

That's a pretty good track record then.

As we all know, it's a pretty lousy gamble, but I had the advantage of having heard the way the audience responded originally in those Encores productions, so I thought, "Why not take a chance on this?" and I did, and it's paid off.

That is probably the understatement of the day! Ok, I want to get back to some quick questions about "The Word," I kind of got moved off of that topic sooner than I had planned, but I thought your character Agent Sheehy was interesting, because you can tell he sympathizes with Kevin O'Donnell's character, but he has to do his job. How did you approach playing this guy?

Well, I'm a father, and a grandfather, so I can certainly understand how difficult it would be if a parent loses a child, particularly that way, so I think you have to be a stone to not be sympathetic to his plight. On the other hand, if you're in the F.B.I., you have to stay in control of the situation, and try to solve it.

In closing, do you have any final thoughts on the movie, as it gets ready to open up in select cities?

I think it's a pretty good indie, you know? I don't know how many indie's get made, but I would guess a lot, and this one's a good one, and I think that's wonderful, and a real feather in Steve Grimaldi's cap. He's the guy who wrote it, and produced it, and has gotten it this far, and that's a huge accomplishment. And, obviously, it must have gotten this far because people seem to like it. So, I hope people will go and see it, and enjoy it.

"The Word" opens in New york and Los Angeles this week, so check here for New York ticket info, and here for LA ticket info.

What do you think? Are you already anxious for the "City of Angels" reunion concert? Let me know in the comments below or on Twitter @BWWMatt.

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