Maxwell Caulfield Bares His Soul

By: Apr. 18, 2006
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Eavesdropping on conversations at the Promenade Theater during an intermission of its current attraction is as intriguing as the play itself. It seems that the audience is mesmerized by TRYST, Karoline Leach's play, and are eager to converse while they are stretching their legs. One couple was sure they'd solved the mystery that was unfolding. A well-coiffed woman knew exactly how the play was going to end, and two gay men were expressing their pleasure in Maxwell Caulfield's impressive physique. There was animated chatter until the second act resumed. From that point on, one could hear the proverbial pin drop: no mobile phones rang, no candy was unwrapped, no one coughed. The audience was eager to resume bonding with the psychological thriller it was watching.

TRYST tells the story of George Love, a self-confessed con man, and a spinster named Adelaide Pinchin, who works for a milliner. The drama is set in 19th Century England and provides two choice roles for exceptional actors. These are admirably filled by the aforementioned Caulfield and Amelia Campbell. Together the actors create theatrical fireworks and keep the audiences immersed in what they are doing on stage. Ms Campbell utterly transforms herself into a frail, unwed woman and fully embodies her character for the entire evening. Caulfield commands the stage both physically and emotionally and draws the audience into the plot immediately. As the evening progresses, theatergoers get to discover who these characters really are and how they are truly motivated. The result is a splendid evening in the theater.

Meeting Caulfield backstage after the performance found him to be extremely accessible and loquacious. Up close, he's even more handsome than he appears on stage and his blue eyes focus intently upon the person he's conversing with. He speaks openly and with great humor; traits that become even more evident two days later during a telephone conversation that was supposed to last a mere twenty minutes but ran on for closer to an hour. This is the actor who made a great impression on New York audiences in 1981 when he played the title role in the acclaimed revival of Joe Orton's ENTERTAINING MR. SLOANE. His career has included tours of THE ELEPHANT MAN, SLEUTH, and SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH at Williamstown. He also appeared in the Royal National Theater's production of THE INSPECTOR CALLS on Broadway and with Jessica Tandy in SALONIKA at the Public Theater. Caulfield is the proud recipient of the Theater World Award for his performance in CLASS ENEMY. American television viewers will remember him as Miles Colby in DYNASTY and movie audiences will recall him from THE BOYS NEXT DOOR with Charlie Sheen, THE REAL BLONDE and GREASE 2 opposite Michelle Pfeifer. That's quite an impressive roster for an actor who appears so much younger than the calendar would suggest.

Caulfield is extremely enthusiastic about his current role. "We do have a road to hoe, Amelia and I. Neither of us has just come off a TV series or have a big movie in wide release, but I do feel at the end of the day, that we're well cast. I know that we bounce off each other well and I hope that's the way it feels out in the auditorium. We've enjoyed the process with Joe Brancato (the play's director) a great deal."

Born in Scotland, Caulfield came to the United States when he was 18, something he considers "an epochal moment." He admits that he always had a desire to be an American. "I came here to give myself something of a makeover. I was very keen to shed my English roots. Not disown my past or upbringing, but I'd admired American actors, really American movie stars--particularly the rebel heroes of the 50's. The anti-heroes. The Dean-Brando-Clift school of performance. I got to the point where it was almost obsessive. You know, when you're in school you want to be popular and Dean was so very popular with the kids. I didn't want to be a hero to kids; I didn't think I had that. I just wanted to be popular. Really I got turned on to James Dean well before I saw EAST OF EDEN. He certainly was ground breaking and he certainly was an incandescent screen presence."

His acting career began when he was quite young. "I was in a movie called ACCIDENT. I wasn't a child actor at all but my mother was the secretary to Harold Pinter and Joe Losey was the director. It was a very wonderful adult drama with Dirk Bogard, Stanley Baker and Vivien Merchant. I played the son of Dirk Bogard; a very brief role, but I was on a movie set when I was six. As I think back on it, that's what cemented it."

Caulfield admits to having a natural propensity for being a storyteller and recalls doing so in school: "It started very young. I remember that during the lunch break I was in primary school that educated you up to the age of ten. It was during lunch hour where we were forced to 'rest' during the lunch hour. We would lie around on the floor of the hall in the school (right after we'd eaten, which was kind of stupid as well!). We were all lying there rather restless; squirming and wriggling on the floor. I got permission to tell stories, and it turned into this rather long-running saga of basically my little coterie of buddies. It was the story of some sort of endless race. If I remember correctly it was across some sort of wild landscape. We were always in pursuit of something or running away from something-I can't remember. Anyway, everyone used to look forward to me telling the latest installment. Actually, I used to make it up on the spot.

"I remember enjoying how I was able to keep everyone rapt with that and to flash forward several years, I got into a school production of THE BOYFRIEND-that 20's musical and that was followed by a play from the Wakefield Cycle, one of those Medieval religious dramas. Then I did an adaptation of a wonderful book called MISTER JOHNSON by Joyce Carey. I sort of adapted and directed it for a school presentation. Again, I found that it was very comfortable for me to get up in front of people. It didn't all come together until I was in Six Form College, which is like a school you go to between sixteen and eighteen."

It was there that Caulfield did a production of Tennessee Williams' CAMINO REAL. "I got cast as Kilroy and that was it because it was a perfect embodiment of the 'heart the size of a baby' which played into my self image," comments the actor. Kilroy was something of a sweet-footed tragic character." Playing the role solidified Caulfield's desire to pursue acting as a profession. He then tried out for drama school and he got into a school that was very similar in structure to the Actor's Studio. "It was called the Drama Center, but they had a very high rate of attrition there. They would take on twenty-five students at the start of each three year program and whittle it down to eight. I was the first to get the end of the first semester. I was actually stunned and amazed but I also knew that I was something of a disruptive influence because I was doing the James Dean routine and was a sulky bastard. They had to kick me out!"

Coming to the States, Caulfield's first role was in a gay farce at what was then called the Truck and Warehouse Theater on East 4th Street. "They were four days from opening and needed a guy to come in at the end of this ridiculous show, where everyone had gone to this gay resort in Florida, and bring the curtain down. He was supposed to be the new lifeguard. I walked on stage, everyone had a big laugh and the curtain came down. That was my part." In addition to appearing in the play, Caulfield hastens to mention that he also ran the concession stand during intermission before he came onstage in his Speedos in the play's final scene. "The show ran all summer," he comments, "I don't know how we did it. We played for months!" Finally the production was evicted from the theater. The cast returned from a weekend holiday only to discover that the show's lease had run out and a new play was being loaded onto the stage. That was the end of that gig!

Caulfield's first "legit" performance was in CLASS ENEMY, which was a play from the Royal Court Theater in London. It started as a showcase at the Perry Street Theater and then transferred to the Player's Theater in the West Village. "We played several months there," recalls the actor. "It was directed by Tony Tanner and was about juvenile delinquents in a school in London. The students are the detritus of the school-so much so that the teachers don't even show up to teach them anymore. They are left to their own devices. I played this character who was like the school bully. He wore a leather jacket and a pompadour, and just to amuse the others this character suggests that they each take turns teaching a lesson. So one after another the boys get up and gives a lesson about what he does, so one kid talks about how smashing windows is his specialty and another talks about how he has blind parents and how he makes dinner for them every night. My character, of course, ridiculed him. At the end, my character had a complete meltdown. He completely fell apart because what he does wants and craves is discipline." It was for his performance in this play that Caulfield received the Theater World Award.

While other actors have bemoaned the rigors of appearing in touring productions of plays and musicals, Caulfield has the happiest memories of playing a tour of Bernard Pomerance's THE ELEPHANT MAN. "It was glorious!" the actor remarks, "We did the 'winter circuit' down in Florida. It was the Broadway production with the same director and the same set. It was just top class." It was in this play that Caulfield met Juliet Mills and married her shortly afterwards. She played Mrs. Kendall and Caulfield essayed the title role. "It was quite a meeting of souls. We've never looked back. We just celebrated our silver wedding anniversary." The couple has a daughter named Melissa, whom Caulfield describes as "an absolute little firebrand." For about a year she tried to make a career in Hollywood and became disillusioned. "I think she'll return to it," he muses, "I've always said she's a late bloomer." It seems only fitting that Melissa should enter the acting profession. Not only are her parents Juliet Mills (of TV's PASSIONS) and Maxwell Caulfield, but her aunt is Hayley Mills and her grandfather is Sir John Mills. That's theatrical royalty of the first order.

After the tour of THE ELEPHANT MAN, Caulfield and Mills were in Los Angeles. As soon as they got out there an actors and writers strike took place. "I was kind of spinning my wheels out there-loving being on the West Coast with the sunshine and being madly in love but not working. And the late Joe Maher contacted me and said, 'You're the only guy for this part.' He handed it to me on a plate but there was no money involved. We did it at a place that was called the Westside Mainstage and was produced by two of the biggest casting directors at the time called Feuer and Ritzer. They produced it in tandem with a Hollywood film producer. We did four weeks Off-Off Broadway before transferring to the Cherry Lane Theater and it was magic. It was one of those productions where everything clicked.

Caulfield fondly recalls the French restaurant that was next to the Cherry Lane Theater. "Joe had sanctioned this production of MR SLOANE and was sort of the 'big man on campus' as a result of it. It was his baby. You know he revived LOOT a couple of years later with Alec Baldwin, don't you?--That's why Baldwin is doing the current SLOANE, of course. Unquestionably. So Baldwin and I are both disciples of Mr. Maher. Anyhow, Joe and I used to go next door between the 7 and 10 o'clock shows and have an aperitif or two, so the 10 o'clock show used to rip, I can tell you that much!"

Of course the topic of GREASE 2 entered the conversation. There are some people who consider it the perfect example of "kitsch" and revel in the musical number staged in a bowling alley and Tab Hunter singing songs to his biology class. However, GREASE 2 isn't the only film that Caulfield sang in. "I did sing in another film called EMPIRE RECORDS which is a cult film. GREASE 2 is also a cult film. You either love it or just think the original was better. In EMPIRE RECORDS I played an over-the-hill teen idol and I had one song. The film was a bit of a misfire. Warner Bothers lost faith in it immediately but the kids have discovered it. There's a whole different thing about being able to sing in a movie and do eight shows a week on stage. I don't not so sure that I'm up to that but I'd love to be given the opportunity." After seeing the London production of WOMAN IN WHITE, Caulfield considered going into training and perhaps do one of the roles in that show, "but it would have to be heavy training for about a year before I could even consider doing a musical on stage." He has, however, played Frederick in THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE in regional productions and that role requires considerable range for a singer.

Would he consider taking a stab at the role of Henry Higgins in MY FAIR LADY? The actor laughs but then considers the situation. "I will definitely bear that in mind. It's not a vocally demanding role, either. That might be a very good place to start. We have a good friend, Brian Bedford, and he was approached about doing Higgins. This was about nine months ago. It was to be a big tour. He didn't feel it was appropriate casting so he passed on it. I didn't monitor what was happening from that point on." The role of Higgins would also be a fine match for Caulfield's acting talents and to see his take on this classic role would be a genuine pleasure.

Thinking back on the tour of SLEUTH that Caulfield did with Stacy Keach many years ago, the actor was struck by what a wonderful country the United States is. "I found that it was just wonderful to go to all these great American cities under good circumstances (a paycheck and nice hotel rooms, etc) and discover the magnanimous nature of the American people." When asked about how he feels concerning the current propensity that American audiences have for giving standing ovations for every performance they see, Caulfield responds, "Well, it's gotten silly. I suppose that people have paid so darn much to see a show that they want to convince themselves that they've been to something grand."

Caulfield was questioned about how an aspiring actor might be able to get a start in show business and he held some very strong views on the subject. "You've got to go to New York," he says, "don't mess around in Tinsel Town. Don't let them be judging you. I don't know what you have to do to catch a break in these days. Probably you have to be a stick thin girl who crashes cars into restaurants or something. It's really become like the lottery these days. It used to be so much easier to bust into this business but now everybody and his uncle wants to become an actor because of reality TV. I honestly believe that it's tougher to enter the ranks than it was. There are many more people coming through the door. The criterion for being cast now is so different. Off-Broadway used to be the place to get discovered as an actor. Now you have to be a member of an elite clique here in New York or you have to be coming off a TV show before they'll cast you. It's getting so boring. These people have full-blown film careers. What are they trying to prove? They've never done a school play and now they feel they can tread the Great White Way."

It is certain that Maxwell Caulfield has paid his dues and is glad to be performing live in New York again. The director, Joe Brancato, had done a workshop of the play before but he approached this version with a fresh mind. "He had no preconceived ideas and he knew he done his job right with the casting so he knew he'd started in the right place. It must be terrifying when you've cast two people who've never met and you stand them opposite each other in their first reading and go 'Oh my God this isn't going to work. They're not sparking off each other, they don't look good together, but in this case he knew he had something immediately. We knew it too. He knew what he was doing and brought us along perfectly. The first night in front of an audience it all just suddenly fell into place."

The result is one of the most provocative evenings of the current theater season. If television can boast of being "must-see TV", then the acting community can certainly boast of having "must-see theater". TRYST is certainly a play that must be seen by anyone who loves good theater.

TRYST is playing at the Promenade Theater (2162 Broadway at 76th Street). Performances are Tues-Saturday at 8 PM, matinees are Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday at 3. $45-65. (212-239-6200) or at