BWW Interview: Byron Lane Talks Tilda Swinton, Carrie Fisher and Debut Novel A STAR IS BORED
Tilda Swinton Answers an Ad on Craig's List is as wonderfully original and outlandish as its title suggests. The show has become a cult comedy classic, delighting audiences not once but twice at the Edinburgh Festival, as well as the VAULT Festival and in its writer's homeland, with sellout performances in New York, San Francisco and LA.
Actor and writer Byron Lane spoke with BroadwayWorld about the creation and subsequent success of the play, as well as his newly penned novel A Star Is Bored.
What do you think are the main reasons behind the success of Tilda?
Tilda has been such a success because of teamwork and passion, and the amazing cast and crew bringing the script to life. Tom Lenk elevated Tilda in ways I never imagined. Director Tom Detrinis is a visionary who helped craft the show into a hilarious and thought-provoking experience. My castmates Mark Jude Sullivan and Jayne Entwistle are seasoned actors who brought balance to the emotion and humour.
We've all become best friends after three years of working together. We share making creative decisions, we share proceeds of shows, and we share in each other's lives. I think all that good energy is apparent on stage and is a big part of why the show is such a good time.
What was the creative process behind it? What inspired you and how long did it take to write?
My boyfriend and I have a rescue dog who is blonde and beautiful/quirky in a high-fashion way and we named her after Tilda Swinton. One day, I wondered what it would be like to live with the real Tilda Swinton, and that's how I got the idea for the play. It took about a year to write, and then I did several readings to know which jokes to cut and which to punch up.
Did the show change much between runs?
The script changes when we have great ideas. Some moments in the show - a couple of the best moments - happened by accident and we were like, "Let's keep it!". We change some jokes depending on whether we're in Los Angeles or New York, or the United States and the UK. The great thing about our team is that we're flexible and enjoy exploring. It makes it fun for us and the audience.
Many people don't realise how hard it is to actually put something on stage. What were the challenges of getting this off the ground?
I hate saying this. But, I'm telling you, this was a total miracle, if such a thing is real. I wrote the script. The cast and director were all friends of mine and all said "Yes". We needed a theatre for the opening run and the historic Celebration Theatre in Hollywood had an opening because a big show got cancelled. And then the wonderful Chip Duckett from Laurie Beechman Theatre in New York heard about us and invited us there.
My castmate Jayne said we should go to Edinburgh. I was not hopeful, but when I checked on it, they happened to have an opening for us - and now we've been twice, staying together in the same two-bedroom apartment each time, which was magically available two years in a row. The only "miracle" we need now is a producer to come on board and help us tour the show. I can't wait to see what happens next!
You started out as a television journalist, but was acting and writing always the dream?
I always loved performing and storytelling, and that's essentially what television journalism is about. Those anchors on TV are performing. The reporters in the field are doing their own little show in every live shot. I wanted more than a journalism career, so I moved to Los Angeles, took some acting and improv classes, started my own web series - which was made into an indie film - and then kept on writing my own material and casting my friends to work with me, and it's been a blast. It was scary making some of these moves. But I figured life is short. I didn't want to have regrets. And so far, so good.
Do you think your time as a journalist in any way adds to your ability to write comedy? What inspires you to pick up a pen?
My background in journalism absolutely informs all my work. Most importantly, I learned to write conversationally. I like to think all of my works could be read out loud and feel like a one-man show. As a journalist, I also had to edit together soundbites, which helped me understand what great dialogue sounds like. When I have a good idea, I try to jot it down immediately in my phone's Notes app. Sometimes it's just a title or a thought or something funny that happened. Sometimes it's paragraphs long. And I usually know when it's time to turn it into something substantial, when I can't stop thinking about it and keep adding and adding until it starts to take shape.
After the success of the play and your web series Last Will and Testicle, do you feel more inclined to perform roles you've written rather than auditioning for established work? Or are there parts out there you'd love to play?
I'm open to anything and everything. I love performing my own stuff because I can try to match the vision I had when I wrote it. I'd love to do another play and I'm tinkering with ideas. What I really would love is to make a mockumentary-style TV series about putting on the Tilda play. So that's on my vision board right now.
You worked as Carrie Fisher's personal assistant. How did that come about and what was the experience like?
Working for her changed my life. I had a friend who worked for Carrie's agent and when they were looking for an assistant for Carrie, my friend thought of me. They were looking for a responsible guy with a writing background to help Carrie organise her life and write more novels. I was so excited to meet her for the interview. She was brilliant and hilarious and charming. To this day, I'm not sure exactly why she chose me, but working for her was a highlight of my life. Being around a person who is so full of life, so brilliant, so engaging - it stirs you to life. I hope everyone can find someone like that in their world. I feel so lucky to have known her. I think of her every day.
Is it fair to say the role provided inspiration for your debut novel A Star is Bored?
The novel is fiction, so it's not about Carrie. But I did try to capture the spirit of what it was like working for a major, brilliant movie star, and what it's like to be a celebrity assistant. My experience was fun and wild and full of life lessons I'll carry with me forever.
I had worked for her for a few amazing and wonderful years. She used to say, "Take your broken heart and go make art". When she died, I needed time for grieving and reflection. And eventually, I came to realise I had all these life experiences - some of her spirit - that brought me so much joy and I knew could bring joy to the world. So, I sat down and wrote and wrote and wrote. And soon, I had a full manuscript to go with my full heart. I had a story I felt I needed to share, and how lucky I am to get to share it. How lucky I was that, in some ways, I got to live it.
What's the novel about and what can we expect?
A Star Is Bored is a novel about a celebrity assistant struggling to manage his eccentric and hilarious movie star boss. My time as her assistant was filled with adventure and joys and a few tough moments, but mostly laughter and friendship. The novel is about all the things I learned about life from her, about overcoming struggle and growing up and having a blast while doing it.
Writing can be quite an isolated endeavour. As an actor, do you find it hard to invest your all into something that doesn't give you an immediate, live reaction as experienced on stage? Or do you find solace in putting pen to paper?
When I was younger, this was harder for me. I wanted reaction immediately for my self-esteem, for validation that my work was good, for encouragement to keep going. Now, older and with a few projects under my belt, I have a little more confidence in the work. I'm able to be more patient and more at peace with the creative process.
Your partner is bestselling novelist Steven Rowley. What advice and support did he offer you?
He's the best. I turn to him all the time with questions - mostly about the publishing process. But we discuss ideas and help each other improve our work. He read many drafts of my book and had advice. And I do the same for him. Luckily, we've both been writers for a long time, so we're good at giving and getting notes, not taking things personally, and giving each other space when we're in a creative flow.
Was the process of writing the novel in any way similar to the play?
The novel took a lot longer to write versus the play. I had to learn about the structure of a novel. And the style is different. The play is mostly dialogue, but a novel has to fill in a lot more blanks, paint a more engaging picture. I worked on it on-and-off for about three years.
London has a vibrant new writing scene. In addition to such powerhouse theatres as the Royal Court and the Bush, we have an abundance of pub theatre as well as festivals like VAULT. What's it like in the States for new writing and how would you compare the theatre landscape in general with the UK?
I had the absolute best time doing the play at Edinburgh and at The Vaults. The vibe in both places was very supportive. It felt like audiences came out to have a good time, to appreciate art and creativity. It's similar in New York and San Francisco. Los Angeles is a little different. Hollywood is more film-and-TV-focused, so it sometimes feels more challenging to get eyes on a play. But there's also a rich and supportive community of creatives in Los Angeles. If you can find your tribe out here, you're all set.
With the world on lockdown, many of us are feeling deprived of theatre but thankful for our Netflix accounts and other digital outlets. How are you keeping occupied? Have you done any more writing?
I'm writing a bunch! I'm working on a second novel. I also just finished writing a couple of TV pilots. And some of my friends and I are maybe going to shoot a Facetime-style web series. I'm also doing a lot of reading and catching up on great movies I haven't seen in a long time.
There are many budding writers out there. What advice would you give to someone who wants to write a novel or a play?
Do it! You got this! Sit down and tell the story! If you don't know anything about structure, find a book you love or that's similar to what you want to write and outline it and loosely follow that structure. I love Chuck Palahniuk's book about writing called Consider This. Hire an experienced freelance book editor to read your work and give you notes - your parents or friends are not always the best. Finish book one and then start on book two. You get better every time.
Two random tips: I get stuck when I try to salvage writing that's crap. In my experience, better to just trash it and start over and save time and tears. Second, keep going even when you're in the mud. Sometimes, that's where you find the gold.
Can we expect to see you back in London in the future with a new production? Or could Tilda come out to play again do you think?
I hope so! We want to come back! Looking for a theatre and producer. If you know anyone...
We live in turbulent times, and it can sometimes be easy to get lost in negativity. Is comedy a coping mechanism for you or do you naturally find humour in the everyday?
It's been an evolution. When I was younger, I was able to write comedy with no problem, but it took me a long time to find humour in everyday drama. Nowadays, I find myself laughing at so much. Tilda has a line in my play, something like, "Don't take life too seriously." And I think that's the key to keeping a smile on my face - as long as I can remember to take the advice!