AN ACTOR'S ACTOR
By Marian Christy, Globe Staff
Edward Herrmann is drawn to acting as irresistibly as the moth is drawn to the flame. His work is the proverbial magnificent obsession that diminishes all others. As we went from topic to topic, playing the question-answer game like a good game of tennis, Herrmann's punchline invariably focused on his two great loves: performing on the stage and in front of the camera. These are the points around which his life revolves.
So, you say, why isn't his name familiar? Herrmann is an actor's actor. Rather than chase celebrity, he pursues the truth of the characters he plays. He is most famous for his memorable portrayal of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the ABC-TV adaptation of Joseph P. Lash's "Eleanor and Franklin: The White House Years," for which he won a TV Critics Circle Award (1976). Herrmann also played FDR in the movie musical "Annie."
We are sitting side-by-side on a wooden bench on a stretch of lawn in the shadow of the Main Stage at the Adams Memorial Theatre, where Herrmann is starring in "Harvey" at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. It's a bright summer day. We are dressed informally. But the mood isn't as casual at it appears. Herrmann is concentrating on my questions, and I am concentrating on his answers.
Suddenly, as sometimes happens in interviews, the mutual concentration is acknowledged verbally. Herrmann says he appreciates "the art of listening" -- and he quickly relates it to the art of acting. "It's very important to be a good listener. I'm as insecure as anybody. But onstage, as in real life, I've learned to wait. To listen is to wait. If you're a good listener, you're concentrating precisely on what is being said to you. A most important aspect of the art of listening is understanding what the other person is actually saying to you.
"If you are who you say you are, you don't have to 'act' -- even onstage. If you are confident that the character exists, you can listen without being afraid your grasp of the character will disappear. The biggest fear people have is that they won't be noticed. That goes for people onstage as well as for people at cocktail parties. The volume rises as people try to get themselves across at cocktail parties. The same thing can happen onstage. An actor must project an effortless presence."
Herrmann has a deep love of poetry. The way he sees it, "poets project an experience rather than try to explain it. I had a wonderful poetry teacher in college. She made me understand the purity of poetry. I learned that poets don't try to make sense out of life. It really hit home one day after I expressed love feelings for a girl and was rejected by said girl. Immediately after the rejection, I went to the poetry class, and my teacher asked me to read aloud a certain poem. It was a bitter diatribe against the female species. It was full of anger and hopelessness. I said to myself: 'Ah-ha! I know exactly how that feels!' And at that moment, poetry ceased to be a subject. It became a genuine expression of emotions. I knew I had to do that as an actor."
Herrmann, 47, was born in Washington, D.C., and raised in Grosse Point, Michigan, an affluent suburb of Detroit. He's a 1965 graduate of Bucknell University, Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, and was a Fulbright scholar at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (1968-1969). Despite these credentials, Herrmann has never achieved superstar status. He acknowledges this has caused him some minor anguish. "For me, the great symbol of life and living is suffering. Nobody can avoid suffering. I haven't suffered physically. I've had emotional suffering. I've had to conquer despair and a sense of futility about both my relationships and my career.
"That's a common suffering to everybody. Some people look at suffering as the great blocks of their lives. I think you can transform suffering into knowledge. To do that, you have to stop trying to figure out the reason for your suffering. Suffering gives you insight. The feelings of suffering are stored. It's what makes you know how other people feel when they suffer. It's a way of making a human connection. I have used my suffering onstage. I can tap into it. It's neither rational or verbal. I project the feeling. People understand instinctively. It's a way to reach out across the stage."
Herrmann is divorced from actress Leigh Curran. They have a 10-year-old daughter. The break-up is another cause for misery.
"Oh, I've been mouthing the liberal platitudes of my generation since the '60s. I've been divorced. I've had relationships which have failed. I've had to ask myself: 'What am I asking of this relationship?' I've had to confront the answer: 'Too much.' We think a relationship should answer all our needs. It's insane! No relationship can do that! At the moment, I don't have a good relationship with anybody. People are always looking for their other half. You cannot find your other half. A relationship can support you only in certain ways. If you center on becoming your whole self, you are ready to receive affection. You attract it. The readiness is all. I never feel I'm quite ready. But I'm getting there. The same is true of acting. Getting a good part is not necessarily luck and timing. An actor has to be ready."
Herrmann won a Tony for "Mrs. Warren's Profession" (1974) and a Theatre Guild Medal (1982) for "Plenty." His film credits include "Reds," "The Great Gatsby" and "The Paper Chase." What gives him the greatest satisfaction is the feeling that he has linked himself to a live audience.
"People don't come into the theater to hate you. They want to be enlightened and enriched. They don't want to think about what's on the stove, whether or not their children are on drugs or that they're having affairs. Acting is intangible and illusive. But people come to the theater with the same attitude that I approach the stage. They, like me, are hoping for a connection. Somehow, when the performance succeeds, people leave refreshed. They've been somewhere. An actor has to take people somewhere. The deeper the connection, the further the journey!"
Several things make Herrmann angry: arrogance, incompetence and insensitivity.
"Every time I get tired of the odd agent, the vulgar producer and the bloodsuckers and leeches in the world of acting, I want to retreat. I say to myself: 'Maybe I should enter academia. Maybe I should teach.' After a month on a campus, I want to run away screaming. Real arrogance can be found on campus. Certain people are invested with a mantle of authority. Their authority is never questioned. They end up believing in the sanctity of their authority. Seeing all this, I am happy to return to the acting business. By comparison, there's far more tolerance and generosity in the theater. The theater is kinder to actors than you might believe."
Yet, a very clear complaint that surfaces in this interview is that Herrmann resents being pigeonholed as America's acting preppy. He is a bookish, learned type and that has become an occupational hazard. Parts that he would have liked have eluded him. He says there's no kindness in that.
"I don't like cynicism. It's an evil. It's easy to be hurt by an attitude. Cynicism is an attitude. I was brought into the acting field as a man in a suit, someone who came from the right side of the tracks. That's pigeonholing. That's not kind. There's an advantage to being a superstar. It gives you some control over your projects. On the other hand, would Bruce Willis or Arnold Schwarzenegger ever be allowed to play Hamlet?
"It was as a Fulbright scholar that I really learned the art of listening. The more I listened, the more I learned that life in the theater is a long process."
Originally printed in The Boston Globe, 07/15/1990.