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Buffy The Vampire Slayer

Harry Groener - "Buffy" Tv Series - Popmatters.com Interview

Saturday 12 March 2011, by Webmaster

Raise Your Hand if You’re Invulnerable!: An Interview with Harry Groener

On Monday, January 24, 2011, I had the privilege of spending some phone-time with Harry Groener. A versatile and seasoned actor, Groener may best be known to the “Spotlight on Joss Whedon” readers as the third-season Buffy the Vampire Slayer antagonist Mayor Richard Wilkins, a frontrunner for the Buffy fan’s favorite villain. Yet Groener has been acting for decades, commanding both screen and stage. In the following interview, Groener answers questions about what it means to be honored by his peers and remain rooted in the theatre, what it was like to work with Whedon and Buffy actors Sarah Michelle Gellar and Eliza Dushku, what constitutes a healthy actor/fan relationship, and what he’s excited about concerning his latest project.

PopMatters: First and foremost, congratulations on the Ovation Award for Equivocation. After quite a few prestigious nominations—including nominations for several American Theatre Wing Tony Awards®—over your career, what does this particular award mean to you? How does it feel to be recognized in this way?

Harry Groener: It’s recognition by the community of my work, and it means a lot because of the play itself. I love the play, and I adore Bill Cain who wrote it. The experience was a very meaningful one for me, so it meant a lot that [my role in Equivocation] was the one that was pulled out and was recognized. It’s always good when your peers in the community recognize you for your work. It makes you feel good! And it is good to be nominated. People make fun of saying that, but it is, in fact, true. Somebody has to win because that’s the contest, right? Those are the rules. But in truth—and this is the way I felt about the other nominations—the fact that you are singled out as one of the few for that season does mean a lot to me. Winning is the icing, the recognition of it, the acknowledgment of it. It means a lot.

PM: I know that you and your wife Dawn Didawick are among the founding members of the Antaeus Company in North Hollywood, California, and that the theatre’s mission includes helping actor-members stay grounded and rejuvenated, mentoring each other, and reaching out to the community. As a teacher myself, I’m interested in the teaching roles you have taken on in the company (or on the sets of your various projects) and what you enjoy most about teaching others—actors or community members—your craft.

HG: Well, this is funny because I’ve been asked if I wanted to teach. At the moment, what I enjoy doing are the question and answer sessions with the younger actors, as opposed to master classes. Going in and working on scene work… I still have a reluctance to do any of that, only because I feel that I’m still working it out myself so I don’t know that I’m… I don’t want to say “qualified” because I think there is a certain qualification that I have to give out information. But as far as being in a classroom situation, I’m a little uncomfortable with that at the moment. I might not be later on. But I’m not uncomfortable in the question and answer format. I know that benefited us greatly when I was [a student] at the University of Washington and we had actors come in. We would pump them for information and get as much as we could about what it was like “out there”. And I liked that. It opens up all kinds of subjects. And if that leads to some demonstration, that’s one thing… but it’s that type of work that I enjoy. As far as [The Antaeus Company’s] concerned, I’ve done some of that. We’re very involved and we have a wonderful outreach program and we go out to schools. Our company does mainly classical plays, so we try to bring those plays to a younger audience and try to help build [the art] because we’re losing that audience to computers and other media. We have to try to find a way to bring them into the theatre, and I enjoy that. In fact, many people in the company enjoy that. We have a lot of good teachers in the company, many who teach Shakespeare classes and all kinds of other things.

PM: Yes, I looked at the list of members, and you have an impressive group of people working together there.

HG: Yes, yes. It really is. It’s an amazing company: over a hundred actors. Not all working at the same time. Most of the actors work in television and film and other places. There are usually between 40 and 60 who are available at one time to do a project, and even that gets mixed up because one of the tenets of our company is that we double cast all of our plays. That was something set up by Dakin Matthews who, along with Lillian Garrett-Groag, started the company as a way to function in Los Angeles where you come to do television and film not theatre. And [Matthews] said, “How do we do this?” Well, if you double cast, you’re free to go and do and make the money you need to survive, to live. And the integrity of the play is not compromised because you have an equally wonderful actor in the role who takes over for the time that you’re gone. At one point it was even thought maybe we could go as deep as triple casting, but that would have been insane! Yet that was thought of, to cover our bases.

From the beginning, we knew that we would be different, very different than an understudy situation. There are actors, including myself, who realize you’re doing it for nothing. Yes, you’re doing it for love, but it’s time consuming. Part of the deal is that you actually get to perform. Nobody wants to work in an understudy situation; no one would take that responsibility on because it’s too much time. And so who would take on an understudy position? Well, the actors who need the experience and need the work and might not be as proficient in their work yet, and so the quality of the production is diminished—or can be or possibly is diminished—to some extent, and that’s not something our company wants to deal with. There’s a lot of talk about the double-casting situation because it’s difficult primarily on the directors, unless they really come into it knowing it’s going to be difficult and they accept it, but it’s really hard for them. It’s harder for them, I think, and for the stage manager in terms of scheduling, than it is for the actors. There are some actors in the company who don’t like it, who don’t want to do it. They would prefer to have a single cast, but that isn’t always possible. I think it’s impossible. For the company to survive, I think you have to double cast. In fact, I couldn’t work with the company unless it double cast.

PM: In a 2002 interview with Nancy Rosati of Talkin’ Broadway, you say, “The goal is really the same whether it’s television, film, or theater, and that’s to tell a good story.” You feature prominently in the third-season narrative arc of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Would you define that season’s story as “good,” and if so, what specifically made it good?

HG: Yes, I would say that it was good, and I think the fans confirm that it was good. I think it was probably the way the mayor was set up and then the way he was written. Joss was very specific, very clear about what he wanted with this particular guy. [Mayor Richard Wilkins] was innocuous. [Whedon] didn’t want someone with a very thin moustache saying, “You must pay the rent, you must pay the rent,” and if ever I crossed over into that sphere, he would say, “No, no, no. Don’t worry about that. Throw it away, throw it away, throw it away.” He was very clear about selling that story. And what I thought was wonderful, and what I got from a lot of the fans, was that the mayor was much more scary because he didn’t have any horns or scales or fangs or whatever. He was like your guy next door. He was like your uncle. And he was dangerous and deadly. Don’t we see that all the time in the news? We see very plain-looking people and they’re evil and they kill children. Awful people. I think it’s the way that [Whedon] told this particular story. You locked into that arc. And you really got it. The mayor seemed unstoppable, the way they were setting him up. Of course, you all knew in the back of your head that Buffy was going to win—she had to win—but the way they were setting it up, [viewers] kept wondering, When is it going to happen? He’s getting stronger and stronger, and he’s gonna win, he’s gonna! It’s the way Joss wrote it that made it a really good story. They gave me great, great things to do. Very funny things. The humor was very important along with the danger of it.

PM: You have performed in a wide variety of roles, venues, and genres. Yet I suppose there is something unique about each one. What made working on Buffy distinctive?

HG: Well, distinctive from other television, from other episodics. It was distinctive certainly because of Joss and his mind and where they took the character. It was distinctive in that it was the longest run of a character that I’ve ever had other than a series in an episodic like that, in that kind of role. And it was the cast. The cast was so wonderful and conscientious and funny and committed. Sarah [Michelle Gellar] was just divine. You know, she’s been acting ever since she was as high as your knee. And such a pro, I mean a real pro. Always came prepared. Never threw any scenes. Sometimes you hear, I guess you hear in the tabloids, about people doing that. I have yet to witness any of it. I’ve certainly seen in my lifetime maybe one or two self-indulgent actors throwing a hissy fit, but I rarely, rarely see it in this business—whether stage, television, or film. Everyone behaves really well, behaves as ladies and gentlemen; they do their work. It’s only a very tiny, tiny percentage of people who behave in a certain way who get published in the tabloids, and those people would behave like that whether they were in show business or not. What distinguishes the show for me is all of that and the character that I was able to play, what they allowed me to do. Also, the strange relationship with Faith that [the mayor] had. She is the daughter he never had, and he’s the father who loved her unconditionally, absolutely unconditionally. She had never experienced that before. She’d never had that love before, so it made it stronger and stronger, their bond together. And I thought that was strangely wonderful and sick all at the same time [laughs]. The On-Screen Synergy Between Mayor Wilkins and Eliza Dushku’s Faith

PM: Many viewers recognize the on-screen synergy between your Mayor Wilkins and Eliza Dushku’s Faith. Can you talk a little bit about how that chemistry came about during rehearsals and/or during filming?

HG: Well, she’s such a lovely girl. We got along right from the beginning. She’s very sweet and smart and very professional and really had a handle on the part. It was actually quite simple. There was nothing really to do other than show up and sort of understand. We both enjoyed that relationship and that story line. It was full. There was a lot going on, whether it was written on the page or not. And that’s, again, in the writing. When you can look at a scene and you really get what’s going on, there’s more to play than the written word. And that is a testament to Joss. To the degree that here’s Faith, and she’s this tough, leather-wearing vampire killer [laughs]. At the same time, there’s this wonderful scene when the mayor puts her up in an apartment, and he gives her all that kind of stuff. He buys her this beautiful, little summer frock. He says she’d look so pretty in this and gives it to her. And she actually tries it on and wears it for him as the daughter. For Faith to actually do that and not say, “What the hell’s going on!” The fact that she did that means she did understand their relationship, and there wasn’t something kinky and weird going on. There wasn’t. There wasn’t anything kinky and weird. It was pure, as pure as those two people could be in how they felt about each other, in what she was to him and what he was to her. That was very clear and pure and good—[laughs] on a certain level, right?! But I thought that was very, very sweet for Joss to come up with that [scene with the dress]. It made the story richer. [Dushku] was delightful to work with, and she’s a lovely woman. She made my character very, very easy to play.

PM: As a professional actor working with Joss Whedon as a professional writer/director, what can you say you learned from Whedon while on the set of Buffy?

HG: I wish I could say I learned a lot. I don’t know what I learned from [Whedon] specifically. What I learned about the business through him was interesting. He’s so brilliant in his work—in his writing, his mind, and his imagination. You think that everything in television is fairly controlled, and it is. Pretty much. Things don’t go so crazy. Yet for the last two episodes [of the third season], we didn’t have a script. We were given synopses at the end of the evening about what they were going to film the next day. But no words, no script, no anything. They just said, “Come on in, and when we have it, we’ll give it to you.”

PM: Sounds a little scary to me! [Both laugh.]

HG: Yes, I’ve always had a script. There’s never been just a synopsis. You go to work, you get ready to work. What Joss was doing was actually writing it as we were traveling, getting there. And we’d wait. Finally, they’d say, “We have the first scene.” You’d get the scene; then you’d go and rehearse it. They’d light it. And while they were lighting it or rehearsing it, Joss was over there in the corner on the set, literally over in the corner, writing the next scene. You think, Well, that I’ve never seen before. You’re amazed that that can happen, especially now when you have a room full of people deciding on one little thing. That’s fascinating. You learn more about the business and how the mechanism works. [Whedon] did behave like a director sometimes. He’d say, “Don’t do the obvious. Go the other way, go the other way.” That’s something a director can always show you. No matter how old you are or how much experience you have, you can always fall into that trap [of doing the obvious]. It’s always good to be reminded [not to do that].

PM: You have quite a few devoted fans, some who have followed your entire career, some who are particularly interested in your work with Whedon. From an actor’s point of view (i.e., being the object of many people’s fandom), how would characterize a healthy actor/fan relationship?

HG: Probably one that’s limited to “Please sign my photo” and “Thank you very much.” I don’t think that it’s healthy to get too involved with any fan, although there is one friend [Melanie Alford] whom I met a long time ago who started out as a fan—and is still a fan—of Buffy, and she, in fact, put together the unofficial Harry Groener website. You have to be careful, because I didn’t know about Melanie right in the beginning. But she seemed very nice and she would write. You have to be careful because you can get strange people who want to communicate, and you have to discourage that type of communication. But with Melanie, it was different. She also said, “I have an idea for some stories. Can I send you what I have written? It would really save my life.” I said to go ahead and send it, and it turned out that she’s actually a lovely and wonderful writer, she really is. Very, very good writer. But she’s had a very tough life. We’ve met a number of times—in New York, in Indiana at plays I was in. I’ve met her and her mother both. She’s actually quite nice and has had some terrible tragedies in her life. She had a terrible accident that crippled her in a terrible way. A car accident. A drunk driver hit her as she was coming home late from work one night. She was in the hospital and was very bad, and I called her in the hospital and I think that really helped out. She’s turned out not to be crazy! [Laughs.] She’s very, very nice. We correspond a little bit here and there and wish each other well for holidays and things like that. And I don’t know what’s going on. Sometimes I look at the fan site as well and say, “Oh, it was that year that I did that.” I don’t keep up. I don’t remember when I did certain things.

PM: Yes, fans are very good at keeping track of those details.

HG: Yes, they can be really good at keeping track of that. But generally, as a rule, I feel you should not get involved other than a “I’m happy to take a picture with you” or when you go to conventions and sign something. Although, most people at the conventions are sweet and dear and terrific, and I enjoy talking to them because I’m a sci-fi nut myself. So I enjoy talking about that world, and it’s really fun. I understand the mindset, so I really do like it. But you have to be careful, especially with those who write to you and ask you to help out with this or that, who latch on. You have to discourage that. You have to be judicious, careful. That, I think, is a healthy relationship.

PM: Are you aware that your work with Whedon is studied and praised by scholars? In other words, do you ever read academic scholarship on your work with Buffy? HG: No, I don’t. I had no idea that Whedon’s work is studied. That’s quite complimentary! No, I had no idea, and I don’t read any of that, as I don’t read reviews. I don’t read any of that stuff. I do read the articles occasionally to help me know, yes, that person did get it right. That’s always good to know because I’ve been in situations where people have not taken the time and trouble to care and gotten things completely wrong. That’s always discouraging. There was one interview I had with a man who was very sweet and had been doing this for a long time and didn’t have anything to record with. He wrote everything down and got everything right! [Laughs.] Every single thing absolutely right! He was a vet, had a good memory. The detail was freakin’ impressive!

PM: What are you currently working on? And what are you most excited about regarding the project?

HG: Currently, I’m working on playing King George in The Madness of King George III. It’s Alan Bennett’s play, and there’s a movie by the same name. Nigel Hawthorne played the lead. It’ll be with Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, and I’ve never worked there so that’s pretty exciting. It’s a lovely theatre….I’m excited about being in Chicago. I love Chicago. I’ve played there a number of times. When we’re close to the opening, my wife will come out and be there for the rest of the run. I’m looking forward to this play, and I’m really enjoying the research of it because when you’re playing an actual historical person, it’s going back to school and learning about a whole other culture, time, and society. And what I love about that is that you learn there really isn’t much that’s different other than the costumes and some of the rules. And certainly now, technology.

In the last hundred years or so, technology has changed more than it ever has in the entire history of human beings and is growing exponentially. That’s a major, major difference. But the bottom line, at its core, there is so much of how people lived hundreds and thousands of years ago that is exactly the same. Relationships are the same—same problems between men and women, power struggles, politics. People enjoy the same things. Kids did the same things; they enjoyed the same toys. In many ways, [our predecessors] were smarter, more educated. Their education was much more well-rounded. They spoke more languages. At least, those who were educated; you certainly can’t say that about everybody—women, for example. Women weren’t always allowed to educate themselves. And that exists now in certain places in the world where women aren’t allowed to educate themselves or vote or anything like that…. I just love the research part of [playing a role]. I’ve read five books so far about King George III, and I’m waiting on one more book to get to me about him and this whole time period. I’m rereading and getting details to put into the script. I’ve been learning all the lines. I have the lines; I’m off book and ready to go. I couldn’t wait for the time when I could sit down, get in there, and write down all these little pieces of information and all these little things that are going to hopefully help make the character richer and deeper. You get into it more when you have the research, and I really, really like that.

PM: Thank you so much. It has been such a pleasure.

HG: Thank you. I really enjoyed talking to you.