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Faces of angels: conversations with the stars of HBO's Angels in America.

Tony Kushner's epic play Angels in America redefined how gays and people with AIDS Could be portrayed in drama: not as isolated victims but as robustly spiritual human beings, holy prophets, and profane power players; not disappearing from history but reshaping it.

Kushner's sweeping vision encompasses a blue-blooded protagonist with AIDS, his lefty Jewish boyfriend, their ex-drag queen, pal, a trio

of confused Mormons, a fierce angel who crashes down from heaven, and the fire-breathing real-life McCarthy-era lawyer and homophobic homosexual Roy Cohn. But it all existed only onstage.

Now HBO and Mike Nichols, director of The Graduate and The Birdcage, are bringing Angels to the rest of America, and to the world, in full glory and at full volume. The six-hour television event debuts December 7.

"The play means so much to so many people," says Angels actor Justin Kirk. "That's the pressure that we felt." But at the same time, he notes, "there are so many people who don't have a clue about it. And it's exciting."

Because now they will.

Justin Kirk as Prior Walter and the man in the park

How they fit in: Living happily on a trust fund with his Jewish boyfriend, Louis, Prior loses his peace of mind and his lover when he's diagnosed with AIDS. But when angel smashes through his bedroom ceiling, he finds he's ready to do battle.

When last we saw Justin: Love! Valour! Compassion! (both stage and film versions) and the WB's Jack & Jill

There's an entire generation of gay people who don't know Angels in America. It will be really interesting to see their response to the film version.

One thing I will say for [director] Mike [Nichols], he made the hard choices at every turn. The first day I walked out on the set, he decided that I didn't look sick enough. He said, "I don't want this to be a movie where the leading lady has a scratch." I could tell you stories about shooting the scene in the park--

With you in your other role--the anonymous man that Louis meets for sex in Central Park.

That was crazy. It was the middle of the night; they filled Central Park with dry ice and then lit it from one side, so if you were in New York, you saw this heavenly light. And there's a part in the scene where I, you know, whip it out, and Louis says, "Do you have a condom?" "No, I don't use condoms." Then I say, "You put it on me," etc. But we're suddenly not where we'd originally blocked it, and everything's visible, so we're trying to figure out how it's going to work. And Mike comes over and says, "So, urn, how would you feel about working with a dildo?" And that's when I knew ... It was another example that I knew he was going to do every scene justice and not flinch at anything.

Your first film was Love! Valour! Compassion! right? Yeah. Of course, Touched by an Angel was, I think, my first experience on a set--

You have previous experience acting with angels?

It gets better. I had come out here for [television] pilot season, right after [the Broadway production of] Love! Valour! Compassion! closed. Within three weeks, I got a call saying, "All right, they want you in Utah tomorrow." I was like, "All right, I've come to town and conquered L.A." [Laughs] I went there, and it was with Linda Gray from Dallas, who played my mother, and Gabrielle Carteris from Beverly Hills, 90210, who played my wife. I worked for a day, and titan they fired me the next day--which was pretty brutal. It's bad enough to get fired, but when you're sitting in a hotel in Salt Lake City--

Fired from Touched by an Angel? That's harsh.

So I've made the full circle: From Touched by an Angel to Angels in America.

Did you always want to be an actor?

I did my filet play when I was 7 years old: Brecht's Caucasian Chalk Circle. I got to L.A. when I was 18, and I didn't like it. It didn't feel right somehow for whatever it was I wanted to do. So I was here for six months, totally broke, sold my blood, got head shots--that was the extent of my career pursuit: I got head shots. Then I went to Circle in the Square's acting school for two years and stayed in New York. I did my first play, when I got my Equity card, a play called Spine, which was at the George Street Playhouse in New Jersey; and the second one was on Broadway, called Any Given Day. It was across the street from Perestroika [the second half of Angels in America], at the Longacre Theatre.

When did you first see Angels?

I saw [the first half], Millennium Approaches, twice. I didn't see Perestroika. I don't remember why.

You were probably working, if your play was across the street.

Yeah, but we only ran for six weeks. It's not like I didn't get a chance to get over there. There were huge lines across the street while we were trying to bring people in. I wish I'd seen Perestroika, actually. Or not. At this point I wish I'd never seen Millennium because it took a while to shake it--just trying to come at it fresh. It's tricky.

After Love! Valour!--another Tony-winning gay play--this makes your second iconic gay role. Why is that?

You tell me. [Laughs] There's a good number of the good plays of our time that are by gay playwrights, and their protagonists or their characters are reflective of their lives. So--I don't know. What do you think?

I think you do the wounded gay guy really well.

Do you watch South Park at all? The first episode of this year, all the kids were watching Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Everyone in town is a metrosexual. It's pretty funny. So certainly, right at this moment, it makes me want to say, "Come on, people, I've been doing the gays since the mid '90s!"

Do you identify as a metrosexual?

No. I identity with gay sensibility in many ways, but metrosexual, I think, is about pedicures and manicures or about clothing--and I think that's different than gay sensibility, right?

Isn't metrosexuality about gay-acting straight men?

I thought it was something more specific ... I grew up in the theater, and a good number of people I looked up to were gay men. So ... I think to try to explain it or address it myself would come off as pandering or affected. [Pause] I didn't metal to squirm. I'm conscious of being ambiguous during the press time of Angels in America. I mean, acting is a pretty gay job in the first place. [Laughs]

Although Prior is a very physical role. You've got to be sick--

I lost 20 pounds, I'll have you know.

You've got to hang off an angel, you've got to hang in the air--

Covered in sweat, which is, unfortunately, on a movie set, not sweat. Yeah, I got beat up a lot. But it's not manual labor or anything. It's nice to be able to look back on the thing, because I was so up my own ass at the time about everything that it was hard to enjoy all the craziness of it. But to be able to look back is cool.

To look back and know that you shared a lover with Meryl Streep--and that lover was Emma Thompson.

That's right. Emma Thompson and I became very close. She was on the other end of my neuroses on a daily basis and really wonderful about being that person. And she is all light and love around everyone. That's her vibe, I think, on the set, at work. And we had the relationship: She was the Angel, and I was her prophet, so we had to foster that. It was great. And Ben [Shenkman] ... I can't imagine [Louis] being anybody else. We had a real safety with each other that you need to have for that relationship. Also, we were having essentially the same experience in the movie--we both had the same feeling of the burden of making the movie of Angels in America, of playing these parts, so it was great to be there for each other in that respect.

But Prior's most excellent sexual experience isn't with Louis, it's with the angel.

In the air. The air fuck, as Mike called it.

And how was that for you?

Well, Emma and I were very excited to shoot that scene. We were really looking forward to it. It turned out to be--because of special effects and things--pretty grueling. But I loved shooting the orgasm, as it were, which we did many times, and I don't know that Mike necessarily picked the take I would have, but what are you doing to do?

At least you'd already had the experience of getting naked in front of everyone onstage in Love! Valour! Compassion!

Being naked in a play is different than being naked in a movie, because in the theater the audience is essentially a big black mass. It's not like you're doing it to anyone in particular. As the months went on, all of us [in the cast] became more ... a combination of jaded and more swaggart. I used to enjoy upsetting the old ladies during the Wednesday matinee by really doing it fast. So that was pretty good. I don't feel the need to do that sort of thing that much anymore. [Laughs]

Angels cross-pollinates sexuality with a number of religions: Judaism, Christianity, Mormonism. What faith were you brought up in?

None. My mother is of Russian-Jewish background, my father is Episcopalian--Danish and English--but I've never been in a synagogue. I went to Christian Sunday school maybe two or three times as a kid. But I do remember reading the New Testament, reading the Bible all on my own as a kid. And l had a real sense of God that was not imposed on me in any way.

Where are you now spiritually?

Um ... [Pauses] Good question. I certainly have my own sense of God, and I believe in those things, but not to the extent of necessarily ever talking about it. I certainly don't believe that understanding it gets us any further.

That sounds like where Prior is at first. Then he meets an angel.

Yeah. Well, it comes to him at a time in his life that he probably didn't see coming: facing his own mortality. But I don't think things like that are any different than a lot of people I know who care about astrology and that sort of stuff. Any needing-to-know thing I don't understand. I don't want to know in my own life.

You mention Prior's having to face his own mortality. How hard was that to get a grip on?

I don't know that I necessarily found in myself the idea of my own mortality. A few times in the play I have to say out loud, "I'm dying." And I somehow thought that I needed to know what that was. I went to Mike and said, "I don't know how to say, 'I'm dying.' I feel like I don't know what that is." He came back and said, "Well, you know, I'm dying. We're all dying. You don't know. It's not like saying, 'My nose is stuffed.' It's not a specific feeling you can identify." I mean, how do you feel like you're dying? How do you know what that means?

One last question: Are you single?

I am. I had a girlfriend this year, and like I said, it's ... I don't know, I seem to be getting worse and worse with them. I just don't let it last for very long. Maybe that will change. I think I'm of an age where I'm trying to hold on to the things that mattered to me in youth and starting to realize that they don't anymore or that I just have shifting values, and it's making it hard to make myself happy in various ways, because I'm not really quite sure how to go about my daily existence anymore. It all relates to doing this job, I think. This year [since Angels finished filming] I've been fairly inactive. I've been pretty much a lump. I bought a house. I quit smoking a few times, did a little decorating ... My house is looking very metrosexual.

Interviewed by Bruce C. Steele

Emma Thompson as Emily, Prior's nurse; the Angel; and a homeless man

How they fit in: Emily cares for Prior; the Angel descends on Prior, the homeless man locks horns with Hannah Pitt

When last we saw Emma: TV: Wit. Film: Love Actually, etc. Now filming Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Why did you join this production of Angels? Did Mike Nichols call you?

Yeah! It was the same as with Wit, really. I opened the play, read the first couple of pages, rang Mike, and said, "I'll do it." The writing has that effect on you. It's so remarkable.

Had you read it before?

It wasn't, obviously, as huge a cultural event here [in the U.K.] as it was in New York. I hadn't read it or seen it, which in many ways protected me from that dreadful responsibility toward an iconic role. I just fretted about the usual things, like, does my bum look big in this?

You play the Angel who basically watches over America. How did you shoot your flying scenes?

Well, with a great deal of assistance, obviously. I did try flying on my own, but it didn't work.... The power of the play is such that [it really felt like flying] even at the nadir of the experience, which is having sinus infectious because you're hanging up in the smoke. I got really sick in the second half. We had to strap boxes of Kleenex to the various things, and these dreadful soggy tissues would come fluttering down from the rafters of the studio, infecting one and all slowly. But when the cameras rolled--even though there were 85 wind machines on and you knew you'd have to loop absolutely everything--there was something about the power of the language that helped you defy gravity.

Have you noticed that everybody in the movies flies with one toe pointed and the other knee up?

It's Peter Pan-ish, isn't it? I just took the position that seemed right, to show that your legs are there, I guess. But it was the most fantastic experience because I was very high up. Really seriously high up.

How high? Give me an estimate.

Oh, God, I don't know, 80 feet or something. You know, high.

Was that at all frightening? {Emphatic] No, I loved it.

The fabulous kiss the Angel shares with the Mormon mom played by Meryl Streep--that looks like it also required a lot of rigging.

Oh, God, yes, we were attached to each other at the chest, shrieking and giggling, grabbing our glasses, our specs, just to see ourselves on the thing--it was an absolutely fantastic experience. Meryl might demur, but I loved it.

And how high off the ground were you then?

We went up to 20 feet or something.

I'd think a kiss with anybody at that height would linger. All of you having worked together so often--how did Mike Nichols direct the two of you in this scene?

Well [laughs], he didn't dare! Mike's brilliant at stepping back and letting you get on with it. So he watched, and he was wonderful. He always is; he's always so delicate.

As a writer, how would you describe Tony Kushner the playwright?

Wow. I can't pretend to know him very well. I've had dinner with him and watched him on set. He seems to me to be that rare thing, a fully evolved human being. With various neuroses that he uses to great effect in his work, which is what the point of being a writer is, I think.

In Kushner's heaven, the angels are powerless bureaucrats, but with amazing sexual powers and desires.

Mmm. Yes, the conceit is, heaven as this kind of desperately ill-run and underfunded office. But the notion of--oh, God, what's the word, when you're both sexes, dual sexuality of the angels--is extraordinary. I think that probably sex and bureaucracy are not often bedfellows, however--the hieratic nature of bureaucracy could certainly be said to be sexual because it's about power.

The Angel has a beautiful line: "The body is the garden of the soul."

Oh, I know, isn't that fantastic? Because we have so bastardized our response to our bodies. All you need to do is go to Africa, which lives under a great deal of oppression but which doesn't subsist under this dreadful crust of consumerism and sheer vicious idiocy toward the human body and human sexuality--there's very little gets me as riled.

With yon doubling as the Angel and as Prior's nurse-practitioner, you and Justin Kirk had an amazing range of situations to play.

He's heaven, Justin, really. He's a fantastically good actor. Both he and Ben [Shenkmanl. They're terribly different. But both, I think, suffered the tortures of the damned, because they worried so much about whether they were getting it right. I can't imagine being a young actor and having that come at me--nine months of shooting, during which you go through everything there is to go through, virtually. And Justin dealt with it with great wit.

There's a clinic scene where Prior and his nurse talk as he lies nude on the examining table. Was it difficult for you and Justin, shooting that?

It was very lovely, very easy. Actors tend not to mind taking their clothes off. They tend to view their bodies as the thing that they use. We're childish about it, if you see what I mean: childlike about it rather than--well, let's face it, stupid about it. We're all naked underneath. And I suppose one point of that scene has to do with the body that has been invaded by AIDS and how it is touched and how it is dealt with by the caregiver. AIDS nurses from that time were on the front line of something truly terrifying. And I think that a lot of them were very remarkable people who became even more remarkable through that experience of being tender with bodies that were deeply tortured.

In Angels, heaven is "a lot like San Francisco." True? False?

Oh! True! Absolutely true.

Is that a city you've been to?

I have. I love San Francisco. [Pause] No, I know what heaven is. Heaven is when you're asleep, and you suddenly wake up thinking, Oh, Jesus Christ, I've got to get up, I'm late, the alarm hasn't gone off. And someone very nice and gentle comes up and says, "No, no, it's all right, you don't have to go to work today, it's Saturday." And you go back to sleep. And that just happens ... ad infinitum.

Interviewed by Anne Stockwell

Ben Shenkman as Louis

How he fits in: A word processor who hides behind clouds of political theory, Louis runs out on his AIDS-stricken lover, Prior, and begins an affair with conflicted Mormon lawyer Joe Pitt

When last we saw Ben: Film: Rodger Dodger, Requiem for a Dream, Pi

You've got a history with Louis. That's true. I played it in San Francisco at American Conservatory Theater about eight years ago.

Tony Kushner gives you credit for having helped to shape the play.

That actually may be because of the workshop we did while I was a student at New York University. We did Perestroika, and I was actually Roy Cohn in that. Part One was open on Broadway, but Part Two, Tony was still tinkering around with.

Whatever comes his way, Louis tries to talk it info submission. Did he frustrate you?

One thing doing the play taught me was how much I could trust people to empathize with that character no matter how ugly it felt to be him. Tony writes in that zone where he isn't selling his characters to his audience. He's just telling the truth in a really big way about a lot of things. And people just like that, even if it's ugly. Louis is about being at your worst, and everyone understands on some level what that's like ... In the theater, the fact that Louis is so funny is a kind of anesthetic to help the audience go through what he goes through with him. When you do it in a movie [with no audience], it's much scarier.

At one point, your character says kaddish for Roy Cohn (Al Pacino), prompted by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg (Meryl Streep). Did you ever think Meryl Streep would be your prompter?

[Laughs] No, I didn't think I'd have much to do with Meryl Streep, ever.

What was it like playing love scenes with the gorgeous Patrick Wilson?

[Laughs] Everyone in the movie's good-looking. It was pretty hard to share the frame with a lot of these people and feel OK about it, including Justin [Kirk]. He doesn't photograph too badly! But ultimately what made [Kirk] great to play with had nothing to do with his looks, really, and everything to do with how genuinely accessible and innocent he made the character. I think we both fell into that relationship very easily.

The Joe Pitt character is so lovable, so unaware of all the negative things he is--Tony Kushner really makes his callousness go down easily.

Because it's effortless for him. He isn't kidding himself. He really is blind to that stuff. And you're right, Tony's compassionate about how he shows that. He doesn't shrink from saying how messed up it is, but he doesn't manipulate it so that it's about making somebody consciously deceptive or devious.

Is there one moment working with Mike Nichols that you remember?

Well, a lot. As soon as you begin working with him, and that includes the audition, he's basically showering you with being included and respected and liked. It can be hard to receive at first. When someone you imbue with a lot of power says I'm not interested in a power relationship with you; I'm interested in being your ally and collaborator and friend; come have dinner, come to the house, all that stuff--it's an incredibly generous and smart act on his part. Because everything that's not useful just falls away.

Does Louis ever see Joe again?

No, I don't think so.

Are you gay, by the way?

I'm not. I'm straight; I live with my girlfriend.

A number of guys will be disappointed about that.

I don't drink so. This is not much of an advertisement for being a boyfriend!

Interviewed by Anne Stockwell

The eyes of Tony Kushner

The man who envisioned Angels is moving on: collaborating on a musical and a children's book, in addition to working on a new play about beauty, bodies, and of course politics By Michael Giltz

Your new musical, Caroline, or Change, [now playing at the Public Theater in New York] is set in Lake Charles, La., where you grew up. Are you a Southern writer or a writer who happens to be from the South?

Oh, I could definitely identify with that. There's a certain ... swooniness [laughs] to my writing that I would associate with Tennessee Williams and other Southern writers. He was a big influence on me, certainly.

What was the first musical that made a big impression on you?

Of course, I grew up with music. [Kushner's parents were classical musicians.] I think one of the first musicals I ever saw was Camelot. And of course, I was a gay kid. I had the cast album to My Fair Lady, and I knew every word.

Just as Caroline opens, HBO is showing Angels in America. At first I thought, Maybe enough time has passed; we can appreciate it as a story, not an AIDS play. But so much is still the same. Witness the flap over The Reagans, with his defenders taking umbrage at the idea that Reagan was anything hut compassionate to people with AIDS.

Oh, you know what's going to happen as soon as he dies. They're going to try and say how wonderful and warm [he was]. Already Andrew Sullivan has written how that collection of his letters [Ronald Reagan: A Life in Letters] proved he was intelligent and kind. I've read them, and they're Post-it notes! "Dear so-and-so, thanks for your letter. I appreciate hearing from you. We'll send that file along as soon as we can. Sincerely." He and [George W.] Bush have seemed so demonstrably stupid in public that when you find out they can actually write a coherent sentence, people say, "Oh, they're smart." Well, there's a great difference between "smart" and "not as completely stupid as we thought."

How did Angels change for its TV adaptation?

It's a movie, not a play. It had to be cut. And I think Mike Nichols was really smart. I'm so proud of the movie they made, and I was treated so wonderfully.

You're publishing your first children's book, Brundibar, a collaboration with Maurice Sendak. And didn't you and your partner, Mark Harris, just get married?

On April 27, 2003. Oh, God, was it April 27? I better not get that wrong I've always believed in community, and when you get married you're saying to that community, "This is the man I love, and I expect you to honor that."

One of your amazing achievements is how much weight you've lost since you wrote Angels.

I was weighing 240 pounds in 1994. And John Candy, that very good comic actor, died of a heart attack at 43. I went to my doctor and he said, "Your cholesterol is way up," and I got scared. I lost about 100 pounds. I wasn't in great shape, but suddenly I was getting cruised on the streets. And if you're really into that emaciated look, I looked pretty good. And I went to some sex clubs and had a wonderful time. I've gone up and down about 30 pounds since then but never more than that.

Did you worry that losing weight was caving into body fascism or some other idea about beauty and what's attractive?

I'm writing a play that's in part about that, right now. A new play, the first one to really deal with gay subjects since Angels.

Are you happy right now?

I'm pretty happy. I'm a little freaked-out, freaked to shit about the fact that in one two-week period Caroline opens and Angels airs on HBO and now Brundibar is getting reviewed in The New York Times. That just seems a little bit bizarre. And the book that I wrote about Maurice Sendak is coming out that week too. I am really proud of each of these things. I am happy in a way. But Bush is president, so you can't be happy. But I hope by next November that will change too.

Giltz is a regular contributor to several periodicals, including the New York Post.

Meryl Streep as Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz, Hannah Pitt, the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg

How they fit in: Speaks at the funeral of Louis's grandmother; comes to New York to straighten out her gay son, Joe, and his "crazy" wife, Harper, haunts the sickbed of closeted lawyer Roy Cohn, who helped condemn her to death for treason

When last we saw Meryl: Film: The Hours, as a lesbian book editor

You begin the film as an ancient male rabbi. Soon afterward you sit next to Tony Kushner, also dressed as a rabbi. You two seem deep in discussion. What were you actually talking about?

I think Tony and I were discussing our mutual friend Maurice Sendak, writer, illustrator, teacher, artist, and scenic designer, who plays the third rabbi on the bench in that scene. Maurice and I had worked together some years before when I recorded his story Higglety Pigglety Pop for an audiobook, and we were looking forward to working together again. We'd spent that morning in our rabbi suits, reading the paper and discussing events; we snacked, we joked and talked politics. I guess I was happy for the opportunity to try out my scrabbly voice before shooting. Anyway, in this picture Tony is telling me that after lunch Maurice had leaned over and asked, "When is Meryl Streep going to show up? I thought she would be on the set today"--and a few minutes after this photo was taken Tony walked him some distance away and told him who the other old guy was. Maurice was, how do you say, gob-smacked: "I don't believe it! I don't believe it!" and I was tickled ... I felt better too, because actually he had been kind of distant from me all morning, nice but reserved, and my feelings had been a teeny bit hurt ... ha!

You've had a long, good collaboration with Mike Nichols. How has he changed as a director between 1983's Silkwood and today?

Mike is more relaxed and confident and just as delicious and inventive as he ever was. He lacerates you with the bons mots; he levels you with his wit and makes you feel omnipotent with the freedom he gives you. He's incapable of earnestness and of saying anything that isn't funny, deeply funny--even, and especially, criticism, for which he saves his best material. When you're laughing it all goes in easier. And I don't know any other director on earth who would've immediately and without reservation asked me to do these characters and then left it entirely up to me as to how they'd look, act, talk. He trusted me, and it's that confidence in his actors that makes people want to work with him again and again.

How have you changed as an actor? Fifteen pounds.

Many of us have wanted to kiss Emma Thompson in midair. Could you describe the experience of actually shooting this scene?

Emma was sporting a really nasty truss in this film, which she wore on and off for about a year. It wasn't for the hernia; it enabled her to fly, with a sensation she compared to the last stages of labor. I only had to were it on the one day, and I feel it mitigated against the transcendent sexual experience depicted. I remember it was hard to kiss midair and not break each other's front teeth.

Your portrayal of Ethel Rosenberg once again employs your superb ear for accents. How did you study to become Ethel?

Miss Streep doesn't respond well to questions about "accents." She feels they should be placed under the tongue and allowed to dissolve.

You and Al Pacino had never worked together before. What was it like to be on the receiving end of one of his outbursts as Roy Cohn?

I have known Al for almost 30 years but had never worked with him, and I have to say, he surprised me--with his ferocity and his vulnerability as an actor, his fastidiousness with the work, his stamina, and his imagination. New things happened all the time, right in front of my eyes. It was fun, and it was inspiring. He's a great, great actor, and this is some of his finest work.

Hannah Pitt travels a road well-known to many a parent. Having learned her son is gay, she has to enlarge her world to include him. As a parent, can you imagine making this journey in your own life?

Hannah comes from very far away from the world in which she eventually finds herself and very far from the world in which I live and grew up. I agree that discovering her son was gay was traumatic for her, but I think finding out other things about him, about his character, more profoundly affected her. While I don't think I'd have the same difficulty understanding his sexual orientation, I could relate to her dislocation in his world.

Angels in America, the play, challenged a nation that was deep in conflict over how to deal with its gay and lesbian citizens. More than a decade later America is still embroiled in that conflict. In this adaptation of Angels, what do you want to communicate to the TV audience?

I hope this helps us explain ourselves to ourselves. Having said that, I just think it's an amazingly ambitious piece that people will undoubtedly argue about, love, be scandalized by, and be riveted to. Can you end a sentence in a preposition? Am I in trouble? Am I trouble in?

This is a touchy question, but it must be asked. Do you worry that this whole dazzling play is a little above the comprehension level of today's American audience?

I think the viewing public is constantly underestimated in terms of what they can comprehend, digest, and appreciate. There are huge numbers of people across the country who are waiting for this like they're waiting for their turn on the oxygen in buddy breathing (that's a scuba reference--I'm underwater now). That question is so blue state of you.

Interviewed by Anne Stockwell

Patrick Wilson as Joe Pitt

How he fits in: An up-and-coming Mormon lawyer, he's befriended by Roy Cohn. Both Joe and his wife, Harper, struggle to deny that he's gay. It's not working.

When last we saw Patrick: On Broadway: The Full Monty, Oklahoma! Upcoming films: The Alamo and The Phantom of the Opera

You've been best known for singing, dancing, and acting in musical comedy. So how did you get the part of Joe Pitt?

When Mike Nichols came and saw Full Monty and called me in, I didn't know if they were casting Angels or not. But at that point in your career, yon don't expect to get parts like that. I bought the plays and read them, and of course was floored. When I went in to meet with Mike and Tony Kushner, I didn't expect anything. I hate auditioning, always have. I really felt pretty comfortable because--this is the honest truth--I didn't expect a part like this would roll my way. I just didn't.

It was a lark.

Yeah. I get to meet Mike Nichols and Tony Kushner, and I get the best audition material ever written. As soon as I was finished Mike said, "Do you want to do this?"

They just offered it to you right there?

I said, "Absolutely. But I am getting ready to do Oklahoma!" I spent months negotiating my Oklahoma! deal and switched agents in the middle of it, so I certainly did not want to go back and say, "Oh, by the way, Cameron, I need to be out on every third show." I've had a long relationship with [producer] Cameron Mackintosh and didn't want to do anything to damage that. So I told Mike. He said. "We'll work around your schedule; let me worry about that." So I walked out and called my agent, laughing. I said, "I don't know enough about these movie auditions. But he just kind of said, 'Do you want to do this?' Is he lying to me?" [Mike] went to bat for me, and whatever conversations happened behind closed doors, I don't know. I'm sure it cost him money.

Did you find it really hard to do both the film and the play at once?

It wasn't easy. First of all, Oklahoma! was a much harder show physically than I'd ever, ever imagined it would be. If nothing else, swinging a girl around your shoulder eight times a week, just chiropractically--it's dumb to make that an adverb--but it's just hard on your body. If you're in the middle of a scene and you've got to go to a night shoot, you don't want to be thinking about your Joe Pitt lines as you're saying Curly's. It's easy to joke about. But those are the moments when somebody gets hurt, when you zone out for a second. I was so busy, I had no choice bus to focus on the work. I didn't have time to dillydally. I was up at 6 every day, for the most part, and working all day. As soon as they called wrap, I was hauling ass to get out of makeup, and they brought a sandwich for me and I'd run to the theater.

Joe is a great character.

He has trouble speaking from his heart--articulating how he really feels. Obviously, that's a given--the guy's in the closet. When he says "The Lord said this and this and this," this stuff comes out of him like a book. It's the same thing with Republicanism and McCarthyism and talking about Reaganomies. Those are the codes he has lived by. Part of his journey is breaking away from all those things that are just rote.

Does it flow easily because those are things he believes and knows or because it's a formula?

Anybody who's that deep into it, the line is blurred. He doesn't know what he really thinks. He's never stopped to think about what he really thinks about President Reagan or Roy Colin, because look what happens when he does.

It rocks his world.

It's much easier to go, "No, no, no, it's not right. We have to do what's good." In fact, he has a line in there--what does to say to Harper? It's so fucking great because it's just so grammatically incorrect. "We have to become more good."

How do you get under the skin of somebody so cut off from himself?

It's very concrete. He's gay. He's Mormon. He's a lawyer. He's a Republican. I'm not any of those things. That's the fun of it.

You're not a Republican?

[Laughs] Let's not get into my politics.

What was your first toe-to-toe moment with Al Pacino?

He had come to see Oklahoma! before we even started shooting. It's really unusual that you get that kind of relationship, because we lived with these guys for a long time. Al and I would rehearse by ourselves twice a week while we were shooting and while I was shooting other scenes--if not twice a week, once a week. And the first day that I shot with Al, I got nominated for a Tony. I remember thinking, Wow, this is a good day. I just got nominated for a Tony and I'm about to start working with Al Pacino. Life's pretty good.

Interviewed by Michael Giltz

The other faces of Angels

Al Pacino as Roy Cohn

How he fits in: In the hospital dying of AIDS--oops, did we say AIDS? we meant liver cancer--the ruthless right-wing attorney is nursed by Belize and visited by Joe Pitt and Ethel Rosenberg.

When last we saw Al: The Recruit, Insomnia, Gigli, and about 40 other films. Now shooting The Merchant of Venice, as Shylock

Decked out in a gay-Roman haircut, Pacino gets the maximum enjoyment out of Cohn's heinousness, whether he's oozing charm onto gorgeous young Joe Pitt or dumping his fury on his supremely self-possessed gay nurse, Belize. Cohn's opening line, delivered as he wields his multiline phone, catches the spirit: "I wish I was an octopus, a fucking octopus. Eight loving arms and all those suckers."

Mary-Louise Parker as Harper Pitt

How she fits in: Powered by super-size doses of Valium, Harper trips through her own fantasies, trying to fend off the truth that her husband, Joe, is gay. But when Harper's pushed far enough--well, you know what they say about truth.

When last we saw Mary-Louise: Broadway: Proof; TV: The West Wing; Film: Saved, Boys on the Side, Longtime Companion, and others

Famed for her work as a stage actor, Parker is also known for doing gay-friendly projects long before such things were chic. As the hetero gal pal in Longtime Companion, Parker exhibited the same bottom-line honesty she would later bring to the role of an HIV-positive woman in Boys on the Side. As Harper Pitt, she paints a sharp, funny picture of a woman at war with her own common sense.

Jeffrey Wright as Belize; Mr. Lies

How he fits in: Prior's ex-lover and current best friend, the first person to whom Prior confides the fact that he's being visited by an angel; the fantasy travel agent who arranges Harper's "dream vacations"

When last we saw Jeffrey: TV: Boycott; Film: Ali, Ride With the Devil, Basquiat, and others

Alone among the actors in HBO's film, Wright re-creates the role he played on Broadway (he won a Tony award in 1994). Belize is the strongest gay man in Angels, shifting on a dime from gay scorn to quiet compassion. And Wright (who's heterosexual) makes Belize super cool. "Don't go crazy on me, girlfriend," he tells Prior, "I already got enough crazy queens for a lifetime. For two. I can't be bothering with dementia."--Anne Stockwell
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Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Cover Story
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 9, 2003
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