The Producers: An Interview with Nathan Lane
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The Producers: An Interview with Nathan Lane
By Wilson Morales
Having built his career on Broadway and winning many accolades including 2 Tony awards, it's nice to see Nathan Lane bring his Tony award winning role of Max Bialystock from "The Producers" to the big screen. Lane is no stranger to the film world as he was sensational opposite Robin Williams in "The Birdcage" over a decade ago and did animated voice of Timon in Disney's The Lion King. Currently back on Broadway with Matthew Broderick in "The Odd Couple", Lane spoke to blackfilm.com about the success he's had over the years and his great chemistry with Broderick and Mel Brooks.
This is a great time in your career these past few years, how do you account for that? Are you surprised by this high success? Are you happy about it?
Nathan Lane: Well it's always great when people show up to see your work. I'm always happy about that. You know, everything comes in cycles in show business, there are times when at first they fall in love with you, and then they get sick of you, and then they love you again, those things, it's sort of a natural evolution in show business, so you know, I don't know. 'The Producers' is a sort of a once in a lifetime kind of phenomenon, and I was very grateful to be a part of it. You know, in terms of the theatre at any rate, I've been doing this for thirty years, so it's an audience that has watched me grow up on the stage, really. And it's sort of the one place that I know people will buy tickets, and it's an important thing, to be able to fill a theatre. Because it gives you some choices in terms of your career.
Can you talk about the chemistry between you and Matthew? How do you work so well together?
Lane: It's the sex. It's what's kept us together, and we never go to bed angry.
When you heard about this film were you excited? How did you approach it differently from the stage?
Lane: Well Mel first mentioned it while we were recording the cast album, even though we don't say that any more. And you know, I like joked with him and said Danny DeVito and Ben Stiller will be great in the parts. And then eventually really thanks to the success of 'Chicago,' it did finally happen. And it's unusual for the person who originated the part on stage to do it on film, and so I was very grateful and thrilled to be able to do that, because it's a great part, and great parts are hard to come by. And you know, as probably has been mentioned, the major difference is that there's no audience, and you have to let go of that, because it's a very audience driven show. And it's just going back to basics, as you would with any movie. Obviously there's a familiarity with the material and a comfortable feeling of you know this character very well. But it's the same sorts of problems and obstacles, and also you're just wanting to give Susan [Stroman] some choices, you know, the material demands a kind of size and theatricality, and you have to honor that, and say here's the St. James theatre version, and here's the independent film version, and here's something in between. And then they assemble it.
Did you like seeing yourself on screen?
Lane: I never like seeing myself on screen. Your own success and the prior film's kind of loomed over you when doing this film version, was that ever on your mind? Did you think of doing it differently with the film version?
Lane: I mean, that's always there, Gene [Wilder] and Zero's [Mostel] performances. The show itself had enough new material, we felt like we inherited these roles, and then it started to feel like our own roles after a while, because there were a lot of things that we got to do that was all new. And you know, there's inevitable comparisons. Either some people will accept that and some people won't. You can't - there's nothing you can do, you have no control over that. No one admires those performances more than myself. You just try to live up to the material and do the best job you can and whatever people say they'll say. But it's great fun to finally put it on film.
Did Matthew surprise you when you first met him, does he still?
Lane: [laughs] Yes, yes he does. The first time I met him, I think was the premiere of 'The Lion King' and we had done voices in it, and we didn't work together, but I think we met. He's shy, he's not unlike me, he's a little shy, and I think we both thought we hated each other, but we just are too shy to really talk. And then really - I met him a couple of times socially, but just to say hello to, and then it was really when this project started to happen that we actually got together and had a dinner and talked and - but it was just one of those things, it's just luck really, that you hit it off with someone, and there's this so called chemistry, and it's just a mutual respect and admiration, and I think a similar sense of humor, and it just really worked out.
Are there any plans to transfer 'the odd couple' to film or tv? And are you looking for something else to collaborate on?
Lane: No, no one has talked about a film of 'The Odd Couple.' And no, we have no plans, we would like to see other people, I think, at this point.
Who would you like to work with? In a similar type pairing?
Lane: In terms of an actor? Well god, there's tons [laughs], anyone who's good! Phil Hoffman he's great, yeah. You just want to work with good people.
How was the performance different for you in the film, especially in the recap scene?
Lane: The difference is really that it's you're lip synching. There was some live singing, but they used very little of it, and it was only here or there, a line or two, but essentially that had to be lip synched. So obviously it's not as strenuous as doing it eight times a week in a theatre. But again, you're doing it in bits and pieces, and you don't have the freedom you have when you're on stage, whatever the pre record was, those are the rhythms you have to stick to, and it's - lip synching is a whole art unto itself. They used to have lip synching classes at MGM, it's a whole thing, and there's someone monitoring your lips. Yeah, obviously they wanted to - it's just a man in a cell, for four minutes, so how do you make that interesting? So they're getting a lot of different angles. So in that sense it's not that different, it's just a lot of different set ups and trying to maintain the energy of what's going on. But that's the major difference.
Can you talk about Mel's sense of humor? And how do you feel about the new song?
Lane: Mel's sense of humor - well it's influenced generations. He's a comic genius and an adorable human being, and I'm very glad we came into each other's lives. He's - you know, he's one of a kind, there's nobody like Mel Brooks. We all as kids, I went to see the movies, and listened to the 2000 year old man, and he was a huge influence. And a hero. And so to get to work with him was extraordinary, and for him to say - I met him, we had met once before, he and Anne [Bancroft] had come to see me in a play, and then I was on a vacation, I was on vacation and I got in the pool, and the two people in the pool were Anne and Mel. And we chatted, and then she went upstairs, and he said to me, you know I'm working on a musical of 'The Producers,' I think you're the only person to play Max Bialystock. It was sort of like a dream, it doesn't seem real, you just kind of go oh, well that would be great, that would be an honor. And then a couple of years later it happened. So you know, it's just one of those things. I can remember seeing the movie for the first time at a revival house in L.A. and laughing with everyone else, and never imagining that I would be doing that one day, even though by then I had already memorized the entire movie. And then his song, the song that he wrote, it's very heartfelt, he loves this show, it changed his life, and it was one of the happiest times in his life, as he has said to me. So he loves the theatre, and it sort of revitalized him in a way, just going to work every day, collaborating with people. The live audience, all of that, he always loved the theatre, but I mean, it really was a delight to see him that happy and tickled by this experience.
How did the misconception that you used to be Jewish and changed your name come about? Do you still hear about it?
Lane: You know, the story is that my real name is Joseph Lane, and when I joined Actors' Equity there was already a Joe Lane, so they said you have to change your name, and you can change your last name or your first name, which was traumatic at the time, they said you can take a few days to think about it, and I said no, just give me a minute. And I had played Nathan Detroit in dinner theatre in New Jersey. And I liked that name and that character very much, so it was either gonna be that or Benjamin as I recall, because I liked playing Benjamin Franklin, in '1776.' So I became - I said I'll be Nathan Lane. And I'm an honorary Jew and I've played many Jewish characters. All the best people are, really. But I really do feel Jewish [laughs], even though I'm a Catholic. But you know, the way the church has been behaving, I'm happy to be Jewish. Be perceived as Jewish. So you know, but I have, I've played a lot - Nathan Detroit, and Sid Caesar, and Max Bialystock. It's been a great part of my life.
The reviews for 'Odd Couple' have not been kind. Is this a cause of derailment for the Nathan and Matthew express?
Lane: Who the hell is that, Ben Brantley? Has it derailed the Nathan and Matthew express? You know, not with a twenty one million dollar advance. Which is unprecedented for a straight play. Producers tend not to care what the critics say when you sell out before the first rehearsal. I can only say that, you know, the only thing that was sad about it - look, there were many good reviews, and there were many bad reviews, and it's sort of the usual. But the sad thing was the notion that we - and this only happened after it was announced how many tickets it had sold - was the notion that we had done this play just to make a lot of money, it was a get rich quick scheme. And this is, this play I have loved since I was a kid, and we both have a rather long history with Neil Simon, and Neil had written me a few years ago and said I have held on to the rights because I want you to play Oscar Madison, and he said it would be great if Matthew wanted to do it with you, but I really want you to do this. And I wanted to honor him, and it's a classic American comedy, and we got a brilliant director to do it, and we just wanted to do the best version of the play we could. You can never - I can't worry about whether Ben thinks I'm funny or not, because they change their minds a lot. But what I didn't like, I've been in the theatre for a long time, I've been an actor for thirty years, and I've done a lot of things, a lot of things between 'The Producers' and 'The Odd Couple,' I've done "Trumbo and Butley" and "Dedication" and "The Frogs" things that are not what I would call sure fire, in the commercial theatre. So to accuse us of that, I felt was unfair and you can't deny the fact that really, we had no control over the fact that a lot of people wanted to see this, and we took their power away. They had no - go away, you have no power here. And a lot of people didn't like that. I'm sorry, that was not our intention, but it was certainly prevalent in a lot of reviews, that what I'm about to write is meaningless, so here goes. You know, what do you want me to do? We just wanted to do the play. Okay, if you don't like it, fine, but don't blame me because a lot of people bought tickets, and I don't think they liked that. But I don't think it has stopped the train.
Is it bittersweet that most of your film roles will be the ones to live on? Is there some way to preserve the theatre roles?
Lane: Well you can't really preserve a stage performance, because those things they film for the Lincoln Center archives, it always looks terrible. A video taped stage performance is just - you know, it's never gonna be the same as it is if you're sitting there live in the theatre. I don't really think about posterity that much. Yes, it's true, there's that nature of the theatre, it lives on in people's memories and then it's gone. [laughs] I don't know, I doubt there will be a big film retrospective for me. What are you gonna do? You can't have everything.
How was it to produce a TV series? Would you do it again?
Lane: Television? Well you know. You saw the first twenty minutes of 'Saving Private Ryan.' It's not as much fun as that. So I don't think, no I wouldn't, you know, I've done a couple and one in which I allowed the people, they were very successful and I said I'm just gonna be the actor and you'll produce and one in which I was very much involved. You know, honestly I don't know what that is about, television. Maybe it's not for me. I always thought it was, actually, I thought it would be a fun, it seemed like it would be a good venue for me, because it was similar to the theatre, it was like doing a little one act play every week. But there's so - it was pretty nasty, people were pretty brutal about it. I don't know why, honestly, I don't know why I get beaten up, it's all right for George Clooney to do forty TV shows before 'ER,' no one said anything about that. But you know, I did two and it was like oh here he comes again. So fuck it, I don't need it. It would have to be something really, some great script, and they said would you like to be in it, and here's a great piece of writing, you know. But no, I don't have any plans to go back to television.
What next for you?
Lane: I don't know.
Any character you have a burning desire to play?
Lane: Joan of Arc.
What about Oscars? Do you feel like Rex Harrison, doing the movie of 'My Fair Lady' and picking up both the Tony and the Oscar?
Lane: Oh Jesus, no, I don't, I can't even think about that.
THE PRODUCERS Opens in Limited Release on December 16th with a wider release on December 23rd
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