Chicago Magazine – April, 1998
Actor William Petersen operates on hard drive – whether he’s playing JFK or Dillinger - by Penelope Mesic
(Photo from article is in The Gallery)
Men like him; women like him. He’s charismatic. He’s starred on Broadway. He can carry a picture. In short, William Petersen is hot. And so, with the monotonous regularity of a half-wit beating a gong, television networks call with offers to do a series. But there has been only one time when he was actually tempted. “I developed a concept,” Petersen recalls, “and I called the network and said, ‘I’m going to ask David Mamet to write the pilot.’” Petersen knew this was an unpopular suggestion. “David’s bad news to them, because David won’t take their notes. But we talked and within the month he sent a pilot script I loved. I was an ex-forensic specialist teaching criminal law at the University of Chicago. It was a situation full of possibilities. I could interview serial killers, interact with the police, with my law students. The pilot was set on a single day, the anniversary of my partner’s death. It was very Mametesque. It was great. They were, ‘Where’s the car chase?’” Despite interest from the producers of existing hit shows, the project languished, and the pilot was never made.
“Their whole thing is about control,” says Petersen, who is clearly about something quite different – taking risks, enjoying the effort – which is why he is back in Chicago, preparing to do a play called Flyovers with his old friend Amy Morton, to open at Victory Gardens Theatre on May 15th. That’s also why he is auditioning young actors for master classes he will teach there this summer.
The auditions take place at the theatre upstairs on Lincoln Avenue, where Petersen has been seeing candidates in a process that has already stretched hours past the allotted time. Nevertheless, when a dark-haired young woman steps in front of him, clearly nervous, he is unhurried. “Do you have an audition piece you want to do?” he asks. “It’s OK if you don’t. One of the reasons I helped found Remains [the legendary, now vanished ensemble company] was so I wouldn’t have to read for parts. I’m still terrible at auditions.” Petersen, who had leading roles in the movies Manhunter and To Live and Die in L.A., starred in the highly acclaimed 1994 production of The Night of the Iguana at the Goodman Theatre and on Broadway. He has an HBO movie, two feature films, and a television movie coming out in the next few months. If he really does audition badly, the consolation is that it has probably been years since he last had to.
But fellow professionals say that Petersen works his way into a role so deeply that no audition could have the intensity that develops during rehearsals. “He throws himself into things, takes enormous emotional and physical risks,” says Robert Falls, who directed Petersen in two electrifying stage roles, as the Reverend Shannon in The Night of the Iguana and as the real-life killer Jack Henry Abbott in the 1984 Wisdom Bridge production of In the Belly of the Beast.
“Everyone has stories of Billy hurting himself, ripping tendons, knocking himself unconscious,” Falls continues. “He immerses himself in the suffering of the character–relishes in it. Even off-stage, he tends to take on the role he is playing. When we took Belly of the Beast to London he was so thoroughly the hard-gazing, tough-talking criminal–very unlike his warm, sympathetic self–that a journalist asked him, in all seriousness, if he’d ever killed a man.” Without cracking a smile, Petersen [who spent a middle-class adolescence at Evanston High School and Loyola Academy in Wilmette] flicked his gaze to the side, Falls says, and muttered, “I don’t want to talk about it.”
hat deadpan mix of desperation and irreverence runs like an electric current through Petersen’s work, although in recent years it has seemed as if desperation might predominate. “All those years I struggled [as an actor in Chicago] I was free,” says Petersen. “You can’t get those moments back. I’ve been where I hated the movie business. I’ve learned a lot–as much as from my years of theatre–but the pressure. . . . I’d gone through the loss of the theatre company [Remains disbanded after the death of its artistic director, Larry Sloan] and the loss of my relationship with Amy [Morton]. You start to go, What am I doing?”
And while artistically rewarding, The Night of the Iguana was, in Petersen’s words, “like doing Belly of the Beast times two.” As the play opens, Petersen’s character, Shannon, has come to a dead end at a fleabag Mexican hotel without a prospect–personal or professional–in sight. Having lost the naïve self-love that carries most of us into middle age, he mistrusts–loathes–his own charm, his easy good nature, his squandered gifts. The role is the distilled essence of self-doubt. And yet as Falls and Petersen daringly structured the part, Shannon occasionally finds his despair itself hilarious.
“As a young actor of 24, 25, Billy had sexual energy, vitality, charisma, but he couldn’t have played Shannon,” says Falls. “It’s a role of maturity. Billy gave the bravest performance I’ve ever seen.”
Working nearly without pause, Petersen moved on to the Philippines for the filming of Kiss the Sky, to be released this fall. Asked about it, Petersen says, “It’s about Gary Cole and me in love. I call it Kiss This Guy, actually.” Joking aside, the film, which Petersen describes as “a story about two males trying to be best friends,” also required enormous emotional effort. “I couldn’t have made this movie without someone I’ve known 20 years. [Cole and Petersen have acted together in Chicago since the late seventies.] It’s about two guys who’ve been friends forever, start wondering who they are, and leave 20-year marriages to go to Manila. Eventually they fall in love with the same girl. It’s funny, somewhat sexy, painful, very honest.”
The upcoming HBO movie The Rat Pack, on the other hand, is something that Petersen buoyantly describes as “this thing that shot in Malibu and Los Angeles. It’s a lot of fun. I play Jack Kennedy, Joe Mantegna is hilarious as Dean Martin, and Ray Liotta plays Frank Sinatra, who spends a weekend taking Jack around and getting him laid, singing songs for him, hooking him up with Marilyn Monroe.” In the TV movie The Kennedys of Massachusetts, Petersen says, “I played Joe Kennedy. Now Jack. Eventually I’ll put on a dress and play Rose.”
But long before that happens, Petersen has a current engagement to act at Victory Gardens, where he recently became an artistic associate. He took his first professional acting class there after a sidelong brush with theatre in Idaho. “I had a checkered academic career,” he explains. “At Idaho State, where I went to play football, my grades were so low they put me in theatre classes. I fell in love with acting. After a year, I went to Spain with a bunch of Basque kids from Idaho, formed a theatre group there, went back to Idaho, and did plays at other schools but never enrolled. Finally, I came back to Chicago and took a class called How Not to Audition from William Norris at Victory Gardens.”
Artistic director Dennis Zacek cast Petersen in a leading role as Dillinger in 1979 and handed him his first Actors’ Equity card. “We were fond of Billy, but didn’t think of Dillinger as his part,” Zacek recalls. “But he convinced us. He had even shaved his head to change his hairline to resemble the gangster’s.
“He’s always been a good actor and a charming guy,” Zacek adds. “But I did not know then I was talking to someone who would become a movie star.” He laughs. “That’s true in just about every case. Certainly there are people who would have treated John Malkovich differently had they only known.”
t had long been petersen’s intention to return to Victory Gardens for another play, but the problem was when. “I read Flyovers by Jeff Sweet a year ago and said yeah, I’d do it, but I knew I had to do a couple of film things first. I wanted Dennis [Zacek] to direct and I got Amy. We’ve only done about 20 plays together.” Not only is Morton familiar to Petersen but she is also an actor so adept at creating an atmosphere of normalcy, so minutely observant of plausible behavior, that any scene in which she appears is grounded in reality. Mark Vann, who appeared in Steppenwolf Theatre’s 1996 production of Cryptogram with Morton, also plays a crucial role.
To be surrounded by friends on a familiar stage is, for an actor, like sitting at his own kitchen table, or as Petersen says, “it’s an in-sync kind of thing.” This level of comfort may seem hard to understand given that Petersen plays Ted, a volatile, bullying, out-of-work factory hand, resentful of the success of a former high school classmate (Mark Vann) who has been lucky enough to get out of the small, economically depressed town where Ted has spent his whole life. To a nonactor, occupying the sullen, dissatisfied persona of Ted would seem like a miserable place to be, the psychic equivalent of lying on a bed of nails.
But Zacek explains the feeling by recalling a moment when he bumped into Petersen on the street, on a day he happened to be performing. “Billy said, ‘This day has been tough. I can’t wait to get onstage, where I know all the answers.’” Zacek adds, “Actors will say, ‘I need to do a play.’ It isn’t the money; it isn’t even the interaction with the audience–it’s a sense of completion, the security of knowing exactly who you are, of having a known set of events and all your lines ready for you.”
Amy Morton agrees. “For most theatre actors, onstage is the place that’s most comfortable,” she says, because the experience is controllable in a way that life is not. She has no qualms–quite the reverse–about acting with Petersen: “We’ve wanted to do this for a long time. We began at Remains at about the same time, so we started as friends, working together, before it became romantic. There wasn’t a horrible breakup.”
“Amy was about 21 when she joined Remains,” Petersen recalls. “We lived together for about eight years. We have a great relationship onstage–I hope we work together forever.”
Although Morton has decided that she is more comfortable onstage, she will soon begin working on 8 mm, “a really scary movie” directed by Joel Schumacher and starring Nicolas Cage. The problem is that compared with the trancelike concentration of being onstage, “movie work is a colossal bore.”
For Petersen, however, hanging around a set seems to be less galling than the artistic restraints in the film industry. His frustration shows when he speaks of a comic actor, known for his stage work, whose first major film was a hit but whose second big movie role was crude and offered little scope for his talents. “He had a hit movie; the studio wanted him to jump in and follow it right away [to capitalize on the publicity the first film was getting]. But he had a stage commitment and he honored it. So a year later when he said, ‘I’m ready to do another movie,’ they said, ‘OK, here.’” Petersen picks up a pack of cigarettes and tosses it contemptuously across the table, to indicate their attitude. “‘Here’s your movie.’”
If squandering talent while you worry about the numbers is reprehensible to Petersen, he finds something glorious in gambling on new plays. “Victory Gardens does new plays,” he says approvingly, “and producing new playwrights means you could have a couple of bad productions a year. But if you don’t do that, where do new playwrights learn? You have to take the risk; you have to go drag people to your work.”
Actors become actors, Petersen says, because they have to. Clearly he has been thinking deeply about their struggle, because he has watched young actors audition all day. “You’re doing it because of psychological reasons. And if you want to be this, then be it first. The biggest fight is to keep everybody there, in a company. Half the people that come to the theatre with money or with some other choice available are dilettantes that never do it. I have no other thing I can do that will pay my rent. I have no choice but to get out of my own way, and create.