BACK STAGE WEST
August 19, 1999
Whether putting on a show in a small town or putting on a show for CBS, Amy Brenneman relishes the collaborative process.
by Rob Kendt
While actors come to television and film careers from all walks of life, most come from the stage. Some, like Willem Dafoe or Tim Robbins or Lucy Liu, come from experimental or avant-garde theatre rather than Broadway, regional stages, or M.F.A. acting programs. These actors often keep one foot in their old theatre circles, and often strive to find ways, with varying degrees of success or integrity, to bring some of their unconventional sensibility into their mainstream work.
But Amy Brenneman? The fresh-faced ingenue in the girlfriend roles in films like Heat, Bye Bye Love, and Daylight? The actress perhaps most widely known for her part in introducing primetime nudity, as the girlish love interest of the also frequently bare David Caruso, on the first season of NYPD Blue?
Well, yes, Amy Brenneman. Her untraditional stage resume includes having been a founding member of Cornerstone Theatre Company, an ensemble of Harvard grads who made their name in the late 1980s doing resident productions in a series of rural towns across the U.S.--typically classic or familiar plays adapted freely to the setting, and starring a mix of Cornerstone artists and small-town community members. Among its signature pieces was a black/white take on Romeo and Juliet in the racially divided town of Port Gibson, Miss., in which Brenneman starred opposite a high school track star named Edret Brinston.
After wrapping up her rural Cornerstone work with a national tour (see sidebar), Brenneman went to New York and appeared in a Mac Wellman play, Sincerity Forever, was spotted by an agent, and landed a lead on a network series, The Middle Ages, which didn't last. Not to worry: Next up was her famous one-season stint on NYPD Blue, on which she didn't last. It did, however, introduce her to her future husband, director Brad Silberling--and to Hollywood.
Since then, her work has included roles in Daylight, Fear, Heat, Casper (directed by Silberling), and Bye Bye Love, as well as the TV movie A.T.F. and the independents Nevada, Lesser Prophets, and The Suburbans. Her breakthrough as a film actress, though, was in last year's Your Friends and Neighbors, Neil LaBute's acrid relationship drama, in which Brenneman played a profoundly dissatisfied, repressed woman with chilling equanimity and depth.
And this fall witnesses a wider sort of breakthrough: Brenneman stars in her own self-produced TV series for CBS, Judging Amy, in which she plays a young judge returned to her Connecticut hometown to resume her relationship with her opinionated mother, played by Tyne Daly. It's a project Brenneman herself shepherded to fruition with her manager/producing partner Connie Tavel, producer Joseph Stern, and writer Barbara Hall, and which Brenneman initially based on her own relationship with her mother, a Superior Court judge.
Cornerstone has since had its own L.A. success story, continuing its community collaborations across the diverse landscape of the Southland, and Brenneman remains chair of the company's board. She's appeared only once with the company in L.A.--as certainly the hottest Malvolio I've ever seen, in a special engagement of Cornerstone's cross-gendered Twelfth Night--and last year in a new play by Anthony Clarvoe at South Coast Rep as part of its Pacific Playwrights Festival, directed by Cornerstone company artistic director Bill Rauch.
Back Stage West spoke to Brenneman last week during a break on the set of Judging Amy.
Back Stage West: Have you been able to apply the craft you developed working with Cornerstone to your film and TV work? Does it even feel like you're doing the same thing, or is it totally different?
Amy Brenneman: I always say to Bill Rauch: It's kind of like being raised by a really good family, with some good values. Certainly, the medium is pretty different--you don't have the live audience, their interaction, all that stuff--but the way of working, which is profoundly collaborative, is just the way I work. And I know that unless I'm connected to the other people I'm working with, cast or crew or whoever, I'm dead. The idea of being a diva or a prima donna in Cornerstone would never land you very far, so I think I carry that with me.
BSW: Were you trained in a more traditional craft before Cornerstone?
Brenneman: I'm pretty untrained, I have to say. Whatever training I have is physical stuff--I used to dance a lot, and I always loved the dancing and singing part of Cornerstone. And as the Cornerstone thing developed, it was such a collective group thing that brought us to these different places. What Bill would always talk about was, What is this world? What is the universe of the play? And we really operated within that.
I will say that when I first got in front of the camera, I had all the fears that a lot of theatre people have--Am I too big? Is this too stylized? And sometimes it would be. Peter Riegert said a great thing to me on Middle Ages, which was my first big camera job. What really blew my mind was the lack of rehearsal; in theatre, you rehearse the play, and then you perform the play, so the idea of being filmed before I really knew what I was doing was really messing me up. But Riegert, who is such a fabulous theatre artist, said to me, "You have to think of these takes as rehearsals, and not trip out on yourself that it's not the final product, that they're watching you process the material, and be OK with that." I've let go entirely--or I try to--of the idea of finished product. Instead, the audience is going to watch me deal with this material at various stages, and hopefully it'll be of some interest.
BSW: With Judging Amy based on your own life, and you serving as executive producer, you must have a little more at stake in this particular "finished product" than your average series role.
Brenneman: I'm unbelievably personal about this. Most of the time I think that serves me well, and then once in a while I'll realize I'm getting obsessed over a particular detail. . . But now that we're shooting our third episode, it's really become its own wonderful separate world; it's based on stuff that I knew, but now there are other full-fledged characters, and actors running around. So it's cool. I'm not a parent yet, but I keep thinking, It's like giving birth to something and then releasing it and letting it be whatever it's going to be.
BSW: The only film role I've seen of yours that looked like it might have resembled a Cornerstone residency was the Stallone action film Daylight, because of the role's physical demands and because it really looked like you and the cast must have camped out for a long time to get that done. Also, it was a really diverse cast, on many levels.
Brenneman: That's interesting. I hadn't really thought of that, because Daylight was such a genre piece, and I think the big thing with Cornerstone is that we bust up the genres-tragedies become comedies, and vice versa.
BSW: OK, so have any of your on--camera experiences resembled your Cornerstone work?
Brenneman: Your Friends and Neighbors was originally a play by Neil LaBute called Lepers, and the way he shot that was very proscenium and performance-oriented; we rehearsed for three weeks and shot for four, so it felt like a little company. I mean, that didn't have the kind of whirling quality of a Cornerstone show, but it was mostly theatre artists that were involved with that.
BSW: Yeah, that film does feel a bit like a play--but not the sort of play Cornerstone does, and not with the kind of acting you see in a Cornerstone play.
Brenneman: You know, quite honestly, Bill and I have talked for years about having Cornerstone produce a film, but the scale and the joy and the energy of a Cornerstone show--I don't know how it would be on film. It's so truly theatrical, and it's about being in the room at that moment with those people, and film is different, it's a different art form, so I don't know how that would translate. It might be great; it might be weird.
BSW: The rights to the story of the Port Gibson Romeo and Juliet residency have been kicked around Hollywood for years now. Last I heard it was at Dreamworks. What's the status of that now?
Brenneman: Dreamworks let the option go, and that's kind of where [Cornerstone writer] Alison Carey and I jumped in; I'm sort of helping her produce that, but it's not technically set up anywhere. What had happened for more than a decade was that people would buy the rights to the story, then put a writer on it who would miss the mark entirely. And I finally turned to Alison and said, "Why don't you just take a crack?"
BSW: Wasn't Robert Benton the first one to get the rights?
Brenneman: Robert Benton, and then I think it was at Paramount, and Dreamworks was the last one. It's interesting: Alison has written a beautiful first draft, and I read it, and maybe it's because I'm in TV land, but I thought, You know, what we should really do is a TV show. Because our experiences in the rural residencies were so diverse and so interesting that to try to choose what goes into two hours is really hard. The truth is, we could do an episode a week with an entirely different cast of characters. It's just that the Cornerstone story is so much more interesting than most fiction you come up with that it's a really tough thing to do.
BSW: There was a great story 10 years ago in American Theatre about the Port Gibson Romeo and Juliet production, and there was a quote from you about your own hands--on casting efforts--that you were reduced to chasing some guy around the Piggly Wiggly trying to convince him to play your father in the play, and that made you wonder a bit about your career choice.
Brenneman: But you know what? As a producer, I feel like I'm doing the same thing again. It's really weird. As an actor, you think maybe producing is going to be kind of glamourous, but I'm calling people on the phone saying, "Can you do it? Will you do it?"
I think the thing about Cornerstone is that it was profoundly entrepreneurial; it's like, OK, this thing is not going to happen if we don't believe in it, it's just simply going to go away. So in a way, that fortitude really helped me recently with this project. You know, I've been an actor for hire for a while, so that was not a problem: You have a party, I'll come to it. But to actually throw the party is a whole different head space.
BSW: Here's a question I'm dying to ask, because you're the only actress in the world who could answer it: How would you compare working with Edret Brinston and Robert DeNiro?
Brenneman: I'd say pretty similar. I guess what is powerful about both of them is that they are incredibly authentic to who they are, that there's no "acting" going on. And especially them both being masculine guys, there's no effort; it's like they are who they are, and it makes you have to be who you are. I feel like my whole initial learning about acting was, How do I play characters and put on funny faces? And now it's like, How do you actually have the courage to be who you are and to hold on to your voice and your point of view? It's literally kind of bass-ackwards.
BSW: I guess there's no substitute for time in learning that kind of thing; "who you are" can't be taught.
Brenneman: There's no subsitute for therapy, either. I was talking to this actor, Bernie White, who did a day on our show, this beautiful guest star moment, and we were talking about: How do you train for the intimacy of the camera? How do you actually allow yourself to behave like a human being, and just be on camera? I said there's really no training for it except therapy and meditation--or however you become more comfortable with who you are. It's so subtle--whether your nose is itching and you allow yourself to scratch it, it's as simple as that. When I first started being under the microscope of the camera, I felt like my eyes had to be locked into the other actor, and that was that; but when I actually observe myself when I'm not acting, it's like, I look around, I scratch myself--it's not so super-stylized.
BSW: Tell me a bit about the beginnings of Cornerstone. It began with a production of Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella, with you as Cinderella?
Brenneman: Yeah, and that was totally Bill Rauch. We did a production of Yerma in college, and Bill felt like he hadn't really cracked it, so he reassembled the cast--but what he really wanted to do was have us hang out for a semester, so it wasn't so result-oriented, where you do the play and it's done. That set up this whole way of working, where we did M/M/C over the course of about six months--it was very influenced and inspired by Wooster Group stuff--and it really started this whole mentality of thinking like a group.
BSW: What did you study at Harvard?
Brenneman: Comparative religion.
BSW: When you set out on the road with Cornerstone, did someone spell out what you were going to be doing?
Brenneman: No, we didn't know. I was a little bit younger than Bill and Alison, and so I really hadn't gotten to that point of even trying to have a career in theatre; I just knew I wanted to hang out with Bill Rauch, because it was the most interesting stuff around. So I kind of went right into it from college. Like a lot of us, I go to a lot of theatre and movies, and it feels like it's a little bit of same-old, same-old, and to this day whenever I see stuff that Cornerstone does, it's just more interesting. It's because Bill really allows the coalescence of all these different elements--the Cornerstone actors and the community and the text, and allowing it all to be in a big soup and not wrapping it up in a bow. It's just messy.
BSW: What was it like working with community performers--the grocers and barbers and housewives and others who were recruited to be in the rural Cornerstone plays?
Brenneman: I thought that was way more interesting than the acting I was seeing at regional theatres; that was just dead, dead, dead, and I didn't want to be one of those guys, I didn't get it, I didn't like the audience. You know, I was very stubborn and rebellious and snotty, and not always respectful, but I was just never interested in the stuff that I was seeing in regional theatre. I mean, that I have this acting career is kind of hilarious, because I was really into studying religion, and I wanted to do more of that, maybe go on to graduate school. I did not have a drive to be a star or any of that stuff. And if I had little interest in regional theatre, I had even less in film and television.
BSW: Well, now do you now want to be a star?
Brenneman: I do kind of wanna be a star now. I mean, I want to be able to do what I want to do, and employ my friends. And I'm competitive enough that once I started working in this venue, I was like, OK, then I want to be the best.