October 02, 1997



ACTORS' DIALOGUE: Laila Robins & Brian Cox


Reporting by Rob Kendt


The stars of the West Coast premiere of David Hare's brilliant Skylight at the Mark Taper Forum met with Back Stage West near the start of the rehearsal process, but they already had plenty to say about Hare, about the challenges of their craft, and about the rehearsal process in general.


If the American legit theatre has any new stars, Laila Robins is one. She made her Broadway debut opposite Jeremy Irons in The Real Thing and more recently played Portia opposite Ron Leibman's Shylock in the New York Shakespeare Fest's Merchant of Venice, starred with her teacher Uta Hagen in Mrs. Klein, and this past summer assayed a heartbreaking Blanche opposite Gary Sinise's seething Stanley in the Steppenwolf's A Streetcar Named Desire. TV and film credits include Gabriel's Fire and Female Perversions.


Cox may be most recognizable to American audiences for his lead role in the BBC film of The Lost Language of Cranes and for his turn as Dr. Lektor in Manhunter. He also appeared in Hidden Agenda, Rob Roy, and Braveheart, and just finished shooting scenes for Jim Sheridan's The Boxer. Top stage credits include Getting On, In Celebration, Cromwell, and Rat in the Skull, for which he won an Olivier Award.


Laila Robins: Sometimes people ask you about a certain moment onstage, and it's very dangerous to talk about it, because once you intellectualize it or lay it out in so many words you can almost dismantle it for yourself. Often you'll go back out there and find it doesn't happen that way anymore because you've given the secret away.


Brian Cox: And when you work as closely as we do in this, you really have to be very respectful of other people's way of working. You must never be afraid that I'm sitting there thinking, Why's she doing that? Especially something as close as this, where it's very delicate.


Laila: In some ways, I'm working a little more technically to start, because I also have to give an accent which doesn't just naturally come out of me, so I'm thinking of a technical thing and also trying to play the action, finding the heart of the scene, finding the emotional triggers--but there's also this thing I have to put on which is the accent.


Brian: I've been just been working with Daniel Day Lewis, and Dan, off the set, speaks in the accent all the time. I keep thinking, How does he talk to his wife at night? After a while, you get used to it, because you just realize this is part of his process; this is what he has to do to inhabit this character. I think that's the most important thing when you work with somebody else: the understanding of how an actor works, what is important for them individually in terms of how they rehearse. I'm fascinated by it, how somebody comes at something and how they find that moment.


Laila: Over the years I'm trying to change my process. You do plays and plays and plays, and then you realize, There's always that point where I do this and it's not really helpful. And I think that's what's so difficult about the theatre, that it takes time. There's no way around the time element--this thing living inside your body--to reach the point where you get it out of your head and into your body, and then magic starts to happen. But that process usually takes longer than before opening night. Unfortunately, most of the critics go home opening night.


Brian: The other thing about how long it takes is, there comes a point when we own the play, but at this stage, in rehearsal, the director owns the play. The only time we really own the play is when we're up there in performance, but never in rehearsal do you have the play.

I personally don't like rehearsing. Really. Everybody goes, "I love rehearsals, it's my favorite." I mean, rehearsal is the bit that you've gotta go through, but it's the tedious bit, of learning the lines and coming up against yourself--Can I really play this moment? Why can't I be more spontaneous here? All of that to me is just horrible stuff; I always hate going through it. You have to go through it, but the thing I enjoy is getting up there and doing it. I just think rehearsal is a greatly overrated activity.


Laila: Obviously I agree that rehearsal is necessary, because that's where you find all the layers and the things that you want to do intellectually. And when you perform it, yes--there's something about being out there in front of those people. But you've got to be on it, and that's what the rehearsals are about, making sure you have those handles, so that when you get out there things can happen, but there is some structure to it. But in that first week of previews, you do learn so much--the audience teaches you so much about the play, and their response is your barometer.


Brian: And that's when your real rehearsal process starts.



Throw It Away


Brian: I like to keep it loose, not locked in to our favorite moments. When I used to read notices, and they would say, "At this point Mr. Cox does this, and it's so extraordinary," I'd think, Now I don't want it to be like that. I want to break that moment. I want to actually have the courage to just throw that moment away and find something else.


Laila: Uta Hagen always said that you've got to be able to take that risk and throw a moment out before your body will really let you find a new one. I mean, you gotta take that risk. It's scary to do, because you get sort of attached to things that work.


Brian: But a performance is a totality, not just these little wonderful isolated moments "Oh, that was," "You did that," "She looked"... No, stuff that. That's not what it's about. It's an organism.


Laila: The rehearsal is what sets up the structure within which you enter it that day with yourself--your place to go that's sort of repeatable, but within that you're a living thing.


Brian: Interestingly enough, I think in film and television you should rehearse a bit more.


Laila: I'm glad to hear that.


Brian: A lot of film directors don't know how to rehearse. They think that acting is some kind of mystery that they shouldn't really bother about. I think in film schools that they should teach drama a little bit so it doesn't become a mess.


Laila: Just to know what the process is.


Brian: Scorsese did that.


Laila: It's helpful. I mean, I still haven't figured out quite how people act without rehearsal. In television, you work so quickly: You get your script, learn your lines, come and meet the guy playing your father, who you never met before, do the blocking--and you have one or two takes in the can. Inevitably, an hour later, I'd go, "Oh shit, now I know what I wanted to do." But there's just not that time. Time is a what's the word I'm looking for?


Brian: Luxury?


Laila: Is it luxury? It's invaluable, let's put it that way.



Breaking the Waves


Brian: When you have a really bad play, it's like carrying something on your back. When you've got a really good play, it carries you; it's holding you in its hand. And a really good play has infinite possibilities; if you do the classics, you know that you can go on and on--you'll never get to the end of it, because there is so much stuff there. David's writing has that quality. You're discovering stuff all the time at this stage, and then in performance you'll discover a hell of a lot more.


Laila: And long runs have amazing lives of their own. You're performing it and you're owning it, and then suddenly... Often we found with Mrs. Klein that we would hit this sort of wall where things weren't quite working anymore, and it would be right before a wonderful breakthrough where all this new stuff would happen. But it would go in waves. Six months into it, you'll go, "Oh my God, I just discovered this. It's taken me six months to discover this. If we hadn't played it this long, I never would have had this idea." And that's a wonderful thing.