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Anthony LaPaglia: An Actor Speaks on Acting: One-on-One Conversation with the Award-Winning Anthony LaPaglia

Aside from having the sexiest lips in Hollywood, Anthony LaPaglia is one of the most consistently solid working actors. He belongs to that exclusive circle of gifted actors who have raised the bar by bringing some of the finest roles to stage, screen and television. The names are legendary: Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman and James Dean.

Whether his role is FBI agent Jack Malone in the very successful Without a Trace, or the explosive Detective Leon Zat in Lantana or the brooding Eddie Carbone from A View From the Bridge, he imbues his characters with an intense believability, a powerful subtext and a gift for mercurial transitions that can leave you breathless. He conveys a multitude of subtextual emotions with a single look or pause, and exemplifies the “less is better” rule of acting.

His role as Eddie Carbone earned him a Tony Award for Best Actor. The New York Times review said: “…Eddie Carbone…is played by Anthony LaPaglia with the sort of bone-deep conviction that never lets you separate the actor from the part. The degrees of repressed explosiveness Mr. LaPaglia conveys sitting in a chair…are astonishing.” For his performance in Lantana, he was awarded the prestigious Best Actor award from the Australian Film Institute and a nomination from the Film Critics Circle of Australia. Lantana received a total of 32 awards and 16 nominations. He also received an Emmy for his recurring role on Frasier.

The following interview took place at the Brentwood Country Mart. LaPaglia ordered a cappuccino and a croissant and we settled in at a quiet table away from staring eyes. He was relaxed, friendly and open to all questions.

Where did you get your training?

After checking out different classes in New York, I decided I wanted to study with Kim Stanley who only took 12 students, and the only way you could get into her class was by auditioning.

What was the audition like?

It was 100 degrees that day and I remember the audition well. She gave me a scenario. It’s freezing. It’s the middle of winter. Your wife’s about to have a baby and you have to get there at a specific time. You’re out on Long Island trying to drive back into the city. Your car breaks down. You trudge your way to the train station, but when you get there, there’s no clock and you don’t have a watch. You’re not sure what time it is and you’re waiting for the next train. “Okay, go outside and work on it and then bring it all in.”

What was your reaction?

I went outside thinking, I can’t do this, but I really wanted to be in her class so I jumped in and committed to the improvisation, and based on that I was accepted into the class. For the first three or four weeks I had no idea what she was talking about and thought that I had no business being an actor.

Did she teach “The Method”?

Kim was very honest about method. She said method is not like imaginary cups of coffee or pretending you’re a lemon. She said it’s really simple. If you believe what you’re doing, everyone watching you will believe you. The trick is to get you to believe what you’re doing. There were a lot of exercises about connecting. No dialogue. You weren’t allowed to go near a piece of text. Many years later she told me one of her favorite memories was me squatting on the floor squawking like an Australian cockatiel. I felt very badly when she passed away.

Did working on imagery help you in developing characters?

Imagery in general and observation are valuable tools. What was great about the first 10 years of my life as an actor was being completely anonymous. I did theatre, but I didn’t get any particular recognition or fame from that so I was always able to observe people. As you become more successful, you become the observed, and then it becomes a little harder because you’re on the other end of it.

What do you think of the present state of acting?

It’s interesting. I’ve had the good fortune to work with Bob De Niro many times over the years. I wouldn’t exactly say we’re friends, but we’re friendly. The last time I talked to him, we talked about the state of acting and he said that if he was trying to get a career now as a young actor, he probably wouldn’t get a job because he feels he doesn’t fit the bill of what they’re looking for today. It’s so youth driven and also very propaganda driven. If someone starts putting the word out about some hot actor, that person gets a lot of heat and they start to work. But, when you watch their work, you see they’re not ready. They’re too young. They’re asking boys to play men’s roles and they don’t have the experience. When I started, you cut your teeth on theatre doing eight shows a week. Now, you cut your teeth on television where you just learn a lot of bad habits.

Are there any young actors whose work you admire?

Yes. I’ve always been a big Leonardo DiCaprio fan. In his evolution as an actor, he gets better and better. He really deserved the Oscar for either The Departed or Blood Diamond, but here’s the good news for Leonardo. He’s so young that he’ll get one eventually. Look at how long it took Marty [Scorsese] to get one, and no offense to The Departed, it wasn’t his best film, but he deserved it for making some of the greatest movies of all time, like Raging Bull. I’m also a big Johnny Depp fan. He’s such an interesting actor.

You’re from Australia, so how did you get so Brooklyn Italian?

When I moved to New York there were no Australians, and when I auditioned they would ask me where I was from and I’d say Australia. At that time, Paul Hogan had the “Put another shrimp on the barbie” campaign, so I’d get 15 minutes of Paul Hogan. Then I’d read with an American accent and each time they’d say they could hear my Australian accent. I was sure they couldn’t. I was getting pretty fed up, so one day I went for an audition and when they asked me, “Where are you from?” I said “Brooklyn.” “Okay. Let’s read.” So, for the first few years, I just said I was from Brooklyn and I passed all the time.

Let’s talk about Without A Trace. What makes it so successful?

We approach the show like a mini-feature and have high standards. The old “close enough is good enough” doesn’t apply. Our two show runners, Greg Walker and Jan Nash, are fantastic and are open to us walking into their office and saying, “I have a problem with that,” or “What do you think about this idea?” They’re not afraid of actors. They don’t think we’re some wicked group that wants to destroy their work. We all have the same thing in mind. We want to be proud of what we’re doing.

How do you keep the show fresh?

We’ve done 112 episodes and try to do shows that are off the rails several times a year. It’s good for us and it’s more interesting for an audience when the format is varied. Each year the show runs, I enjoy it more and more and have gotten extra participation. This year I even had a shot at writing an episode. But, even with all the theatre experience I’ve had, there are times that I’ve slipped into a comfortable zone.

Can you recall a specific example of that?

When they brought Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio in. I remember the first day she showed up for work. Her back was to me and when she turned to the camera, I could see by the look in her eye that she was really there. I thought, “Oh my God, I better step up. I think I’ve been sleeping for a while.”

You were offered the role of Tony Soprano but ultimately turned it down. What happened?

The answer is rather complicated. My manager at that time had wanted me to do a series for years, but I kept turning down scripts. I was happy doing film and theatre in New York. She sent me a script for a pilot called The Sopranos that the producers were trying to sell to network television. I thought the pilot was fantastic – the best I ever read – but didn’t think it would work on network television because it would have to be sanitized. I was doing a film in L.A., so a meeting was set up with David Chase. We talked for a while and kind of agreed to move forward. But, the more we talked, the more we realized we weren’t on the same page. I had a different idea for the character than he had, as I saw him a bit more urbane than the average “hey, how ‘ya doin’” bag of donuts kind of guy. At the same time I was offered a role in the Broadway production of A View From the Bridge and I chose to do the play.

How did you feel when the show became such a huge hit?

He was right. I was wrong. But trust me, when The Sopranos hit, I’m human, and thought, “Oh wow.” The truth is at this point you couldn’t imagine anybody else playing Tony Soprano but Jimmy Gandolfini. Here’s a bit of irony. When we were casting the character of my wife Beatrice for the play, we were down to two women – Allison Janney and Edie Falco. It was a tough decision because they’re both brilliant, but the director decided to go with Allison. By Edie not doing the play, she was available and look what happened. It all worked out in the end.

Do you believe life unfolds as it should?

I have a complete theory which is, I am exactly where I’m supposed to be. If I was meant to do something else, I’d be doing it.

What kind of experience was A View From the Bridge?

It was one of those parts that it didn’t matter how you felt when you arrived at the theatre. You could be having the worst day in the world, but you had to deliver. There are some plays where you can get away with not delivering 100 percent, but that play you could not ever not deliver 100 percent. I had Allison Janney on stage with me and if she saw that I was not quite there, she’d push me right to the edge. The whole experience was the most exhilarating and exciting and probably where I learned the most.

Lantana is an intense film about human intersections and the emotional abyss each of the characters finds themselves in. How did you prepare for the role, especially the scene in the car where you are listening to the tape of your wife’s therapy session?

Ray Lawrence was the most amazing director I’ve ever worked with. The first thing he did when the cast and crew were assembled was to do a reading of the entire script because he wanted everyone to know what movie they’re making. I had never heard of that. We also shot the movie in chronological order, which really helped me to build up to that moment. Almost from the beginning of the movie, I had that scene in my head of sitting in the car by myself because I wasn’t sure how the heck I was going to pull it off. I went back to the basics Kim taught me. If you believe what you’re hearing everything that’s supposed to happen will happen. I said to Ray before we did the take, “Just make sure it’s in focus. I’m not sure I can do it more than once.” I was so geared up for that moment I did it in one take.

How do you feel after a very emotional scene?

In a way, it’s the cheapest form of therapy. You get to vent all the stuff that’s in you in the guise of a character, and at the end of that scene in particular, I remember feeling such relief that I was finally able to let it out. That moment, believe it or not, was there from the very beginning because of the pent- up rage and anger. When you finally let it go, you feel enormous relief, and when the relief passes you go into this euphoric state in which you hit an emotional plain unlike in real life. There have been moments when I’ve been on stage or in front of the camera that it becomes so real that everything blacks out. I just see the other person. When you get in that zone, it’s like a drug and you just want to go back there because it’s such an exhilarating, out-of-control feeling. We spend most of our lives being in control so that our lives function, so in that out-of-control moment, there’s enormous freedom.

What advice would you give an aspiring actor?

It’s risky, but you can’t have Plan B. There’s only Plan A – you’re going to be an actor. Then it requires training, hard work, commitment, tenacity and a really good knowledge of the history of your craft. Sadly, because of reality shows, people think anybody can just walk in off the street and do it. Also, these days besides being a good actor, you need to have a good business head because there are two businesses – the business of acting and the business of separating you from your money. You need to be able to make smart choices and surround yourself with people that don’t tell you what you want to hear. My friends are not afraid to tell me that something I did didn’t quite hit it.

What advice would you give about auditioning?

The best advice I ever got from Kim was acting is king. When you go into a room, you are bringing them something. Sometimes producers or casting agents try to make you feel like they’re doing you a favor, but they’re not. You give them your talent and they give you money for it. It’s an even exchange, so never go into an audition with your cap in your hand, and if you don’t get the part, don’t take it personally. I remember her saying that if they don’t want what you have to offer, it’s kind of their loss. There’s no one part, or movie or play, that’s going to make or break your career. It’s about having a consistent body of work over your lifetime. Above all, don’t appear desperate or fearful as they’ll pick it up and back away.

People with whom you work say you are very giving and supportive and a really nice guy. When you reach the top, do you have a responsibility?

When you achieve any kind of success, I think that you have an obligation to exhibit great largesse to the people around you, because the difference between you and them is usually just sheer luck – right time, right place. I was in acting classes with people 50 times more talented than me. Why I got to work and they didn’t, I’ll never know. Your talent is not entitlement – it’s a gift. When you become the lead in a TV series, you set the tone for the other actors. How you behave influences everyone, so the work-place could be miserable or great. It’s your responsibility to make sure it’s a great place to work. I also believe it’s not just about you. There are 130 people involved in the show who make you look good, and you have to acknowledge that. I have to respect the work they do and I have to make sure they are taken care of. In a weird way, when you become a lead in a series, you become like the Pope or the godfather. People come and talk to you about their problems. I have an open door policy and everyone is welcome in my office.

Is there a play in your future?

I can’t really do one because it requires a six-month commitment. When the series is over, my plan is to retire, in the sense I don’t think I’d do another series, and move back to New York. I would like to do a play or two a year or make a film with someone I enjoy working with. I would be really happy with that.

Are you approached by many people as you do your everyday life?

L.A. is a bit more reserved. People are used to seeing celebrities. They do a double-take a say, “Oh yeah, that guy from CSI Miami.”

The most charming Anthony LaPaglia lives in Brentwood with his Australian wife Gia Carides and their four-year-old daughter, Bridget. He’s a hands-on dad, and one of the advantages of doing the series is that he can spend a great deal of time with his little girl. He has a solid marriage and avoids the Hollywood scene, which is probably one of the reasons for its success. The interview at the Brentwood Country Mart came to an end when it was time for LaPaglia to pick up his daughter from preschool.

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