Nathan Lane took another dramatic turn in his career playing LAPD officer Lewis Michener in the Showtime fantasy series “Penny Dreadful: City of Angels.” Lane is a three-time Tony winner and two-time Emmy winner.
Lane spoke in May with Gold Derby contributing writer Sam Eckmann about taking on dramatic roles, the collaborative process on “Penny Dreadful” and his memories of working with the late playwright Terrence McNally. Watch the exclusive video chat above and read the complete transcript below.
Gold Derby: You have become known for great comedic performances from “The Producers” to “The Birdcage” and you certainly haven’t stopped doing comedy. I’ve enjoyed you on Broadway in many comedies recently but there’s also been a more dramatic bent to your career lately. Seeing you in this show certainly and “The Iceman Cometh” and “Angels in America,” is there anything specifically that’s led you towards that path?
Nathan Lane: Oh yes. Oh yes, Sam, indeed. I’ve told this story before so forgive me if you’ve heard it, but about 10 years ago there was a piece in “The New York Times” by Charles Isherwood — he was still working for them at the time — and he wrote a very flattering assessment of my career up to that point. I was doing a musical called “The Addams Family,” which had been reviled by the critics and yet the audiences wanted to see it. They didn’t seem to care what the critics thought of it. I was doing that at the time and it was a very, very lovely piece, very flattering, but he referred to me as the last of the great entertainers. I believe that’s what it was, something along those lines. “The greatest entertainer of the decade in the theater.” And even though I was very touched by that, I can always find the dark cloud in any silver lining. It bothered me as well because when you’ve been an actor now for 45 years, you feel like, “Well, I have more to offer than that,” and I’m glad people find me amusing, especially in a comedy. But I was at a crossroads and I needed to challenge myself and take on more interesting roles in terms of pushing myself to stretch my muscles, as they say, and do more serious stuff.
Years before I had had this conversation with Ken Branagh, not to drop names, but Ken and I were talking and he’s certainly one who has climbed many mountains in the theater, and he said, “This is great, you should, but you can’t just talk about it. You actually have to do it. And it doesn’t matter what they say. They’re gonna say what they wanna say about you doing that, but you will learn so much from taking on those roles because that’s what really tests you as an actor.” There is a point to this long-winded story. So the first thing I did was I happened to read an interview with Brian Dennehy, my friend of over 30 years, the late, great Brian Dennehy who we just lost, sadly, and Bob Falls, the artistic director of the Goodman Theatre in Chicago and they were talking about perhaps revisiting “The Iceman Cometh,” which they had done in 1990 and Brian had played Hickey. And now Brian was thinking about playing Larry Slade, so I contacted Bob and I said, “If you do ‘The Iceman Cometh’ I would like to play Hickey and here’s why,” and he said, “Well, we really were just talking off the top of our heads, there is no production planned but if you would like to do it then let’s sit down and talk and work it out,” and eventually we did and it was very successful. And then about two or three years later it was revived at the Brooklyn Theater of Music. Anyway, as much as I can try to do that, I mean that was a dramatic move. Hickey is a huge mountain to climb. It’s an impossible part, as many people will tell you who have played it. I remember running into Denzel Washington at some Tony nominee function and he was playing Hickey for George Wolfe on Broadway. He looked at me as a kindred spirit and said, “You know what I’m going through,” and I said, “I sure do, and I’m with you 100%.”
But John Logan, who I knew a little bit from the theater and who started in Chicago Theater, saw that production in Chicago at the Goodman and he said that’s the reason he wrote this part for me after having seen that. And since then I’ve been lucky enough to do a couple of television things like “The Good Wife” and “American Crime Story: People vs. O.J.” that showed me in a different light than say, for example, Pepper Saltzman in “Modern Family.” So for people who only know me from things like that or the musical theater, then I suppose this character in “Penny Dreadful” will be a revelation. If you have been following my work, and I’m not saying you have to, but if you were bored during a quarantine and you were following my fuckin’ career than you might notice I’ve been doing things like that and in the theater as well. Although, in the theater I just have a more well-rounded career. I can do anything in the theater and all of that started way before with plays of Terrence McNally or Jon Robin Baitz and on and on and on. So, Eugene O’Neill finally paid off and John Logan wrote this tremendous part for me in this new series. It was like a gift out of the blue. That’s what these parts are as well. Hickey and Roy Cohn in “Angels in America,” it’s a gift that the author gives you. I felt that way about Lewis Michener. I think that’s the culmination of over a decade now. “The Addams Family” is quite a while ago. So thank you, Charlies Isherwood, wherever you are.
GD: I wanted to talk about John Logan, too, ‘cause I’ve spoken to some of your costars, Natalie Dormer and Daniel [Zovatto]. They’ve mentioned how he creates a process because he also comes from the theater that feels like a real rehearsal process. Did you find that to be true? How was the process working on this?
NL: I mean, there’s not the kind of rehearsal process you have in the theater but you have access to the man who has created this story and these characters and who is very hands-on and right there and always has great notes or will whisper something in your ear, not unlike Natalie Dormer in the show, but he whispers good things, smart things, not bad things. He’ll whisper good things and say, “What about this? Think about this.” And it’s great to have that person right there. He’s a brilliant guy but he’s also a tremendously kind and generous soul. He’s your biggest cheerleader. That’s a wonderful thing to have and you feel free to try different things when you’re working. This was something I knew I would be doing so I did as much research as I could. In the beginning we had all been sent the first four episodes that John wrote and so I was doing research about the history of the LAPD, which is an ugly story, and the little-known history of Nazis in Los Angeles. There are several books on the subject if people wanted to find out about this. It was pretty prevalent and terrifying. Then when we showed up, John gave this great pep talk. He had us all together. It was maybe the only time we were really all together at one time and he pulled out this map of Los Angeles and did a whole speech about why he had written this and he said, “If this is just a beautiful period piece and we’re just looking at the clothing and the cars and the set decoration, then we’ve failed. This is about what’s happening now, seen through this historical space and how history repeats itself and how we wind up in those situations and in this case, in this ‘Penny Dreadful,’ who are the monsters? Are the monsters within us?” Obviously Natalie Dormer’s character is out to prove that theory, that all mankind needs is a little encouragement to revert to its baser instincts. So yeah, it was just a great collaboration and Michael Aguilar as well is a wonderful producer and writer. He’s just a brilliant guy. He and John worked so well together. It was one of the best experiences of my career.
GD: And your character, Lewis, he appears very moral a lot of the time and yet we see him be very brutal and he can be super tough so how do you square those two facets of the character?
NL: Well, he’s very old school LAPD. I’m sure you could still find that mindset now. He came from a generation where you weren’t able to call in for backup. You handled things with your fists or a nightstick or your gun and asked questions later. So it was a wonderful contrast to the character Daniel Zovatto plays, Tiago, who is a first-time Chicano detective on the LAPD who my character, Lewis Michener, has partnered with because no one else would, and being a Jew himself, I think he realizes what it is to be an outsider and he becomes his mentor. John has said he’s the moral conscience of the show and yet, as the series goes on, he makes some pretty dark choices. He’s pretty ruthless. I don’t wanna give things away but he’s rather ruthless about what he needs to do, what information he needs because he’s in life and death situations and at one point, I believe they’ve let the press see the first six episodes, I’m not sure, but in a later episode, he’s in a bar with Tiago, and Tiago is distraught about this thing they have done in the sixth episode, which is pretty heavy, and I have to say it’s a really great episode written by this guy Vinnie Wilhelm, wonderful writer. And Lewis says to him, “In life, there are no clean solutions. You get dirty and less dirty. We chose less dirty.” In that particular situation, I sort of understand when his back was to the wall, he did something to protect someone else and he chose what he thought was the best way, but it gets even darker. This show gets very dark by the 10th episode. But yes, I think he wants to do the right thing as he sees it. He has his prejudices that a 1938 Los Angeles Police Department detective would have and yet, he’s protecting and mentoring this young man and trying to, in a sense, from the very beginning, he says to him, “You’re gonna have to stand up for yourself because there’s racism everywhere on the force,” and everywhere they go they face it. He’s a wonderfully complicated and slightly tortured lonely soul. You don’t really find out until the ninth episode where his children are and what happened to his wife. It’s a rather shocking scene with the Nazi, actually, who he confronts in a restricted country club (laughs). It’s such a great scene. Thomas Kretschmann, wonderful actor. So yes, more will be revealed. It’s a complicated tapestry Mr. Logan has created but I assure you as things go on, the storylines will start to connect and interweave in a very interesting way.
GD: You mentioned the partnership with Tiago. It’s really interesting to watch ‘cause one of the things I noticed is Tiago is the first Chicano officer and there’s a line where you mention his hair, “Why are you doing your hair like that,” and he says, “I want people to know I’m the first Chicano officer.” Lewis is Jewish but he’s not necessarily, at least at this stage in the story, broadcast that in the same type of way.
NL: No, he doesn’t broadcast it. He doesn’t hide it if it came up. First of all, everybody knows him. He’s old. He’s old, tired, he should have retired. But being a part of the force gives him access to a lot of information for his investigation into the Nazis. I think he sees the potential in Tiago and the fact that Tiago went to the Police Academy. I like that in terms of forensics, it’s very 1938. People just walk in, he pours himself a drink when they go to the murdered family’s house. They’re not so concerned (laughs). That always makes me laugh, that they don’t really care. They touch things that they shouldn’t be touching. But Tiago is a little more aware of that stuff and it’s sort of why they make such a good team, actually. Tiago tries to be more diplomatic and Lewis says to somebody, “If you don’t get this person out here they’ll gonna all go to fuckin’ jail. How do you like that?” He gets right to the point. I think that’s also part of… I won’t say fun. It’s not a lot of fun, although Lewis may be the only character who has a world-weary, sardonic sense of humor in the Raymond Chandler tradition, shall we say.
GD: The sense of fun, I was thinking about your whole career when I was getting ready to ask you some questions and we sadly lost the great Terrence McNally recently, who’s one of my favorite playwrights and you starred in many things of his including “Lips Together, Teeth Apart” that your “Modern Family” co-star just did that great reading of.
NL: Yes, he played my old part.
GD: I know you already released a very beautiful statement about him but is there anything in Terrence’s canon that you still haven’t played that you feel like you need to get your hands on?
NL: (Laughs.) It’s too late for Maria Callas. We had a 30-year collaboration, so I don’t know. I’d have to go way back. “Where Has Tommy Flowers Gone?” No, he wrote at least one of those plays for me and Christine Baranski and Tony Heald and Swoosie Kurtz, “Lips Together, Teeth Apart.” “The Lisbon Traviata” was the first play we did together, which had been done off-off-Boadway and then they were doing it at the Manhattan Theatre Club. They were trying to cast a much older man. They were trying to look at having men at different stages at their lives, a man in his 50s, a man in his 40s, 30s and 20s for the four characters. They were looking for an older guy to play Mendy and were having trouble, for some reason, casting it. John Tillinger I had worked with on Jon Robin Baitz’s first play in New York, “The Film Society,” which we did at Second Stage. He thought of me and everybody said, “We think he’s too young,” and they liked what I did. It was the beginning of that relationship. He had said to me early on that he had lost two of his best friends and collaborations, Bobby Drivas, who was an actor and director and his former partner, and Jimmy Coco, who he originally wrote the play, it was really Terrence’s first big success, a play called “Next,” which was paired with an Elaine May one-act called “Adaptation” that she directed. He always said Elaine taught him everything about directing in theater. That cemented his relationship with Jimmy Coco. They had a kind of tempestuous relationship over the years where he would say, “I made you,” and Jimmy would say, “Oh no, I made you.” Eventually they did a play called “Broadway, Broadway” which was a disaster out of town and then he rewrote it as “It’s Only a Play.” They did it off-Broadway at Manhattan Theatre Club.
So yeah, we did “The Lisbon Traviata,” we did “Lips Together,” we did “Love! Valour! Compassion!” I did a revival of “Bad Habits.” I did the film of “Frankie and Johnny.” And then I did a play he wrote called “Dedication or The Stuff of Dreams” and then the revival of “It’s Only a Play” was the last thing we did together. We talked about this play, there was a play originally called “Fire and Air” about [Sergei] Diaghilev and [Vaslav] Nijinsky, which I thought was a great idea for a play, especially written by Terrence, although I felt too old to being playing Diaghilev. He died when I was 57, and I’m past that, but it was a wonderful idea. I would’ve loved to have explored that. When they did it off-Broadway I was doing “Angels in America.” There are many plays that you wonder what he might have written ‘cause he was still incredibly prolific.
GD: I don’t know, I think there would be people who would pay to see Maria Callas. Don’t count it out.
NL: (Laughs.) No one will ever top Zoe Caldwell. God bless them all but Zoe Caldwell, we lost her not long ago as well in the last year. She was such an extraordinary actress and such an inspiration to Terrence. He saw her in, I forget where, Stratford or someplace, doing “All’s Well That Ends Well.” This woman came on towards the end of the play and he just was mesmerized by her. But nobody was funnier in that opening thing, ‘cause she was so serious. That’s why she was so incredibly funny when she would say to some member of the audience, “You. You don’t have a look.” That whole scene, “Get one. As quickly as possible.” All of that stuff, Zoe was screamingly funny and then, of course, just incredibly moving.
GD: It’s a wonderful thing to think about, coming from his plays and now all the way here to “Penny Dreadful” and we can’t wait to see what dark corners you bring Lewis to as the season continues.
NL: Oh yeah. I’ve seen the first six and it just gets better and better. This is a cast that can’t be beat. There’s not a weak link in the bunch.