Gerety recently spoke with Gold Derby editor Rob Licuria about the most rewarding aspects of starring in “Working Man,” his life as a character actor and how the film resonates with the audience. Watch the exclusive interview above and read the complete transcript below.
Gold Derby: Peter, roles like this are very rare for any actor where a lot of the heavy lifting is done nonverbally. I’m just wondering, what was the most rewarding part of playing this man?
Peter Gerety: Oh, boy. There are a lot of ways that I could answer that question. I have a little hint as to how Robert Jury came up with this, but I gotta commend him over and over and over because this is his first film, the first film that he’s written, first film that he’s directed. He’s a first-time director and I would be intimidated if it was me directing for the first time and have to feel controlling or something. But he was the opposite of that. He just was smart enough or maybe just inexperienced enough so that he gave the actors their head. So he’s got me, he’s got Talia, he’s got Billy Brown and he’s got the city of Chicago. I gotta tell you, I was in a rep company in Providence, Rhode Island, for over 20 years and all the time I was working in Providence, Rhode Island, which at that time, Trinity Rep was the best rep theater in America, and I spent decades doing Shakespeare and Chekhov and Gorky and all of that wonderful stuff before I ever did any film.
But every year I would always think to myself, “If I get out of here, if I stop working at Trinity Rep in Providence for some reason, I want to go to Chicago,” because I’ve heard so many rumors about the working-class, tough kind of actors that they produce there and all of the theaters, the Goodman, The Wisdom Bridge, the Steppenwolf finally came along, all of these wonderful theaters and just this tough working-class ethos. So I always thought I wanted to go there. Well, I never did, until I did “Working Man.” And we were then surrounded, and once again, Bob Jury was smart enough or lucked out in that he cast all of the smaller roles or the supporting roles or whatever, were all cast with these tough, really good, experienced Chicago actors and I just fell in love with them. I forget your question. What was the most rewarding?
GD: Yeah, what was the most rewarding?
PG: Well, what’s rewarding about it is that I spent my life in companies, mainly in theater companies, and the thing that is rewarding to me is I love the work. The money’s OK. I survive. I do OK and I’ve been very, very lucky in that I’ve worked with some phenomenal people, actors and directors. But the thing that I love about this business is I love the community. So that was phenomenally rewarding, that I should wind up in a community not just with Billy Brown and Talia Shire and Bob Jury, but with the whole community. That was really phenomenally rewarding. Another thing that was really rewarding was that it kind of allowed me to look into myself, into my own life in order to… Robert, has your audience already seen this film?
GD: Yeah, I think a lot of people probably would have. It’s been out for a little while, so yeah, we could talk about it because we’ve seen it, yeah.
PG: So, when you see Allery, my character in the very first 40 minutes of the movie practically, and I’m basically just walking and there’s no dialogue, I’m not saying anything, I’m not revealing anything, and you think, “OK, this is a depressed man. This is a man who’s suffering from guilt, from grief perhaps. What’s happening with his marriage? It doesn’t seem to be in a very healthy place.” But there’s no dialogue necessarily that tells you that gives you an answer for that. And the thing that I was thinking as I was walking along and the people in my neighborhood sitting on their porches who were calling out, “Hey, Allery, where the hell do you think you’re going? The factory’s closed! Where are you going? You’re not going to get paid, you know, just because you dress up and go to work,” I don’t answer them. And I don’t answer them for the one thing is, I don’t have an answer for them. I don’t know why I’m going to work. I don’t know why I’m doing what I’m doing but I know something’s going to happen. There’s going to be some form of some door is going to open and I don’t know what it is, so I turn and I know that they’re there. I know they’re calling to me, but I don’t respond to them.
GD: Well, it just reminds me that, as you say, the first 40 minutes are nonverbal and we are wondering what’s going on in this guy’s head, what’s happened to him. But what really resonated with me was how what underpins his motivations is this fundamental need to have a purpose. Did that resonate with you as well?
PG: Yes. But I don’t know what that purpose is, because as the film goes on, you see him going into the room of his son who is no longer there and on the shelves, you see a camera, you see a mandolin, you see a clarinet. I pick up a guitar. These are the things that belong to my son. There was obviously a creative energy in that house at one time. It’s not there anymore. There’s this wonderful woman, Iola, my wife, played by Talia Shire, who I’m totally in love with, but there doesn’t seem to be much going on there. She says, “Where are you going?” I say, “I’m going to work.” She says, “The factory’s closed.” I say, “I got to go to work,” and I walk out the door. There’s no communication. I get to the factory, it’s closed. The job is gone. There’s so many doors that are closed. But when I’m walking along or going through the first third of the movie, prior to the deus ex machina in the form of Billy Brown, the angel from above coming down, before that happens, I feel that I don’t know what I’m doing but I know something’s going to happen. I think this goes back to just spending most of your life as an actor. Actors generally know that when they begin a scene or an audition or whether it’s on film or on the stage or what, they’re never at the beginning of something and they’re not at the end of something. They’re in the middle of something, and they don’t know what’s going to happen, but they know something’s going to happen. Their character hasn’t read the script. The actor’s read the script, but the character hasn’t read the script.
GD: And what also fascinates me about that whole process for you is that all three characters are dealing with some kind of loss and they’re all quite vulnerable and you’re in the leading role, the movie revolves around your character. Did it occur to you when you were getting ready to play him that there would be some quite challenging scenes in the film where you really have to be extremely vulnerable and you know where the character is going to end up but Allery doesn’t? How challenging is that to play as an actor? I mean, you’re very experienced, but still, it must be something that you have to work on quite hard.
PG: Well, you do, but you mainly have to just keep your eyes open and pay attention, because you put your finger on it, the vulnerability is what all of these characters, not only the main characters, everyone, when you look at everybody on that street, people packing their belongings into boxes, people having cookouts on the porch talking about how they don’t know what the hell they’re doing now, everybody’s vulnerable. But Allery is maybe particularly vulnerable. They all are. Maybe Allery is particularly vulnerable because there aren’t a lot of jobs coming down the pike at any of them, but certainly not at Allery at his age and if the relationship with his woman, his wife, is failing, there’s not going to be other love relationships in his life. So he’s in a place where, oh, my God, it’s like the maw is opening up. There’s a crevasse opening up, and you’ve got to be careful where you walking because that could be the whole ballgame. So he’s extremely vulnerable. But I’ve been doing this for over 60 years. I had my first professional role in 1953. When were your parents born, Robert? (Laughs.)
GD: 1947, my parents were born.
PG: (Laughs.) OK, so when your parents were six, I had my first professional role. I was only 13, but nevertheless, they paid me at the Provincetown Playhouse in Provincetown, Massachusetts, which was the little theater built by Eugene O’Neill. But I had made a life, I got very, very lucky, and there was a long period of time where I was never out of work, 30 years or so where I was never out of work, which is unheard of. I just got super, super lucky and I’ve done a lot of comics, a lot of comedic roles, I’ve done all the Shakespeare clowns, for instance. When you’re working on any well-written role, there are vulnerabilities written into it. There’s the possibility of vulnerability written into it. If you find it and you can take advantage of it and you can be surprised by it or be amused by it, because if you’re surprised by it, the audience will be surprised. If you allow yourself to be vulnerable about it, then the audience will feel vulnerability as well. If you allow yourself to be really, really amused by something, then the audience will find it funny. They ain’t gonna find it funny if you don’t find it funny, so you have to find those little nuggets that are the jokes, as my brother-in-law used to call them, or the moments of vulnerability or the moments of surprise, because they’re gold. I mean, those are the nuggets of gold that you search for as an actor, and 99 percent of them are in the script, either written in the script or they’re indicated by the script if you have a good writer. And as it turns out, Bob Jury is a really, really, really good writer.
GD: Yeah, absolutely. What you’re actually talking about is authenticity. It’s something that is really not that common. You would hope it would be when you’re watching performances but this is what I’m trying to say, you have a really recognizable face. You’d be surprised, a lot of people, when they look at you or when they think about Peter Gerety’s career, everyone probably has a different thing that they would point to, which leads me to this. Does it annoy you or do you welcome being called this thing called a “character actor?” Because I’ve asked this for a lot of different actors that are called that and some of them don’t like it, some of them don’t care. What do you think? Because now you’ve got a leading role, which doesn’t happen very often for any actor. But for years you’ve been playing supporting roles, guest roles. You were on a few TV shows. What are your thoughts on that?
PG: I love being a character actor. I love it, love it, love it. I think I started out being a character actor. When I was 13 in Provincetown, Massachusetts on a tiny theater that held 60 people, it was an old fishing shack on a wharf that was built by Eugene O’Neill in the 1930s when he was writing all those sea shanty one-acters, “Ile,” “Where the Cross Is Made,” “Long Voyage Home,” he was writing all that stuff and they were doing a play called “Chicago” before it became a musical and it was just a straight play and my sister was playing Roxie Hart and they needed a kid to come running down the aisle of this old fishing shack theater that still had the nets hanging from the ceiling and smelled like a fishing shack and they wanted a kid to come running down the main aisle saying, “Extra, extra, read all about it! Roxie Hart in prison for murdering,” whether the line was. That was my first character role. I was 13 years old and I was the littlest kid in my grade. I looked like a 10-year-old and it was a character role and it also made people laugh.
All my life, I’ve never been more proud than when people call me a character actor. I’ve never been a leading man. I never particularly wanted to be a leading man, but I’ve had a lot of really great roles and I’ve never wanted to be called an ingenue, but I was. I mean, I was a juvenile, the male version of an ingenue. But what I loved the most was establishing a connection between me and the audience, whatever the role was in finding some nugget of humor in it, some nugget that made me laugh or smile, even. What’s amazing to me, Robert, is in this film, “Working Man,” that has so many layers of loss of son, possible loss of marriage, loss of job, loss of career, loss of livelihood, loss of community, because everybody’s lost the same things at the same time when this factory closed down, the thing that amazes me about this, about Robert Jury’s writing, is that there are these teeny, tiny little moments that are really funny. In a very subtle way, they’re funny. When Iola, my wife and I are in the vestibule waiting for Billy Brown to open up the door because he’s asked us to come and have dinner with him and we’re real nervous because we don’t go have dinner with anybody and he’s got a little bit of a beard and she says, “I don’t trust people with a beard,” I say, “What do you mean you don’t trust people with a beard?” And she says, “Well, because my mother said, ‘Don’t trust a man with a beard. You can’t trust him. He’s always hiding behind his beard.’” There’s a little pause and I say, “What about Jesus?”
GD: (Laughs.) I loved that. And she’s dumbfounded.
PG: And then five minutes later, we’re in Walter’s living room and he’s got this wonderful feast that he’s laid out for us and he sits down at the end of the table and he says to Talia, “Iola, would you say the blessing?” And she says, “You want me to say the blessing?” Because she’s in a strange house, she’s never been there before. She says, “You want me to say the blessing?” And he says, “Yeah, do you believe in Jesus?” And there’s just a moment there but when he says, “Do you believe in Jesus,” on my face, there’s just this little grin because he got her (laughs). There’s just these little moments. When the minister comes, she invites a minister to come and make me see the light, calm down, you don’t have to be crazy, walking to work every day and everything and there’s this minister coming in, I don’t have anything to do with it. I get up and I say, “Will you excuse me for a minute?” And the minister says, “Yeah, sure.” And 10 seconds later I’m putting on my coat and I’m heading out the door and it doesn’t sound funny now. It’s a sight thing, and it’s not a knee-slapper, it’s just a moment of human interaction that happens to be fun, funny, in a big setting that has a lot of pain and loss in it. So, I think that’s remarkable writing.