Actor Denis Arndt (now playing Prospero in “The Tempest” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival) also plays several roles in “The Great Society,” including former Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley. As an actor, Arndt has enjoyed a lengthy and successful career in stage, film and television. This is the second in a two-part Backstage column. Part one appeared in the Aug. 6 Tidings and is posted online at www.dailytidings.com.
EH: How is your theater experience different from acting for film and television in Hollywood?
DA: The skills that are required by both forms are basically the same. To be successful down there you have to be quick, you have to be facile and you have to make sure that you’re able to take big last-minute changes. When I was playing lawyers (Boston Legal, LA Law, CSI), many times, I used to get three, four or five-page closing argument monologues. Sometimes I’d get them the night before and be on the set by 4:30 the next morning. You have to be a quick study, know it to the point where you won’t have to stop.
The other big skill is never to go beyond take three. Take one: If it’s not good, it’ll be because the camera focus was out. Take two: The sound didn’t quite get something. Take three: You want it locked down. If they don’t have it (because you’re looking the wrong way, missing your marks, or not doing the same thing for continuity), they don’t like it, because you’ve got four-hundred-and-fifty people standing around in a circle, the clock is running, and it costs a lot of money to do one of these things. There is a kind of a shoot from the hip, hired gun kind of feeling to it. Go in ready to shoot and be able to nail it. If you can do that for them every time, that’s the big skill.
On stage I got to rehearse Prospero for five to six weeks, five to eight hours a day, six days a week. You immerse yourself in it. Then you get to perform it for 119 performances. Over the course of a long run, it is still revealing itself in so many ways.
In film and television, you do it, it’s done, it’s in the can. You can turn and walk away, “what’s next?” You stand and deliver, pick up your check and go home. Not to say that great work can’t be done on film, but it is totally different. If you make a mistake you can go back and fix it. If it didn’t work in the close-up, you can tell an actor, “It’s OK, kid. It’ll play in the master shot,” or, “Don’t worry, kid, we’ll pull back. There’ll be some birds over here in the background they can look at.” You can’t do that in theater: If you flub something, it stays flubbed forever. It is eternally flubbed.
EH: You’ve been an actor all of your life?
DA: No. I was a helicopter pilot for a lot of my life. From the time I was a young man until almost in my 30s. I flew helicopters for two tours in Vietnam. I was an armored helicopter pilot. It’s interesting: “The Great Society” takes place during the very years that I was serving in Vietnam.
EH: Tell me about your rehearsal process.
DA: Working with a living playwright is great. Robert Schenkkan is there every day, all the way. He is constantly adjusting, tightening, loosening and fixing scenes. Over the course of the run, we have gotten three different versions of act two. We’ve had a good time.
“The Great Society” and “The Tempest” play at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival through Nov. 1 and 2, respectively. For tickets and information, go to www.osfashland.org or call 800-219-8161.
Evalyn Hansen is a writer and director living in Ashland. She trained as an actor at the American Conservatory Theatre and is a founding member of San Francisco's Magic Theatre. Reach her at email@example.com.