CHALFANT: I did, and I do. But, more often, scripts have said "no" to me!
TM: Do you like to talk about acting as a process?
CHALFANT: Yes, but I'm not very articulate about it, especially as I grow older. It becomes more and more mysterious. One of the things that not enough attention is paid to, oddly, is the text itself. The character and the emotion and the music of a well written play lies in the text. As an actor, your job is to find the playwright's voice, not bend it to your own voice. The bias in America is that, if you get the emotional truth of a play, you don't need to be quite so rigorous about the text. I think that's a pity. It's terrible when you lose the subtlety of language. That's part of the beauty of the experience.
TM: Wit goes to such dark places. Is it ever hard to go there?
CHALFANT: It was hard in rehearsals, but the playing of it is quite different. This is a play about a deeply deluded person who is given grace at the end of her life. That's a great thing. It's triumphant because of where the journey ends. I don't know how I'd feel if the play ended somewhere else. I feel a certain exhilaration in the work. But it's different to see it than to play it--just like, in some ways, it's easier to be the sick person than the caregiver. What the play does is turn the audience into caregivers. And it provides catharsis. You know how, when someone is terribly ill for a long time and they finally die, there's this incredible confusion of feelings, usually dominated by relief. You don't grieve immediately, in the way you think you're supposed to. People can feel unequivocally for Vivian because they haven't had to care for her all this time. Lots of people have said that the play enabled them, for the first time, to cry for people they've lost.
TM: What happens when someone close to you dies while you're performing in a play like this?
CHALFANT: Two people have died while I was involved with Wit. Derek just died [Derek Anson Jones, the play's original director], and my brother died in between the Long Wharf and New York productions. I learned about dying from him--I learned how to play the play, really. To act in a play that so captures the audience is a remarkable experience. I don't know whether even Angels in America touched people so immediately.
TM: Tell me about the rehearsal period of Angels in America.
CHALFANT: Another amazing gift in my life. Tony Kushner chose me, and I was part of the very first reading of the very first version that was done in New York, in the fall of '98. I was late to the reading. Tony handed me this script and said, "Would you play the rabbi, the doctor, and the mother?" I said, "Sure." For the next four or five years, part of the each year was devoted to working on Angels in America. Ellen McLaughlin, Stephen Spinella, and I somehow survived all the ups and downs, but there was a fair amount of blood on the sands in Angels; a couple of wonderful actors, for whom the parts had originally been written, didn't survive that process.
TM: What was your experience of the opening of "Millennium Approaches," the first half of the play?
CHALFANT: It was like all the opening nights in all the novels and movies about opening on Broadway. The audience exploded into applause as soon as the curtain went down. Tony didn't actually see the play that night; he had been walking the streets. But then he came back and--as I remember--there was a great call for the author, so he went up on stage. The next morning, we were all collected from our houses in these vast, black limousines and taken to The New Yorker for a photo shoot.