CHALFANT: No. I knew that they were wonderful plays, but it would have been hard to predict their position as cultural icons. I had no idea. The impact of Wit in particular is a great surprise, because it's become very important in medical education. You wouldn't have thought so; on the surface, it seems to be quite critical of the medical profession. But we do presentations for hospitals, doctors, medical students, and people from hospices. We read the whole play, then we break into discussion groups.
TM: What kind of questions do they ask?
CHALFANT: Oh, God! Every possible question. I guess every great play speaks personally to each member of the audience. The doctors are concerned about the play because they don't want to think of it as an accurate picture of medical practices. I think there was a time when doctors were very popular figures in the culture, and now--for a variety of reasons--they're perceived as the enemy somehow. That's an important problem to be addressed, and maybe that's one of the reasons why Wit is catching the attention of medical professionals, particularly educators. They see that this problem exists, and they can use the play as a teaching tool.
TM: In London, you're working with director Leigh Silverman, who has done the play before. Does that mean there will be no surprises?
CHALFANT: I think there are always surprises.
TM: Are you the only American in the cast?
TM: How long will the show run in London?
CHALFANT: I've agreed to stay until July 29, because I think the time will come soon when I will have done the play long enough. And I'd like to grow my hair back. I'm tired of being bald!
TM: What was it like when you first shaved your head?
CHALFANT: It was really scary. Really scary. For a long time, I wore a wig, and then I just stopped: partly because it's a huge bother, but partly because somebody told me that the picture of me bald was very helpful to people who had lost their hair to chemotherapy. It seemed a small act of solidarity.
TM: When you're in a long run, how do you keep it fresh?
CHALFANT: The audience. The play is a conversation with them, so you have a new interlocutor every time. It's a little bit like keeping a party going.
TM: Are there parts that you really want to play?
CHALFANT: Yes. Because I started in an odd way and did mostly new plays in New York, I haven't done most of the great roles--and I'm too old for many of them now. But I would like to do The Cherry Orchard and The Seagull, The Winter's Tale, The Glass Menagerie. Those are the ones that spring to mind. I'd like to do lots more Shakespeare, because I've actually done only one Shakespearean play in public.
TM: Yet you've had such breadth in your career. Do you look at it that way?
CHALFANT: Over the last couple of years, I've realized that I finally know how to do something. Because I didn't come to acting in the traditional way, I always felt underprepared and undereducated for the profession.
TM: The traditional way being...?
CHALFANT: Going to graduate school and working on the classic literature for a long time. Having a concentrated period of training. I always thought I kind of snuck in through the back door; I felt vaguely like an amateur among people who really knew what they were doing. But now I have a sense of being a member of the profession. And that's a nice feeling.