On stage, he has played roles ranging from Caiaphas the Elder to Willy Loman to Donald Rumsfeld. On screen, he has been seen in films including The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. And more recently, he's been killing zombies (and was eventually [SPOILER ALERT] disemboweled by one) on the AMC series The Walking Dead.
Jeffrey DeMunn is as prolific an actor as they come, and now he's returning to his stage roots in Bob Glaudini's A Family For All Occasions, a production of Labyrinth Theater Company at the Bank Street Theatre. Directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman, the new drama charts changes in the lives of an unhappy family as an unexpected guest becomes part of the clan. DeMunn plays endearing patriarch Howard, a retired electrician who just wants the best for his family.
Days before the show opened, TheaterMania talked with DeMunn about trusting the words, being directed by his pal Phil, and understanding precisely why a zombie apocalypse would be "a jaw dropper."
How did this play come about? What attracted you to the script?
[Previous artistic director] Stephen Guirgis called me and he said "Would you take a look at a new play by Bob Glaudini? It's a good part for you." So he sent it to me and I took a look at it and said, "I'm afraid I have to do this one." It's an extraordinary bit of writing. It's very subtle, very funny, and very moving all at once. It was a combination I hadn't seen in a while. I think it's potentially quite powerful, and you don't find that in every new play that you read. This one I thought, it seems to have the whole package. That's what drew me, along with Phil [Seymour Hoffman] directing it.
Had you worked with him before?
Phil and I go back a lot of years. We did a play in Princeton, New Jersey approaching twenty years ago. He directed Last Days of Judas Iscariot that I did at the Public, and we did a little TV movie with Paul Newman called Empire Falls. This is my second time being directed by Phil. He just understands the whole process from top to bottom. He knows where the truth lies. He's wonderful to work with. It's tough work but wonderful. He's just so smart and so perceptive.
Tell me about your character, Howard.
Well you're gonna have to come see the play. I go out there each night and experience stuff, but who he is…I don't know. It's a play about a family. He's the dad, he's in his second marriage, and he's got two kids.
What surprised me about the play was that, despite the fact that the characters are quite melancholy, they all care about one another, in their own way.
They're functioning even if they're in a very self-destructive manner. They have what they want, and there is ferocity to that need. They haven't tossed in the towel. They're still in the fight, and that's kind of a beautiful thing.
What do you look for in a script?
I think what helps me when I'm working on a play, any play, is the degree to which the writer has truly visualized, and then fulfilled, the vision of the world that he or she is creating. If that work has been done — and it is enormous work — if there is a truth to it, then I know I can put weight on the play. I can trust the words of the play to support me and I don't have to [make things up] to get true moments. I don't have to make up stuff to create a relationship, because the playwright has done all that work. Once that's done, I can rely on it. And that's what I look for in a script.
Even when you're asked to kill zombies?
Were you surprised by the fan outcry when Dale, your character on The Walking Dead, was killed off at the end of season two?
That was a surprise. When I was doing it, I had no awareness. I don't follow fan websites, I don't follow that world…I don't even have a television at home. I have Netflix, but I don't watch television. It all came a bit as a surprise, but it was extraordinary and overwhelming at times. You can do conventions where you meet people, and having never done anything like that, I went and did one, and it was a wonderful surprise to me. All these people coming up, and they weren't…off the wall…These were just folks wanting to talk about Dale, and what he meant to them, so it was a wonderful surprise. It felt good.
So if there was a zombie apocalypse, knowing what you know now, would you be prepared?
No, I'd be shocked as shit. It would be a jaw dropper. [Laughs]