Gary Cole
Gary Cole
"For a stage actor to be there with the words and the creator of the words--it doesn't get much better than that," says Gary Cole of working with Sam Shepard on the author's new play, Heartless, now in previews at the Pershing Square Signature Center.

In the play, Cole plays Roscoe, who interacts with two sisters, Sally and Lucy, and their mother, Mabel, well as a fourth woman, Elizabeth. (The cast also includes Julianne Nicholson, Lois Smith, Betty Gilpin, and Jenny Bacon).

"It has to do with family and family history, and issues and crises that confront the family: abandonment and infidelity and all those kinds of things, but woven in such a way that it really is only to be witnessed," says Cole. "But it's not linear in the way that some of his plays have been. It takes place in what our image of Los Angeles would be, but there's no time necessarily defined. It's an L.A. house that is high above the city."

There is even one of Shepard's telltale scenes of food abuse. In True West, the actors threw around toast; in Curse of the Starving Class, artichokes took a beating. Heartless has "a doughnut sequence," Cole admits, pointedly adding, "I'm not involved."

Best known for playing hard men, both good and bad, on TV and in the movies -- his many credits include Wanted, Pineapple Express, In the Line of Fire, The Good Wife, and Midnight Caller -- Cole is no novice to doing Shepard's work. He eventually starred in the 1982 revival of True West by Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company that played the Cherry Lane Theatre and established the play as a masterwork. "I was with Jim Belushi, who played Lee, and I played Austin," he recalls. "I did so many of Sam's plays when I got out of college. So doing this reminds me of those times, when I was just starting to do theater in Chicago."

Back then, Cole had no contact with the playwright, but the situation has been very different during Heartless, where Shepard has attended rehearsals. "Sometimes he'll reflect on something that he just saw, or make a suggestion, not about what's happening on stage, but about where it came from, the idea behind what he's written, with the idea that it's helpful for actors to get at it," says Cole. "There's a million different ways you can look at a moment. Sometimes you have to narrow them down so they can work inside the play, because the play is really a parade of moments that have to fit together to have an effect."

Although Cole has done numerous plays before, Heartless gives him first crack at creating a character on stage from scratch. "I guess I have more gratitude than anything else," he says, with a laugh. "It'll be what it'll be, in terms of whatever I bring to it. Hopefully it'll be successful. Making it work for the first audience, seeing what works, what doesn't work, going back to rehearsal the next day and taking another shot at it--that's what we do."

Although Cole garnered sterling reviews for his comic performance in the 2006 filmTalladega Nights opposite Will Ferrell, he voices no disappointment that he so rarely has a chance to do comedy.

"Every actor thinks he's underused, unless he's a movie star," says Cole. "That's a whole other animal, Hollywood and trying to be employed in movies. There's so many factors: timing, momentum, heat, age, when, where, strikes, no strikes, schedules. It's endless. I'm surprised I work as much as I do sometimes. Whatever's in front of you, you do the best you can and let it land where it lands, and then you walk away."