Any good actor loves to show his versatility. So Mike Doyle, known to the masses as a virulently anti-gay prisoner on TV's OZ, is thrilled to be playing that character's polar opposite in Burning Blue, the D.M.W. Greer play that is about to open at the Samuel Beckett Theatre in NYC after runs in London and Los Angeles.
Raised in Connecticut and New York, the Juilliard-trained actor's previous major credit here was the Off-Broadway production of the late Harry Kondoleon's Saved or Destroyed, directed by Craig Lucas. In L.A., Doyle was excellent as Lord Alfred Douglas in Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde at the Mark Taper Forum. Aside from OZ, television viewers may remember him for his appearances in episodes of such popular series as ER and Sex and the City and for his central role in a TV movie of Titanic that aired just a couple of years before James Cameron's theatrical release of the same title became a phenomenon. For our TheaterMania interview, I spoke with Doyle the day after the first preview performance of Burning Blue.
THEATERMANIA: Mike, did you see this play in either of its previous productions?
MIKE DOYLE: No. I was in London when it was there but I didn't get to it. And I was in L.A. when it was there but I was doing Gross Indecency at the time. I remember that people were talking about [Burning Blue] but I really didn't know too much about it until my agent called me to audition for it here.
TM: What's your role in the show?
MD: I play a naval aviator who is the subject of a "don't ask, don't tell" gay witch-hunt. Chad Lowe plays my best friend. The play is ostensibly about the witch-hunt but, on another level, it's about our friendship. Everything comes to a thrilling climax at the end of Act II!
TM: Is the play based on a real-life incident?
MD: It's loosely based on the experiences of the author, David Greer. He comes from a military family, he was in the Navy, and he flew helicopters; in the play, we fly jets. I think my storyline mirrors his experience most closely, but each character is a facet of him. He wasn't dismissed [from the Navy] and he wasn't the subject of a witch-hunt, but he comes from that world.
TM: What else can you tell me about the play without giving too much away?
MD: Well, we've got a great set. It's like this big, hulking interior of an aircraft carrier. It's amazing, and the theater is beautiful, too. It's the new Beckett space.
TM: Is the play constructed as a mystery?
MD: No, you know pretty early on what's happening to my character. The interesting part is just seeing how it unfolds. There's no big moment at the end of Act I -- no "I wrote the proofs!" or anything like that. What makes it even more interesting is that the action isn't linear; there's a whole lot of shifting of time in terms of what happens in the play, the significant events.
MD: Yes! I was on OZ for a little more than half of last season. I played a new prisoner, a rapist who was modeled on Robert Chambers -- this privileged, WASP-y kid who goes into OZ and sticks out like a sore thumb. My character was a violently homophobic guy who was always beating people up and screaming all these epithets, like "faggot!" In the end, as it is with OZ, I got my comeuppance in spades. I was a real prick on that show -- and now I'm playing this upstanding homosexual, the moral compass of Burning Blue. It's great, but I'm sure a lot of people will come to see the play and they'll be, like, "That's that jerk from OZ!"
TM: Talk to me a little bit about your Titanic TV movie.
MD: We shot it in Vancouver and it aired in 1996. It was a good group of people: Catherine Zeta-Jones, George C. Scott, Eva Marie Saint, Tim Curry, Roger Rees, Barry Pepper. I was sort of the British Leo DiCaprio.
TM: I missed Saved or Destroyed. Was that a rewarding experience for you?
MD: Yes, it was such a magical little piece. That was Craig's first time directing and he helped craft the play, too; the way Harry had left it, it was a little loose. We received pretty incredible reviews, but the producers -- for whatever reason -- weren't able to capitalize on that. It was unfortunate, because it definitely could have run longer.
TM: Getting back to Burning Blue: I just recently noticed that David Morgan took the publicity photos for the show. He's a great photographer but I think he's known primarily for his incredible shots of half-naked men with amazing bodies.
MD: I was actually one of the few people that wasn't familiar with his work prior to this. Then I saw one of his books and I thought I should get to the gym! He's a nice guy. That was actually when most of the cast met, at that photo shoot. There is some skin to be seen in this play....
TM: So I've heard.
MD: How much you're going to see depends on the lighting cues. Hopefully, it won't be as bright as it was last night. The lights go out on the ship -- and they didn't go out quite as they should have! I guess that's why you have to bring flowers to the stage manager and butter him up.
TM: Besides Gross Indecency, did you do a lot of theater while you were out in L.A.?
MD: No, just that one show. It's funny: Gross Indecency was the play of the moment, and certainly the play of the last five years in L.A. -- incredible buzz, big advance sale. But my agent never showed up to see it during the entire eight-week run. That was kind of a wake-up call to me as to the value of theater out there. Fortunately, while I was working in L.A., I kept a place in New York. I was just trying to get back here. It was actually a job on Sex and the City that brought me back, a little more than two years ago. I'm not an L.A. basher at all, but it's just more my vibe here in New York. I certainly have gone back to L.A. and I'm not allergic to money, but I enjoy being a New York-based actor and everything that goes along with that.