Final Bow: John Gallagher Jr. on Whiskey Problems and Long Day's Journey Into Night
The Tony winner looks back on starring in Eugene O'Neill's iconic drama with Jessica Lange, Gabriel Byrne, and Michael Shannon.
The only problem that really occurred during the Roundabout Theatre Company run of Long Day's Journey Into Night is that they ran out of whiskey. "Thankfully, it's not real whiskey," says Tony winner John Gallagher Jr., who plays the role of Edmund, the stand-in for the four-hour drama's author, Eugene O'Neill. "It's decaf iced tea."
And they consume a lot of it over the course of four acts, as Gallagher, recent Tony winner Jessica Lange, Gabriel Byrne, and Michael Shannon get drunk and resurrect the ghosts of the Tyrone family, characters famously modeled on O'Neill's own parents and brother. "Because it's so deeply personal, we didn't feel we could step into it without honoring the real people," says Gallagher, whose Tony win came for the musical Spring Awakening. To do so involved diving into the deep end, growing a mustache, and living like a monk. But it was totally worth it.
1. What is your favorite line that you deliver?
It's hard to pin down just one. It's a staggering gift to be able to deliver the sea speech that Edmund gets to deliver in Act Four to his father. The character spends so much of the play trying to pacify his family and keep the peace and deny any of his true feelings about anything. That fourth act is very cathartic to perform because it's the moment he gets to open up about his take on life.
2. Everyone loves inside jokes. What is the best one from your show?
We had our first preview on a Sunday matinee. It was going well, and we got onto the last page of the play, which is Jessica's brilliant monologue, and somebody started pounding on the door to the theater. They would pound and stop. And pound some more, and stop. Jessica kept on talking. We found out afterwards that it was a guy who was coming to deliver a meat and cheese platter to us, to have a celebration after the show. We think the guy who delivered it assumed the play would be over by a quarter to six on a Sunday. That's one we bring up a lot.
3. Every show experiences technical difficulties. What was the worst technical difficulty experienced during your show and how was it handled?
Act Four is one long scene, about an hour and forty-five minutes. I'm onstage that whole time. We had a mix up one night where I noticed there was no whiskey on the table and I needed some for my scene with Gabriel. I went offstage to get it. I said, "I'll be right back." Gabriel covered and delivered a few lines to himself. We picked it back up and were able to get through it.
4. What was the most "interesting" present someone gave you at the stage door?
I'd had experiences in the past doing musicals where there's a big kind of stage door culture. It's not as big at a four-hour O'Neill play. There's a fan that has been coming to see plays that I've been doing for years. She's from Japan. Last week, she brought me a Kit-Kat from Japan that was melon-flavored.
5. Who is the coolest person who came to see your show? (You can't say family!)
I got really starstruck when Richard E. Grant came to see it. He did this movie in the eighties, Withnail & I, and I bow down to his performance in that.
6. With your mustache and your character's costumes, you bear a striking similarity to O'Neill onstage. How much did your knowledge of his life and the autobiographical nature of the role inform your performance?
It was my idea to model the physical character after him. There were some concerns in the beginning that it would be too distracting, but I tried out the mustache and it was something the director and I fell in love with. I try to take a moment onstage internally to thank O'Neill for living through that experience with his family and committing it to the page, which, in that one act of sharing his story, changed the theater forever.
7. How do you build up the stamina to do a four-hour play seven times a week?
I try the first couple weeks to see how little rest I can get. I test the limits up front. I don't recommend anyone does it this way. This is not one of those shows that you can mess around with. You can't just roll up and fall out onstage. You live a very monk-like life when you're doing something like this to keep yourself sharp and rested for it.
8. The four of you come from such different backgrounds. What went into creating the cohesive family unit you all project onstage?
It's a play that we all really love, and have a deep respect for it and each other. Michael and I have gone out a couple of times, to get the brotherly bond. Every now and then, we might go and grab a snack after the matinee. But mostly, there are times where I don't even see anybody until we're at places. And then you go out onstage and meet each other out there in the summer home in New London, Connecticut. It could be jarring at times, but it's fantastic. I couldn't have asked for a better Tyrone family.
9. Are there ways in which you shed the trauma from the play when it ends?
I have always struggled with that. It takes me a while to shake off these things. You come out and you're at once exhausted and totally buzzing with adrenaline. I try to head home as quickly as I can to take a few deep breaths and distract myself with something on television.
10. Aside from playing brothers, you and Michael Shannon both have bands and have performed on the same concert bill. How did that come about, and will you two make music together again in the future?
I would love to. I think we should do a tour some day. Rob Beitzel, who plays in Michael's band Corporal, came to see my band a few months ago and really dug it. He knew that I was about to start rehearsals, and he was like, "We should all do a show together." We threw a show together the week after we opened, on our day off. Of course, on Tuesday night we were getting back into costumes to do the show, Michael looked at me and was like, "That might not have been the best idea," but it was totally worth it.