INTERVIEW: Death of a Salesman‘s Fran Kranz Goes Into the Woods

The popular actor discusses starring in the Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s drama, and his two new films, Cabin in the Woods and Much Ado About Nothing.

Fran Kranz
Fran Kranz

Actor Fran Kranz has worked rather steadily over the past several years, including a prominent role in the TV series Dollhouse and a supporting part in the Off-Broadway hit Bachelorette. But Kranz is fully coming to prominence now, playing Bernard in Mike Nichols’ acclaimed Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, now at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, and upcoming roles in two high-profile films, Cabin in the Woods (opening on April 13) and Joss Whedon’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. TheaterMania recently spoke to Kranz about these projects.

THEATERMANIA: How did you get this part in Salesman?
FRAN KRANZ: My agent called to tell me about this production and so I flew back to New York from Los Angeles to audition. My first instinct was to read for Happy; but I was told Mike Nichols only wanted to see me as Bernard. As it happens, Finn Wittrock auditioned the same day for Happy, and the casting director ran right after him when he was done. So I thought, “if they want you, they’re going to chase you.” They didn’t chase me. Well, I actually made it to the elevator when they caught me and asked me to come back and read for Scott Rudin. And then I got the part the next morning.

TM: You play Bernard at two different stages of his life: as a nerdy high school kid and a successful adult lawyer. How do you handle that?
FK: My first instinct on playing Bernard was to highlight that transformation — to show how this anemic, worried boy becomes this self-assured man. During the audition, I asked Mike if he had any ideas for me and he said this character is all about transformation, which gave me a lot of confidence. Since I got the part, it’s gone back and forth about which part of Bernard is harder for me. Early on, I was worried that I was becoming a parlor trick, like a movie superhero who changes costume in a phone booth, and that I wasn’t threading the two “people” together. I am also aware that it’s Willy’s perception of Bernard that we’re seeing in every scene.

TM: Your one scene as the older Bernard, who has to deal with Willy just after he’s been fired, is pretty amazing. Tell me about playing that scene?
FK: It is this meaty, masterfully written scene, like a great Greek messenger scene in which a character tells you something vital — and awful — about the plot. I feel I don’t have to do much but show up and listen to Philip Seymour Hoffman as Willy and then tell him the truth. We’ve all learned the lesson that acting is reacting, but it’s never been truer for me than in that scene. The more I empty my head before I do it, the better!

TM: What has it been like working with Mike Nichols?
FK: A large part of our rehearsal process was sitting around the table just talking and trying to exhaust all possible ideas. There was no pressure on blocking until we were really in the theater. It also helps he’s the funniest guy I’ve ever met. He sort of directs in anecdotes — and he can crack the whole room up. But once we got into the theater, he gave us very detailed direction.

TM: What was your opening night like?
FK: It was insane, and I’m glad it’s over. I feel like the play is ours again. But that night, I walked into my dressing room, and I couldn’t even see the mirror. There were so many gifts, flowers, bottles of booze. And we’re about to start doing this heavy play, so to have all this hoopla and glitz and celebrity was a huge distraction. But I admit, as soon as the performance was over, I embraced it. My family came and I hadn’t seen them for months. And then I saw Meryl Streep walk by, and that was amazing. But famous people have been coming all through the run and it’s hard not to scan the audience when lights come up.

Fran Kranz in Cabin in the Woods
Fran Kranz in Cabin in the Woods

TM: Cabin in the Woods sounds like a typical teen horror movie, but I hear it’s not. Tell me why?
FK: On one level, it is about your typical young people being preyed upon by monsters, but the movie has a lot more to offer. It is very funny and has so many surprises and draws from so many genres. I can’t wait to actually see it with a live audience. Once it opens, I plan to sneak into a midnight show.

TM: The movie was written by Joss Whedon, who you worked with on Dollhouse and who directed this new Much Ado, in which you play Claudio. Why was that shoot done in so much secrecy?

FK: I know. I emailed him recently because I’ve been asked to talk to a Shakespeare class at Yale, and I am still not sure what I can say about the movie. The thing is we shot in less than two weeks, in black and white, with a handheld camera, and I think Joss didn’t know what we were going to have. I still haven’t seen any of it, but I can tell you it’s nothing like anything I’d ever done with Joss.

TM: Is your take on Claudio different than a traditional one?>br>
FK: I play him as a temperamental jock who does harsh things and sort of overreacts, but I didn’t have time to do an in-depth character study. And I know at the end of the day, you still need to root for Claudio and Hero to get together. So while I did a lot of awful things to people in the movie, I figured Joss could always cut around them.

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Death of a Salesman

Closed: June 2, 2012