Two-time Golden Globe and three-time Emmy nominee Michael Tucker has had prolific and much lauded career as an actor. Among his most well known achievements as an actor are co-starring in Woody Allen’s Radio Days and starring as Stuart Markowitz in the hit television series L.A. Law from 1986-1994. He’s also an accomplished, author, with four books to his credit, most recently After Annie: A Novel.
Tucker has focused on playwriting the last few years, and the results have been impressive to say the least. His latest play, Fern Hill, had an acclaimed run Off Broadway this past fall, with www.broadwayworld.com hailing it as a “wonderfully crafted play…humorous and entertaining.”
He and his wife, the great actress Jill Eikenberry, were also kind enough to be in a Web Series pilot I co-wrote and co-produced called “The Small Time,” in which they were comedic perfection. Recently, he was kind enough to sit down and answer some questions for me:
You’ve obviously had a great deal of success as an actor, but in recent years it seems you’ve focused on your work as playwright. Had you always had the itch to write?
I always wrote but for the first fifty years or so I didn’t show it to anybody. It was something I did for myself. Then in 1994 — I remember because it was the last year of our TV show — I showed a friend of ours – a writer on LA Law — a story I had written. He said, “It’s a book.” And that became my first book. I guess I just needed a little encouragement. When I started on my second book I thought of myself as a writer and that’s where I am now. When we moved back to New York, I felt the pull of our old theater community and I wrote a play. Then another; and now a third.
To what extent have you found your acting experience has shaped your approach as a playwright?
I write like an actor. I’II say the words out loud until some person, some character emerges from the primordial ooze. Sometimes the first thing she does is rewrite the lines.. They’re cheeky, characters. It’s a fun, creative experiment until I get into production and the actors have a whole other sound in their ears. And that’s show biz.
Would you say there have been any playwrights who’ve directly inspired you? Apart from merely admiring someone’s work, are there any writers from whom you’re trying to attain the similar effects as?
I am continually inspired by Shakespeare, Chekhov, Brecht and Beckett. I’m sure there are others but these are the ones. They’re — each in their own way, of course — observer/participants of the human condition. Our despair puts a smile on their lips. I’m not saying I can write like that — but neither can anyone else.
When do you know – or at least suspect – you’ve got a good idea for a play? Are you one of those writers with notebooks filled with ideas? Or does something have to strike you intuitively?
No notebooks. I tried that once but it didn’t work out. Whenever I finish a piece of writing I feel that I’ve just said everything I know. There is nothing more. Check, please.Then – somewhere down the line I become aware that there’s been something on my mind for a while. I’ve been obsessing and not realizing it. It’s usually some thing about my life. The last thing it is is a play. And then – further down the line I remember that I should write about what’s on my mind.
How do you generally begin – from an idea of plot, character, or theme? Or does it vary?
As I said, I find a voice. Or sometimes two voices. I know that these voices are going to be delving into that thing that was on my mind but I don’t know how yet. I pray that they’ll take over and lead me to it. Sometimes they do.
Do you outline? If so, how much do you do before you start writing?
I have never outlined. At least not at the outset. Sometimes – when I’m cooking – I’ll get an idea for another scene or scenes while I’m in the middle of the one I’m working on. Then I’ll do some outlining just so that I don’t forget.
I believe you worked a couple of years ago at the prestigious O’Neill Playwrights Center. Talk about how that experience influenced you as a writer.
Being a playwright at The O’Neill was a culmination for me. Jill and I had worked there as actors in the 70’s. Because everything at the O’Neill is designed to serve the play and the playwright I was forced to stop thinking about myself. And this turned out to be the best acting lesson I ever got. Self-awareness; self-consciousness is the death of good acting. Then to go back as a playwright was … well, a culmination and I took full advantage of it. I learned that I like to to re-write and that I’m pretty good at it. That was big. There was a night when I crept out of bed at 4:00 in the morning, being careful not wake my leading lady, and by the light of my Iphone I re-wrote her last scene in the play. It had come to me. I remember saying to myself, “Remember this moment.”
Have you found certain recurring ideas threading through your work? If so, how would you describe them?
Relationship is always in there. Seeking myself is big. And I’m an elusive little sucker. Seeing things from an ironic perspective.
Your plays strike a neat balance between humor and dramatic stakes. Do you work consciously at that balance or does it find its own way?
I just can’t resist a cheap joke.
Have your characters ever surprised you with their behavior?
They constantly shock me. It’s one of the joys of my life.
How much redrafting/cutting do you tend to find you do?
I re-write constantly. What looked good on Monday rarely works on Tuesday. Then on Wednesday — well, Wednesday is a whole other ballgame. I tend to trust who I am that day and I rarely trust that scoundrel who was here yesterday. They’ll take me away in a straight jacket.
When do you let Jill read what you’ve got? Do you check in with a trusted few as you write or only after you’ve written a draft?
She has a difficult job. If I feel good about something — a scene or even a snippet – I’ll ask her to read it and I’ll stand there and watch over her shoulder. She has to be honest and yet fully supportive. Critic/muse is a hard line to walk. But she does it and it’s vital to me.I have a few other early readers but only when the project is finished.
When do you know, as you’re writing it, that the scene is really cooking?
I learned from acting that when I’m feeling particularly brilliant that’s the night the director comes backstage and asks me if I’m feeling okay. It’s a dicey business, this feeling brilliant thing. I recommend waiting until Tuesday.
You’ve acted in your own plays. I find that in some ways, harder than acting in someone else’s counterintuitively. What about you?
Hopefully I’ll never do it again. I didn’t want to do it the first time but we ran into a casting snag and the theater and the director wanted me to do it. It robbed me of the playwright experience is what it did.
Any advice for fellow playwrights?
Keep washing your hands and run away if somebody coughs.