TV fans have seen two sides of Chris Noth as Sex and the City’s rich and rogueish Mr. Big i.e. John James Preston and Law & Order’s streetwise and hotheaded Detective Mike Logan. But to hear Noth tell it, the career piece he cares about most is the theater. Who knew he played Hamlet under Zoe Caldwell’s direction, just after earning an M.F.A. from Yale Drama School? His Broadway debut in Gore Vidal’s The Best Man earned him a Theatre World Award, and he picked up glowing reviews for playing Teach in American Buffalo at the Berkshire Theatre Festival three years ago. Now he’s happily taking on the supporting role of campaign manager to an unseen Howard Dean-like Presidential candidate in Beau Willimon’s Farragut North at Atlantic Theatre Company. Just after the real election, Noth chatted about his diverse career path and his real-life role as a first-time father.
What’s it been like to do a play about a Presidential campaign during one of the most important election battles ever?
It’s very exciting. I think Beau [Willimon] is a remarkable playwright, and we’re growing and finding more and more subtleties with every performance. Hold on a sec, let me get rid of this other call. [60-second pause] That was my girl [actress Tara Wilson]. Our son is teething. They’re in L.A., and that’s our conversation every night—how do you get him to sleep through the night? He’s 10 months old and was doing fine [sleeping], but when he started to teethe, everything fell apart.
I love his name [Orion Christopher Noth].
That’s a special name for me. I went to college in Marlboro, a small town in Vermont, which is where I started acting; we had a rep company in the summer, and it was a glorious place to do theater. The college is on this hill, and every autumn you’d see Orion marching across the sky. It’s always been my favorite constellation.
So, has the real-life political climate been good for this play?
The play holds its own whether there’s an election or not, but it’s even more interesting to do now. This is actually my second political play [performed during an election]. The first one [The Best Man in 2000, with Noth as a senator] had not-so-good results for us Democrats. On election night, I came offstage in the first 30 minutes and they were saying that Gore had won Florida. I went back onstage, thrilled, and when I came off again, all of a sudden Bush had Florida. I was so disappointed, I could barely finish the play. Then the whole snafu with Bush and Gore about counting votes gave the play [about a bitter Presidential campaign] new meaning. I believe that’s also be true with [Farragut North]. People will be informed by this play.
What appealed to you about the play?
As soon as I read it, I knew it was an exceptional piece of work. I feel pretty lucky to be in something this good; it’s hard to find. I always say that I came from the theater and took a long detour into TV—which is a lovely detour, and a lot of fun, and very good for putting my kid through college. But this is a great play. And then there’s Doug Hughes, the best director I’ve ever worked with.
Did Doug Hughes think of you for the part?
I don’t know. My agent said that the part was available, and I met with Doug and told him I wanted to do it. I don’t know if it was Doug’s idea or not. He might have been forced by the producers! [Laughs.] And John Gallagher [who plays the lead role of an ambitious young press secretary]. The whole cast is phenomenal.
These young actors must look to you as a mentor.
Oh god no! We’ve got Isiah [Whitlock] from The Wire, and John, who’s got a Tony Award. He carries the play. The mountain he has to climb? He gets on stage and doesn’t leave! I’m still trying to perfect my three scenes, and my dusty mind still gets some of the lines backwards. No, I’m not a mentor. It’s a mutual admiration club.
It’s amusing to see you play such an earthy character, dressed down in baggy corduroys and duck shoes.
I’m happy to do it. It’s fun to talk about flatulence onstage [laughs]. We’ve just added some props to my suitcase, and when I open it up now, it’s mostly pharmaceuticals for ailments. I did meet [Howard Dean’s campaign manager] Joe Trippi, a superstar in the political world. I’m not saying that I’m basing my character on him, but it was really helpful to see his persona and realize the sacrifices these guys go through to get their candidate elected. Joe says he literally got nerve damage from the stress of the campaign.
Your mom [Jeanne Parr] was a CBS reporter. Did she cover politics?
Sometimes. She covered Robert Kennedy during his Senate race in the 60s, and Governor Rockefeller. I wasn’t so interested in politics then, but I’ve become a lot more interested.
You mentioned your theatrical background. Are people ever surprised to find out that you graduated from Yale Drama School?
I don’t know. I suppose when they talk to me they might think, “How did this guy get into Yale?” [Laughs.] I don’t think about it too much. I also studied with Sandy Meisner, and that, to me, is as good as any M.F.A.
Who were your classmates at Yale?
Patty Clarkson, Jayne Atkinson, Dylan Baker. Rich Greenberg was in the playwriting class, Laila Robins was a year above me. Angela Bassett and John Turturro were in their third year when I was in my first year. There was always so much going on; you were in class during the day and doing plays at night. It’s just a feast! That’s what I wanted. I started that way at Marlboro [College], doing four plays in rep in the summer, and when I got to New York in the late 70s, my dream was to work with one of the great teachers. It wasn’t like, “I want to go to Hollywood and do a movie,” it was “I want to go to New York and meet Sandy Meisner and learn the secrets of the Group Theater.”
Given your looks, you never thought about going to L.A. to try your luck?
I never moved to Hollywood. I never even thought about it. I don’t know why. I’ve always been a New Yorker. For me, going to Yale was a break from the city and the chance to do a lot of plays. And when I finished, in 1985, there was still the idea that you could survive doing theater. The economics of our business weren’t as harshly drawn then. It wasn’t like you had to go to Hollywood to put food on the table.
Tell me about your Hamlet, directed by Zoe Caldwell.
Well, my Hamlet might have been a little too much Hotspur [laughs]. That was right after Yale, in 1986. [Caldwell] had a company up at Stratford [Connecticut, one-time home of the American Shakespeare Festival], and every year she would do one or two plays. When I heard she was doing Hamlet, I was in L.A. working on a three-part Hill Street Blues and I flew myself back to audition for her. She saw something in me, I guess. She was a very hard taskmaster, and that was a hard job because that theater at Stratford is like a stadium. But I wanted to climb that particular mountain. And my corpse is on the slopes somewhere [laughs].
Would you like to do more Shakespeare? People probably don’t think of you for that.
I don’t ever take into consideration what people think; otherwise, I’d be doing TV for the rest of my life. I love Shakespeare. At Yale, there was a certain perception that your career would always include Shakespeare, Shaw, Chekhov, Strindberg…we may have lost the idea that that’s what’s required of an actor, but I still get an itch to go there.
You got terrific reviews as Teach in American Buffalo a couple of summers ago.
That was good fun. I have a relationship with the Berkshire Theatre Festival, and [artistic director] Kate Maguire and I talk about things we want to do. The only thing about stock is that the rehearsal time is not enough for me as I’ve gotten older. I used to be able to pop things off with two weeks of rehearsal, but I need more time now.
Now that you’ve left Law & Order: Criminal Intent, do you think you’ll be doing more theater?
To tell you the truth, I don’t have a master plan. I pop around. Although people think I’m just on TV, I like to jump around. But if you start in the theater, you never let it go.
In both TV series you’ve done, you’ve been surrounded by theater actors.
In Sex and the City, yeah. And Jerry Orbach [the late star of Law & Order] did a lot of musicals. Most of my time was with Michael Moriarty, who was brilliant but I guess went nuts.
You can watch your life go by on Law & Order reruns.
Yeah, it’s like The Picture of Dorian Gray. I can watch myself get older on the goddamned thing [laughs]. I can’t even lie about my age anymore, with the damned internet. I’m not ready to play granddads yet. I see some of these [L&O] episodes and think, “I looked like that?” It seems like a flash ago that I was first doing it, but it’s a completely different city and a different time.
I get the feeling that you don’t love being identified with Sex and the City.
I don’t understand why I am [known for it], to tell you the truth. The last New York Times article [that mentioned me], they put in parenthesis after my name “Sex and the City.” I just find it a bit odd. I actually spent more time on Law & Order. But I don’t particularly think there’s anything I can do about it.
There are worse things than being known for playing one of TV’s sexiest characters.
I don’t know if anyone considered me that. Look, it was all good, good fun.
And you had one of the most distinctive character names ever!
It’s a great name. And the movie was terrific. It’s been nothing but a boon in my life. It probably got me this job. But I don’t spend much time thinking about that movie or that part, because I’m always on to the next thing.
Do you have any projects coming up?
There is one thing that I’m very excited and passionate about. I’m collaborating with [Apocalypse Now screenwriter] John Milius for AMC on something called Saigon Bureau, based on Requiem, a book of photographs by photojournalists who died in Vietnam. We’re getting set to do 10 hours if AMC accepts the pilot John’s writing about the lives of these people, set from about 1963 to 1970. I’m going to play a fictional character based on Larry Burrows; there will be a lot about his friendship with Sean Flynn, Errol Flynn’s son, who disappeared in Cambodia in 1971. It opens up a whole world that people have forgotten about. Their pictures helped stop the war; I don’t see those types of pictures being taken in Iraq.
Now that you’re a dad, can you share what it’s like to make that leap rather late in life?
It’s not something that I expected would happen, so it just goes to show you that life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans. He came out of the universe into my life, and now I have to stay in great shape so we can play sports together. He’s already very active and curious about everything; he’s starting to form words. I don’t usually talk to reporters about my baby because there seems to be this weird fascination out there with celebrities and babies. But I will say that he’s a wonder. That’s the main thing kids add back to your life—the wonder.