The self-analyzing characters of playwright Tony Kushner are a perfect match for Stephen Spinella, who earned a spot in the Tony record book when he won consecutive awards for playing AIDS patient Prior Walter in Angels in America: Millennium Approaches (Best Featured Actor 1993) and Perestroika (Best Actor 1994). Now Kushner has given this smart, witty actor a doozy of a new role in The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures. Spinella plays a character known as “Pill,” whose reckless actions with a young hustler splinter his relationship with his longtime lover, suicidal father and equally troubled siblings. This complex (and often hilarious) family drama is currently in previews at the Public Theater, and Spinella chatted with Broadway.com about why he and Kushner make an unbeatable professional team.
Is it fair to call your character in Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide the most unsympathetic child in a dysfunctional family?
Oh, don’t say that to me! [Laughs.] Well, probably. He’s a troubled guy who does some pretty awful things. He’s a terrible mess, but I’m shocked to hear he’s the most unlikeable.
You love him.
I do! He feels things very, very powerfully, even though he makes a lot of mistakes. As it becomes clear, he’s not afraid of breaking things—and he breaks a lot of things in the play.
You demonstrated in Angels that you’re not afraid to “go there” emotionally with a character. Is that what makes you such a great interpreter of Tony Kushner’s writing?
Tony seems to enjoy writing characters for me who are in an enormous amount of pain. Someday, we should examine why he loves to do that [laughs]. But it may be because he knows I really like to “go there.” It might sound perverse, but that’s where I find the fun, and there’s no point in doing this if you don’t have some fun. We're certainly not doing it for the money.
Why is it easier to watch four hours of Kushner than 90 minutes of other playwrights?
He understands that the fundamental way human beings interact is from moment to moment to moment, and that’s the way he writes. You lose track of time because he’s taking you on a ride through this incredibly compelling story, with no bad writing that pulls you out of it. He raises a question and then answers it, then raises another question; each moment becomes a mystery to be solved, and that keeps you riveted. It’s literally a moment-to-moment page turner.
Does The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide belong on Broadway?
If Broadway still wants to be the place where the greatest world theater is presented, then it should be on Broadway. But if Broadway isn’t that anymore, I don’t know how commercial this is. I mean, everybody who walks out of our theater has a good time in one way or another, with the politics or the domestic drama or both, but there are no movie stars in it and it’s not fun and fluffy.
And it’s got a problematic title.
It’s got a problematic title, and it’s about Communists and leftists and suicide. So it’s not an easy sell. But, in many ways, Angels wasn’t an easy sell.
Isn’t it cool that two of your Angels co-stars, Joe Mantello and Jeffrey Wright, are also back on the New York stage this season?
I hope I get to see Joe [in The Normal Heart]. Jeffrey was wonderful in [A Free Man of Color]. He is a great actor, and the ideas in that play were so dazzlingly exciting. I really enjoyed it.
Has it ever been a double-edged sword to be so strongly identified with the role of Prior in Angels?
I actually can’t answer that question. There was one time when a casting director didn’t want to call me in because she thought I was “too camp,” but I’ve also gotten parts because someone saw me in Angels and said, “There’s one actor who can play this part, and it’s Stephen Spinella.”