Three-time Tony nominee Željko Ivanek is back on the New York stage in Greg Pierce’s powerful two-hander Slowgirl, the inaugural production at Lincoln Center Theater's new rooftop Claire Tow Theater. The play examines the relationship between an uncle and his niece, both of whom find solace from their troubled pasts in the jungles of Central America. A revered stage actor, Ivanek is perhaps best known for his TV roles in Damages (for which he received an Emmy), True Blood, Big Love and Oz. Broadway.com caught up with Ivanek to discuss this new show, what brought him back to the stage and what it’s like playing deliciously evil characters on some of primetime’s most favorite dramas.
What attracted you to return to stage in Slowgirl?
The only reason I haven’t done a play in the last five years is because nothing specific has come up that I felt strongly about. This was the first thing that grabbed me. I had such an amazing experience on The Pillowman that it was hard to think what else is going to live up to that. [With Slowgirl], I love the story and the intimacy of the story—two characters in their own worlds trying to connect and disconnect and how that gets charted. I had done a couple of readings along the way so when the chance came up to actually do it, I took it.
Was it easy to form the onstage connection with your co-star, Sarah Steele?
Sarah is amazing! We did a workshop in February, and after the first half day of that, I was hoping she’d be on board. It’s a hard part! To make this girl—who is bright but covered up, and can be such a smart aleck—get to where he has to by the end of the play is a really, really hard thing to convey believably.
What do you love about your character, Sterling?
One of the things that struck me was a sense of somebody who lost trust in his judgment. And his response to that is to push back on all the complications of the world and escape and create a simple, stripped down world around himself. He withdraws completely, then she bursts into his world and just upends and challenges all of that. Then, his only way of helping her is to find his own way out and back into the world. I just love that trip from an isolationist seclusion to being pulled back into the world and back into his life, bit by bit.
Do you have a favorite stage role that you’ve played in New York?
There are a few that really, really stand out. [Martin McDonagh's] The Pillowman  really stands out, almost more the whole experience than the specific part. One of the first things I did here was [Caryl Churchill's] Cloud 9 , which was wild and amazing. It was really crucial and a very personal experience. It was kind of life changing for everybody. [Athol Fugard's] Master Harold…and the Boys  is another one—it was everything I wanted to be in theater for.
Did you realize right away how special The Pillowman would be?
I knew how special the production was because I saw it in London about a year and a half before, and it was one of the most amazing things I have seen ever in a theater. It was so thrilling, a completely theatrical experience—nothing like sitting in a movie or a reading a book. I almost didn’t go in for it because I thought, 'I am so wrong for this part [of interrogator Ariel].' That guy needs to be a real bruiser, a real physical force, and I’m going to feel like I’m trying to act at that. I didn’t feel I had that in me, but I talked myself into going in for the audition. Then, it was just an amazing rehearsal period and six months of a run flew by like a month and a half. Usually if you do a long run, things get better or worse—you lose things, you gain things—but this was like being shot out of a shotgun, all of the sudden it was closing night.
What is your best memory of playing Tom in The Glass Menagerie  with Julie Harris and Calista Flockhart?
I love that play, and what I loved about the experience and the production was throughout all those fights and struggles, there was real love in this family. In the scene where he says he will bring the gentleman caller, it was like this gift to be able to give her. It’s something so loving at the core, and to look over at Julie [Harris] with all this hope and love and longing was an incredible feeling.
How was playing working with Glenn Close on Damages [as a corrupt attorney who eventually commits suicide]?
That was fantastic; one of my favorite TV experiences! Homicide, Damages and Oz are on the top of my list. It was a great setup and really amazing writing. The character was a lot juicier than I knew going in. She [Close] and Ted Danson were just incredible to work with. There was such an ease to it, and it was really juicy.
Was winning an Emmy an important milestone for you?
It was pretty amazing. Sarah [Steele] was asking me this afternoon if it was a shock, and it was a shock! There were a bunch of big people in the category and no obvious winner. I have been doing this for quite a while, and I have been nominated for stuff before but nothing that big has actually happened. There was something really satisfying on the other end of it. I sat there a few times at the Tonys and not won so I know how that feels, too.
How did it feel to enter the highly stylized world of True Blood [as the evil Magister]?
It’s a bizarre thing. I was in the first season, and I didn’t even know what exactly the show looked like or felt like. Suddenly we were shooting in a junkyard in The Valley for two nights in a row—from dusk to dawn. It was all kind of a little overwhelming. For the audience, the show has a heightened appeal from the regular police drama or doctor drama, and there is a whole expectation that goes with it.
Is there a certain deliciousness in playing a villain?
It’s fun. I don’t know where it happened along the line that I’m suddenly the mean guy in suits. That’s some niche I fell into it. It’s very juicy to twirl your mustache and figure out why people do the horrible things that they do. It’s not just because they are evil, but because that’s how they somehow explain the world to themselves and justify themselves. It’s always interesting figuring out how that happens.
Do you ever want to say, “Hey, I’m a nice guy!”
That’s one of the pleasures of doing this play, because this isn’t what I play most of the time. It’s like, “Oh yeah, there are other things I can do.” It’s really gratifying spending an hour and forty minutes playing a different kind person.
You spent your childhood in both America and Slovenia. How did that affect your decision to become an actor?
There was something psychological about moving back and forth; your sense of belonging is kind of precarious, and a lot of acting is about looking for a sense of belonging—being part of a theater company, being in these ad hoc families that are created and finding a place where you are rooted. Through the years a lot of those working relationships became personal friendships that carry on, and over time that’s how you create a world you are a part of, because growing up here and there is a lot more liquid and nebulous and hard to hold on to.
What’s your life like away from the theater?
I spend a lot of time in California, but New York is still my main home. I go to see a lot of theater.
What’s something you’ve seen recently that you’ve really enjoyed?
4000 Miles! That was one of the most memorable ones, for sure. [Also] Circle Mirror Transformation a couple years ago. Those are plays that offer the purest kind of human interaction.
You’ve had such a full and varied career. What is there left that you would still like to do? Any particular roles you’d love to play, or writers you’d like to work with?
There aren’t any roles. I thought I would spent my career doing Chekhov and Ibsen in regional theaters, so the fact that I started doing new plays was a whole new world I didn’t expect, and that I would like to keep doing.
See Željko Ivanek in Slowgirl at Lincoln Center Theater’s Claire Tow Theater.