Gary Cole is best known for his comic turns in Office Space, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, The Brady Bunch Movie and Dodgeball, but he's a theater actor first, having joined Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company in its early years alongside college friends like John Malkovich and Laurie Metcalf. Since starring off-Broadway in Sam Shepard’s True West in 1983, Cole has effortlessly hopped between genres, from guest-starring on TV’s Entourage, True Blood, Family Guy and The Good Wife to leading roles in off-Broadway’s The Exonerated and the London production of August: Osage County. Now, Cole is appearing opposite Lois Smith and Julianne Nicholson in the world premiere of Shepard’s surreal family drama Heartless at Signature Theatre Company. Broadway.com recently chatted with the versatile actor about being the only man in a cast full of ladies, Bill Lumbergh Halloween costumes and how The Brady Bunch opened doors for his comedy career.
When you first read the script for Heartless, what did you think?
Four words: Sam Shepard, new play. I didn’t need more than that to get excited. I’ve been a huge fan of Sam’s for so long, and I did lots of his plays early in my career, I did True West in ’83 at Cherry Lane [with Jim Belushi, directed by Gary Sinise]. When I read Heartless, I was as engrossed as I usually am when I read him, whether it’s a play or a short story or a book, because his work is unlike anything else. It’s about families, and the west, and isolation, but with his own signature on it. It’s inexplicable, and that’s why it’s so compelling. You have to be there and witness it to get a real feeling of it. It’s not easy to convey unless you sit down and have a bowl of it.
What was the rehearsal process like?
When we first went into rehearsal, we didn’t know how the play was going to land, or what everything in it is supposed to mean. Daniel [Aukin, director], who has done a magnificent job, likes to go too far in either direction to test things out—too big and too minimal—which I really like. You’re meant to fail—that’s what rehearsal is for, especially in a play like this where it isn’t evident right away what the audience is supposed to be experiencing. It’s a living, breathing thing, and that’s what Sam has the talent of doing. Most playwrights don’t go into tremendous detail about what the set should be or what people are wearing, and Sam always does. It’s fully described in the stage directions before anyone even nails a nail. He’s thinking about every element of what a theater experience is.
This play has a surreal quality and could be open to several interpretations—have you, Shepard and the cast decided on one?
Sam does have one, but he doesn’t force it on anybody. It means something to him personally, but it’s left open to live on its feet. We’re having a talkback tonight, and people are going to ask, “What does the play mean?” My answer to that is always, “That’s not a question I should be answering. That’s a question you should be answering.” It’s a visceral moment and a connection in that theater that’s happening to your senses and your brain, and you can’t dictate it.
What’s it like being the lone man in a cast of ladies?
It’s unusual, but it’s great. Roscoe is isolated, just de facto, by his gender. And this is all new for me; I’ve never been in a cast where I’ve been the only man. I love everybody in the show and we all seem to be working well together.
Did you know Lois Smith before Heartless?
I’ve known Lois forever, but we’ve never worked together, even though she was also at Steppenwolf. I met her about 20 years ago when she was doing The Grapes of Wrath, and I’ve seen her perform at Steppenwolf more than a few times, so I’m thrilled. I’m having a ball working with her.
You passed in the night on True Blood, playing posthumous husband and wife.
Right, but we never reported [to set] on the same day because we were in different time dimensions!
What was it like being a part of Steppenwolf in the early days?
I went to [Illinois State University] with John Malkovich, Laurie Metcalf, Terry Kinney, Jeff Perry and Al Wilder…all of the original members, and when I saw these people perform, their talent was apparent. John Malkovich and Laurie did [a stage version of] Franny and Zooey, and it was stunning. Oh my god, wow. I did my first show with Steppenwolf in 1978, two years after they launched, and everyone was very, very talented. It was just a matter of whether or not the theater would be able to survive. As it grew, that soon became clear.
Do you still get together with any of these guys?
In 2008 I went to London with August: Osage County, and then a year and a half later we went to Sydney. I’ve still been involved in shows there, but it’s been more sporadic than in the ’80s and ’90s. I run into people, but everyone’s scattered all over the place. It’s not easy, but I still see Jeff and most of the people in L.A.
You’re scheduled to appear on TV 27 times in the next 10 days—you’re everywhere!
Oh my god, I’m forever amazed that I’m still somewhat surviving [laughs]. It’s a crapshoot, and I got lucky. When you’re fortunate enough to start off with good people, and you do the best work you can do early in your career, the “business” and visibility can hopefully take care of itself. The priority was, “I’m gonna be as good and competent an actor as possible, and hopefully that will last me a while,” as opposed to, “I wanna break through and be visible right away.”
The Brady Bunch Movie was your first comedic role. Was it refreshing to get a chance to be silly?
I wanted to get into a movie of some kind, something, ’cause I was having no luck at all. Then I got the script for The Brady Bunch, and I was like, “Oh no, really? Oh, boy.” But I read it and I was laughing out loud. It was funny—they were trapped in a time warp and everybody else regarded them as these hideous beings from another planet, which I thought worked very well. We did our best to channel the ex-cast of the Bradys.
Which character do you get recognized for the most on the street?
Ninety percent of the time it’s Bill Lumbergh from Office Space.
Do you have people quoting Office Space lines to you all the time?
[Laughs.] Yes, and I have to act like I’ve never heard somebody going [Lumbergh voice], “Mmm…Yeah.” When we did the movie, we really enjoyed it, but it didn’t do well in the theater. I don’t think it even lasted a month. But a year later, people were spotting me—not just me, but everyone in the cast—and starting to do dialogue. We were all shocked, like, “I thought this movie was a failure.”
And now people dress like Lumbergh for Halloween.
That’s what I’ve heard, yes [laughs].
You’ve moved so effortlessly between all sorts of genres. What is the key to not getting stuck?
You’re gonna get pigeonholed, but you can throw people a curveball, like The Brady Bunch Movie. When you get something unique or unexpected, you try to make the most of it. People ask me, “What’s harder to do, comedy or drama?” I don’t think there’s any difference. I think it’s a character, and if the audience is meant to laugh, they will. You commit to the character and make choices that seem to fit the story and let the audience decide what their reaction will be.
Has Broadway ever been a goal for you?
I’ve kept the possibility open and over the years there have been a few times that stuff has come up, but you have to look at your life. I have a family [in Los Angeles], and it was hard to be mobile. Now my daughter’s grown, so it’s a little different.
Is your family in New York with you?
My daughter [Mary] is on her way to college, so she’s coming here for a week. She’s going to school in Florida, but she’ll be here to see Heartless and a bunch of other Broadway shows and stuff like that before her first year.
Florida is a long way from L.A. How do you feel about that?
There’s a direct flight, and the school is the best fit for her of the schools she got into; it just happened to be across the country. We’ll see how it goes!
See Gary Cole in Heartless at the Irene Diamond Stage in the Pershing Square Signature Center.