Since winning a Tony Award—his fourth!—as the best Herbie ever in Gypsy, Boyd Gaines has embraced his Atlanta roots as Boolie in Driving Miss Daisy on Broadway and in London and played John Lithgow’s stalwart brother in The Columnist. Now he is scaling the classical heights in the super-demanding role of whistle blower Dr. Thomas Stockmann in a rare Broadway mounting of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People. Just that short list of Gaines’ most recent credits demonstrates his versatility in jumping from featured parts to leads, musicals to new and classic plays. After a week of previews at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, he chatted with Broadway.com about his work. And as always, he couldn’t be persuaded to brag on himself, even for a second.
You are tackling a bear of a part in An Enemy of the People! [The play centers on Dr. Stockmann’s quest to blow the whistle on a contaminated spa.].
It’s like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, which is great fun for everyone. And the audiences seem to be responding greatly to the play, which of course is the most gratifying thing.
There are huge shifts in tone, from joy to anger to stubborn resolve. What’s that been like?
That part of it was not so surprising to me. We had done a reading in April and fell in love with this adaptation [by British playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz], which is lean and muscular and not the rather stately version that often appears, by Arthur Miller and others. Dr. Stockmann is always this rather turgid hero, but this play allows his foibles to come to the forefront. It invites you in, and hopefully takes you on the journey with the characters rather than asking you to sit through something boring because it’s good for you.
Are you enjoying doing verbal battle with Richard Thomas [as Dr. Stockmann’s brother and adversary]?
Getting to know Richard better has been one of the great treasures of the experience. I’ve known him a little bit socially, and I certainly have been a huge fan of his work. He’s best know for his film and television work, but he’s a classical actor of great accomplishment. He is incredibly smart and really funny and just has been a prince through this whole experience. I just absolutely adore him, and we had chemistry as brothers right from the get-go.
Your real-life wife, Kathleen McNenny, is playing your wife in this play. Was this a two-for-one casting deal?
No [laughs]. She and I had been offered the play a long time ago, so it had been on my mind. When this production was suggested, I jumped at it.
What’s easier about working with her—and what’s harder?
The obvious thing that’s easier is that we carry with us a shorthand and behavior that comes from 20 years of having been together. I don’t know that there are any shortcomings. Once you’re on stage, you’re dealing with the characters .
Do you take the work home with you?
Well, we’re colleagues, so we do talk about it, but we also have a 14-year-old daughter [Leslie] and a life. And because we’re both at work at the same time at the same place, we have tons to deal with as soon as we step off stage.
Dr. Stockmann is an idealist, and his wife is more practical. Have you ever had to decide whether to go out on a limb for a cause?
Sure, and there have been plenty of times when I was like the people who keep their mouths shut and protect their smaller interests. That’s another thing I love about my character in this version: He is heroic only in the sense of his single-mindedness, which in many ways is unreasonable, and not in the interests he has professed in having a comfortable life.
Do you think the play has special resonance in an election year?
Absolutely. I mean, look at the lack of reasonable talk [in politics]. Who’s doing the right thing? Who’s protecting people who can’t protect themselves? The play presents a dilemma in which basic public health is overridden by economic decisions, and that happens all the time.
You are always so modest when asked about the range of your career. Do you feel equally comfortable in a drama like this and something lighter like Pygmalion?
It really depends on the piece and the character. I grew up in regional theater, where everything was embraced. The idea was to get to do as much dramatic literature as possible.
Okay, musicals or plays?
They’re all plays—some you just have to sing and dance, or do other strange things like climb on top of tables or sword-fight or speak in verse.
Where are your four Tony Awards?
My mother has them. She lives in California near my two sisters and their families.
You don’t line them up and look at them?
No. I don’t like having that stuff around too much. When you walk by them, it’s like they’re saying, “Hey, big shot, whatcha done lately?”
In your case, plenty!
Listen, I’m thrilled that it happened, but I’m also realistic. It’s not a foot race, it’s voting. How many times have you watched the Oscars or the Tonys and when someone won, you go, “Goddammit, that was not the best performance.” It’s totally subjective. But I’m honored that people have voted for me, and I certainly treasure that.
You’ve had some fantastic acting partners in the past few years, from Patti LuPone forward.
I’ve been extraordinarily lucky in the people I’ve gotten to work with. That’s been the biggest thrill, and some of them happen to be huge stars, like when I was doing Driving Miss Daisy [with James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave], and The Columnist with John [Lithgow]. And getting to be on stage with Patti and Laura [Benanti] in Gypsy when they were hitting the ball out of the park was pretty extraordinary.
It must feel great to be so in demand two decades after your Broadway debut.
Am I in demand? [Laughs.]
Think about your resume, from Journey’s End [in 2007] forward.
That was another highlight. That group of guys, and also Twelve Angry Men…. more than anything, I’ve been blessed to be in fantastic ensembles. If there’s an aspect of acting I enjoy the most, it’s that. As my friend John Pankow said, it’s the closest thing to team sports that we get.
You started in TV [on One Day at a Time] before doing stage work, and Laura Benanti has gone in the opposite direction. Would you like to go back and work on a series?
Yes, and if you can arrange that, I’d be very grateful [laughs].
We’re on it! Is your daughter, Leslie, interested in becoming an actor?
One can only hope not. She certainly has a desire to experience it. Whether or not it’s something that will become her profession, who knows? Obviously, we will support her in anything she pursues, but it’s not a profession I would wish on her. It’s something to be done only by those who must do it.
Isn’t it nice that she sees you and your wife as good examples?
Yes, but because we are older parents, she mostly has seen us working. We’re not stars, but we have been able to earn our living as actors, the percentage of people who can do that is tiny. We realize how unbelievably lucky we are.
See Boyd Gaines in An Enemy of the People at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.