Emmy Winner Richard Schiff rose to TV stardom as White House Communications Director Toby Ziegler on Aaron Sorkin’s long-running drama The West Wing. At age 57, the actor, who has appeared in countless TV and film roles, is now making his Broadway debut as George Aaronow in Dan Sullivan’s starry revival of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross. Though Schiff headed a successful West End production of Underneath the Lintel, the actor is happy that this is the piece bringing him to the Great White Way, as it also brings his career full circle. Below, Schiff shares his history with Glengarry, his observations about co-star Al Pacino and his thoughts on the way The West Wing concluded his storyline.
How is Glengarry Glen Ross going so far?
I have to admit I’ve rarely been happier in my life. I have been absolutely thrilled to be back in New York and living a block from where I grew up. Just to be back in New York and, quite honestly, away from Hollywood has been an absolute thrill for me. I feel like I’m a real actor again.
How does it feel to make your Broadway debut in the company of these acclaimed actors?
It’s crazy. I’ve said to them all personally that I don’t think I’ve ever been in a project where every single place you look around you there’s excellence and brilliance. I mean everyone, from Al Pacino to Murphy Guyer, are phenomenal actors. It really feels like you’re playing for the Yankees.
How did you become involved in Glengarry? I have an image of Pacino sitting with Dan Sullivan picking his co-stars and being like, “I loved working with Richard in People I Know.”
I’m too afraid to ask. I don’t want to really know because I have my fantasies. I was doing a play out in L.A. 20-some-odd years ago called Goose and Tomtom by David Rabe, and somebody saw it and the next thing I know I’m doing the table read of the film version of Glengarry Glen Ross with Al Pacino and Jack Lemmon—one of the great films of our generation. So it’s really odd that 20 years later, here I am. I finally get to do [Glengarry] and with Al, of all people!
What do you most distinctly remember from the table read of the film script back then?
[I remember] sitting next to Al Pacino and the way he approached the reading. I came ready to fly; I wasn’t going to hold any prisoners [Schiff read the role of Dave Moss]. I had a performance kind of ready, and he was just surfing in and out of the material: looking for what was there, what he could latch onto, what latched onto him. It was a fascinating way to go through material for the first time. I’ll never forget being really moved by how he did it. He was not concerned with any impression; he was literally just working and beginning to see what the material had in store for him. It was great.
You won an Emmy for your performance as Toby Ziegler on The West Wing. What’s your most vivid memory of the night you won?
That my daughter was a week old and they wouldn’t let us bring the baby into the auditorium, so she ended up with someone we brought with us in Whoopi Goldberg’s dressing room, who was the host that night. And that my brain was elsewhere. Literally, it was a totally out-of-body experience. And that happens not ‘cause you win the Emmy, but because when you have a child there’s no room in your brain for a whole lot of other things.
You’ve said in an interview that Toby would never have betrayed the President "in 10 million years" as he did at the end of The West Wing.
I think he would more likely have become a mass-murdering terrorist than to do what they had him do. I think somebody had what they thought was a really good idea and didn’t ask me. Aaron would have asked me. Aaron Sorkin would’ve talked it over to see how it bounced off of the character I was creating with him, but these people didn’t consider that important. I don’t blame them at all; I’m not angry at them.
How would you like to have seen Toby's storyline end?
I think if Toby did not want to join the Santos campaign, or join the Santos team, he probably would’ve done what a lot of them do for a while—they take a break. He would have joined a think tank—he might have joined Brookings Institute; he might have come back to New York, and maybe become a consultant advisor to certain people coming up in the political ranks. Maybe he would have traveled; maybe he would have gone to try to see what he could do about Israel-Palestinian [conflict]. That was my fantasy—that he would probably go to Jerusalem and throw his two cents into the fountain. Who knows? Maybe he’s there now.
How was reassembling the cast to make that viral video for Bridget Mary McCormack? Are there any other reunions planned?
Seeing them all together, it’s like going home for Thanksgiving, and I’d rather see them on a Tuesday. You know what I mean? With everyone together, a lot of feelings come back, and it can be a little overwhelming, but it turned out to be great. I was really glad that I did it. But the reason I did it was because I knew Bridget McCormack; I knew she was someone of substance and certainly deserved all the help she could get. It was a good day.
You arrived here in a really roundabout way. You drove a cab for while; you were an off-off-Broadway director. What kept you going?
I never thought about hitting it big. It was not in the equation at all ever. I did one play out of college, and it was too hard for me, so I didn’t continue. It was psychically hard. It was too much fear involved, and so I stayed away from it. I got back into [acting] years later, and I’m now getting to the point where I really do love it. I never ever, ever thought about a career until we conceived our child, and then I started actually doing that silly thing they do out there in Hollywood. I had never carried around a picture and a resume [before]; I never did any of that stuff.
Let’s talk about your new political web series, Chasing the Hill.
It’s the story of a congresswoman trying to win reelection at a time during Citizens United, where raising money is more important than what your message is. Brent Roske is the creator and the director, and I’m executive producer, and I was in the second and third episodes. It’s on the fly; it’s guerrilla filmmaking and we’re missing some shots, and you can tell, but it’s great and it’s a blast. People on Twitter are following it and finding it in England and Australia, all over the world.
What was your experience like in the solo show Underneath the Lintel in the West End?
That’s the scariest thing I’ve ever done: go to a foreign country with a one-man show. That took every ounce of my psychic and physical energy. It’s the loneliest experience of my life, and the most rewarding. The show became something much more phenomenal than I ever anticipated. It just got deeper and richer and more off the cliff, and I didn’t think it was possible to do on stage every night, much less one night. You know, someone like Al Pacino probably discovered that thirty years ago, but I just did five years ago and it’s the most valuable thing I’ve ever learned as far as my career goes.
See Richard Schiff making his Broadway debut in Glengarry Glen Ross at the Schoenfeld Theatre beginning October 19.