Back to IndieWire

Why Bob Balaban Loves Being a Character Actor

Why Bob Balaban Loves Being a Character Actor

Veteran character actor Bob Balaban doesn’t say much in Scott Rudin’s new Broadway revival of Edward Albee’s “A Delicate Balance,” currently underway at the Golden Theater. Like with virtually everything that Balaban has appeared in over the course of his longstanding career, you wish there was more of him in it. Still, it’s hard to complain about a stellar production that pits Balaban against acting titans Glenn Close, John Lithgow, Lindsay Duncan and Claire Higgins, who plays his wife in the play. It’s no wonder the limited run of the production is already close to sold out.

In “A Delicate Balance,” Balaban plays Harry, who shows up at the grand home of his close friends (played by Close and Lithgow) with his wife, and announces that they have come to move in because of a mysterious fear that’s invaded their own home. 

Balaban spoke on the phone with Indiewire about his return to Broadway following a 26-year absence, and his work with frequent collaborator Christopher Guest (“A Mighty Wind,” “Best in Show”).

We actually sat together at the dinner for “Foxcatcher” at the New York Film Festival.

Oh my goodness, yes. You were to my left. That was very nice. Yes! Hello. I know you!
You were the one to put the revival of “A Delicate Balance” on my radar. I saw it during previews. How far are you into the run?
I think we officially open on November 20th, although we had about a month of previews. Now, we run until February 22nd. 
So, unlike most Broadway shows, you have a firm end date. 
Well, we do because when you have two movie stars starring in your play, they do tend to have other things they’re gonna do after that and I guess the formula works out.
You’ve been in countless plays over the course of your career—what’s it like to know that you have an end date in place and that you’re not going to be doing this indefinitely? 
It’s not a lot different than other things that just sort of dribble out and then it’s over because nobody wanted to come anymore. I probably like having an end date better. I can plan my life better. And then it’s not like it has to fail to be over. 
And this show has no chance of failing. 
Well, the show is pretty much sold out for the whole time and was before we opened. 
How’s it been going for you? You’ve been performing the show on your feet for over a month now. Are you still loving it? 
Yes. I love doing it. I suspect I will continue to enjoy it for the next few months. It’s a really wonderful discipline. One of things I like the most about being in a play is the discipline of the play—the doing of the same thing over and over a sixth time, eight times a week, start thinking here, this is how you do that. It gets to be, to me, a wonderful routine and it never gets boring. As you know, it’s live theater. Every show is a different show. Truthfully, if you told me what night you came, I could probably flip back in my memory wheel, although I probably don’t go back more than a week or two, and go, “Oh, that Wednesday matinee was really good.” They’re all different shows. It’s alive. The audience is different and you’re different as much as it seems the same to everybody. 
Routine is not a word that I would probably use to describe the making of say, a Christopher Guest movie, given how those are crafted. 
Well, that is completely different. Of course that’s different from every movie I’ve done anyway in that it’s an improvised movie, but it’s an improvised movie as opposed to other things that sort of say they’re improvised because you say different words, but it’s all kind of plotted out for you. With Chris Guest, there’s a general structure and in each scene you know basically what’s happening. The show is three hours, you’re getting ready for the show, you’re standing over here, you’re talking to X. That’s about as much as it is. So, we do a tremendous amount of work that doesn’t end up in the movie. It’s all useful. It’s kind of like one long wonderful rehearsal where he picks out moments that he likes. The ratio of shooting to what they use in the movie is, I don’t know, 100 to one or something similar to that.

There are some people I know that love being in movies, but would never even think about being on the stage and vice versa. I find them both a challenge as I find everything. But, I really enjoy them both I must say. They’re very different animals as you know. Some of it you can explain and others, it’s just the mysterious thing of it being one thing and not another.

You were talking about the audience earlier. Is it the audience that keeps the play fresh for you every performance?

First of all, yeah. It’s so good not to rely on the audience because I find that sometimes some of our better shows, and they’re all different of course but modestly different, but some of the shows where people are rushing around in front of the audience—the ones that wait for your autograph and they’re all excited or your friends who were there say they loved it and thought it was fantastic—some of those, the audience was rather quiet. They didn’t laugh at the four big laughs that they usually laugh at or the six minor laughs that they usually laugh at. And the play, on Wednesday afternoons, has a fair amount of good laughter. They all have a little bit.

But I find that it’s very dangerous to think that the show is good or bad depending on how loud people are in the audience. Actually, when I think of myself, some of my favorite times I went to see a comedy, the cast will tell me, “Oh, nobody laughed today, we thought you hated it.” It’s like, no, it was especially good because I could hear the performances, they were alive, they were wonderful. And when you’re in an audience, it’s nice to laugh and have fun, but you don’t judge your enjoyment of anything. I mean, if it’s a Neil Simon play, you better laugh a lot. But, if it’s a real play, you’re quite content to be excited, interested, moved. You don’t necessarily have to make noise about it.

Really how it always can stay fresh is if you approach it every day like it’s a new day. You have your same intentions, you have your same goals, but you’re not trying to mimic your performance from last time. You’re just trying to live through a bunch of circumstances. It’s always a little bit different depending on how the day is, how the rest of the play is, how the other actors are. It is a living, breathing thing. But it does have its parameters. It lives within parameters and doesn’t want to be a cookie cutter every night of what it was the night before. 

Now, the unidentified fear that paralyzes your character and his wife in the play—do you feel the need as an actor to define what that fear is? 
I do very much define it for myself and it’s not something that I would share with anybody because when you talk about these things, they kind of become objects and things and so it’s nothing amazing or fantastic. If I told you about it, you probably wouldn’t think twice about it. But, it’s something that motivates me and as such I like to keep it to myself. But, in a general sort of way, it’s basically the existential terror of life. Look where you are and what is going on in your life. If you allowed yourself to really confront everything all at once while you’re sitting in your living room with your wife, it would be pretty terrifying. 
Have you shared what that fear is to you with Claire, who plays your wife? 
Nope. I have no idea what she’s thinking and she has no idea what I’m thinking. Truthfully, I guess if it helped, I would. But we both are chugging along fine not telling each other anything. If it works, don’t fix it I suppose.  
Even though it is so abstract, the fear is truly palpable.
Good, then we fooled you. 

Why do you think the play has stood the test of time?

First of all, I think the way Albee speaks to all audiences in all of his plays is he’s such a great communicator and he’s so—whether it’s veiled or not—he’s so honest about expressing what I suspect has a lot to do with his life and his inner life and his family. Whether it does or not is immaterial. It feels so authentic, whatever he does. Then, going on from there, this is a play about a dysfunctional family. I guess you could say every family has its peculiarities, dysfunctional as you might call them or not. But I think it’s a very universal theme—a family getting along, the daughter is coming home from her fourth divorce, the sister is an alcoholic, the neighbors have just decided to move in with you on the same day because they just had a panic attack and now they’re running in to you. Our lives don’t have those specific circumstances, but I venture to say that every family, at least every extended family, has within it one incredibly dysfunctional family member, who is probably lovable but is impossible to be around. And a child who is having trouble with their life, whether it’s getting divorced for the fourth time or flunking out of school or being called in to the principal all the time because they can’t do their homework. I think it’s a very universal play.Then, to add to that, it’s really a play about Agnes and Tobias and a couple who actually get along. They actually love each other and they’ve had to cope with many things including the husband has had an affair, they had a child that died, she has a sister that lives with them who is impossible and who may or may not have slept with her husband 25 years ago, and yet this woman, this wonderful Agnes character, that I think Glenn Close plays so magnificently, is strong and vulnerable and you could judge her and say, “Yes, why does she just keep trudging on and burying all her worst feelings?” Well, that’s the way she gets on with her day. The family motto is we do what we can. This is a woman who decided not to give in and to keep moving and to keep going and to do her best. This is a husband who is weak or deficient in certain areas, but is loving and good-natured and tries hard to be a good person and is flawed. The two of them have a flawed, but, on their own terms, a rather successful marriage. I think it’s a really interesting portrait of people who are very three-dimensional and who don’t necessarily hate each other because they have problems. I do like that enormously about the play. There’s a lot of love in the play even though there’s a lot about anguish and misery. 

There is a lot of love. Your scene opposite John Lithgow in the final act left me speechless. What’s it like to witness John go through the meltdown his character experiences every performance? 
I look forward to it every night. First of all, I get to speak a little bit. I don’t talk that much in the play. And I love John. I love him personally. I think he’s a really wonderful guy and I love watching him work and I love his work. As much as, during his wonderful climactic monologue, I don’t say anything. I’m another character on stage with him and just to coexist with him and to be affected as strongly as I am when he works is really fun. It’s always a little different every night and I really enjoy being on stage with him tremendously. It’s so complicated. I could say a million things about what’s happening in that scene. But I suspect it’s different for everybody, except it does bring closure to a lot of the play in a very oblique and interesting sort of way. It’s one of the reasons I like the play because it’s not literal all the time. You can’t always say I know why this is happening. But you can experience it and go wow, I’m not sure what’s happening, but I’m really affected by it. 
You’ve worked with him before if I’m not mistaken.
I did. I was in a reading of a docu-drama that is mostly based on testimony, though I guess not all of it, about Proposition 8 in California. The gay marriage ban or proposal. Yes, we did do that together. We rehearsed a couple of times and then we did it. The cast was great and Morgan Freeman and some other wonderful people were up there, too. I did a movie with John about 30 years ago maybe where we were in outer space together [“2010”]. We were cosmonauts stuck on the same spaceship together for nine months. [Laughs.] I think in the movie, it was about nine months, I’m not really sure. Helen Mirren was one of our fellow cosmonauts in the 2001 sequel and I did see a fair amount of John in that. Roy Schreider was our captain on the ship. We had a really nice experience, though we didn’t work together all that much. I invented the computer house, so some of my more critical scenes were with the voice of Doug Rain and a computer that beeped and was rather frightening. But I’ve known him forever and I’ve always loved his work and I’ve always really enjoyed him as a person. We run into each other. 

From deep space to an Edward Albee play. 
Yes, from a spaceship to a house!
Scott Rudin produced “A Delicate Balance,” and he got together one hell of a cast. 
I will say he’s a wonderful producer. A play producer can be many things. Sometimes someone produces a play because they put a lot of money in it and then they hired a lot of people and went away. Scott is a very, very caring, passionate, hands-on producer who really—it’s wonderful to be in a play to see how he does it first hand. He’s got a meticulous eye for all detail creatively, business-wise. Everything about the show is completely overseen by him.
You’ve played your fair share of Scott Rudin types over the course of your career.
Oh, I have the total ability to forget everything I’ve done. [Laughs.] Don’t remind me! Yes, I played the head of NBC twice. Once I played him for an arc on “Seinfeld,” but his name is Russell Dalrymple and then I played the actual person, my friend, Warren Littlefield, on an HBO movie called “The Late Shift” where I was called Warren Littlefield and it was based on a rather accurate book. I’m friends with Warren Littlefield. We produced a television pilot together millions of years ago before he was an executive. He was just a producer in New York. I’ve always enjoyed him and I studied him. When I was on “The Late Shift” I hung around in his office because I had never seen him with other people. I had seen him with me, but it was very interesting to watch him in meetings and I still run into writers and producers who say to me ‘I had a meeting with Warren that day and you were standing in the back watching’ and some of them said, “He was much tougher on me than he would have been if you weren’t there,” because he was aware of being watched, so he wasn’t his warm and fuzzy self. But he’s a smart and funny and really good guy and I like him a lot. 
There are 98 credits listed on your IMDb profile. No doubt, some of your stuff must pop up on TV when you’re browsing. Are you one to sit back and revisit something that you’ve been in or do you want to change the channel? 
No, I don’t avoid it on purpose, but let’s just say this: If some old movie came on and I was watching TV, I would not stay long at that channel. [Laughs.] You did it. It’s over. If you could learn something from it, I guess, but I don’t feel that way. I’m quite happy to let someone else watch it as long as I don’t have to watch it. 
Well, you have some great ones. 
Thank you. I’ve been around a long time and I’m a character actor. John Travolta can’t have—well maybe he does have—but it’s very hard to have that many things on your resume if you were the star. If for nothing else, you tended to be working on that movie for five months. I’ve worked on movies for one week or two weeks. I’ve done a few things where I was there for eight months. But, for the most part, I’m there for a couple of weeks or maybe a month. I have time to do four of them a year sometimes. I’m not overexposing myself because most people don’t think of me as anybody in particular anyway.  
Do you embrace the “character actor” label? 
Oh, absolutely. First of all, if I didn’t embrace it, it would be sad for me because it’s not like I checked the box that said character actor instead of leading man who makes 20 million dollars a picture. [Laughs.] It’s what I do and who I am and I really enjoy it. I get to do a lot of different things. If the movie is successful, I share pleasantly in the success, but it doesn’t change my life particularly and if it falls on its ass, it’s not like nobody is gonna hire me again. It wasn’t my fault. 

READ MORE: Bob Balaban, Fisher Stevens & More: Meet The Hotel Concierges Of Wes Anderson’s ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Features and tagged , , , , ,

Get The Latest IndieWire Alerts And Newsletters Delivered Directly To Your Inbox