Walking With the Talking Man in New York

Interview by Kate Miller
Photo by Ali Hossaini

Spalding Gray photo Spalding Gray showed up in front of the Performance Garage on Wooster St. cleverly disguised as himself. Leather-jacketed and purple-scarfed, Gray is undaunted by recognition on the streets. In fact, he wants to stay outside for the interview, citing claustrophobia at the top of his reasons.

We launch through the thick streets toward the park at the corner of Thompson and Spring. Gray is known by many for his monologue films (Swimming to Cambodia, Monster in a Box), by others for his live performances (Love and Death at Age Fourteen, Gray's Anatomy), and by still more for his movie guest spots, playing straight man to the likes of Bette Midler (Beaches) and Dolly Parton (Straight Talk). As intense as the subjects he discussed -- writing and regret, suicide and sadness -- Gray leaned inches from my face as he spoke into the microrecorder he'd commandeered seemingly out of habit ...

io: You seem to form your monologues around your compulsions. A couple years ago, at age 51, you took up downhill skiing. Is this the new compulsion in your life?

SG: [My new monologue about skiing] is the first one where I've had a relationship to something other than people. The monologue about skiing is about the balance between body and mind. The greatest thing that happens to me when I'm skiing is the harmony. The only time I was ever present in my body before was in sex, performing, drugs and with the sea. Skiing became the new and healthy way of being present -- although I don't know if it's healthy, I could sever my spinal cord. If I'm not present in the act of skiing, or if I think, "Hey, I'm skiing," that's when I go down.
In my life, when I'm not performing or working on something new, all I'm doing is walking and thinking. In skiing, I have no room for thought, I'm too busy doing. It terrified me because I love skiing so much, but I didn't know how to make a living at it and I'd always prided myself on making a living at what I loved. I was very influenced by Herbert Marcuse and Norman O. Brown -- reading them and the neo-Freudians in the early '70s, and their ideas about eroticizing work and loving what you do.

io: So your monologues begin with a compulsion. Where do they go from there?

SG: I'll write out in longhand, then record it and send it to the publisher for transcription. I went through finding my own voice when asked to do my first book for Random House. I was reading Raymond Carver all the time. I couldn't get away from his voice, so I said the hell with that and used my recorded voice.

io: Does your positive attitude about your work apply to your monologue tours as well?

SG: I'm requested to do these monologues all over the country, and I shouldn't complain, but I have to tell you -- I'm tired. Tired of airports and hotels, overbooking, the constant shifting and the packing of the bag. If I could be in one place for a while and get to know the place, fine. I refer to jet lag as "jet-psychosis" -- there's an old saying that the spirit cannot move faster than a camel. I do believe there's an aura, a spirit to our bodies, and when you get on a plane and fly somewhere it takes many days for the spirit to reconstruct itself.

io: In Impossible Vacation, Monster in a Box and Swimming to Cambodia, you mention drinking -- a lot. Is alcohol an essential element in your creative process?

SG: No. I drink to relax and after a show, but I've never worked from it. I write in the morning between 9 and noon. And then I walk around and around and around. This city allows me to be spaced out because I know it so well. I know I could never write a story about it. I could tell a few things about it but I could never conquer it through a whole story. It allows me to be neutral. The infringements are so great here I never notice them. The overload is a sort of white noise.

No one is trying to figure out how to package me. I've enjoyed my eccentric castings. I stretch between two Dalis -- the Dali Lama and Dolly Parton.

io: In Gray's Anatomy you mention how you can't seem to be present in the place you're in until you've left and want to go back. Where would you especially like to go back to, and how would you change what happened there?

SG: There are so many places it's hard to choose one. There are so many regrets. I think Our Town is such a great spiritual and deeply existential play -- it became a meditation for me when I was in the production of it seven days a week. I only see through loss, death and my right eye (my left eye is very impaired). I only start to see the color of everything, the intensity of everything when I'm leaving it.
For a long time the desire was to redo the experience in Thailand [in Swimming to Cambodia] because I had such a difficult time adjusting to coming back. I did go back [to Thailand], because I had a fantasy of physically going to all the spots that I had to leave prematurely. So, like in Our Town, Emily comes back from the grave and everyone is oblivious, she is the one who knows what it is to lose. [It's] death.
So, on this last trip to Malaysia for John Boorman's film, Beyond Rangoon [about the 1988 student uprising in Rangoon], I found myself quite stupidly, stupidly going back to that beach that I left where I didn't take the magic mushrooms [mentioned in Swimming to Cambodia]. I had left prematurely, was in paradise, rejected paradise.
I went back knowing I couldn't recapture it. I stepped out onto the beach and saw umbrellas all the way down. Where there had been water buffalo and rice paddies there were hotels. There were jet-skis, which I despise. There was no indigenous culture. I just got back in the cab and left.
There is no room to go back -- change is happening too fast. I fantasize about going back to high school with the knowledge I have now. I would shine. I would have a good time, I would have a girlfriend. I think that's where a lot of my pain comes from. I think I never had any teenage years to go back to.

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