Walking With the Talking Man in New York

Page 3

io: When you saw yourself on the screen in King of the Hill, did watching your character commit suicide have an effect on you personally?

SG: Yeah, at the time Steven Soderbergh cast me in that movie, I was having a lot of suicide fantasies. I was darkly convinced that at age 52 I would kill myself because my mother committed suicide at that age. I was fantasizing that she was waiting for me on the other side of the grave. Steven said I was his only choice for that role because he had read Impossible Vacation, which was about a man ruled by regret.
I was taken by the fact that the character in King of the Hill had chosen cutting his wrists as the method of suicide, because that was one of my fantasies when I was in Taos. I thought that I would take Quaaludes, take a razor out to the hot tub with me and cut my wrists. But then I thought the Quaaludes would make me feel so good that I would end up not doing it [strange, sad laugh].
So, this role was so powerful. To have my wrists made up for two hours, and five hours of setting up the blood -- I was a witness to it for all this time, and I realized the old cliche of what a mess [suicide] is to leave for someone else to find -- what a stupid, passive-aggressive, piggish thing to do to someone.
After we finished the suicide scene, I walked back to the hotel with the make-up and dried blood. During this three-minute walk no one noticed except for this bum who ran from me. I got to the hotel and the people at the check out counter said "Oh, gross," but that was it, because they knew I was in a film. I needed to have a reaction from someone. So I walked into the hotel drugstore and there was a woman about my mother's age when she committed suicide, filling out prescriptions. I held up my wrists and said [in a whiny voice], "Do you have anything for my wounds?" She said, "My, God, what did you do?" I answered I'd cut my wrists and she went into shock and said, "Well, we have Mercurochrome." She actually said "Mercurochrome" and she frantically began to look for it.
It was a vicious thing to do. I asked her if she watched Candid Camera, which put her at ease. I told her she wasn't on it, that I was an actor and it was make-up. I realized that I was enacting a reversal of my mother's suicide. I had turned to my mother and said, "Look -- what does it feel like to have your son commit suicide?"

I think that what an audience doesn't see is the enormous amount of pain that the humor comes out of. And they laugh right over it.

That night, I watched the dailies of the film and I was deeply moved because Steven had allowed me to show my sadness, which is my bottom line. Enormous amounts of sadness that I don't allow myself to show in my work. I'm too frightened to make an audience sit through an hour and a half of that. I see myself as a humpty-dumpty figure, and with the Gemini split [the notion that Geminis, born under the astrological sign of the twins, have dual personas] there's a part that is simply pushing the egg off the wall. I would name any of my monologues All the Kings Horses, had it not already been used as a title. I push myself off and I get down and start picking up the pieces. I think of myself as a collage artist because I'm putting together the pieces of my life in my monologues -- with some hyperbole of course.

io: How does your family react to your work?

SG: My father never dared see me live. He preferred to see me on video so he could control it -- he could stop it if there was something that upset him. He never went to the theater to see Swimming to Cambodia or Monster in a Box. That hurt me.

io: You're so exposed in your monologues -- do you reserve any part of yourself?

SG: I think that what an audience doesn't see is the enormous amount of pain that the humor comes out of. And they laugh right over it. Like the line in one of my monologues -- it's funny, but not funny -- that my father never went to see Swimming to Cambodia because there were no matinees and he wouldn't miss cocktail hour. The audience would just howl, but that was the truth of the matter.

io: Are there any myths about yourself you want to dispel?

SG: I'm not into dispelling myths. Because, I think I'm trying to create my own mythology. I think one of the common myths that operates about me is, "If only I can get Spalding Gray to come to my dinner party." And then they picture me holding forth, when I'm really very retiring, shy and absolving.

Everything I encounter during the day sets off associations about the past. It sets my mind going until my mind is in a painful place.

io: In Six Degrees of Separation, at the end of the movie the wife has a life-shattering epiphany that she has been turning the events in her life into anecdotes instead of using them to change her life. Do you ever feel you're anecdoting your life?

SG: Anecdoting is a defense and it's dangerous. I have to be careful with it. It's a hazard of my trade. I'm trying to work on that in therapy -- privatizing my life. I'm addicted to the joy of anecdote, the structure, the way it makes life feel cozy and meaningful. I think I experience more chaos than the average person, and this is why so many writers drink in the morning -- they're faced with the abyss. Everything is reaching out and strangling me. I think writers drink to shut down memory because memory is relentless. Everything I encounter during the day sets off associations about the past. It sets my mind going until my mind is in a painful place.

io: Is there a certain religion you subscribe to?

SG: I'm a doubter.

io: That's your religion? Doubt?

SG: I'm afraid it is. That and cocktail hour.

io: There's a certain amount of spirituality in that.

SG: Yes, spirits.

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