opinion

Nino

Edward Gero Was Born to Play Antonin Scalia

As John Strand’s play about the late associate justice battling wits with a liberal clerk returns to the Washington stage, the actor who plays Scalia recalls their meeting.

Actor Edward Gero could be one of late Supreme Court Justice Scalia’s sons, the physical resemblance is so strong, the dark hair slicked back, the round, pugnacious face, the same stocky build. Like Scalia, he’s Italian-American, Catholic, born in New Jersey, and proud of his roots. Gero wears an Italian-American flag pin on his lapel next to the Boys State pin he got as a junior in high school.

Scalia’s grandmother and Gero’s grandfather grew up in nearby villages in Italy. “If you go back far enough, we may share DNA,” Gero says. Sitting across from Gero, an accomplished Shakespearean actor, it’s easy to see why playwright John Strand wrote “The Originalist” with him in mind to portray Scalia. The play had a successful run in 2015, while the rambunctious Scalia was still on the Court, and it returns to Washington’s Arena Stage next month.

“There’s nostalgia for him,” Gero told the Daily Beast. “What started as a lecture to the left, ‘don’t vilify people who think differently,’ has now become ‘what you say matters.’” Asked what he thinks the conservative jurist he has played so often – a hundred times and counting – would make of today’s politics, Gero says, “Just as a lover of language, I’m sure his head would explode.” 

“The Originalist” takes its title from Scalia’s reverence for the Constitution, pairing the man who authors the polarizing opinions with the precocious law clerk he hired knowing she would challenge him. To heighten the contrast for literary purposes, the clerk is an African-American woman and a self-described flaming liberal. The point is to “tease out what happens to the political center, and is it possible to recover the political center,” says Gero.

The play opened in March 2015, before Donald Trump captured the zeitgeist. “Then it was a nice parlor conversation to talk about the body politic, now it’s dangerous,” says Gero, who finds “The Originalist” more relevant today in its portrayal of two archetypes – the bullheaded conservative and the doctrinaire liberal. Yet they listen to each other and engage in civil debate.

Scalia was a world-class provocateur. Gero got a taste of that when he joined Scalia for lunch in his chambers. “The first thing he said to me, no, he wouldn’t come see the play, but he was glad they had ‘someone good’ doing it, so we got that off the table, all in one breath,” says Gero. A classically trained actor with Washington’s Shakespeare Theater Company, Gero has worked with several of the justices, including Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sandra Day O’Connor, when they had cameo roles in local Shakespeare productions. 

Gero held off on meeting Scalia until he did his homework, which included reading an annotated version of the Federalist Papers. “I wanted to be prepared, I wanted to show my bona fides, that I was not just a fly-by-night actor off the street, that I was interested in government and law,” he says, referencing his Boys State pin. “I take my work as seriously as he takes his.” 

Recounting that first meeting, Gero says, “We locked eyes – I said to myself, I can’t blink, hang in there – and then he was holding forth, gesturing and making jokes, asking probing questions, holding sway. It was like sitting there with my Uncle Nino.”

Scalia introduced Gero to Leroy, the huge elk head mounted on the wall. Why Leroy? Because hunters spend so much time waiting for an animal to appear. “It’s called waiting for Leroy – that’s Leroy,” Scalia said. Gero’s wine glass was bottomless, as a waiter kept filling it, and it did occur to him later that Scalia was actively courting him in putting his most robust self forward, a dynamic that for an actor works both ways.

“It was Noel Coward who said you have to love your character or you can’t play him – because we’re empathy machines. As an actor, you put yourself in someone else’s shoes,” says Gero. The Jersey boys talked about family and growing up, and being Italian. They found a cultural affinity, what Gero calls the “northeastern Italian sensibility where you can rip somebody, and it’s not personal. It’s to teach, to provoke, to cajole.”

Never one to be outdone, Scalia let Gero know that he’d been president of the Georgetown drama club, Mask and Bauble. This was no small thing; he had played Macbeth.   

In late June of 2015, after several lunches in his chambers, Scalia invited Gero to go skeet shooting with him, which Gero had never done. This was the time on the court calendar when the justices are busy writing their opinions, and a trip to the range was Scalia’s way of letting off steam after hours of writing mostly angry dissents. 

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“Why do I bother writing dissents?” Scalia had railed. “People have already voted. I’m not changing anybody’s mind. I’m writing for the students and for jurists 30 years from now – and I pepper it with language to make it readable.”

Skeet shooting that day, Gero had “beginner’s luck. I was knocking them down, and he wasn’t. He was so frustrated, he said, ‘I hate to lose.’” Gero tried to soothe him, saying like a golfer, you’re just not making your putts, but Scalia would have none of it. “You have to be a sore loser, that’s the whole point of competing,” he told Gero. “When you win, you want your opponent to be a sore loser. That’s the fun of it.”

“What are your politics?” someone at the gun club asked Gero. Before he could answer, Scalia answered for him, telling the inquisitor, “He’s a lot more conservative than he lets on.”

“It was good cover,” Gero laughs. “It was his way of saying, ‘none of your business.’”

Scalia took to calling Gero “my doppelganger,” and as Gero prepares to bring back “The Originalist” for Washington audiences, he says what he misses most about the man his friends called Nino is the stories—there won’t be anymore.

His favorite moment in the play is when groans and laughter are elicited at the same time. Audiences are vocal in expressing themselves. “It’s a free-for-all,” says Gero. “I think we can build a consensus that both political parties are deaf, and these are two archetypes who listen.” Though he never talked politics directly with Scalia, he likes to think he could have.