The sounds of jazz pianist Red Garland may confer a mellifluous vibe to his compact, tidy dressing room at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, but Denis Arndt is bracingly direct when a reporter asked what it was like now, aged 77, to be making a widely-hailed Broadway debut.
“It’s a self-important group of theater people here, on Broadway,” he said. “I’m honored and impressed, and all of those things that you're supposed to be. I fear that the fact is I’m a little bit of novelty, partly because it is my debut and partly because of how old I am." He smiled. "This is my 78th orbit.”
There are many moments in Arndt’s performance in Heisenberg that may stay with you: his character Alex Priest’s recitation of his favorite musical styles, delivered to its own, charmingly uneven musical beat; a renunciation of love that becomes a declaration of the same; and the moment, perfectly timed, when Arndt performs a mini-piece of ballet.
This last moment is all the more handsome because, at 75, Alex Priest is over thirty years older than 42-year-old Georgie Burns (Mary-Louise Parker), the woman who sneaks up on him at train station and kisses him on his neck, thereby setting in process a series of life-altering events for them both.
Even though their age difference is not the sole dramatic pivot of the play, "you can't help but not be aware of it," said Arndt, "and the oddity of having an on-the-verge-of-middle-age woman interested in you suddenly for perhaps an unknown but perhaps carnal interest. Someone said that Alex seduces her, but I think she seduces him in so many ways."
Both Arndt and Parker's performances are immaculate, and the staging and direction of Simon Stephens’ play clever and spare: the pair are accompanied by just a few tables and chairs to convey the unfolding of this strange, deeply felt relationship.
Arndt and Parker first performed the play off-Broadway for Manhattan Theatre Club last year, and he hailed her as a “wonderful, consummate actress at the top of her game in a play I really believe in--not only because of its spartan nature but its also spartan instructions from the playwright as to how it is to be staged.”
For Arndt--his first name is pronounced 'Den-i' after his French-Canadian forbears--it harkens back to his early love of the acclaimed director Peter Brook, and theatre, where “what you needed was the spoken word and a playwright whose ideas would pass through the actor to this sort of resonant oneness: the human act of theatre.”
Alex has been a “very accessible character” for Arndt to play. He doesn’t think he’s fully discovered his depths even now; "there is so much nuance and shared vulnerability" in how he and Parker perform, and that illuminates both their characters.
“She had to like me, didn't she, a little bit?” Arndt said smiling, when I asked if the chemistry between him and marquee-name Parker was immediate. “If she didn't like me I would have been home within a week probably, and there would have been somebody else.”
They knew of each other’s acting work, “but I had to be worthy of her trust,” said Arndt. “I made myself vulnerable to whatever she was going to give me. I’ve said this before, but I do like proficiency and I do like people who tolerate no bullshit and suffer no fools. I learned very quickly that she has chops, and she learned very quickly that I had chops. and it was that 'chops-ness' that began our alternate universe relationship inside the context of this play. It’s really quite a gift, I feel very blessed. I am trying to be worthy of it. It’s something I absolutely believe in.”
But, as he alluded to, Parker is more famous than him. Was that an issue for Arndt?
“Absolutely not, no, no. None of that. Not a bit. I cherish my anonymity, believe me. People come up and go, ‘You…you…what did I see you in? That’s a metaphysical impossibility to answer that. I feel like saying, You tell me everything you saw, and I’ll tell you whether I was in it. The fame thing I think she finds it bit of a burden herself. I think anybody who has any level of it feels it when it becomes hard to walk out the door.
“I’m a rather private person as far as my own personal life is concerned. Notoriety and celebrity are the foolish things we tend to do instead of paying attention to other important, salient issues. We're oftentimes off idolizing some flash in the pan.” He smiled. “The monkey does tend to look at the bright lights.”
Arndt is not aware of his new pin-up status: the fans at the stage door every night mostly congratulate and thank him, he said.
Even at this relatively early stage, Arndt’s performance seems Tony-worthy. “I don’t think about those things,” he said quietly. “Awards, certificates, and medals—and I’ve had my medals--yes the recognition is always wonderful as it directly relates to the exercise itself. But it has nothing to do with the effort at all. The effort is the skate itself.” The audience is “the unrehearsed player.”
For the duration of the interview, Arndt speaks in Alex's lilting Irish-slightly-American brogue, which I assumed was his accent. No, he said, this was Alex's voice. "It must be the rotter in me."
When asked what Arndt's real voice was, he said he could not demonstrate it.
"My function, raison d'être, why I am supposed to be here, is doing this play. I am either getting ready to do it, doing it, or having just done it: those are the three states I am in."
How did he relax? "I do this. It's not an effort. It's a dance, it's a skate with this other skater, and she's a good skater. The two biggest responsibilities of the actor are to be heard, and to get the fuck off the stage."
Arndt said, with another smile, that one gets to a point with aging "where you realize the best-buy date is down the hill, the sell-by might have already gone by, and the discard-after date is yet to come. All art requires the constant sense of transitory nature of now, and the transitory nature of life, and the time among us." Werner Heisenberg's principle of uncertainty, after which the play is named, is as present in real life as on stage.
The play is the first time, Arndt said laughing, where he has had to confess his age, night after night, to a room of strangers, although Alex is 75, two years his junior. A friend who came to see him left him a note saying, "You were great. You can still play 75."
Arndt had been “basically retired” when he received the call about Heisenberg--four days before rehearsals were due to begin--from Doug Hughes, whose actor-father Barnard he knew and who advises Manhattan Theatre Club. But Arndt wasn’t that retired: before taking on Heisenberg he had been performing in a Conor McPherson play, The Night Alive, and had played Prospero in a production of The Tempest.
“I do like doing what I do for as long as I can keep doing it,” Arndt said. “I raised a family while being a migratory arts worker (a self-description he uses more than once). That’s what I did for a long time. I have a pretty good track record. I don’t think people say too many bad things about me and my work.”
Of whether the success of Heisenberg could lead to yet more opportunities, Arndt shook his head. “I don't know. I’d be quite happy if I dropped dead at the end of this curtain call at end of this play and they say ‘Oh, that’s what happened to him, way to fucking go Arndt.’
“That’s how fulfilling this is. The bar is set pretty high right now. With the kind of vulnerability she and I share you can’t help but be a little raw around the edges. The idea of walking into another rehearsal hall, with another bunch of actors, another director, another text, another set of relationships or relationship that would even compare with the depth of what this thing is--I can’t imagine it. And I’ve been doing this for 43 years. This is not my first barbecue.”
Arndt became an actor in his early thirties. He grew up in Ohio. His parents were not artistic, though his grandmother, who was a concert pianist and chiaroscurist and who died when he was “12 or 13,” encouraged his creative pursuits. He was a very physical young boy, "outside all the time. They’d have to come and find me. I loved earth, sand, my bicycle.”
He still loves the latter, smiling as he recalled a recent trip with friends from Seattle to Northern California, that ran according to one rule: they had to stop at any tavern they passed and have two beers. That worked fine until they alighted on a town that had eight taverns. “We've got to change the route,” Arndt said to his friends.
His interest in acting was first shaped, as a 17-year-old, by Dale F. Brannon, a high school teacher “who was an absolute stickler for the spoken word. He really set me on fire.” Brannon oversaw his school’s theatre productions, Arndt thought, “I’m supposed to be doing that.”
Brannon, thinks Arndt, "understood the absolute mystery of language, the power of words, and that it was sad that the incredible plasticity and depth of our language was being lost."
Arndt did not become an actor straight away. He entered the military through choice, becoming a helicopter pilot who eventually served in Vietnam. “I certainly came from a socioeconomic background that meant the military was an opportunity. I had a great time on active duty for almost 10 years and in other circumstances I would have stayed. As I told somebody, the costumes were great and the props really fucking worked.”
It was, he said, “a great time in my life, and I enjoyed it. I’m glad I had the experience. I wish you could have the education and experience without all the other things that go along with that experience. You stand close to the fire and you will get burned.”
I asked how he recovered from that. “I’m not sure. How do you think I’ve recovered?”
His service in Vietnam--for which he received Purple Hearts and a Commendation Medal--left an impression on him, he said, but he added that he doesn’t like self-analysis. “Talk to anyone who has self-analyzed, and their head is so far up their own ass they think their own shit is sunshine.”
Within six months of leaving the military he had “another helicopter strapped to my ass,” this time as a commercial pilot flying in Alaska.
Arndt said he didn’t know what technology was on board helicopters today, but in his era “you actually flew this thing by the seat of your pants. I’ve said before it became an extension of your central nervous system and that’s the truth.”
Even when he was in danger in Vietnam? “Although I had complete and utter faith in it, I was almost most interested in who the mechanics were. I always had personal relationships with each and every one of them and they knew me. The helicopter is the most incredible machine. You have to the absolute, positive belief in ‘up.’ It’s one of the safest aircraft to be in if you’re ‘on top’ of it.”
In Alaska, he ferried oil executives to check out outcrops that might suggest the presence of shale. The flying sounded idyllic, but Arndt said being at the beck and call of those paying so much money to be flown around proved waring.
At 33, after studying history at the University of Washington in Seattle, Arndt “stumbled back into theatre by accident.” He thinks his first production was Madamoiselle Colombe by Jean Anouilh.
“I was really reticent about it. For a long, long time, I wasn’t able to call myself an actor because I had a lot to learn. I must have had some battles to be shoved through and some roles to be given.”
Another mentor was Jerry Turner, artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, who shepherded Arndt through performing many classics, including the work of Eugene O'Neill. One "great experience" of performing Long Day's Journey Into Night was done, Arndt recalled, beneath the window of the room O'Neill used to write in.
Arndt's inspirations were the actors who played sidekicks and best friends in 40s movies, he said. "I didn't quite understand the degree to which neuroses became a legitimate thing for the actor to exhibit. What you saw was more to do with the actor than the experience of whatever they were doing." It was instructive in showing him what not to do. "You should try to get out of the way. The actor is the cypher or conduit through which pure ideas should pass."
When I noted how humble he seems, Arndt mugged non-humbly how true that is. "I hope that is true," he added quietly. I'm very aware of what I have been given, allowed, gotten by with. I'm grateful for whatever there is to be grateful to. I'm grateful for this experience. It's a skate. The ice is clean and deep and dark, and the skates are sharp. I feel an athleticism about all of it."
His passion for theatre bubbles up throughout our time together, marveling humans are the only primates who agree to “go into a room, turnoff the light and say ‘let’s pretend.’”
Entering acting later than many others did not make him more ambitious, Arndt said. “No, I think less ambitious. I didn't use it for anything but itself. It’s not a stepping stone to something else for me. I’m not looking for a fucking TV series. I went to Hollywood, and did my time. Basically, they take pictures and do a creative act with them. You are there only to provide raw ore. The creative act really happens in the way it is put together.”
He prefers stage to screen, then, but name-checks people he loved working with on-screen--Peter Falk, Mary Tyler Moore, Patrick McGoohan among them—and the many David Kelley “lawyer stable” dramas he played roles in, including LA Law and Boston Legal.
Being an actor and father was made possible by having a wife, Margie Arveson, at home playing mom, “while I got the bacon and raspberries.” He won’t say how many children he has, but they all work in the arts in some way.
Arveson died two years ago. Like Alex in Heisenberg, Arndt has experienced grief. “Everything is fine, it’s good, it’s what you would expect,” he said, immediately pivoting to talk about Alex and being like a sea anemone—prod him and he will shut, opened up, he’s beautiful. “He hasn't been opened a while and he’s probably made of a lot of scar tissue.”
Arndt seems a more open anemone. "I hope so, especially right now with such a success. I've had my share of love and lovers and loves." Is he open to that again? "Oh sure. You have to cultivate your vulnerability, Tim. really truly. It's what allows you, demands you, participate."
When I asked what Arndt would still like to do, he replied to play King Lear, an "athletic event" he would like to do again after playing the character in three other productions when he was 37, 49, and 57. Advancing age would alter the "depth and consciousness of what is at stake," he said, citing an opera singer like Pavarotti singing an aria at different ages to exemplify the different textures the same performance can take on.
He is in such great shape that I assume he must be as gym-goer, but no--he walks, climbs the stairs: "I'm 77. I'm not going to fall off the treadmill and bash my brains out."
Arndt lives in Ashland, Oregon (where he performed with Oregon Shakespeare between 1973 and 1988) in a timber shack in the woods, with four acres attached. He loves it, but also loves the city. A friend who once visited him in LA, when he was living in a high-rise overlooking that city's roads at their busiest, said: "Well, Arndt, if you want to live in the mouth of the dragon, you might as well check out its teeth." In New York, he feels the same.
Asked if Arndt shared any characteristics with Alex, the actor smiled. He hasn't kept a diary like his character for 67 years, writing a strictly-observed 50 words a day. "And I'm not too old for the struggle, or lost my spirit for fighting. I've lived the opposite to Alex in how-fortunate an existence I've had on this planet. I've survived many interesting situations, and had full and complete other lives. My life started in a place I wasn't sure about, and I had to take this long, circuitous route to take me to where it was supposed to be."
Heisenberg is at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th Street, until Dec. 11.