ACTORS' DIALOGUE: Molly Ringwald & Brian Kerwin
By Jamie Painter
Back Stage West
Thursday, February 18 1999

 

Back Stage West recently met with actors Molly Ringwald and Brian Kerwin during a rehearsal for Mark Taper Forum's upcoming production of Paula Vogel's Pulitzer Prize-winning How I Learned To Drive now in previews and opening Feb. 25. Ringwald stars as Li'l Bit, a role she first played Off-Broadway. Likewise, Kerwin reprises the lead role of Uncle Peck, which he played at Seattle's Intiman Theatre.

 

Ringwald began her career at the age of 10 and, at 13, starred with John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands in Tempest, for which she was nominated for a Golden Globe. Shortly after, she starred in a string of coming-of-age blockbusters, such as Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and Pretty in Pink, followed by The Pick-up Artist, Fresh Horses, and Betsy's Wedding. In 1992, Ringwald decided to take a leave of absence from Hollywood and moved to Paris for four years. Her foreign films include Seven Sundays, Jean-Luc Godard's King Lear, and Enfants de Salaud.

She returned to America in 1996 and starred opposite Billy Bob Thornton in the short film Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade, which was later adapted into the Oscar-winning Sling Blade. Her recent credits include Cindy Sherman's feature directing debut Office Killer, the TV series Townies, the miniseries The Stand, and the Emmy-nominated Allison Gertz Story and Women & Men. Her upcoming film work includes Killing Mrs. Tingle, Hearts and Bones, and Lifetime's Two Cups of Joe.

Ringwald has participated in readings of Sun Bearing Down for the La Jolla Playhouse, and Salome with Al Pacino for Circle-in-the-Square. She made her New York stage debut by originating the title role in Horton Foote's Lily Dale.

Brian Kerwin's many theatre credits include Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, directed by Edward Albee at the Doolittle Theatre, The Subject Was Roses at the Callboard Theatre, Strange Snow at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego and the Coast Theatre in L.A., Torch Song Trilogy, and Little Foxes in New York. His film credits include Love Field, Torch Song Trilogy, and Jack. His many television credits include Dead Man's Gun, Sheriff Lobo, The Young and the Restless, Tales From the Hollywood Hills, Angel Falls, and myriad movies of the week.

 

Back Stage West: I understand, Molly, that you moved to Paris for four years back in the early '90s. Were you burnt out?

Kerwin: It was the wine and food.

Ringwald: Exactly. I was in my early 20s and I knew that that was probably going to be the only chance to ever do anything like that. I had worked all of my teenage years pretty much and I just needed to have a time-out and have an education. I had just applied to USC before I went and I was accepted and I was supposed to start in the fall and that summer I went to Paris and thought, I think I'd much rather stay here and have my education here. It was really like I almost did a college education, developing my own curriculum.

Kerwin: I went to USC and I can tell you, you did much better in Paris.

Ringwald: I think so. It really opened me up. I learned another language, which I never would have done if I was at USC, probably. I don't know if formal education is for me. I learn from doing things. I'm not good at reading directions; I'm good at trial and error. I've always been that way. I've sort of done my studying by working with great people, and I've been lucky in my life to constantly meet people who've inspired me and taught me. When I started on this play with Paula [Vogel], I said, "Can I be one of your adopted students?" And she said, "Of course. Any time. Ask me anything. I'll look at your writing," because I write also.
I've been lucky to meet mentors like that. And that's pretty much what you would hope you'd be doing in school, having good teachers. You just have to learn how to be disciplined.

Kerwin: I started acting in New York and very quickly came out here and got involved in that whole Equity Waiver swirl, and out of that came actually paying television work. Whenever I was doing TV work or whenever there was a lull, I was always going back and doing theatre because that was the good and the bad side of Equity Waiver. There was this ultimate respect for paying jobs. Basically, you could be halfway into rehearsal and get a job and say, "I'm out of here," and leave. And that was one of the given gambles to anybody putting a show together.

But I was constantly doing theatre. I never felt unemployed for the first few years, although many times I was, because I was always doing one stage show or another. That's what kept me going. Now, I have a wife and three kids and that keeps me very busy in between jobs.

Ringwald: If you're still in school, I would really strongly recommend that you finish your education. Also, when you go to college, think about studying something outside of acting. Not to say that acting schools aren't positive, but I think there's just as much that you can put into your acting from having a scientific education, knowing something about chemistry or archeology. All that stuff, I think, really helps your acting. People who just focus too early on this business are very limited in what they can do ultimately.

Kerwin: I've always held that there is no reasonable or rational behavior to how careers work out. In other professions in life, you can expect that if you put in this much, you will get out that much. But for anybody starting out in acting, you just hope that they really like what they're doing, because there is no guarantee that anything is going to work out, no matter how talented they are. There is no rationale to it. Some of it is pure dumb luck. A lot of it is persistence and perseverance. You really have to be able to deal with rejection. If you're getting rejected nine times out of 10, you're doing well. But then you've got to be able to deal with the fact that it really may all not work out. That is a real possibility. That's the most likely possibility.

Look at all the people in acting schools and drama workshops, and then look at how many people are employed in a given year. It's a heartbreaking statistic. So really only do it because you love doing it. That may be the only thing you get out of it?personal satisfaction.

Ringwald: And have a really strong center. Not necessarily a fallback, but have something that fires you up besides acting. Sometimes it can be something that feeds into the acting. But have something so you don't crumble every time you put everything into this and then everyone says, "No. We don't want you." Have something else that makes you strong in your center.

BSW: Why do you love acting?

Kerwin: I don't know. It never occurred to me that I love acting. I just do it. It's more like a need to express myself. I think I tried as a young man to find some way to express myself. I played a lot a music. I fancied myself a singer/songwriter. I wrote poetry. I tried painting. I tried opening a business. I was trying anything that would in some way get out what I was trying to express. The bottom line was this is the one that actually worked.

And it was interesting. Because I was trying this, trying that. And it's not that I didn't try them in earnest and study and try to be the best I could. But acting was the one that two years into it, I felt, My God! I haven't failed at this yet. This is odd. I had a career going before it occurred to me that I was attempting to have a career. I never went through that period of aspiring for the goal of "I want to be an actor." I was just doing a whole bunch of stuff, part of which was acting, and it started working out.

Acting is really a love/hate thing for me. So often when I'm working in films or in rehearsal, not so much onstage, I hate it. It's frustrating. It drives me crazy. I wish I could find a better way to express what I'm trying to do. So I don't always love it. It's really grueling for me sometimes. This just seems to be the one place that I am able to vent. And every so often you get that chance and Uncle Peck in this play is one of those roles that really meshes nicely with who you are. I've done one or two other plays where I've realized I'm hitting the nail on the head. Then it's very gratifying, because I'm in some way saying to this whole group of people, "Life is like this..." You show them and they understand it. It's lovely to be able to express that.

Ringwald: I don't know exactly why I'm still acting other than the fact of the matter, it sounds immodest, but I do it well. I'm good at what I do and I find some satisfaction in doing it well. I don't suspect I'll be acting forever. I think I can have a long career, but I have other interests. When I was younger, I found acting pretty much in anything enjoyable, because when you're younger I think you have less lucidity. Now I'm a little bit more selective and more private as a person and I only want to act for certain projects. Acting, as an adult, I find more difficult, just because I do have more distance and I do have more lucidity. The older that you get, if your mind continues to develop as you hope it will, you ask yourself, Why am I doing this? What is this about? What am I getting out of it? But I have no definitive answer about why I'm acting. I think it's totally weird.