Interview With Jeff Still, Appearing in “August: Osage County” at the Fox Theatre (March 2-14)
Jeff Still is an actor that has been in theatre for the past 30 years, appearing in many successful shows around the country. He has also appeared in several television shows and films, such as “Public Enemies” and “The Hudsucker Proxy.”
Jeff will be in the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winning play “August: Osage County,” which is coming to the Fabulous Fox Theatre in St. Louis next week (March 2 – 14). I had the pleasure of speaking with Jeff about the show, his career, and the fulfillment of acting in theatre.
Kevin: “August: Osage County” started in 2007 at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company. What is your connection with Steppenwolf?
Jeff: I lived in Chicago for about 20 years. I know many people in the Steppenwolf Company very well. I was a part of the workshop for the show, before it ever ran in Chicago. The original fellow playing my part, Jeff Perry, lives in Los Angeles and wasn’t able to be a part of the workshop. After the show had been running a while in New York, I was asked to go in as an understudy. While it was running simultaneously in London and Broadway, I was understudying on Broadway. After my term of understudying was up, I went and did the off Broadway production of “Our Town,” that is still running. Then they asked me to do the tour, which started in July. So I’ve been associated with this project a lot, and I’ve worked with Steppenwolf a lot. I’ve known Tracy Lets, who wrote the play, a very long time. And Anna Shapiro who directed it – I’ve known Anna about 20 years as well. I’ve worked at Steppenwolf a lot, but I’m not a member of the ensemble.
K: You’ve been actively involved in theater for a long time. Growing up, did you always know you wanted to be involved in acting?
J: No, I didn’t consciously know that. I wanted to be a baseball broadcaster when I was growing up – not only as a little kid, but when I started going to college. That was my major. I never thought about acting or about theater. I kind of stumbled into it about half-way through college. I was about 20 years old, and decided to give it a shot. The truth is, once I stepped onto a stage, I felt very at home there. And I’ve felt very at home ever since. I’ve been doing it about 30 years now, to include the beginning of that. But it wasn’t something I thought about growing up – I didn’t do theater in high school or anything like that.
K:What was your first big show?
J: I think a lot of the shows that I did, particularly during the time I was in Chicago, were recognized in Chicago. But when you say big, I tend to think of something that is somewhat bigger than one city. So I think maybe it was a play called “Orson’s Shadow.” I played Orson Wells in the show, which opened at Steppenwolf back in 2000. Over the course of the next 5 years, it opened several places around the country and then had an Off-Broadway run for almost a year. It felt big to me to be in a successful Off-Broadway show.
K: You were in A Clockwork Orange. How does that show compare to the movie and book?
J: A Clockwork Orange was directed by Terry Kinney. At the same time I was also doing 12 Angry Men, at Steppenwolf for their outreach series. I was doing 12 Angry Men in the morning and a Clockwork Orange at night. The show is very close to the book. There is a very significant difference between the movie and the book. We stayed truthful to the book and to Terry’s own image really. It wasn’t like seeing the movie on stage at all. The stage was bare, accept it was covered with dirt. It was really a post-apocalyptic look at this world. And every now and then, significant pieces were flown in from above. It was very gritty and very sparse. The movie has a certain slickness to it, even amidst all of its violence. I think that was very different.
When Anthony Burgess wrote the book, he thought he was dying. He really wanted to score something, and leave something behind. He specifically wrote the book in 21 chapters. He thought that was very import number. It was a coming of age number, and a coming of age story about this kid. And when he tried to sell it to American publishers, they said they would publish the book but we don’t like that last chapter. So that was the way it was originally published in this country, and that is really what the movie looks like. If you buy the book now, it has that last chapter, and that is what our play looked more like.
K: How would you describe August: Osage County?
J: It’s such a major piece of work. It is a family drama that also plays at times like a black comedy. If people are thinking or reading that it has been compared to Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” I can see that – in the fact that it’s a major American work. It’s a major investment to do the show, and to watch the show. The show is long, but NEVER feels long. We hear this over and over again. The actual running time of the show, including intermissions, is close to three and a half hours. We hear time and time again that it flew by. I think that is mostly because of the humor in the show.
It is a dark piece about a family in Oklahoma, which is reunited when the father goes missing. I don’t know when this term started, about dysfunctional families. Everybody says, “Oh boy, now you get to meet my dysfunctional family.” Everybody says that, so I don’t know what a functional family is. Most families are dysfunctional. Most of us have siblings that don’t speak to each other; maybe they are half a country away, or maybe they don’t speak to their parents. This is common, not dysfunctional. Everybody who sees this show is reminded of their own family. Even though this is a specific family in Oklahoma, it doesn’t play that way. It’s much broader. Many people say, “that’s my mother up there.” These people say that whether they are from Maine, or New Orleans, or California. If you see “A Long Day’s Journey,” you say “look at that New England Family.” That’s how I feel when I watch it. There’s simply a lot more humor in Tracy’s play.
You see people ripped apart. There are 13 people in the show, and Tracy has written it so well that you really see 13 stories up there. There’s not like a butler or something. Everybody is well crafted, and you get their whole story no matter who they are.
K: Can you tell me about your character, Bill?
J: Bill is the husband of Barbara in the play. The father of the family goes missing – his name is Beverly. He’s married to a woman named Violet, who Estelle Parsons is playing. Violet has three daughters, who all go back to the house when the father goes missing. Barbara is the eldest daughter, and Bill is her husband.
K: What was working with Estelle Parsons like?
I got to work with her a little bit in New York. That’s where I was introduced to her. She was doing a show when I was understudying it. I went on for three of the parts during the time when I was there. It was nice to know her even before starting this tour. She’s amazing, and I don’t see why that word isn’t a good word to describe her. She’s 82 years old, which is well documented. If you spend any time with her, or to work with her you simply forget about that. It simply doesn’t matter. No matter how old any of us are, we like to say age doesn’t matter… and it truly doesn’t. What matters is that she plays the part, and that she’s right for the part – which is not of an 82 year old woman, but a woman in her sixties. But that’s what Estelle looks like. I’ve known 82 year old people that are fragile; there’s nothing fragile about her. She is simply a very hard worker. She’s been doing this a very long time, and she’s just great. She never misses a step, and it’s really been an education in that sense. To not treat people by how old they are, and just treat them by what they are doing.
Estelle deserves everything she is getting. I think a lot of people may come see this show because they are familiar with Estelle Parsons. Maybe because they saw her on Rosanne. That’s what television can do for us. It can make people seem very accessible. And that’s great. If that’s what gets them into the theatre. They are going to see a lot more than the character that they see on Rosanne. They are going to see somebody who is in the theatre hall of fame. Estelle has been working a long time, and has an incredible career. It doesn’t seem like she’s slowing down to me. It’s not like I see her retiring next year or anything. I think she will be working for a long time.
K: Speaking of film and television, it looks like you have been in quite a few yourself.
J: I’ve been in some. I’ve been in television shows maybe about a dozen times, and about half that in movies. I’ve gotten to work with some really neat people, and big names. I myself have played generally really small parts in them. But it’s been fun to work with them. In the last couple of years I did a movie called “The Express,” which turned out to be a pretty good movie. And “Public Enemies” with Johnny Depp, directed by Michael Mann. That was an education. I’ve been in some, but it hasn’t been near the experience that I’ve had in the theatre.
I had a small, but somewhat good part, in Public Enemies. Then when I saw the movie, it was almost complete cut out. There was one shot of me on a roof. This happens all the time of course, I’m not beefing about it. It’s rather amusing, because the director and editor shape a movie once they shoot it. So you don’t know when you’re doing it, what you’re going to get. It was a huge movie, but my contribution to it was very tiny. It was small before they did the cutting.
It was nice to work with Michael Mann, and in particular, Johnny Depp. That was incredible to me. It’s kind of like being with a rock star. He walks off the set, and there are police barricades, and people screaming his name. We were shooting a scene on a roof, and people were hanging out of adjacent apartment buildings taking pictures. He handled everything with such an incredible amount of grace. He’s obliging to everybody, and he’s just a great guy. There’s no kind of star treatment about that. I got to experience these things, and see what they were like. People would park for twelve hours outside of the Joliette Prison, just to see his SUV with the tinted glass drive by.
K: Did you ever want to go into a career of television or movies?
J: I suppose if you asked me a long time ago what I wanted to do, I would say I wanted to act in television, film and theatre. I want to act in all three; I still do. Theatre is the most fulfilling as an actor. With television and films, the job is taken out of your hands quite a bit. So theatre is the most fulfilling, but at the same time by far pays the least. You’d be an idiot to not want to do television and film. I would still like to do more television and film just for the experience. Especially working in Chicago… I stayed in Chicago for 20 years doing an awful lot of theatre, and some television and film. Not much comes through Chicago, so that was probably part of it. I was simply doing what I was given the opportunity to do. And I never really wanted to move to Los Angeles, which is where you would go if you really wanted to concentrate on television and film.
I’ve been in New York the last few years, and I’ve been in several shows Off-Broadway that have all been very well received – in addition to August: Osage County. That’s all more important to me than television and film. I’d still like to do it, it’s just not something I want to concentrate on. So it wasn’t really a specific choice to concentrate on one or the other. I’m just going to go where the work is.
K: Why do you think you prefer theatre over television and film so much?
J: It’s just much more fulfilling, particularly because you are sharing that night and that night only with that audience only. So all of you who are in that room are kind of creating a memory. And it goes away, it’s done. The show is over, and that performance is never going to happen again. Even if the exact same people came to the audience the next night, it wouldn’t be the same. So there’s something very special about that. I’ve seen shows 20 years ago that are still very vivid in my memory, and there’s something very special about that. That everybody was in the same room, doing that.
When you do films, it’s just a different skill set. It’s very difficult. It’s very difficult to act on stage, but it’s also difficult to act on film when you sit around for 6, or 8, or 10 hours or more. You are taken to a set and asked to do a scene, and concentrate on hitting a mark while not walking into lighting instruments. And you are doing one line, again and again, and again and again. And then from different angles. You start to go a little crazy. It takes a certain skill set to do that one little thing again and again. And sometimes you need to get to a certain point emotionally and do that over and over. Different than theatre, where you get to start at the beginning and ride the train to the end every night. And it’s always different. That’s the real beauty of it. It’s our job to make it fresh every night, because those people in the audience have never seen this before.
K: You had a part in “The Hudsucker Proxy,” the Coen Brothers film. How was that?
J: It was a big press conference, and there were hundreds of reporters. Only four of them had lines. I was the first of the four. What was funny is when we shot that scene, they shot each of us doing our lines at many angles. Including close-ups. Mine is what you call the medium shot. The next three they use the close-ups. The thing is I got to work with the Coen Brothers, and just auditioning for the Coen brothers was exciting. The fact that I went into that audition and read, and then I was done and they asked me to do some more. I didn’t even need to get the job after that. I left the room, saying, “wow, I just did well in front of the Coen Brothers.” I’m surprised that movie didn’t do better actually. It’s a pretty good movie.
In regards to doing film, it’s a nice diversion and you generally get paid very well for it. It lets you go back and do the theatre, for the reasons that you are in theatre. You’ve made some money from that, and in theatre pays you with a great inner sense of accomplishment. It’s a great feeling.
K: What would you say is your favorite part about “August: Osage County” in particular?
J: Sometimes we go to these different cities, and meet people when we’re out and about. They might say something like “tell me about the show,” or “tell me why I should see it.” I think this is really the best answer I’ve come up with. If you are just going to see one show this year, this is the show to see. It’s really that good. Nobody comes away from the show disappointed. So, I have to say that. I just have to get that out there, rather than trying to explain the plot. At that point, nothing sounds really good. It’s not a matter of the plot.
It’s that it’s extremely well written, and it is a roller coaster ride for people to watch. It’s very different from other plays, in that, audiences respond viscerally to this show. You hear them – it’s not a matter of applauding when the act is over. Things are said, and things happen on the stage. You hear people gasp, and vocally respond. That’s a big deal, and that’s very fulfilling. The fact of being in a Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winning show, and the fact that it’s so well written. If you’re an actor, you really want to do stuff that is well written.
K: Have you performed at the Fox Theatre before?
J: It’s very exciting. We’ve been playing in a lot of houses, but that by far the biggest. I’ve never been to the Fox before. We’re all looking forward to it. We’ve seen it on the itinerary for a long time. Fox Theatre – 5,000 seats. Bring it on.
K: What’s next for you?
J: I’m not sure. I don’t have anything lined up yet. This tour ends in May, and I’ll be out there looking for work. If “Our Town” is still running in New York, and it is still running now, I might pop back into that.