A Man Called Zeljko
Actor Zeljko Ivanek co-stars with Billy Crudup and Jeff Goldblum in The Pillowman.
By: Michael Portantiere
(Photo © Michael Portantiere)
Even if you don't know and/or can't pronounce Zeljko Ivanek's name, chances are that you're familiar with his face. Aside from his stage appearances on Broadway in such shows as Two Shakespearean Actors, Brighton Beach Memoirs, and the 1994 revival of The Glass Menagerie, Off-Broadway in A Map of the World, Cloud 9, and the Peter Brook production of The Cherry Orchard, and in London in Neil LaBute's bash, Ivanek has a long list of regional theater credits. On top of all that, he's had recurring roles in the TV series OZ and Homicide: Life on the Street, while his films include Mass Appeal, Donnie Brasco, Dogville, and the recent remake of The Manchurian Candidate.
Now, Ivanek is co-starring in The Pillowman, Martin McDonagh's comedy-drama about a fiction writer in a totalitarian state who is interrogated about the gruesome content of his stories and their similarities to strange incidents occurring in his town. The play had its world premiere at the National Theatre in London last year, and Ivanek saw it there "on one of my semi-annual theater binges when I go to London for about a week and see 12 shows in seven days." I spoke with the New York-based actor shortly after he began rehearsals for the Broadway production, which is set to open on April 10 at the Booth Theatre.
THEATERMANIA: You've just begun working on The Pillowman. How's it going?
ZELJKO IVANEK: I've known that I was going to be doing this since last June, so it's been a long process getting to the first day of rehearsal. The nicest thing about reading through the play with the other actors was that it reminded me how entertaining it is.
TM: John Crowley, who directed the play in London, is also directing the Broadway production. Would you say that he's reconceiving it?
ZI: No. Martin's here, too, and they work very much in tandem. It doesn't feel like we're remounting something that's been finished; it feels like we're figuring out what exactly is going on from moment to moment in the play. Martin writes very clearly and with very specific intentions, but there are shifts that are constantly happening in the play, so the first job is figuring all that out. I can't remember the last time I saw a play that shifted gears so many times; whenever you think it's going off in one direction, it upends your expectations and turns into something else. The ending really kicks your legs out from under you.
TM: Most of McDonagh's other plays are notable for shocking moments of onstage violence. Is that the case with this one?
ZI: I don't know if I want to answer that! I think there are shocking moments in it, but they're shocking for various reasons. The play certainly has a lot of surprises.
TM: Billy Crudup plays the writer, and you and Jeff Goldlbum play the interrogators. Is it a good cop/bad cop situation?
ZI: That's part of the dynamic, but there's also a lot going on between the cops that complicates things. The setting of the play isn't specified, so we're not doing accents or anything. It's just some vaguely Eastern European-feeling, totalitarian world. I'm not even sure if the time is very clear. Is it this decade or 10 years ago? But I love the play. It gives you the kind of experience that you don't quite get from movies or books; there's something so theatrical about it.
TM: You did bash in London. I was wondering if you see any similarities between the work of Neil LaBute and Martin McDonagh.
ZI: Well, they've both written a lot of plays, so it's very tricky to generalize, but I do think they have two things in common. One is a sense of language; they both write dialogue that's incredibly actable and very juicy. It's fun to have those words to play with in both cases. Also, I think they both enjoy playing with the audience in certain ways, but they don't just try to wind you up. There's much more than that going on.
TM: Tell me about The Glass Menagerie. The play is back on Broadway right now with Jessica Lange and Christian Slater, but you played Tom in the 1994 Roundabout production with Julie Harris and Calista Flockhart. What was that experience like?
ZI: I've known the play for a long time and I love it. It's one of those plays where, the older you get, the more you understand what's going on among the people in this family, how much they love each other even though they're driving each other crazy. That's what Julie brought to it -- the sense of loving her children to the point of smothering them. But the warmth of that was amazing.
TM: I've always wanted to talk to you about the 1986 TV production of All My Sons that you were in. It was the best performance of that piece that I've ever seen, live or on screen.
ZI: That was an American Playhouse production with a great cast: James Whitmore, Aidan Quinn, Joan Allen, and Michael Learned. Jack O'Brien directed it and we had a good amount of rehearsal time; it felt close to rehearsing a stage play. Since it was a TV production, we stressed the intimacy of the piece, which is one of the greatest things about it. The production design was kind of theatrical, not completely realistic, but it still somehow put you in a very specific world. It's really hard to watch TV versions of plays that are just shot in a theater with an audience, because there's almost no way to balance how close the camera gets with the fact that you're still delivering a performance for 1,000 people.
TM: Do you feel that you have a good mix of theater, TV, and film projects to your credit?
ZI: Yes. I go to L.A. in the spring for pilot season or if I've got a specific job, but I've somehow managed to keep that up without having to be there full-time. L.A. is fine but I don't want to live there; it's too much of a company town, whereas when you're in New York, you're part of a larger world and not a self-enclosed environment.
TM: Were you ever under a lot of pressure to change your name?
ZI: No. Part of the reason was that I came to New York with my Equity card already in hand; I'd gotten it at Williamstown, and some agents had seen me there, too. When I arrived here, they immediately started sending me out on appointments and I signed with them about a week later, so I kind of skipped the part where I had to sell myself a lot to people. I do remember meeting some casting person who suggested that maybe Ivan Cole would be a better name for me, but it seemed weird to suddenly have a different name at the age of twenty-whatever. I couldn't quite fathom that, or my parents saying, "That's our son with the unrecognizable name!"