Conan McCarty, who will be playing George W. Bush in WHEN WE GO UPON THE SEA, has already begun his process of gearing up for the role. Playing one of the most iconic and polarizing characters in American politics - and a living person, at that... and not to mention actually creating a character for the World Premiere for a new Lee Blesing play, must surely be a daunting task for an actor. So, as Conan readies himself for the role of a lifetime, he has agreed to give InterAct audiences a peek into his process through a series of blog posts on The Word:
February 6, 2010, 8:15 a.m.: Newark International Airport. Flying home to Texas today. Final rest period before the Big Crunch of research and script analysis in preparation for my role as George W. Bush in Lee Blessing’s new play, ‘When We Go Upon the Sea,’ at InterAct Theatre April 9- May 9. Forecasts for the Big Blizzard of 2010 blanketed all the news channels yesterday, so I got here very early for my flight. So early I am now on a first name basis with every security guard and custodian in this wing of the airport. The full fury of the storm seems to have fallen on Philadelphia, my soon to be adopted home this spring, and points south, but there is enough swirling through the air here that flight delays are beginning to happen, and I am beginning to have dreadful feelings that it may take a very long time to get home.
Home is Lubbock, Texas. While there I am renting a car and driving 120 miles to Midland, where I will visit the Boyhood Home of George W. Bush, which will give me an excellent opportunity to stand and walk in places he did and see a portion of the world from his point of view. Which will make this trip research. Which will make the plane ticket tax deductible.
So. George Walker Bush, 43rd President of the United States of America. Or “Dubya,” as I shall refer to him in this blog. How to play this guy? My first acting teacher in New York was the legendary Stella Adler, and from her I learned that the word ‘theatre’ is of Greek origin, and means ‘the see-ing place;’ a place where we ‘see’ ourselves and hopefully come to a better understanding of who we are. That is where I start from.
There are a lot of traps any actor playing an historical character can fall into. My job is to avoid as many as possible and present, without judgment, a man, flawed as all of us are. The first and biggest trap in this role for me is Politicizing the Part. In real life, Dubya actually led to my political awakening. Since I had reached voting age, my involvement had been limited to watching a presidential debate or two and going to the booth on Election Day. From 2004 onwards I have been an active canvasser for the Democratic Party, raising money on the streets of New York, working phone banks, making trips into nearby swing states. On Election Day 2008, I was up and in line to vote before 6:00 am, and then my friends Scott Sowers and Mallory Catlett drove with me down to Chester, PA., a suburb of Philadelphia. We knocked on 262 doors in a ’Get Out the Vote’ effort before returning to New York that evening to watch the returns.
Which makes this role VERY interesting to play. I believe the invasion of Iraq was a Blunder of Colossal Proportions, but by opening night, I must absolutely believe that ’removing Saddam was the right decision early in my presidency; it is the right decision now; and it will be the right decision ever.’ That is a word for word quote from Dubya on March 12, 2008. I might point out now that opening night is April 14th, the 98th anniversary of the night the Titanic hit the iceberg.
So, again, how to play this guy? There is a theatrical saying that you must love your character. Hmmmm. Well, I once heard a very fine actor say, ‘I don’t think you have to love your character. I think you have to love acting.’ I’ll go with that.
We are actually boarding now. Only 25 minutes late. This flight might not be so bad, after all.
Icarus Chronicles, continued…
February 9, 2010: Today I drove to Dubya’s boyhood home in Midland, 120 miles to the south. In West Texas, we drive that far for lunch. Which I had at the Midland Dairy Queen.
My home, Lubbock, is ‘the Hub of the Plains,’ the Rome to which all West Texan roads lead. Tallest building in Lubbock is the Great Plains Life Building, which at 19 stories towers more than twice as high as the next tallest structure in town. You have 360 degrees of horizon in these parts, guaranteed. Surrounding Lubbock are such places as Tahoka, Lamesa, Spur, Plainview, Muleshoe (in the center town there is a bronze statue of… yes, a mule), Palo Duro Canyon, and the Four Sixes Ranch out by Guthrie (named for the hand that won the ranch in a poker game long ago). These smaller communities survive on a little cotton, some farming, maybe some cattle…. and oil.
Lots and lots of oil in the Permian Basin, deep underground beneath Midland and her sister city, Odessa. Innumerable banks break the horizon as you near the city, testimony to the riches underneath. Fortunes lie there for the ‘can-do’ man to make. There is a sense of conquering the elements. It is the Texan lore and experience of self reliance. These promises of black gold brought the Bush family west from Connecticut in 1948 when Dubya was a wee scamp. Bush 41 made his fortune in oil before going into politics, and Dubya tried to follow him and make one himself… and tried… and tried… and tried…
So I eventually passed a sign: ’Welcome to Midland, Texas, Hometown of President George W. and Laura Bush.’ (At this point I felt a little like Frodo Baggins slipping into Mordor to destroy the Ring.) The Boyhood Home was built in 1939; an unassuming, very functional three bedroom house with a folding ironing board fixed into a cupboard on the wall. There is the roster of Dubya’s little league team hanging on the wall, plenty of period pieces donated by friends and fans or purchased on E-Bay, picture exhibits and of course guided tours; it was the home of two presidents, a governor of Florida, and a First Lady, after all. This is also the home his younger sister Robin lived in before she passed away from leukemia at age four. After the Historic Site was established, Dubya visited only once; after he left office, and I stood in the spot where he had his picture taken to see if there were any residual vibrations around. All in all, I don’t think the house itself was the source of any great discovery. For me it was the drive over, looking at the land dotted with jack pumps (which actually exist all over Texas, but not as many as there are out in these parts); a reminder of the way of life and the people who chose to live in this place.
Why the geography lesson? Will Ferrell pointed out that no one else in the family has a Texan accent, not even Jeb, who was born there. Dubya lost his first political race in 1978 and swore after the loss that he’d never be ‘out-Texaned’ again. It’s a major clue into who he is; or rather, who he portrays himself to be. Not only did he say that Osama Bin-Laden was ‘Wanted: Dead or Alive,’ he also commented that Sir Winston Churchill ’seemed like a Texan to me.’ Maybe Texas is a good place to start. In fact, as I recall Dubya saying at the 2004 Republican Convention, ‘Some people say that I have a swagger. In Texas, we call it walking,’ I am pretty sure it is.
PS: My favorite story of the Texas Rangers: Early in the last century , there was a riot in Galveston over cotton prices, or some other vital issue at the time, and the mayor cabled the Texas Ranger office in nearby Houston for help. He received an answer, ‘Meet the 5:15 train.’ At the station, the mayor was dismayed to see one Texas Ranger step off the train. ‘There is a riot in my city,’ he complained, ‘and they send one Ranger?’ The Ranger replied, ‘There’s one riot.’
Find out more about InterAct's World Premiere of Lee Blessing's WHEN WE GO UPON THE SEA