It's been a busy season for Steppenwolf actors in New York City. In addition to August: Osage County
, an import from the revered Chicago theatre, Steppenwolf founding member Laurie Metcalf is currently appearing in David Mamet's November
, and longtime associate Kevin Anderson recently starred in Come Back, Little Sheba
Not to be outdone, company member Austin Pendleton is about to appear in Another Vermeer
, Bruce J. Robinson's fact-based drama about Han van Meegeren, a Dutch painter who was put on trail after WWII for allegedly selling his country's cultural property to the Nazis.
"He's a weak person who behaves as if he's really strong all the time to fool people, and gets himself into terrible, terrible trouble," says Pendleton of van Meegeren.
Indeed, this was a classic damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don't case: Van Meegeren was such a skillful imitator of painters of the Dutch Golden Age, including Johannes Vermeer, that he ended up making a small fortune duping collectors with his forgeries. When the war ended, an apparent Vermeer was found in Reichmarshal Herman Göring's collection and traced back to van Meegeren. The painter was not only forced to confess to forging the painting--in fact, he had to convince
his accusers that it was a forgery, because the punishment for selling genuine Dutch cultural treasures to the Nazis was far greater than the punishment for forgery.
"There isn't that much to research about him," Pendleton says when asked if he hit the books to prepare for the role. "The play is the play; Bruce Robinson has created this character, and it's accurate from a biographical point of view, but you have play the music that's in front of you. If you're doing a Mozart opera, you've got to follow the curve of that music."
Of course, it doesn't hurt that Pendleton has done some prior research on Holland in that period. For the 1997 Broadway revival of The Diary of Anne Frank
, in which he starred as meek Mr. Dussel, he may have sat in an attic for the duration of the play, but Pendleton made sure he understood why.
"I did a lot of research on what was going on outside that attic," Pendleton says. "It was pretty horrifying, of course."
Pendleton knows his way around historical drama: Wearing one of his many theatrical hats, he wrote the popular play Orson's Shadow
, about the doomed late-1960s collaboration of Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier on a production of Ionesco's Rhinoceros
"I would never have written that if Judith Auberjonois hadn't asked me to," Pendleton recalls. She had her husband Rene and Alfred Molina in mind to play Olivier and Welles, respectively. By the time Pendleton finished the play three years later, neither actor was available, but it was staged at Steppenwolf and regionally in 2000, then successfully in New York in 2005.
It was a case where a certain lack of information proved liberating.
"I began to read about them, and the only thing I couldn't
find anything about was that one production; I couldn't even find anyone who worked on it. So I thought I would give it a shot and got into it more and more."
Pendleton's career has been marked by such instances of serendipity, chance and unlikely inspiration. His Steppenwolf membership, for instance.
"The first contact I ever had with them was by a fluke," Pendleton recalls. An outside producer saw a play Pendleton directed Off-Broadway in 1979, Ralph Pape's Say Goodnight, Gracie
, and wanted to take it to Chicago. But there were catches on both sides: The play's New York producer would only let the play move only if Pendleton was kept on as the director, and the Chicago producer would only accept that condition if his own special terms were met.
"He said, 'OK, but you have to use the members of this new company called Steppenwolf,' " Pendleton recalls. "At the time, I thought: 'There's a group that actually calls themselves "the Steppenwolf"? That's pathetic. Either they're trying to borrow the energy of a rock group, or, even worse, they've named themselves after the Herman Hesse novel.' I wasn't interested, but the producer insisted.
"So, grumpily I went off to Chicago, and as soon as I began to work with the company, I got swept away by them."
An Ohio native, Pendleton does feel that he's both inherited and cultivated a certain regional style.
"Even when I started in New York, it was with a lot of Chicago actors," Pendleton recalls, listing Barbara Harris and Alan Arkin as two examples. "In between them, I worked with Zero Mostel, who's not from the Midwest, obviously, but from who I certainly learned immediacy. All my early influences had a kind of rawness and intimacy. It's sort of how I got formed."
Click here for more information about Another Vermeer.