“I don’t know what I was thinking--I thought I could whip off a musical in between shooting and editing a film,” Matthew Broderick says with a laugh during a break in the second week of rehearsals for the La Jolla Playhouse revival of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” which opens today.
“It seems like I either have more work than I can handle or none at all, and I’ve been on a roll since ‘The Night We Never Met.’
“A roll, of course, can be a positive thing or a boulder going downhill,” adds the 32-year-old actor, who also has featured roles in Alan Parker’s “The Road to Wellville,” which opened Friday, and Alan Rudolph’s “Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle,” out Dec. 21 in Los Angeles.
As if that weren’t enough, Broderick is also making his directorial debut this year with “Infinity"--a film in which he also stars--about Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, based on a script by Broderick’s mother, Patricia Broderick. “Infinity,” which also stars Patricia Arquette, wrapped in early September, leaving Broderick just enough time to catch a plane to San Diego to begin rehearsals for “How to Succeed.” When the musical closes on Dec. 4, Broderick will race to Los Angeles to spend six weeks editing “Infinity,” then it’s off to Washington, where previews for “How to Succeed” begin Jan. 28. That will be followed by an engagement of the play on Broadway, where it is to open March 6.
“How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” a scathing attack on corporate America based on the 1952 best-selling novel by Shepherd Mead, finds Broderick cast as J. Pierrepont Finch, an unctuous young man who approaches brown-nosing as an art form. The musical, with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser, opened on Broadway in 1961 and made a star of Robert Morse, who also starred in David Swift’s 1967 movie of the play.
The part demands a lot of Broderick, who is called upon to sing and dance onstage for the first time as he portrays a character who could easily come off as repulsive if not given the proper shading.
The fact that he has a daunting year of work stretching ahead of him may account in part for Broderick’s subdued demeanor at today’s rehearsal. This isn’t to say that Broderick isn’t up to the job; when director Des McAnuff gives the signal and the cast springs into action, Broderick lights up like a Christmas tree.
He is, however, clearly a man who knows not to squander his energy, to speak softly, pay attention and give what is asked of him with as much precision as possible. He is, in short, a team player, and the team he’s working with here seems quite fond of him.
“Matthew is a total delight, and I’m having a great time with him,” says McAnuff, a director known for his ability to breathe new life into threadbare material. “I felt no trepidation at all about his ability to carry a musical, either, because he has a beautiful singing voice and he’s a tremendous actor. The greatest performances in musicals have generally come from actors, not from singers who act, and he’s done tremendously well so far.
“Bobby Morse gave one of the great performances of the time in the original production, but Matthew brings a different style of comedy to the role,” McAnuff continues. “He has a truthful acting style that elevates the play, he’s mercurial, impish and bold in his comedy choices, and he infuses the play with sophistication and charm. Without a lot of charm, this character wouldn’t be interesting. Matthew has charm to burn, but he’s also a man of substance, which the character he’s playing definitely is not. . . . An actor needs some distance from his material, and the fact that Matthew is so unlike Finch is part of what makes him great for the part.”
A fascination with Finch isn’t what attracted Broderick to the play. He’s here, he says, simply because “I’ve always wanted to do a musical and was attracted to this one because it’s really funny and it has great songs.”
“Bobby Morse got discovered with this play, and people keep saying to me, ‘He was such a phenomenon in the part; aren’t you afraid to try to follow him?’ ” adds the actor, nibbling at the tuna sandwich that will sustain him through five more hours of vigorous rehearsing. (One would imagine he’d be training like an athlete for this grueling role, but he says he’s just relying on lots of coffee to get through the day.) “My career isn’t gonna end or be made on this play, because I’m a known entity.
“I’ve always wanted to sing and took loads of voice lessons before we started because I had a lot of apprehension about it. I tried to do some singing for ‘The Lion King’ (Broderick was the voice of Simba), and after three attempts they fired me and got somebody who sounded like me to do the singing. That didn’t do much for my confidence. Then my singing teacher, Keith Davis, died four days before we started rehearsing.”
Though the play is obviously a creative risk for Broderick in many ways, the real risk it presents lies in the fact that the boyish, bubbly Finch has a lot in common with Ferris Bueller, the title character in the 1986 film “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”
“I think I’ve almost gotten past being typecast as Ferris Bueller, but this play isn’t going to help that, because it’s basically the same role. Nonetheless, if I have to put a gun to their heads, audiences will accept me in adult roles,” he says with a laugh. “Actually, adult roles are the only thing I’ve done for the past few years--nobody’s noticed though, because none of them have been too successful.”
True, Broderick has been playing adults of late, but they’ve all been adults of a certain type. What type might that be? Nice is a word that comes to mind. . . .
“I haven’t consciously avoided playing evil characters or being in violent films, but I tend to not like those scripts when I read them and don’t like seeing those kinds of films,” he says. “I think I could play evil characters, but the way this business works is, if you’re successful at something, everybody wants you to keep doing it again--you know: ‘Let’s get that Ferris Bueller guy.’ A couple of times I’ve been sent evil characters, but even then, they’re usually lovable boyish types who happen to murder women.”
Broderick does move in a slightly darker direction, though, in “Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle,” Alan Rudolph’s revisionist view of writer Dorothy Parker and the other legendary New York wits of the Algonquin Round Table. Broderick, cast as writer Charles MacArthur, a notorious rake who broke Parker’s heart, employs his boyish charm here to suggest something dark and manipulative.
“Charles isn’t evil, but he’s weak; he’s a cad basically and is an alcoholic, as everybody in the film is. This should be a winner--a bunch of suicidal alcoholics,” Broderick says with a laugh. “Anyhow, getting the part was a nice break for me because I don’t usually get these kinds of roles.”
Says Rudolph of his decision to cast Broderick: “I wanted Matthew for the part because he’s never played a rogue before, but I knew he had it in him. He really delivered too. People who see the film invariably tell me, somewhat surprised, ‘Gee, Matthew’s so sexy.’
“He has it in him to be one of the most rounded acting talents of his generation; he has the depth and charm of the classic Hollywood legends. He was a huge star before he was 25 years old, and we’ve just seen the tip of the iceberg of what he’s capable of.”
Broderick’s character in “The Road to Wellville"--the film based on the novel of the same name by T. C. Boyle--is more in keeping with parts he has played before. The fictionalized account of life at the San, a health clinic built in Battle Creek, Mich., at the turn of the century by corn flake magnate John Harvey Kellogg, finds Broderick cast as Will Lightbody, a sexually frustrated husband with a gullible, gorgeous wife played by Bridget Fonda, who leads him around by the nose.
“It’s a reactive role, but it had so much to react to,” Broderick says of Will Lightbody. “I envisioned the character as a whining 5-year-old who was always throwing tantrums. In fact, I have a picture of myself making a painting when I was 5 years old, and I have paint dripping all over my legs and look like a crazy man--I wanted some of that in this performance.”
Parker wanted Broderick not so much for ability to telegraph craziness but because, he says, “Matthew’s capable of great subtlety, and you never see the joints in his acting. He brought a gentleness to this part too that was better than how it was written, and I think that’s a big part of why he’s a movie star--there’s a gentleness to Matthew that people simply like. I hate to gush, but he really is an extraordinary gentleman and is a delight to work with. He’s extremely unspoiled considering that he’s been doing this since he was very young.”
Broderick was born in New York City in 1962, the youngest of three children. He essentially grew up in the theater: His father, James Broderick, was an actor, and his mother, Patricia (Biow) Broderick, a playwright and director.
“I had an arty upbringing,” he says. “My mother is well read, so the conversation in the house was pretty cultured, and I went to the theater when my father was in it. We went to museums a lot; I spent time in Europe, and for a period I considered becoming an artist--I used to love drawing and still do.
“Initially I thought I might want to have some kind of backstage job because the first thing I fell in love with was the environment of the theater more than acting itself. I was a shy kid who didn’t like being the center of attention. Well, actually, part of me loved it.
“The first movie that made an impression on me was Charlie Chaplin’s ‘Modern Times.’ I thought it was hilarious and romantic and loved everything about it. I idolized Chaplin and loved the way he moved--in fact, I used to make paintings of him. I started out wanting to be a comedic actor, and it never occurred to me to also pursue directing, as Chaplin did. And now, having done it, I’d think twice before attempting it again. Making ‘Infinity’ was rough, and I barely got through it.”
After he graduated from high school in 1980, Broderick auditioned for Uta Hagen at Herbert Berghof’s H.B. Studio in New York City. He was accepted, and that year he made his theater debut in an Off-Broadway production of Horton Foote’s “On Valentine’s Day,” playing opposite his father.
“I was terrified and wasn’t very good. It was my first play, and I had trouble acting with my father--I couldn’t get past the fact that my father was yelling at me in this Southern accent,” he says.
Broderick must have been better than he remembers because things happened fast for him after that. In 1981 he was cast in Harvey Fierstein’s “Torch Song Trilogy,” and the year after that his career really took off.
“In 1982 I did Neil Simon’s ‘Brighton Beach Memoirs’ on Broadway, and when it was opening, my first movie, ‘Max Dugan Returns,’ came out,” he recalls. “That film wasn’t too successful, but then ‘WarGames,’ which was successful, came out right when I won the Tony for ‘Brighton Beach’ in 1983.
“One would assume I look back on this as a great time, but this was all happening around the time my father died, so mostly it was a terrible time for me,” he says softly. “I was very close to my father, and I found out he was dying the night of the first preview of ‘Torch Song Trilogy.’ Then when I was shooting ‘WarGames’ and ‘Max Dugan Returns’ in L.A., I was flying back weekends to be with him.
I guess I dealt with his death by staying busy, but I don’t know. . . . Would it have been better not to work and to have been home all the time? I hoped he’d like seeing that his son was going to make a living, and he was very excited about ‘Brighton.’ This sounds like a movie, but he managed to live until I had the first reading of the play and called him from L.A. and told him it had gone well. He died the next night (Nov. 1, 1982).
“I don’t know how it changed me, losing him. I’ve thought about that a lot, and I think it made me shut down for a long time. A big part of my life was just not dealt with because I couldn’t deal with it, and it took a couple of years for me to even admit what had happened and get upset about it. It’s funny what time does, though. It’s been 12 years since my father died, and you kind of get over it even without knowing you are. It just sort of fades away, which is sad.”
Broderick completed 10 films in the next eight years, all of which were successful enough to keep him in the game. His stock went up considerably in 1986 with the release of “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” and he got the co-star of his life in 1990 when he was cast opposite Marlon Brando in the Andrew Bergman comedy “The Freshman.”
“When I met Marlon Brando, I was pretty shaken up for a while, but I got over that and just grew to adore him. He was great,” says Broderick, who turned in what many consider the best performance of his career in that film.
Broderick made “The Freshman” after a serious automobile accident in Ireland in 1987. He suffered a severely broken leg and other injuries when the car he was driving collided with another, killing its two occupants. Broderick was charged with manslaughter and reckless driving but was cleared of both.
“I feel more like an adult now,” he says, reflecting on how the accident affected him. “Obviously, it was extremely difficult coming to grips with what happened, but in time I felt better about that terrible experience. I went to a therapist, and he helped. Unfortunately, my therapist died of cancer about a year after the accident.
“I’ve experienced a lot of death,” he adds, “but experiencing it doesn’t make you any more comfortable with it. I wish I had some holy, accepting attitude about it, but I don’t--I just wish it didn’t happen. Yes, you get over it and move on, but you’re not the same and they’re not there. They’re really not there.”
O ne would assume that trau matic experiences of this sort are made doubly difficult by being in the public eye, however, Broderick appears to have made peace with the vagaries of life as a public figure. “Fame has a life of its own that has little to do with the person himself: We’re like fictional characters that get into peoples’ consciousness, and I don’t see that as good or bad. That’s just the way it is.
“People have been staring at me when I’m in public for about 10 years and I’ve learned to tune it out, but I have no idea how it’s affected my personality. At first it was exciting, then for a while it pissed me off and I was nasty to people, and now I’m a blank--I’m polite but I don’t connect to anybody. It’s ironic, because when people approach me, they usually want to tell me they like my work, and that’s exactly what you want. But something inside shuts down that prevents you from being engaged by those encounters.
“It’s an occupational hazard that once you become famous you become cut off from normal life. I see films sometimes where two movie stars are in the supermarket shopping, and I think to myself, ‘Wow, she probably hasn’t been in a supermarket in years.’
“People who don’t know me often assume I have a swollen head, and I find myself endlessly trying to prove I’m normal. The most widely held misconception about famous actors is that they’re all in love with themselves--lots of actors are extremely self-conscious. My girlfriend (actress Sarah Jessica Parker) goes to the gym and comes home moaning that she’s out of shape, and she has a beautiful body.”
Speaking of Parker, how come she keeps talking to the media about her struggle to get the actor to marry her?
“I love it when she does that,” he says wryly. “I don’t know why she does that--want to call her? It’s become a shtick almost. My love life is fine, but I’m not gonna blab about it. I’ll leave that to Sarah.”
In parting, one asks Broderick what he feels is the most rewarding part of all the work with which he is currently deluged. What’s the payoff?
“There’s a rush from being the new guy, which is what happened for me in ’82 with ‘Brighton Beach,’ ” he replies after a long, thoughtful pause. “I loved the part; I felt fully used and could sense myself flying into something. I’d get huge laughs and big applause--I just felt great. But after you’ve done this work for a while, you have to find your fun in a different place because you’re no longer anybody’s ‘discovery’ and you’re probably gonna get your fair share of negative criticism.
“You have to love the work itself, and I do--it’s my life really,” he says. “I can remember the first play I did when I was 15. Nervous as I was onstage, I could feel I belonged there. This isn’t to say I’m the best actor in the world, but I do know that I’m an actor.”