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Lunch With Spalding Gray

Spalding Gray feels regret.

He says this on a breezy spring afternoon while having lunch outside Figtree’s Cafe at Venice Beach. Gray, the 61-year-old actor and monologuist, has come to Los Angeles to perform and, as always, he is drawn to the sea because it relaxes him and provides an opportunity to walk rather than drive. He prefers a pedestrian perspective. In Los Angeles, he once said, the mind-set is a “35-mph consciousness,” meaning that Angelenos couldn’t properly register anything not moving that fast. He voiced this observation a dozen years ago in his “Monster in a Box” monologue while artist-in-residence at the Mark Taper Forum.

Many of the performers providing the backdrop to our conversation on the Venice boardwalk have been here for years, he notes. Hari, the Kundalini yogi-attired, guitar-playing roller-blader, remains a moving fixture on this concrete. The boardwalk reminds Gray of his beloved Washington Square Park in New York City. In a strange bicoastal exchange, he recounts how he was surprised to discover that a flame-swallowing performer, appropriately called The Fireman, disappeared from the Village for months only to resurface on the Venice boardwalk during Gray’s residence in Southern California in the late 1980s.

Gray grew up in coastal Rhode Island and now lives in Sag Harbor on Long Island, so it comes as little surprise that the sand and waves provide an antidote to the anxiety that runs through his life and work. This anxiety seems particularly acute since last summer, when he was involved in a near-fatal car crash in Ireland. Gray’s wife, Kathie, was driving him and a group of friends home after dinner when their car was struck by a veterinarian assistant’s van in the rural area of Westmeath, west of Dublin. Gray suffered a fractured skull, broken hip and nerve damage to his leg. While he usually has difficulty offering anyone advice, he would recommend that people always wear their seat belts.

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“It’s strange, but this one time I didn’t use it,” he says. “I always use the seat belt in the back of taxis in New York.” Gray was riding in the back seat and received injuries far more severe than the other occupants. “I’m going through this strong period of regret now. I’m worried that some unconscious part is doing it to myself, is demolishing my happiness. And the accident was something that was on some level carelessness in the sense of me not wearing my seat belt. So I regret that. I can’t get to a place where I’m angry at the man who hit me because I’m still blaming myself.”

Gray was taken to a country hospital. “Where were all the Irish doctors?” he wondered as his Pakistani doctors suggested that he remain in traction for six weeks and administered morphine. As the drugs waned and the intense pain returned, Gray agonized over the right word for what he might be feeling. Depression seemed too run-of-the-mill, so he mentioned to the nurse that he might be feeling, using a polite Yankee term, “a bit blue.”

“Why would you be blue, Mr. Gray?” the nurse replied. “You Americans are too health conscious. An Irishman wouldn’t give it a second thought that he’s had this accident.”

Gray remembers the hospital being full of Irishmen who seemed to have been in car accidents. He also recalls that they were fond of talking on their cellular phones all day long. It was not an easy place to rest and recuperate. His attempts at getting some healthier food than the institutional fare proved too much for the nurse. One day she walked in while Gray was having some greens that someone had brought him as a snack.

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“Eating spinach out of a bag?” she exclaimed. “Now I’ve really seen it all!”

“My other bit of advice,” Gray confides, “is that you should travel with an American Express Platinum Card that pays for you to medevac out of a foreign country if you’re injured.”

No doubt culture shock is a strange sensation for a man who has traveled to the ends of the earth to discover who he is and where he’s from. When Gray first managed a proper vacation, his mother committed suicide. While she permeates much of his work, and often informs his sense of regret, the master of primal narcissistic nonfiction tried to write a novel from the most painful part of his origins. Published in 1992, it is called “Impossible Vacation.”

“Steven Soderbergh said my character in his film [‘Gray’s Anatomy,’ 1996] was ruled by regret. It’s frightening because he had read ‘Impossible Vacation’ and said that the character in that was ruled by regret.

“The problem with regret is that it keeps you from living in the present.”

To complicate matters, Gray’s return to Los Angeles this spring was part of an anniversary tour of his best-known monologue, “Swimming to Cambodia”; it describes his experiences in Southeast Asia while acting in Roland Joffe’s award-winning 1984 film “The Killing Fields.” He has found it difficult to revisit such an older work when he’s trying to come to terms with recent events and would like to begin developing these thoughts into a new monologue. He doesn’t have a title for it yet, which he fears may be a bad sign, but it may be his funniest work to date--judging by portions that he incorporated into an introduction to his March performance of “Swimming to Cambodia.”

Unfortunately, since he first performed “Swimming to Cambodia” in 1986, the film’s Academy Award-winning Cambodian actor Haing Ngor was killed in a 1996 robbery outside his home in downtown Los Angeles. Gray remembers how different Ngor was from the other cast members, many of whom had to be flown from their new homes in Long Beach to the film location in Thailand because the Khmer Rouge had killed almost all of the actors who remained in Cambodia. While many of the refugees were cautious and fearful to tell their stories, Ngor had a palpable anger and could speak passionately about the atrocities and hardships he and his people had endured.

When Gray came to Los Angeles in the 1980s to develop his show “L.A.: The Other” that would later become part of “Monster in a Box,” Gray hoped to interview residents who weren’t involved in the entertainment industry. Among those he spoke with were Cambodian refugees in Long Beach, and the experience reminded him of how protective and private they were. When one woman complained about the way people drive in L.A., she approached him after the interview and asked that he not use any of their taped conversation.

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The person who made the strongest impression was an elderly Japanese American named Raymond Hirai. His family moved to Los Angeles when he was 4, and he still lived in the downtown neighborhood where he grew up. He and his family were put in an internment camp at Santa Anita Park during World War II. Later, Hirai’s main source of income was winnings from bets placed on races at Santa Anita. His secret was to go into the paddocks and look the horses in the eye. He won thousands of dollars but said that some days he would lose intentionally.

“He called it ‘throwing fish back into the sea,’ ” Gray says. “I asked him how he felt safe traveling in his skid row neighborhood with all that money, and he just grabbed me here,” Gray says, indicating the fleshy skin between his thumb and forefinger. “And I collapsed to the floor” in pain. He regrets that he never accepted Hirai’s invitation to accompany him to the racetrack.

Gray kept finding that everyone in L.A. had some connection to the entertainment industry. Even Hirai mentioned meeting Charlie Chaplin and being friends with William Holden. Some simply lied about their Hollywood aspirations. A waitress at Canter’s Deli insisted she had nothing to do with the film business. As Gray prepared to leave, she handed him a script she’d written.

“It was a killer-whale love story,” he says, shaking his head.

as we finish lunch, an odd-looking couple parades down the boardwalk. The blond man resembles Benny Hill and is dressed in a red velvet robe and wears a gold crown. The overweight woman is in a turquoise gown that looks more like a fairy godmother’s outfit. They wave regally at the passersby and then take out a video camera and film themselves.

“Do you think they’re tourists?” Gray asks.

He remembers that driving is one of the most unpleasant aspects of living in Los Angeles and recalls the one-hour round-trip journey he made two times a week from his house in Los Feliz to a psychoanalyst in Century City. (After a performance of “Monster in a Box” in Washington, D.C., years ago, a representative from a national mental health organization called to ask if he’d serve as their national spokesperson because she’d “never heard anyone so articulate about their mental illness.” He declined.)

Gray says the therapy was a highlight of his time in California, except for the commute. “I’d have a breakthrough. But then I’d have to get back into the car and drive for a half-hour. Since I do some of my best writing after a session, I’d lose the energy of the material by the time I got home.”

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Still, he enjoyed acting in Los Angeles, at least he did before the accident, which has made him hesitant to travel because he still requires physical therapy. His extended guest run in the ‘90s as Dr. Jack Miller on the CBS sitcom “The Nanny” was particularly enjoyable. Last year he appeared in the hip-hop movie “How High” and the romantic comedy “Kate & Leopold.”

Gray lowers his sunglasses so he can get some light to help with his seasonal affective disorder. Sunlight is an advantage that Los Angeles has over New York, he says, but he finds that the weather has its downside as well: “Too much sun and the lack of the seasons. I just about had a nervous breakdown when I lived out here.”

As we watch the foot traffic, Gray describes how the local car culture keeps people from interacting. He calls them “vicarians.”

The wind is picking up now and Gray regrets that he didn’t bring a sweater. He’s worried he might catch a cold, a condition that could have been serious only months before, when his sinus cavity was fractured in the accident. He’s concerned that getting sick would prevent him from performing. He has no understudy. That’s the unique challenge of a one-man show.

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E.D. Maytum last wrote for the magazine about waiting in line at the DMV.


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