Pulling double duty
It’s Monday, Nov. 5, the first day of the writers strike, and Adrian Pasdar has time for lunch. With production for his NBC series “Heroes” shutting down behind picket lines and rehearsals for his new musical “Atlanta” off for the day, the actor and neophyte stage director is suddenly, temporarily, at liberty. He has not been at liberty for months, and it feels good.
“The strike could not have happened at a better time,” he says, seated at a window table at M Cafe de Chaya on Melrose. Pasdar says this not in celebration but in relief, as a man with a family holding down two high-pressure (albeit well-paying) jobs and telling himself every day that things are going to work out, some way, somehow. He has grown close to the cast and crew of “Heroes,” but he is also trying to direct the world premiere of a Civil War musical he’s co-written (with Nashville songwriter Marcus Hummon; it opens Wednesday at the Geffen Playhouse). An athletic and energetic man of 42, Pasdar nevertheless would be within the bounds of reason to say, “Do not try this at home -- or in Hollywood.”
He does not say this, but under the circumstances he did enlist Geffen artistic director Randall Arney to co-direct the show. Still, he wants to be there as much as possible. “Because I wrote it,” Pasdar says at lunch. “There’s some subtlety and nuance to the characters. Though it’s very simple and very straightforward -- which is what I appreciate in theater -- it can be interpreted in different ways, and would prefer that it be interpreted my way.”
The “Atlanta” cast of seven is headed by Broadway veterans Ken Barnett (“Wonderful Town”), who plays a Yankee soldier passing for a rebel behind enemy lines, and Merle Dandridge (“Tarzan,” “Rent”), cast as a slave and thespian serving to entertain a Shakespeare-loving Confederate colonel played by former NEA-non-approved performance artist John Fleck. Fellow “Heroes” ensemble member Leonard Roberts plays another member of the colonel’s traveling slave troupe.
Pasdar, who grew up in Philadelphia, the son of an Iranian-born heart surgeon and a nurse, got the idea for “Atlanta” seven years ago, based on the notion of a soldier finding a love letter inside the coat of an enemy he has killed and becoming obsessed with the object of his enemy’s affection. He happened to mention this at a dinner party in Texas attended by Hummon, who had written songs for the Dixie Chicks -- whose lead singer is Natalie Maines, Pasdar’s wife.
“I think Marcus and I were in the kitchen, washing dishes,” Pasdar says, “and when I told that story, Marcus said he thought he might want to do something with that.”
Hummon, a top-drawer songwriter whose credits include “Bless the Broken Road” for Rascal Flatts and “Only Love” for Wynonna Judd, as well as “Ready to Run” and “Cowboy Take Me Away” for the Dixie Chicks, was already interested in theater and had workshopped two musicals in Nashville and New York.
A student of the Civil War, Hummon started composing songs to go with the story, blending elements of bluegrass, gospel, blues and folk music to match the region and the period, setting the fictional events at the real battle of Peachtree Creek outside Atlanta near the end of the war.
“He’s a storyteller,” Pasdar says of Hummon. “He came up with the idea of a play within a play. And the music kind of flowed out of that.”
After Hummon mounted a small production of “Atlanta” on his own in Nashville, he came to Los Angeles two years ago to work with Pasdar on revising and improving it. “He immediately made some great changes,” Hummon says later.
Pasdar says he was not familiar with the attempts by pop composers Randy Newman and Paul Simon to create successful stage musicals and was not an aficionado of musical theater in general. “But I loved ‘The Lion King.’ I remember crying at ‘The Circle of Life.’ I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to deliver something like that with a linear narrative that’s more play-based, not musical-based? And how would you do that?’ ”
Until “Heroes” came along, Pasdar and Maines lived on a ranch in Texas, where Maines and the other two Dixie Chicks, Martie Maguire and Emily Robison, grew up and first performed. When Pasdar was a regular on the PAX television series “Mysterious Ways,” which filmed in Vancouver, he commuted every weekend back to Austin.
“We’re here now,” he says, “because the children are in school, and Natalie is recording here as well, and ‘Heroes’ is here. I’d rather take a pragmatic approach to living than the aesthetic approach of living in Texas. It just wasn’t very cost-effective.”
Pasdar is inclined to modesty about his own acting talent, and when praising Dandridge of the “Atlanta” cast, he characteristically does so at his own expense. “She’s a star. She’s got that thing, that thing that I don’t have, God-given, like my wife.”
Shaping the vision
On the morning of the second day of rehearsals for “Atlanta,” the cast sat at long folding tables arranged in the shape of a rectangle as they read through the script. Pasdar and Arney took their place together at one end of the rectangle, stopping the reading now and then to give notes. Also there were Hummon and Kay Cole, the choreographer.
Pasdar spun a small football in his hands as he took the lead in offering direction. He asked and answered questions in a strong, clear voice as the group settled into finding the tone and style of the piece, which carries the theme that “love is color blind.”
“Col. Medraut, sir? We got one. A deserter. We caught a deserter.”
The speaker was Travis Johns, the actor playing the colonel’s first lieutenant and lackey. Johns was uncertain just how obsequious his character should sound.
“He’s not dumb,” Pasdar told him. “You’ve got the right idea. Let’s continue.”
Fleck, already well inside of the skin of the unctuous colonel, is improbably trying to arrange a reading of Shakespeare as Sherman’s Union forces bear down on the Rebels.
“I thought I made myself abundantly clear when I said that I do not wish to be interrupted when I am listening to the words of the Bard,” Fleck says. The willowy actor seems to have spoken the line just right.
“When John auditioned,” Pasdar says, “he was antithetical to what we had written -- that’s why he stood out. He showed me what the character was. I said, ‘That’s’ interesting, a guy playing at being a colonel.’ ”
Though they had never worked together, Pasdar and Arney have known each other for some time, which prompted Pasdar to think of taking the show to the Geffen (and agreeing to wait almost two years for an opening in the schedule).
“Co-directing could be a nightmare if you didn’t agree about how to do it,” Pasdar says, acknowledging that he and Arney have different personal styles. “We have two completely different approaches -- I’m much more pointed and direct in terms of talking to the actors.”
“He’s an actor himself,” Arney says, “so he knows how to talk to actors.”
Arney is also an actor, but his style as a director appears more avuncular and reassuring. And he brings the hard-earned knowledge of years in the theater. It was Arney who, as artistic director of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater, commissioned Frank Galati to adapt John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” that went on to win the 1990 Tony Award for best play.
Later, when JoNell Kennedy, who plays the mysterious title character, Atlanta, asks about her relationship with the masquerading Yankee soldier, Pasdar reminds her and the rest of the cast of how powerful love letters must have been in an age before the iPhone and instant messaging -- a detail that was, in fact, the seed of his inspiration for the story.
The flying politician
In “Heroes,” the supernatural series that won Monday nights for NBC last season, Pasdar plays a New York congressman, Nathan Petrelli, who can fly. Like other “Heroes” characters blessed mysteriously with superhuman traits, Nathan doesn’t advertise his special feature, knowing it would disturb his constituents.
“He’s somebody who has a secret, somebody who you like but don’t trust 100%,” Pasdar says now about Nathan, while steering his late-model Porsche over the hill to NBC Universal, where, strike or no strike, he needs to “loop,” or overdub, a few lines of dialogue for an upcoming episode. Earlier he used the same phrase to describe the way he is regarded in Hollywood. “I can play somebody with a secret,” he said, adding with surprising self-effacement, “I don’t consider myself much of an actor. I have a face and a voice that allows me to do certain things, but there are people who are way better at it than I am.”
OK, not something you hear every day from an actor -- especially one who has appeared in a dozen feature films and as many TV shows, even if they weren’t all Oscar and Emmy contenders. But recalling his audition, he says he had a premonition he would get the part. “It was in a trailer on the back of the lot. There were two guys ahead of me. I’m not superstitious, but I had a feeling that the next guy who walked through that door was going to get the job. I said, ‘Guys, I’m so sorry, but I’ve got to get over to Disney, can I go first?’ They said, ‘Yeah, no problem.’ ”
Arriving at the studio now, Pasdar eases the car past the picketers and offers a friendly wave of solidarity.
“How ya doin’, man?” he says to the guard, flashing his ID.
The sight of the picketers turns his thoughts back to the strike and what is at stake. He questions the studio’s position of not sharing more of its revenue, citing “Heroes” as a case in point. “There’s 17 minutes of commercials in an hour show,” he says. “So, 34 commercials -- at $330,000 a 30-second spot. So, you’re talking about $10 million gross for an hour of ‘Heroes,’ and the [production] budget is $3 [million] to $4 million” per show. “So, that’s $6 [million] to $7 million gross profit” per show. “That’s a lot of money.”
He adds, “Over the course of 22 episodes . . . ,” but doesn’t feel the need to finish the calculation.
Inside the soundstage, Pasdar runs into Sendhil Ramamurthy, who plays an Indian scientist on “Heroes,” and the two embrace warmly and wonder when they will see each other again.
“Hey, I’m doing a musical at the Geffen,” Pasdar says. “Why don’t you come?”
When he gets down to work, Pasdar does some stretching exercises, then stands in front of a microphone and a large screen playing the scenes he needs to dub. For two scenes, he only needs to breathe heavily, matching his comatose posture on a hospital gurney. In another he is flying over New York City, clutching his brother (Milo Anthony Ventimiglia) but beseeching him to let go. “Peter!” he shouts into the mike again and again until he and the engineers agree it sounds right. Then, on the screen above, his brother slips, drifts away and explodes.
“It just keeps getting bigger,” Pasdar says, referring to the scale of this season of “Heroes,” which has drawn some bad marks from critics who liked it better last season. We are headed back through the hills along a shortcut that would take him to one more stop in Hollywood. “One lesson we learned this year is that big doesn’t always mean better. Being intimate, caring about people, is what makes better television.”
Not far above Sunset, he points to a corner lot largely hidden by shrubs and greenery. “That’s Gary Oldman’s house.” Then he says, “I used to live across the street in that [crummy] little box. That’s where I edited the movie I made with Chris Penn,” the 1999 “Cement,” a low-budget retelling of “Othello” that he directed.
“He was a good friend of mine, Chris Penn. I was one of his pallbearers.”
A few minutes later, at the Sunset-Gower studios, where the “Heroes” main offices are located, he steers his car toward a gate flanked by more picket-sign-toting writers. He lowers the window. “I support you 100%.”
He has been asked to sign trading cards for charity. On the second floor of an old building that once belonged to Columbia Pictures, he encounters production assistants, actor James Kyson Lee and director Greg Beeman. It is the first day of the strike, but everyone seems to be packing up, preparing for a long separation. “Are you picking up the vibe?” Pasdar asks me.
Amid hugs and good wishes, he invites Beeman and others to the opening of “Atlanta.” “Do you like musicals? “It’s more of a play with music,” he says. “I hope you’ll come.” Back in the car, Pasdar hands me an iPhone and cues up a music video he directed for Charlie Robison, a friend and Texas songwriter and husband of Dixie Chick Emily Robison. Pasdar met Maines at their wedding. The song is “El Cerrito Place,” a rueful ballad about a humble guy searching for a lover he lost at a party for pretty people in L.A.
It’s a fetching song, but not one you would likely hear on megawatt country radio. “That kind of music -- to me, that’s country,” he says.
“It’s roots music,” Hummon has said about his songs for “Atlanta.” And while Pasdar may not know the tradition of the Broadway musical, he seems to know the difference between paint-by-numbers emotion and authentic.
“I’m looking forward to getting back to it,” Pasdar says, about the next morning’s rehearsals at the Geffen. His day of liberty -- or something like it -- is nearly over. “Marcus and I own this material, which is the best part,” he says, contrasting the side of him that belongs to the theater with the side that belongs to television. “It’s nice having final say over just about everything and certainly makes life easier.”
Where: Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays
Ends: Jan. 6
Price: $35 to $115
Contact: (310) 208-5454