Hamish Linklater on writing laughs into a play about death

Hamish Linklater, writer of the new play "The Whirligig."
Hamish Linklater, writer of the new play “The Whirligig.”
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Hamish Linklater, the actor you may have seen in “The New Adventures of Old Christine” or more recently in FX's “Legion” and the new season of “Fargo,” has another role: playwright.

Linklater’s third play, “The Whirligig,” is getting its premiere this month from the New Group at Pershing Square Signature Center. That he makes time to return to the stage isn’t surprising given that he was raised on Shakespeare: His mother, Kristin Linklater, was a founding member of the Shakespeare & Company theater in Massachusetts and first put him on stage there when he was 9.

Linklater, now 40, ducked out of rehearsals to talk about his writing — and baseball. He has Derek Jeter’s No. 2 tattooed on his arm, and he proudly explained how he learned to throw a curve to play Dodger pitcher Ralph Branca in “42” (and bemoaned that he didn't get to pitch on film). Linklater is already at work on his next play, based on the true story of a Nazi actor in Vichy Paris who staged “The Merchant of Venice” as anti-Semitic propaganda, but the focus on this edited conversation was “Whirligig.”

How did you start writing plays?

In 2008 I co-wrote with my then-wife a TV pilot, “Prince of the Motor City,” which was “Hamlet” set in the Ford family. We had this awesome cast — Aiden Quinn as Claudius, Andie MacDowell as Gertrude, Piper Perabo as Ophelia and Rutger Hauer as the ghost — and they shot the freakin’ thing, which was crazy. But it ultimately really wasn’t good.

That was my first bit of writing, and going through that whole studio system — they were lovely people, but very confusing. Then I wrote “The Vandal,” and I got to write in a lot of quiet without studio notes. I’m an only child of a single mother, so that solitude may suit my temperament a little bit better.

What inspired “Whirligig”?

I had written a bunch of scenes and I thought, “I’ve got to make it commercial,” so I came up with this big plot thing and the play totally died because it was a really bad idea. So I put it away.

Then a beloved uncle suddenly died, and a couple of months after that, my father died. And I was in Richmond, Va., shooting a movie and I thought, “I’ve gotta write something. I’m sitting around a lot.” So I got those old scenes out and got rid of the plot and thought, “I’ll just let the characters do what they’re going to do,” and it turned out that the play was about death — but death with jokes. And then Robin Williams died just before I finished the first draft of the play. All of them died a little before they ought to have. So I had a year with people going, “What could we have done differently?”

So you decided to write a play in which everyone feels culpable and guilty and racked with pain.

Yeah, and the play is not about the dying girl but about the survivors and how they are going to take that step out of the shadows, or dance out of the shadows. I like laughing into the void. I think it’s a good way to live your life.

What was the original plot twist?

They had ... I don’t really want to say. [He laughs and hangs his head.] It was really bad.

Did the characters take the play in directions you didn’t expected once you set them free?

Yeah, they kept doing such surprising things. The first play I wrote, I was about two-thirds of the way through and I said, “Oh shoot, this is what has to happen,” and I didn’t totally love the thing that had to happen, but it was where it had to go. This has been so delightful. I didn’t know what the characters would do.

I try to give the actors in my plays parts that are very entertaining, hopefully, to give them big, yummy monologues, to have a lot of emotion to play."

— Hamish Linklater

How does being an actor influence your writing?

I know what gives me joy as an actor. I try to give the actors in my plays parts that are very entertaining, hopefully, to give them big, yummy monologues, to have a lot of emotion to play. I love subtext, the 7/8ths of the iceberg. It’s wonderful for an actor to play. But I want my top eighth to be a fun circus people would want to travel to. During rehearsals, I always want to add in — I call them lines but they’re really just jokes.

Do you hear the play in your head, or do you read what you’ve written out loud?

I do it all out loud to make sure the rhythms make sense. And I’ll go long on the page so when I read it out loud, I’ll go, “Whoa, hey, writer buddy, be a friend to the guy who is actually going to play that part.”

How did growing up with so much Shakespeare influence you as a writer?

The plays I write have a lot of death in them, and that was influenced by the fact that the storyteller I grew up with was writing right out of the plague, with everyone dying or having ferocious romantic love. Those stakes, I really do appreciate — it’s fun to write with that heightened level of danger. So the plague has been a large influence on my work.

And I can write that you compared yourself to Shakespeare.

The thing people criticize Shakespeare most for are his plots, the bad plots of the problem plays, but those are my favorite things, so his plotting has been my big influence, not the great poetry or the wonderful characters. This is definitely a problem play.

Are there Shakespeare plays you still want to do?

“Richard III” is always fun, especially in a nation run by a madman. You want to throw on the hump and get out there. Richard seems like a stand-up, a bipolar, homicidal stand-up. But I want to get through all of them. I’d love to do more new plays too. I’d love to do theater 24/7. I’ve been so grateful for the TV and film work. It has been great and challenging and afforded me the chance to do plays and have family. Just carving out the time to do this — that was a massive negotiation. .

Do you ever think of casting yourself in one of your plays?

I’m definitely in all of these characters. But even though I’m a ridiculous extrovert bloviator and narcissist, I still can’t wrap my head around asking people to pay to listen to words I wrote come out of my actual mouth. That’s one step too far.

What are you reading these days?

Swimming through the Elena Ferrante novels. Pure pleasure, can’t look away from them.

What are you listening to?

Not enough new music because my iPhone has no memory. Stuck in a first-term Obama administration playlist. Not the worst place to be.

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