Actor Michael O’Keefe is between performances as he sits down for a quick bite in his dressing room. He’s just come offstage at the Pasadena Playhouse, where he appears as Serge, a would-be art collector in the three-person play “Art.” In the comedy, O’Keefe’s character happily spends 200,000 Euros, or about $263,000, on a gleaming post-modern abstraction: a canvas painted entirely white.
One of his friends, Marc (played by Bradley Whitford), is horrified. Another, Yvan (Roger Bart), is ambivalent and in a panic about his wedding. In real life, O’Keefe has some minimalist art in a downtown Los Angeles loft he describes as “slightly Zen, slightly mid-century modern.” But while Serge’s crisp blazer hangs nearby, O’Keefe, 56, is now back in a comfortable denim jacket, winding down from a matinee and preparing for the night’s next performance.
“Art,” a Tony-winning play by Yasmina Reza, is O’Keefe’s first live theater production in four years. But he’s been a working actor for more than three decades in film, television and on stage, and has shared screen time with the likes of Bette Davis, Jack Nicholson and George Clooney. An Academy Award nomination came early, for 1979’s “The Great Santini,” but O’Keefe might be most recognized as the young caddy in the insane 1980 golf comedy “Caddyshack.”
How has this play been for you?
It's really been fun, and these guys, especially, are hilarious. When they asked me to do it, I jumped all over it.
What brings you back to live theater?
The cool thing about doing a play is that the final interpretation of a piece is turned over to the actors. It's a leap of faith with the writer and producers and directors to say, “OK, guys, we're going to let you have it.” A lot of us go back into theater because you learn so much on the journey.
Did seeing another actor in your role during the 1998 Broadway production of “Art” inform your own performance?
T.S. Eliot used to talk about this: If you see somebody do something you like, steal it and make it your own. Just poach it. Having seen Victor Garber do the part, I was taking notes for sure. Victor is an incredibly elegant actor and he has this kind of sophistication and aplomb to whatever he does. That probably did influence me a lot because I'm not that kind of guy. I'm a little more steak and potatoes.
How would you describe Serge, your character in the play?
He's successful, genuinely interested in art for the right reasons, likes being part of that community, likes being financially secure enough to dump 200 grand on a painting and not lose his shirt. At the same time, there's the other Serge that he's not aware of — which Marc is aware of — which is: “You're a dermatologist. If I had a skin problem, I’d come to you. If I was interested in art, I'd go to a museum. I wouldn't talk to you.” In that regard, he's somewhat oblivious.
You’ve made two movies with Jack Nicholson in your career – “Ironweed” and “The Pledge.”
He's one of the reasons I wanted to be an actor. “Five Easy Pieces” got to me pretty good. I remember seeing it and thinking, “That is so cool. I would love to be able to do that.” Less than 20 years later, I'm in a movie playing his son.
How was the experience of working with Robert Duvall in “The Great Santini”?
To this day it’s probably the most important experience I ever had as an actor: We have a confrontation. It was five o’clock in the morning by the time we finished. It was exhausting. It was the emotional high point of the whole film. Bobby took my hand. He didn’t say anything. He just kept shaking my hand and he kept looking at me. There was this implicit message: You did pretty good tonight. If we keep this up, we just might have a little movie on our hands. I walked away and I felt like a different person.
Right around the same time was “Caddyshack.” How was working with Bill Murray and Chevy Chase?
They are just these instinctive comedy monsters. They’re comedy omnivores. They eat it up and spit it out. Making “Caddyshack” was like an exercise in controlled chaos.
More recently, you were in “Michael Clayton.”
George Clooney was everything you hoped he would be. He’s gracious, he wears this whole movie star thing very lightly. He takes what he does very seriously, but not himself very seriously. He’s a very astute director in his own right. That was a dream come true.
You’re also a writer and a poet, and you recently completed your first novel. What inspired that?
There is something mysterious about it. I'm as intrigued today by good writing as I was when I was a teenager discovering it. I was intrigued by the [Beat Generation writers]. I love acting and I love the collaborative nature of it, and I love working on film, TV and theater. But I really like my solitude. When you're an actor, it's not unusual to be unemployed for months at a time. I have a whole skill set based on unemployment. [laughs] I would be thrilled if I could sell this first novel, and then get onto the second one, because I'm sure there is hundreds and hundreds of dollars to be made.