A chat with Hamish Linklater

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On past Thanksgiving weekends, Berkshire County residents may have spotted Hamish Linklater playing parking-lot football with some former Great Barrington Rudolf Steiner School classmates.

"Like 'Field of Dreams,' all of my old classmates from Steiner will sort of emerge, and then we'll play this 40-year-old game of football, which is ... we end up at Fairview [Hospital] more often than not these days. It's slippery," the actor and playwright told The Eagle during a telephone interview.

A house-hopping childhood resident of Lenox, West Stockbridge, Great Barrington and Housatonic, Linklater tries to make it back to the county for Thanksgiving every year, visiting with friends from the Waldorf school.

"I think a lot of kids who go to Steiner schools end up staying really close with their classes just because of the way that that pedagogy works," he said.

A different passion brings Linklater, who has two daughters (he and his partner, actress Lily Rabe, welcomed their first child in February) and lives in Los Angeles, to the Berkshires on occasion: his work. In 2015, Linklater and Rabe read "Richard III" for Shakespeare & Company, which was co-founded by Linklater's mother, Kristin. And on Sunday, Linklater's "The Whirligig" will be read at the Lenox institution as a part of the Winter Studio Festival of Plays. The play enjoyed an off-Broadway run last spring and is set in the Berkshires. The story revolves around Julie, who is near-death, a longtime junkie. Her illness brings her mother, Kristina, back to the county, inspiring several others from Julie's past to visit her as well.

"There are juicy scenes for each performer, brimming with showy but spontaneous reversals of feeling along with dialogue that dances off the tongue. Everybody gets a chance to reign, and to reign in pain, since this is a story of forms of addiction and of death at an early age," The New York Times' chief theater critic Ben Brantley wrote after seeing the play in New York City.

Brantley and others have questioned whether these different parts create a cohesive whole. Throughout his career, Linklater has certainly been comfortable with juggling multiple threads; though he wrote "The Whirligig," he is best known for his screen work, with recent roles in films, such as "The Big Short," and television series, such as "Fargo," garnering attention.

Before Linklater was planning to travel to the Berkshires for the reading, he spoke with The Eagle about sexual misconduct in Hollywood, a recent TV role and "The Whirligig." The interview has been edited for length.

You've been on television and film sets for a long time. ... What is your reaction to the sexual misconduct allegations made against a host of prominent men in Hollywood and beyond?

It's horrible what's been happening for entirely too long — since, basically, the dawn of Hollywood and the dawn of entertainment. And it's so exciting and wonderful that a shift is beginning. It's about time. I love the Time's Up [group spearheaded by Hollywood women to combat sexual misconduct and inequality in the workplace], fully Time's Up, and it's about time that Time's Up.

Have you ever heard or seen instances of sexual harassment on sets you've been on in the past? Did this feel like something you knew about...[or] was this pretty shocking to you in a lot of these cases?

Oh, no. It's been so endemic. ... It's just been a part of our culture for entirely too long. I mean, not just in film, theater, TV sets and rehearsal rooms and everything, but you just took it for granted that this is the way things are. And it's so wonderful that people have finally stood up and said, 'No, this is crazy.' And I don't think that Hollywood is the only place that this has been going on, certainly. Just about every industry must feel this in very similar, analogous ways.

You're somebody who goes between TV, film, theater. Recently, you've worked on a lot of projects. What has been the most challenging acting role you've had recently?

I had this great job on this comic book show, which it's crazy to call it that, called 'Legion,' which Noah Hawley, who created 'Fargo,' has created. And it's super fun because he burnt like half my face off. First, he killed me. Then, he let me come back to life, but half my face had been burnt off. ... I get to put on a sort of mask. ... I guess that's not challenging, but it's actually the opposite. It's just fun. ... I get to have the little limp and all these sort of grotesque character traits, and then you don't really worry about your line reading quite as much.

"The Whirligig" — do you think it will be strange to have already staged the play, the full run in New York, and then see it in this stripped-down format? Or, have you had that experience in the past?

Yeah, it's always a bit of a shift, but it's also — you get used to hearing it in other people's voices, and then you get to hear it again through a fresh lens. And [sometimes] problems with the play have been solved by one actor, and then another actor will show you, 'Hey, you know what, there's really a problem here.' So, you can get back, open up the toolkit again. ... It's theater, so it's process. It's not about product. If it was a film, then you would want to get it perfect and lock picture and send it out to the movie theaters. But here, on stage, it's going to be a new experience every single night, so working on a play, you want to keep it in a sort of process mode. So, yeah, it's awesome to get to do an acoustic set of the album. I really like that.

The play is set in the Berkshires. Why did you choose to set it here?

You know, the play just came out that way. A lot of the characters are ... none of them are specifically people from the Berkshires, but certainly I grew up around theater folks with Shakespeare & Company. I grew up at Simon's Rock and around Simon's Rock, and that's sort of like — I like to talk a lot. Those people like to talk a lot, so I was like, well, if I want to have people who talk a lot, [I] probably should make them theater people around Simon's Rock. I think that's actually plausible.

Drugs are at the fore in this, and this county is obviously one of many in the country grappling with opioid addiction. I'm wondering if that factored in at all.

Yeah, I mean it was ... when I was [living in the Berkshires], the opioid crisis obviously wasn't as headline news as it is now, and it touched me and my circle certainly more around the fringes. But it's an absolutely desperate situation. [Linklater added that he hopes the play's content sticks with audience members after they leave the theater.]

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, you said that some deaths around you, including your father's, influenced you as you were finishing writing this. And then, of course, Shakespeare has been an influence for you as well. As a father, do you think that moving forward, we might see a shift in the themes of what you're writing about — instead of something being towards the end, being towards the beginning?

That could be. I've been looking for something to write, so ... writing about birth instead of death, that would be so nice. I don't know. I think those Shakespeare plays are all so wonderful, but because the stakes are so high. ... [After the deaths of his uncle, father and some friends], everyone goes through that thing where it's like, 'Oh, if I'd only done this, or if I'd only done that,' and everyone starts feeling complicit in the passing of the person if it happens before they're 102. 'Oh, I should've told them to stay off sugar,' or something like that, or crack. But I think that that sense of complicity is what fueled the play. That's a big theme of the play.

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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