Nathan Lane arrives to greet the press in New York’s Regency Hotel, with a cool, almost annoyed expression on his face. Clearly someone who would rather play out his gregarious persona than conduct interviews promoting his starring role in the screen version of the Broadway musical hit, The Producers, Lane is quietly cordial, taking some time to warm up, finally offering amusing anecdotes on critics, Broadways and his less than satisfying stint, on television. Garth Franklin was there.
Question: Nathan, you’re known as this very loud personality, has that ever gotten you into trouble in real life? (Laughter)
Nathan: I don’t know – am I known as a loud personality?
Question: Well it shows through in your performances on stage and screen…
Nathan: Well you have to be loud, it’s the theatre. (Laughter)
Nathan: You have to be heard in the back of the house.
Question: If the people who work with you, just met you, say that about you – obviously it’s…
Nathan: Say what? What do they say?
Question: That you’re a very engaging, loud, colourful person.
Nathan: Yeah – and the question is has that gotten me into trouble, being a colourful personality?
Nathan: Ah… no. (Laughter)
Question: There seems to be an extraordinary re-energizing of your career over the last few years with your partnership with Matthew, how do you account for that and does that surprise you?
Nathan: Well it’s always great when people show up to see your work you know, and I’m always happy about that. But everything comes in cycles in show business, and there are times when at first they fall in love with you, then they get sick of you and then they love you again. It’s sort of a natural evolution in show business and The Producers is sort of a once in a lifetime kind of phenomenon and I was very grateful to be a part of it. You know, in terms of the theatre at any rate, I’ve been doing this for thirty years so it’s an audience that has watched me grow up on the stage really, and it’s sort of the one place where I know that people will buy tickets. It’s an important thing to be able to, fill a theatre, because it gives you some choices in terms of your career.
Question: Nathan. a lot of people refer to the chemistry between yourself and Matthew, would you talk about that and suggest to us why you and Matthew work so well together?
Nathan: It’s the sex. (Laughter)
Nathan: That’s what has kept us together, and we never go to bed angry. (Laughter)
Question: When you heard of the opportunity to be able to make this into a film did you approach that with excitement with the idea that now it’s kind of going to be captured and memorialised on film? How did you approach it differently or alike to when you were doing it onstage?
Nathan: Well Mel first mentioned it while we were recording the cast album – nobody will say that anymore – and, you know, I joked with him and said, well, you know, Danny DeVito and Ben Stiller will be great in the parts. (Laughter)
Nathan: And then eventually, really thanks to the success of Chicago it did finally happen. It’s unusual for the person who originated the part onstage to do it on film and so I was very grateful and thrilled to be able to do that because it’s a great part and great parts are hard to come by. And, the major difference is that there’s no audience and you have to let go of that, and because it’s a very audience driven show, it’s just going back to basics, as you would with any movie. So, I mean obviously there’s a familiarity with the material and a comfortable feeling of this character very well. But, it’s the same sorts of problems and obstacles and also you just wanted to give Susan, some choices. The material demands a kind of size and theatricality and you have to honour that and, say here’s the St James Theatre version and here’s the independent film version and here’s something in between, and then they assemble it.
Question: Do you like seeing yourself on screen?
Nathan: I never like seeing myself on screen.
Question: Just talk a little bit about the first time you ever met Matthew. Does he still surprise you on stage?
Nathan: Yes. Yes, he does. The first time I met him I think was the premiere of The Lion King and we had done voices in it. We didn’t work together but we met and he’s shy, not unlike me, and so I think we both thought we hated each other, but were just too shy to really talk. And then I had met him a couple of times socially, but just to say hello to, and then it was really when this project started to happen that we actually got together and had a dinner and talked. But it was just one of those things that’s just luck really, that you hit it off with someone and there’s this so-called chemistry. It’s just a mutual respect and admiration and, I think, a similar sense of humour and it just really worked out.
Question: Speaking about the teaming of the two of you, you’ve got a hit on Broadway right now with The Odd Couple. Are there any plans to transfer that to either a film or TV version, and are the two of you looking actively for something else that you can collaborate on, that you won’t have to do first on stage but as a movie.
Nathan: No, no one has talked about a film of The Odd Couple and, no, we have no plans, but we would like to see other people I think.
Question: Can you talk a little bit about Mel’s sense of humour, and also how did you feel about doing the new song on the soundtrack, There’s Nothing Like a Show on Broadway?
Nathan: Ah… Mel’s sense of humour. Eell it’s influenced generations. It’s, ah… you know, he’s a comic genius and an adorable human being and I’m very glad we came into each other’s lives I mean there’s nobody like Mel Brooks and I went to see the movies and listened to the The 2000 Year Old Man and he was a huge influence and hero. And the song that he wrote. Well, that’s very heartfelt. This show changed his life and it was one of the happiest times in his life, as he has said to me, and so he loves the theatre and he loves the. It sort of revitalised him in a way, just going to work everyday, collaborating with people and the live audience. So it was a delight to see him that happy and tickled by this experience.
Question: I understand that everybody labours under the misconception that you changed your name from Rabinowitz and that you’re Jewish, I wonder how this misconception came about and whether you still run into the same error now.
Nathan: The story is that my real name is Joseph Lane and that when I joined Actors Equity there was already a Joe Lane and so they said you have to change your name, and you can change your last name or your first name which was traumatic at the time. Then they said you can take a few days to think about it and I said, no, just give me a minute and I had played Nathan Detroit in a dinner theatre in Cedar Grove, New Jersey and I liked that name and that character very much so I said, oh – it was either going to be that or Benjamin, as I recall, because I liked playing Benjamin Franklin in 1776 so I said I’ll be Nathan Lane. I’m an honorary Jew and I’ve played many Jewish characters. I really do feel Jewish, even though I’m a Catholic. But, you know, the way the church is behaving I’m happy to be to be perceived as Jewish. So, it’s been a great part of life.
Question: The Odd Couple is a big fat hit – it sold out on the strength of The Producers, especially for those who were unable to see the iconic Nathan and Matthew performances. The reviews have not been that kind. I’m wondering if that at all sort of derailed the Nathan and Matthew express at all.
Nathan: Has it derailed the Nathan and Matthew express? (Laughter)
Nathan: You know… not with a $21 million dollar advance – unprecedented for a play, so producers tend not to care what the critics say when you sell out before the first rehearsal. (Laughter)
Nathan: Look, there were many good reviews and there were many bad reviews and it was sort of the usual. But, the sad thing was the notion that, and this only happened after it was announced how many tickets it had sold – that we had done this play just to make a lot of money. But, this play I have loved since I was a kid and we both have a rather long history with Neil Simon and Neil had written me a few years ago and said I have held on to the rights because I want you to play Oscar Madison, and he said it would be great if Matthew wanted to do it with you but I really want you to do this. So I wanted to honour him, and it’s a classic American comedy and we got a brilliant director to do it and we just wanted to do the best version of the play we could. I can’t worry about whether Ben thinks I’m funny or not, because they change their minds a lot. But, I’ve been an actor for thirty years and I’ve done a lot of things between The Producers and The Odd Couple from Trumbo and Butley and Dedication and The Frogs and things that are not what I would call sure-fire in the commercial theatre so to accuse us of that I felt was unfair and you can’t deny the fact that really we had no control over the fact that a lot of people wanted to see this – and we took their power away: ‘Go away, you have no power here’ – (Laughter)
Nathan: And a lot of people didn’t like that and I’m sorry that was not our intention but it was certainly prevalent in a lot of reviews that ‘what I’m about to write is meaningless so, here goes’. (Laughter)
Nathan: Well, what do you want me to do? You know, we just wanted to do the play and okay, if you don’t like it fine, but don’t blame me because, a lot of people bought tickets and I don’t think they liked that but I don’t think it has stopped the train.
Question: You produced a TV series, can you speak to that experience and would you do it again?
Nathan: Ah… television. Well, you know…You saw the first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan… (Laughter)
Nathan: …not as much fun as that. (Laughter)
Nathan: No, I’ve done a couple, I thought it would be a fun and it seemed like a good venue for me because it was similar to the theatre; it was like doing a little one act play every week. But it’s pretty nasty. People are pretty brutal about it, and I don’t know why honestly. I don’t know why I get beaten up, it’s all right for George Clooney to do forty TV shows before ER and no one said anything about that. (Laughter)
Nathan: But, you know… I did two and it was like, oh, here he comes again. (Laughter)
Nathan: So, you know, fuck it – I don’t need it. (Laughter)
Nathan: You know, it would have to be some great script and they said would you like to be in it and here’s a great piece of writing, but, no, I don’t have any plans to go back to television.
Question: What’s next for you, Nathan – beyond The Odd Couple any ideas?
Nathan: I don’t know.
Question: Is there a character that you have a burning desire to play?
Nathan: Joan of Arc.