(*homocinematically inclined)

Friday, January 1, 2010

Reel Thoughts Interview: August: Osage County's Jolly Perv

Don’t kid Laurence Lau about the mustache he wears in the current national tour of the Tony Award-winning August: Osage County. Although he’s in his fifties, Lau is eternally young looking, and it was agreed that the mustache would both add to his character’s persona and age him at the same time. “It sort of fits Steve Heidebrecht to have a mustache,” Lau explained recently. “Kind of looks like a guy stuck in the 70’s.” Unfortunately, Lau laughed, he had to keep it when he recently filmed his scenes for All My Children’s fortieth anniversary show. The “’stache”, as he calls it, is not exactly what upstanding Greg Nelson, the character he played in the soap opera’s golden era of the mid-80s, would ever wear.

In Tracy Letts’ epic dysfunctional family play, August: Osage County, the Weston family converges on the deteriorating family home when the patriarch disappears, leaving behind his cancer-stricken, pill-popping wife Violet. Esteemed actress Estelle Parsons (an Oscar winner for Bonnie and Clyde) plays the obscenely caustic Violet, but it can be argued that Lau’s louse Steve drives the most disturbing subplot. Steve is younger daughter Karen’s fiancĂ©, and he strikes up a wildly inappropriate relationship with Karen’s fourteen year-old niece. If you have only seen Letts’ more surreal or cartoonish plays like Bug or Killer Joe, you’ll marvel at how effortlessly Letts plunges into the withering heart of a fairly typical upper middle class family, and in the process depicts the disintegration of America’s society as well.

Lau has mostly been known for his work on daytime dramas like All My Children, Another World, One Life to Live, and most recently, As the World Turns. It’s sad news that CBS has canceled As the World Turns, which premiered fifty-three years ago. The show features two of the most high profile gay characters on daytime TV, Luke (Van Hansis) and Noah (Jake Silbermann).

Laurence Lau added some welcome drama when he joined the show as Brian Wheatley, a non-profit director who ended up marrying Luke’s grandmother, Lucinda Walsh (Elizabeth Hubbard). He upset Luke by urging him to hide his sexual orientation for the good of Luke’s non-profit, and later shocked Luke by kissing him. Wheatley was forced to face that he was gay, breaking Lucinda’s heart and driving him to leave town.

Lau’s performance turned a three month role into a more complex one that ran for over seven months. “I was so proud to be asked to take on this storyline,” Lau explained. He and Hubbard felt that Brian should genuinely fall in love with Lucinda, only to discover that he couldn’t resist his feelings for her grandson. “Thereby, what would ensue would be a real tragedy for her and for Brian, to discover that his whole life had been one long journey of denial, painful denial, and what it cost him and what it cost her. The writers kept it going and the audience was really responding.

At the end, they treated the story with lots of respect. They had a wonderful resolve where Brian broke down in tears, crying and shouting, 'I’m gay! I’m gay! Is that what you want to hear?' He was at the point where he wanted to end it all because he was so torn apart. It was touching and heartbreaking to have that moment.”

Later, they brought him back for a final resolution Lau enjoyed. “He came back and he was comfortable in his own skin for the first time in his life. The people that he’d hurt so badly were accepting of him. I thought that was great to play and I got these wonderful letters from across the country from men who had spent years of their lives in similar circumstances. Many of the letters were heartbreaking and beautiful in expressing how much they appreciated that story.” Lau added modestly, “I just spoke the words. I give a lot of credit to producer Chris Goutman and the writers. I was very honored to be a part of it.”

On the other hand, his performance as the amoral Steve Heidebrecht is sure to land him a whole new set of fans. “The jolly perv. That’s my affectionate name for him,” Lau joked. He really enjoyed playing against type, and delving into Steve’s motivations. “Steve doesn’t really think,” he explained. “He doesn’t even realize what he’s up to. He skips along the surface of life without really engaging the seriousness of the consequences of his actions. In that sense, it might be even scarier to confront somebody who’s unaware of their own actions. In a way, he kind of disarms the audience in the beginning. It’s more of a shocker when people really grasp, “My god, this guy’s a pedophile.” It’s fun to play him with an innocent charm and then underneath that is a very destructive person.”

Lau is thrilled to be part of Tracy Lett’s Pulitzer prize-winning play, and marveled that he has “the best seat in the house” at the big dinner table scene in Act II, where Parson’s really lets loose. “I’m looking right across the dining room table and she knocks me out every night. The authenticity of the family drama — all the secrets that come pouring out of the dysfunctional large family,” is what makes August: Osage County so special. “The anger and the rage and the pain and the betrayal and the lies; ultimately, the tragedy of this disintegrating family — I think a lot of people can relate to that,” he explained, adding that they always get standing ovations. “It touches people in really deep ways. The genius of Tracy Letts is that he found humor throughout the entire play that makes it possible to experience this tragedy. If there was no humor, you couldn’t endure it. There’s all this from-the-gut laughter that comes out of the characters and the situations. There’s no gimmick laughter.”

Lau had just returned from filming the 40th Anniversary episode of All My Children, which airs January 5, the same day he opens in August: Osage County in Tempe. He filmed three scenes that set up flashbacks, and it took him back to the days when he and Kim Delaney were the most popular couple on daytime TV. “It was like Romeo and Juliet. We were from opposite sides of the tracks. I had no idea it was going to take off like a rocket. I had a great time, until they blew Jenny up on a Jet-ski,” he joked.

As for future projects, Lau would love to work with Letts and director Annie Shapiro again, and hopes to play some more dramatic roles. “I’ve played a nice guy a lot.” He stopped short of predicting his future projects. “You know what they say, 'You hear God laughing when you start making plans.' We’ll see what happens.”

August: Osage County will play Tempe's Gammage Auditorium from Janury 5 to 10. For more information on the tour, including future dates and locations, visit the show's official website.

Interview by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.

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