A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing one Chris Eigeman, the witty actor from films by directors of talky, NY movies (Whit Stillman, Noah Baumbach) that I've admired for years. Today the story runs in the LA Times Calendar section: Read it here or see the text version and a large addendum of extra quotes that couldn't make it into the story after the jump. One thing you'll learn about the actor who's been thought of us as the image of urbanity is that he grew up pretty far from the NY prep-school/debutante scene. Another thing you'll learn is that you don't have to be fit for playing a neurotic as long as you can act. Again, here's the piece and below it, extra quotes for all you closet "Metropolitan" fans...
A 21st century 'couch' potato
Chris Eigeman goes from playing tony slackers to a 40ish neurotic in therapy.
By Adam Baer
Special to The Times
June 10, 2007
IN "The Treatment," an adaptation of Daniel Menaker's 1998 novel about an emotionally crippled New York English teacher in psychoanalysis, a self-described "last great Freudian" sums up the malaise of his patient Jake Singer, played by beloved indie regular Chris Eigeman, thusly: "You make from the world a banal comedy, and you are a spectator."
A specific characterization, to be sure, but it also applies to Eigeman's previous roles: Possessed of an assertive, Aristotelian discourse style and charismatic stage presence, Eigeman, 42, is a veteran of films by cult auteurs Whit Stillman ("Metropolitan") and Noah Baumbach ("Kicking and Screaming"), for whom he turned in memorable portrayals of sarcastic bons vivants apathetic about their upper-class futures.
Yet in "The Treatment" — in which the protagonist must not only survive a brutally raw psychiatrist but woo a wealthier East Side widow with a heart (Famke Janssen) — Eigeman's previous archetype arrives in retrograde: Introduced to audiences dismayed and disassociated, he's older, more middle-class, vulnerable and unsure of himself, unable to live outside his books, lessons and language.
Due out Friday, "The Treatment" offers the most complex adult Eigeman has played, and it shows the actor's significant gravitas: Between his fast rationalizations of behavior and great literature, Singer displays an idiosyncratic dissonance with in-the-moment life and a brave desire to overcome it through love.
"In Whit's films, verbal aggression distracts you from other things in a character," Eigeman said recently at a hillside Los Angeles bungalow, where he was staying to mix his first writing-directing effort starring Janssen, "Turn the River." "With Jake Singer, though, it's the inverse predicament, which is maybe the same thing. Jake is so self-conscious, so unable to address his own thoughts or feelings without speaking about them in the third person. His struggle is not to frame himself in a literary way."
Which sounds like a challenging enough quality to portray without also having to act out a therapeutic relationship with a partner you can't see. In fact, Eigeman spent 85% of the film acting with Ian Holm, who portrays the "last great Freudian," sitting behind him. "It was like a bad joke — my O. Henry story," Eigeman said. "I got to work with one of the greatest actors alive but couldn't look at him. I forgot to ask for that part of the wish. The hard part was trying not to laugh."
More comical, he added, was that the film, directed by Oren Rudavsky, was ultimately shown to a room of Freudians, and the doctors agreed that the patient needed serious help. "Their notes were, 'We never saw someone portrayed in such desperate need of therapy,' " he said. "I take that as a compliment really."
And what of the assumptions made about the Brooklyn-based actor, who spontaneously quotes Edith Wharton and riffs on the Yankees, by cultish fans adoring of his cerebral, urbane characters?
"What would you expect from an actor who debuted wearing a cummerbund?" asked the Denver native, who worked on Montana ranches as a kid and never saw the ballroom of the St. Regis until landing on his first film set.
"It's true that some of the films that I've done speak to a so-called discerning minority," Eigeman admitted. "But I don't think you have to be well read to be able to play someone well read; you just have to be able to say the words right. I'm just flattered that anyone has paid attention."
The Eigeman addendum: More quotes from one of our best working film actors.
On whether or not he read the Daniel Menaker book on which The Treatment is based:
“When I did the film, I had read Menaker’s short stories that had ran in The New Yorker. So when I read the script, I said, this seems strangely familiar to me. But then when I decided to do the job, I decided not to read Dan’s book on purpose. It just seemed stupid for me to do it. This is the real estate we have to work with, I thought. Let’s just deal with what we got. But I talked to Dan a lot. Dan and I would have coffee together and just talk about other stuff, which I found really, really helpful. I don’t know that the book is autobiographical but I think that it probably is. Or that the character is autobiographical. I have no idea if the circumstances are autobiographical. There is a good deal of Dan in that character. Now that I’m not doing the film anymore, I look forward to reading the rest of his work.”
On his characters observing life like a banal comedy:
“I think you can make the argument either way. I think you look at Whit and Noah’s films, and the characters tend to be sort of aggressive verbally. Actually, I think that’s true in Whit’s case; in Noah’s case, I don’t think that’s true. It might be a little bit true in Kicking and Screaming, but that is a deeply sad movie. In Whit’s films, specifically, there is sort of a verbal aggression that is usually masking other things. That is usually there to distract you from other things in a person. In this guy, I think it’s almost the inverse, which is maybe the same thing. He is so self conscious and so unable to address his own thoughts or feelings without speaking about them in the third person. He can speak pretty eloquently about the Chekov play that he’s teaching (Ivanov), and it’s clear to the class and to Jake that he’s talking about himself. But it seems to me that this movie is a struggle to not frame yourself in a literary way. Speaking about yourself in the third person is a very literary notion. Therapy is a very literary notion—the therapy sessions were very intellectual and considered. And Jake’s final moment—I don’t know if this is going to end badly, but I know that I have to try—is an escape from all of that.”
How challenging is it to perform such philosophically dense material?
“Certainly the therapy stuff [was dense]. Very chunky stuff. Chunky in the best sense. Layered, thick stuff. And then you can get into games about does the therapist exist? He certainly violates a lot of laws that people live by who are actually on this planet – like showing up where they shouldn’t show up. That stuff was fun. Obviously one of the great things about doing the film was working with Ian Holm. If you make a list of your 30 favorite films, he’s probably in ten of them.”
On having to work with Ian behind him:
“It was weird because I’d always be looking at the crew. And I could tell he’d be doing funny things, because whenever someone is doing something funny, the crew looks down. I would look up at the crew they would have their heads down. So basically I was looking at a sea of people looking at the floor. And I was just dying: What is this guy doing? What is he doing back there? It was driving me nuts.”
Me: So you sort of naturally adopted the kind of paranoia that Jake sustains?
Chris: “It helped. It helped a lot. It was really interesting: I craved those few moments when we were together. We are in a lot of the movie together, and 85% of the time, I’m not looking at him.”
On whether or not the psychiatrist in the film exists:
“Truthfully, I don’t know what the answer is. You can make of it what you will. You’re splitting the difference (on me, Adam, saying that he just pops up in Jake’s super-ego sometimes), which I think is fine.”
Me: What did you have to do to get to the right place with someone like that working behind you?
Chris: “Not laugh. Sometimes it’s as simple as that.”
On director Oren Rudavsky saying that Chris is extremely well-read and fit to play a prep school English teacher:
“I don’t think you have to be well-read to be able to play someone well-read: you just have to be able to say the words right. You have to be able to say Turgenev the right way. Or Chekhov. I think Oren is probably infinitely better read than I am. But I don’t know. People always make assumptions about people. And if you look at me, one of the assumptions you’ll probably make is that I’ve read a book or two. Could be completely false. But it is nonetheless an assumption.”
Did it help that Oren makes documentaries?
“It can be viewed as a different skill-set and possibly helpful, sure. Certainly being a documentary maker helps you when you’re doing a low budget indie film in NYC when you have to take whatever is thrown at you. But there were no distinct documentarian-tells that he did. Hopefully it helped. It helped in one way because if you factor me out of it, you’ve got all these great actors: basically just get the hell out of their way, and these guys will take care of it. So in a way that isn’t so bad.”
How did you de-literize the material for film?
“It’s a struggle you always have. But there’s a real dichotomy in the film between in therapy and not in therapy. So the writer and Famke and I worked on de-literizing the other stuff. Which was good and helpful. But that still makes for a long day. Famke is exactly the kind of actor who is a dream to work with. I don’t know how you’re going to write this, and if you don’t that’s fine, too. But before I started this, I was writing a film, and then I went off and did this. I had always liked Famke. City of Industry, I thought she was spectacular in, and Rounders, I loved her in Rounders. So I remember we were about two weeks into the shoot, and Famke said, you know we have that sex scene tomorrow. So what, uh, which orgasm face do you want to do, and I’ll just do the other one. And I was like, wow, really? Ok, I’ll do this one. She’s like, OK good, I’ll do the other one, see you tomorrow. It was the most nuts and bolts way of doing things, and I just loved it. I was like… that’s just fantastic. That lack of preciousness is great. So then I went home and my wife was like, what’d you do today?, and I was like, I picked out orgasm faces with Famke Janssen. She’s like, Oh, which one did you pick? And she’s was like ohhhh, that’s the one you always do. Thankfully, they didn’t use the footage anyway.”
Did you know Famke before this movie?
“I started writing the film I’m working on now [Turn the River], and then went to do the Treatment, and then went back and started writing the film for Famke. After this, I was like, this is exactly who the movie should be written for. Our movie is very different than the Treatment. Famke carried the entire thing.”
On people acting in films they write and direct:
“I don’t know either [how people write, direct, and star in their own film]. I mean, a lot of people do it really, really, really well. I think that at the budget level I was working at, it could look like purely a vanity project. And I also didn’t want it to fall because of my bad acting."
Me: Because that would *definitely happen [sarcastic].
“I never want to read a review of the first film I make that says, well it would have been good had someone else been in the movie. And truthfully, there’s no part for me in it.”
Me: have you written other scripts?
“I have. Noah [Baumbach] and I wrote a pilot that came close to getting made but didn’t get made.”
On Baumbach perhaps being a script doctor who has lots of work in Hollywood many people may not know about:
“That may be true. He’s very busy. He’s a very busy guy. So could be. He was very helpful for me with my film, so I think he’s trying to get that film out of the gate as I get mine out of the gate.”
On the kinds of kids portrayed in Metropolitan:
“I didn’t know any of them before the movie, and was just kind of faking it.”
Me: Is there a way you build a character?
“I think that there’s a real practical side to it, which is: If there’s a joke, make sure you put it over well. Don’t lie. I think 85% of it is just building the chair, build the chair, just build the damn chair. Don’t get too clever about it. Just know what you’re supposed to be doing, and where you’re supposed to be doing it: just know it and do it. 15% of it is something that no one can talk about. No one can explain it. You can point to it, and you know what it is. You know it’s something close. But you can’t really say what it is. But it’s only 15%, and it that 15% doesn’t show up unless you build the chair. If you build the chair, then you have a shot at that extra 15%. But I believe that about a lot of things: I believe that about acting, writing, directing, music. After that chair is built, OK. You play violin. Same thing. If you know you’re going to be fine in a performance, then you get that extra 15%. If you’re worried about the chair falling apart, all you’re going to be is worried about the chair falling apart.”
On his family performers:
“My grandmother was an opera singer in Denver. And she was asked to come sing at the Met and she turned it down. She was a good Irish Catholic. But in those days, man, you didn’t leave Denver in 1930. Women just didn’t do stuff like that.”
On college outside a major Metropolitan area:
“Iwent to college in Ohio at a place called Kenyon. It was good on a lot of levels. Good theater dept, good English dept. It was also you know on a hill in the middle of the country in the middle of nowhere. And I recommend that in a lot of ways. It does focus you. I don’t think I would have lasted if I had gone to Johns Hopkins. There are way too many distractions. So then I just came to NYC, and started parking cars at a restaurant in Brooklyn, and did that for three years and finally got Metropolitan.”
On becoming well-known after Metropolitan, and staying in NY:
“It isn’t so binary as you get Metropolitan and now you don’t have to park cars anymore. But I figured my choices were LA or NY, and I was much more comfortable in NY.
It was impossible [to get TV work in NY]. But I was lucky. When I did Gilmore Girls for a year, I had just known those people. I know the people who created the show, I know Lauren Graham for a long time. So they just asked me if I wanted to join, and I was really happy to do it. That stuff can be really fun, too. I think that my wife…we’ve together just made a really conscious choice just to live in NY.
Did you always want NY?
“Moving to NY for me was always a goal, even as a kid. I just knew that this is where I wanted to go. I was always guided towards theater more than film. I was raised in Denver. You just go to the theater."
What was your job as you saw it as a director on Turn the River?
“Getting everyone to tell the exactly the same story. Because I’m an actor, I write for actors, and I also wanted all the actors to have fun. Actors who traditionally do one thing, I wanted them to do something completely different.”
On his typecast roles:
“If you want me to be in a film where I am really sort of hyperliterate and really funny or purportedly funny or someone who thinks he’s funny, it’s something I’ve been doing for a while, and I won’t do it for free. But if you want me to play a drug addled percussion player from a washed up rock band, I’ll do it for free. You had me at addled. And I think actors really work that way. Yeah, it’s really important to support our families and pay our bills. But it’s also really important to stretch, and explore.”
On Famke Janssen:
“She is stunning. Her talent so exceeds her beauty. She worked for two months to learn how to shoot pool. Just to see her come into the pool hall, and work hour after hour after hour. She would do it: she would make these shots, and because she was so competitive, she could never miss a shot. “
On the Treatment:
“I do think that that part of it is trying to be able to speak about spontaneously existing in the world without bracketing it with verbage, to be in the world without talking yourself through the world. That’s what it’s really about. The other thing that’s really interesting about it is I think that it’s its own thing. I think that to compare it to a Woody Allen film is to miss the point a lot, and I see that sometimes, and I’m like, I don’t really think it is. It’s a different thing than that. It has a lot of the earmarks: NYC, therapy. But it really isn’t that. In a way, I think that the movie is extremely extreme and very conservative. In the end it’s a romantic comedy. But the therapy stuff is really out there. Viewing therapy this way, it’s specifically damaging. It does help the guy. But it is in this movie not a force for good. And it’s much more about the therapist than the patient. It’s much more about the aggrandizement of the therapist. And that’s not seen often.”
“It relieves you the pressure of having to describe a house. All you have to do is realize that all of this is dialogue. It’s just dialogue and action, and if you square that out, you’re in good shape. There’s a great quote from Edith Wharton: She talks about how dialogue should be viewed as the tip, like the falling top, of a wave, and everything underneath it is supporting what that person says, who that person is. Where that person is. Everything in the world is supported by what that person says. I think it’s a great image. The most important thing you do is what you say.”