Monday, February 6, 2012

Meet Francis Guinan: Actor, Steppenwolf and Beyond

Meet actor Francis Guinan, one of the most creative, madly talented people I know.

Rondi Reed and Francis Guinan in "August: Osage County"

I first met Francis Guinan when I worked at Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago many years ago. (Pretty sure I got the job there because I had no aspirations of being an actor myself.) The first play I saw there was Athol Fugard's A Lesson from Aloes. I was wide-eyed as I watched the actors in rehearsals and started to understand for the first time the passionate, tangible power of live theatre--and how uniquely special is was to be at Steppenwolf Theatre in that place and time. Francis was joined in the play with fellow ensemble member Joan Allen, and guest actor Danny Glover.

Francis Guinan and Joan Allen in "A Lesson from Aloes."

I came to learn that theatre is a really big deal in Chicago, perhaps even more than it is in New York City, and it has a special heart and soul. The way I see it, Chicagoans go to theatre and support the theatre community--they are personally invested and passionate about it. They embrace new works. Chicago theatre does not rely on tourists to support it. Like everything else about that great city, it is authentic and out there. Chicago Theatre is like a scrappy start-up company. They take risks and give it all they've got. They adapt and change on the fly and if it doesn't work they fail fast and move on. If it does work, it is amazing and hits a chord that resonates with your heart and soul.

Here is a clip from one of Guinan's Steppenwolf performances in David Mamet's American Buffalo. The play was directed by Amy Morton and his fellow actor is Tracey Letts (author of August: Osage County) Here is a clip from that performance:

Some background on Fran...

Born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1951, Fran grew up in Council Bluffs, Iowa. He graduated in 1976 with a master's degree in theatre from Illinois State University. While at Illinois State, he met and studied with many of the original members of Chicago's world-renown Steppenwolf Theatre, and joined the ensemble in 1979. 

Guinan moved to Chicago in 1979 and helped establish Steppenwolf in the city after the company's move from the suburbs where it originated. In the three years that followed, he appeared in numerous productions including Balm in Gilead, A Nightingale Sang, and True West, roles he reprised when the shows later moved to New York City. 

With Steppenwolf, he has appeared in nearly forty productions including the Tony Award-winning Broadway productions of The Grapes of Wrath and August: Osage County which also won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008.

In 1989 Fran made the move to Los Angeles. He remained based there for seventeen years as a typical “working actor,” appearing most notably as Edgar in Eerie, Indiana and as Dan in The Mighty Jungle. His many TV roles include Murder She Wrote (once as killer, once as victim), and Star Trek (three roles as various aliens [Voyager, Enterprise]), as well as assorted doctors, businessmen and lawyers. Other numerous TV appearances include The Beast and Grey's Anatomy. His film credits include appearances in the short film Typing, as Master Pakku in The Last Airbender, Low Tide, Guinevere, Speed II, Constantine, Shining Through and Hannibal.

In 2006 Francis and his family returned home to Chicago. He has worked almost continuously since then: fifteen plays (nine for Steppenwolf), five films and three TV roles, including the powerful performance of Governor McCall (Mac) Cullen on the Starz original series Boss.

I think Fran has given some of his best on-screen work in this series. (The nature of stage work is ephemeral and his greatest performances there are for the priviledged few whom are present.) This first clip offers an overview of the show with clips of Fran. In the second video Fran, as Mac Cullen, is on-screen with Kelsey Grammer. How Fran is able to convey so much with only his face is astounding. 


Fortunately, Fran let me ask him a few questions.

Q. Acting is such an interesting profession. Everyone thinks they could be an actor and so few are good at it. How did acting emerge in your life?
A. I started doing after school activities in high school. I dropped the football team in the first week of practice. I tried out for the Talent Show and got into that. Plays followed (Brigadoon, Fiorello). Chorus. Speech Contests. I once memorized “The Face On the Barroom Floor” for State contest and got an Honorable Mention.

From there I got a masters degree in theatre (acting/directing) from Illinois State University. It was there that I met many of the people who formed the original membership of the Steppenwolf Theatre Co., which I joined in 1979.

I have lived and worked as an actor and (rarely) a director my entire adult life. For this I consider myself extremely lucky.

Q. How do you approach the art of acting?
A. I ascribe to no particular approach to acting. Indeed, I find myself drifting into a confused silence when talking about acting. I really don't know how it's done. “Imagination,” boldness, humility, the ability to speak clearly before groups of people. I have never read Stanislavsky for longer than 20 minutes without dropping the book in utter tedium.

I am most comfortable on the stage. I like film work, though the camera terrifies me. I've grown slightly more comfortable with it lately. My primary motivations for working on film remains the higher pay and health insurance for my family.

Q. What Inspires You?

A. By inspired I believe you mean moved to action. Wow. That's tough. I am moved emotionally rather easily. It's A Wonderful Life; that scene in Ratatouille where the food critic drops his pen.

I can be enraptured by some rare stage performances (Dancing At Loughnasa, Tracy Letts, Laurie Metcalf). Several painters and illustrators leave me in wonder (van Gogh, Matisse, Marc Ryden, Banksy).

I suppose what really inspired me lately was a website dedicated to sketchbooks. There one sees scores of sketchbooks containing personal artwork. I read there that for more than one artist the sketchbook was a true outlet. Most importantly, it didn't matter if it was “GOOD”; technical accomplishment was secondary...just putting ink or paint or graphite to paper was the important thing. 

I guess that inspired me. I started painting children's blocks again. My technical accomplishment waxes and wanes, but that is secondary.

Q. What other creative outlets do you have?
A. Painting the children's color blocks, like I just mentioned. And I love photography. I recently bought a Nikon D5100. I have yet to take better photos with it than with my point and shoot Olympus.

Chicago Near Planetarium in the Fog, Francis Guinan

Merged Downtown Chicago, Francis Guinan

Chestnut Street Philadelphia, Francis Guinan

Steppenwolf Sign 2011, Francis Guinan

North Avenue Beach Winter Night, Francis Guinan 

Q. Who are your favorite artists and why?
A. Banksy for his simplicity and boldness. Mark Ryden for his technical brilliance, warped world view and sense of humor. Lucian Freud because his painting disturbs and discomforts me.  Alex Gross and several other new Surrealist painters. Gross uses bizarre imagery and circus poster techniques.

Q. What would you want as your last meal on Earth?

A. A strong cup of coffee on Lake Lugano.

Q. What music moves you?

A. I particularly enjoy Yo Yo Ma and the Silk Road Journeys. Peter Gabriel's older stuff like Passion.
John Phillip Souza.

(Fran, I can honestly say you are the only person I know who mentioned Souza.)

Q. What are the favorite roles you've portrayed?
A. Sharkey in The Seafarer. The themes of death and redemption are rich for me.  

Colin in Absent Friends. I realized I could do comedy for a sustained amount of time in the company of other seriously funny people. 

Gaev in The Cherry Orchard. I could never completely get my head around him but found it to be an endlessly productive journey of discovery. 

Charley in August: Osage County. Fun to be in a hugely successful production. I found that Charley became simpler as the run progressed. I was “acting” very little by the time I left the show.

Q. If you weren't an actor, what would you be doing?

A. No idea. A laborer of some sort, probably.

Q. What will people know about you from your performances?

A. I hope I'm invisible. That's one of the reasons I like escape myself.

Q. What is your philosophy of life in 12 words or less?

A. The greatest skill is to see what's right in front of you.

Thank you Fran, you are wonderful.

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