Q&A: George C. Wolfe on Nora Ephron's "Lucky Guy" and the Boys in the Newsroom
“Lucky Guy,” the new play starring Tom Hanks which opens April 1 on Broadway, begins with a group of hard-boiled New York City reporters singing an old Irish song in a bar. “It’s a boy thing,” says George C. Wolfe, who is directing the drama about the trials and tribulations of the real-life tabloid journalist Mike McAlary. “You put too many boys in the room and you get competition, a brawl, an orgy, or a war.”
There is joyful competition, a brawl, and lots of testosterone in “Lucky Guy,” as it tells the story of the ambitious and arrogant McAlary who rose to fame and success in the ’80s and ’90s, until a drastic misstep over what he called a trumped up rape nearly brought him to ruin. He redeemed himself by breaking the sensational case of Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant whose ugly brutalization at the hands of police led to four convictions. McAlary won the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting just before he died, at age 41, in 1998.
There are of course a few women among the cast of “Lucky Guy.” But the one who looms largest over this drama is its author, Nora Ephron, the journalist, screenwriter, director, and playwright. “Lucky Guy” is the third play and last work of Ephron, who died last June at age 71 after making a name for herself with an amazing run of hit movies including “Silkwood,” “When Harry Met Sally,” “Julie and Julia,” “Sleepless in Seattle,” and “You’ve Got Mail.” The last two starred Hanks, who is repaying the favor by making his Broadway debut in Ephron’s swan song. In the process he has made it one of the hottest tickets on Broadway.
Wolfe worked for nine months with Ephron on the play. She turned in about six drafts to the director, who says that he never even knew that she was sick with leukemia until the day she actually died. Her steadfastness and determination, under the most strenuous of circumstances, awed Wolfe, a Broadway veteran who has won Tony Awards for the landmark production of “Angels in America” and “Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk.”
ARTINFO recently sat down with Wolfe to talk about Ephron, Hanks, and the nature of ambition, fortune, and grace in “Lucky Guy.”
Ephron began her career as a journalist and gained fame as a screenwriter. But theater is so different from either of those disciplines. What were the challenges when you first read the play?
An early title of this play was “Stories About McAlary.” And a lot of the work that Nora and I did was to make it more about “Lucky Guy” and less about the stories about McAlary. The primary nature of our focus was how much gets told and how much gets revealed. As the character of [editor] John Cotter says, “At the end of the day, there’s only one truth: go to the morgue. Count the bodies.” Everything else is how you tell the stories. The play is built on that construct. Everyone who is telling the story has a vested stake in how their story is told. Their ego, identity, career are invested in the phenomenon of this guy and there’s an inherent theatricality in that.
What made Ephron so fascinated with these guys?
She had an incredible love of this work and these people and their reckless, dangerous functional madness. The play is chock full of incredible romanticism. There is also a cynicism to it, pretending that you’re not doing an heroic deed and underneath you hope that it will be heroic, that people will see it, and then you go to a bar and drink. She understood that passion, that self-destruction, that love of a great story. Being a part of the city and being a part from it, the whole mythology of it.
Much is made of McAlary being an outsider. Did Hanks’s outsider status — as a movie star with very little stage experience — work for the character?
I don’t know if he’s an outsider or not. But I think that, aside from success and all that sort of stuff, what Tom brings to this play is the fact that he just loves to play. That’s the energy he brings. He loves doing it, loves the unknown of it, loves working on it.
What made him right for the role?
One of the key directing things I say to every cast is, “If you want the audience to stick around for the pain, you have to invite them to the party.” You have to make the audience go, “Oh, I want to go on this journey.” And Tom has the charisma, the charm, the presence, whatever you call it, to make them go on it. He has that in buckets full.
How does Hanks manifest that male aggression you were talking about?
Personally? I don’t think… It’s just in the work. There have been no showdowns in the rehearsal process. There hasn’t been any sort of madness.
In a recent interview, Peter Scolari, who acted in the TV series “Bosom Buddies” with Hanks and who is one of the cast members of “Lucky Guy,” mentioned that he thought his former co-star had never before been challenged before like this.
I just talk to him the way I talk to any actor. “What are we doing? What are we doing? What are we doing?” It’s the way I talked to Nora. “Yeah, that’s the answer, but …” “Yeah, I get that, but…” It’s not about challenging anybody, it’s all in the pursuit of clarity. Tom’s been great, the whole cast has been great. They have 9,000 opinions because when you’re working with smart actors, they have opinions.
Hanks himself has described the character as a fucking jerk.
I spent years in the musical theater program at New York University, in which everybody said, “Is the character likable?” I got so sick of it. You don’t play an unlikeable guy, you play a person! I don’t even acknowledge the concept. Drama is a character thinking he or she is making the most brilliant choices they can make until they realize, oh my god, this is the worst possible choice I can make. So I love characters who do that. And either they transform or they don’t.
There is a moment when McAlary first gets success and money and tries on a snazzy new suit. There’s a certain cocky strut that he doesn’t have before. How did that moment happen?
That was Tom. We spent a lot of time talking about it. With success can come a subtle intolerance for life’s little moments. All of sudden things drive you crazy, whereas they didn’t when you were struggling. It’s a subtle and dangerous shift when your romantic notions about yourself start to be affirmed by other people.
You know Hollywood. How has Hanks avoided that in his own life?
I don’t know. I can only speak about him in the rehearsal room. He has an incredible joy about working. And as long as you don’t allow anything to contaminate that joy, you’ll be fine. That’s so crucial.
Why did McAlary get in trouble over the Jane Doe case? The story of the black lesbian who McAlary accused of making up that she’d been raped when in fact she had been?
By that time, New York had become a new city and he didn’t recognize that. New York’s a city of different tribes and the nature of those tribes is change, and if you’re not aware of those shifting dynamics you can fall victim to those changes. He had an understanding of good guys and bad guys in a city which is more complicated than that.
There is a moment in the play when McAlary wonders if his luck has run out. Do you think we only get so much luck in life and when it’s used up, you’re done?
I don’t know. I think McAlary feels he’s very lucky. But there is an incredible fear underneath. One of the reasons that McAlary is so driven is because he feels that he is unworthy. He says that when he wins the Pulitzer Prize. But it’s been going on all along. He’s such an overachiever because he has this primal fear that the luck will be gone, and that fear is based on “I am not worthy.”
The ghosts of McAlary and Ephron must have been very strong in this process. What did you learn about playing the cards that life can deal you?
I’m still figuring what this whole extraordinary experience has meant. But a lot of my discussion with Nora had to do about the process of where you trade in ambition for grace, what it means to negotiate that relationship. And very rarely do you go on that journey without being bruised, being knocked down, and crawling back. You really grow only from failure. It’s only when you hit a wall that you figure out a deeper version of yourself. At one point in the play, McAlary says of the subjects of his stories, “You care about them — most of the time.” When he meets Louima to hear his story, he says, “Take your time. I’m here. I’m hearing your story.” And it is in that state of grace that he ascends higher than he ever expected. He discovers a deeper version of himself amid all that ambition.