One of Chicago’s finest classical and musical theater actors, Larry Yando is currently delivering a breathtaking performance as malevolent lawyer Roy Cohn in Court Theatre’s Angels in America. Cohn, the sole nonfictional character of Tony Kushner’s epic drama, died of complications from AIDS in 1986, and Yando takes on the role with exhilarating passion and remarkable emotional depth. Raised in Poughkeepsie, New York, Yando attended Boston Conservatory of Music on a dance scholarship before transferring to SUNY New Paltz to receive a Bachelor’s Degree in acting. After getting his MFA at the Theatre School of Depaul, Yando planned on returning to New York, but landing high profile roles kept him in the city he’s called home for 18 years. Yando speaks to us about his relationship with Angels in America, the ways Tony Kushner is like Shakespeare, and how he created his chillingly real final scene.
What was your first experience with Angels in America?
Seeing it. I saw the New York production, and it changed my life. I’ll never forget it. It’s one of those theatrical experiences where you can’t believe three hours and 20 minutes have gone by. It felt like a minute. Then I saw it in London, which is where it happened first, but I saw it after I saw the New York production. And it was interesting, I now realize that Joe Pitt was played by [Daniel Craig]. Totally nude, thank you very much! Had I known! Naked! It was wonderful, a scaled down version. Not many times does a play affect your brain, your heart, and your spirit all at once with humor and pain. It’s just one of those total experiences where your life is never the same after it.
Why do you think now is a good time to revive the show?
First of all, it’s so Shakespearean to me in the way [Kushner] writes. It has an innate musicality, it has an innate humanity. It deals with basic human behavior, and needs and wants: love, forgiveness, revenge. All those things. It’s so easy to memorize Tony Kushner, in the same way it’s easy to memorize Shakespeare, because the argument is totally in sync with the emotional life that’s going on. When those two things go together, like I think most of the good Shakespeare does, it makes things very easy to memorize. That said, because he’s dealing with universal truths, like Shakespeare did, in a very accessible way with damaged people who are trying to undamaged themselves, its always will appeal to anyone. It’s why you can still do Shakespeare, and I think it’s the same with this.
I don’t think the politics really make a difference if they’re not apropos. But in this instance, because of the healthcare stuff, and just the condition we’re in politically, it also happens to resonate. But I think it has to do with the human heart, that’s why it’s good to do it now, and tomorrow, and a year from now. That’s what I think makes it timeless. However, I do have great lines like, “The worst thing about being sick in America, Ethel, is you are booted out of the parade. Americans have no time for sick.” And then he says, “That’s America. It’s just no country for the infirm.” That stuff hits home right now, but I think it hits home because there’s a vulnerable person, a person in pain, whether you hate him or not, realizing something.
It’s a play about ideas, and why the play is riveting to me is—when you can watch people discover things in the moment about themselves and the world in which they live, also Shakespearean (laughs), and find the language, find the words to form that discovery, that’s the most exciting thing on stage. This is the first I’ve talked in two days (laughs), sorry if I’m not making any sense.
No, that’s perfect. I was going to ask if your classical training helped, but you’ve answered that.
It totally does. I feel like you could use this play in a Shakespeare class.
How did you and director Charles Newell work to humanize Roy?
There was no conscious decision to do that, Charlie really let me go down whatever path I was going on. I tend to look for that anyway. I don’t know why I play these damaged, miserable, mean, smarmy characters. But why I find them riveting, why I love them so much, is I always feel there’s, in the most evil person, goodness and most certainly humor. So I think with this play, what does Louis say? “He’s like the polestar of human evil, he’s like the worst human being that ever lived.” That’s what people think. However, the way Tony Kushner has written him, he is funny, he’s clever. He says some outlandish things and some really, really funny things. And humor, I think, is the way into someone’s soul. I remember Tony Kushner did an interview in England when the show opened, and the guy said, “I can’t stand that Roy Cohn, but I also don’t want him to leave the stage.”
I don’t know what it is. I think it’s probably in the opposites. Just like every person has. I find that humanizes him a little bit: evil and humor. And also finding the sadness and thinking about where this vileness comes from. It doesn’t just appear. Charlie never said to me, “We have to humanize Roy Cohn.” He was very hands-off. I definitely feel an affinity to [Roy] for some reason. Not the evil part (laughs), but there’s something about the nature of the role.
Did you follow Roy Cohn’s story when he was alive?
[Angels] was when I first knew about him. Even though I feel like I’m 110-years-old, I’m really younger than that (laughs). I did do a lot of research. I don’t look like him, really. I’m from New York, so it was easy to start talking like I talk if I’m not thinking about it, and I did a lot of research on all the political stuff. The disbarment hearing. I read his biography. I was most interested in him in the ’80s, after he was diagnosed and how his disease went down.
To the bitter end, he was just a very contradictory person. He was vain, vain, vain. He was so vain. And yet, there’s a famous [Robert] Mapplethorpe photo of him, he let Roy Cohn choose the one that he wanted to use, and it is the most horrific, skeletal—it’s when he was sick, and he actually chose the picture where he looked the most abominable. Just that alone is very interesting to me. This man made sure he was tan, he had lots of facelifts, he had cosmetic surgery constantly, and yet the picture he wanted by this famous photographer to be displayed was just a disembodied head floating there, and it’s the worst of all the pictures.
Those contradictions are like actor goldmines, and I also think nobody is just one thing. If Charlie did anything, he allowed me to play the ones and the tens. Characters are not five through any one play, or no one wants to watch them. They may end up being a five, but it’s only because they’ve accessed the ones and the tens. I just really dug into those 180-degree turns.
I thought your death scene was amazing, what kind of work went into that?
That’s tricky. The physical design of the productions is very angular and non-specific, it’s abstract. However, I think I needed to be very specific about the sensory stuff I was doing. Even though no way was I in a hospital, I was on a big slab of something in the middle of the stage, and with bright side lights, there was no intent to create realistic environments. Like I always do, since we were kids, I just pretended. I just thought, “OK, I’ve certainly seen people close to me die. I’ve had friends die of AIDS. And I’ve been there toward the end with them.” It doesn’t become inactive, it becomes active on another plane. I played around with being very present or being remote.
Let’s not forget it’s a great death scene because he actually tricks [Ethel]. That alone makes it really interesting, that he still has that quality where he needs to win. I just used people, I’ve been close to dear friends who’ve died—Guy Adkins being the major one recently, he was one of my best friends—and I was there with him. There’s a sort of disappearing happening. However, given that, I feel that disappearing from this plane feels like you are very actively going somewhere else. What that is, I had to make up. I talk about, “I’m seeing all my enemies on the other shore with their mouths gaping open like stupid fish.” Which is one of my favorite lines. “And I’m gonna get over there to dry land, across the sea of death, and I’m still gonna be a lawyer.” There was this sense of arriving somewhere, so I played around with that.
You worked with Geoff Packard and Hollis Resnick on Candide, and they’re also the actors that you spend the most time with on stage. You also worked with Rob Lindley in Candide. Do you think having established personal relationships with those actors influences the character relationships?
Absolutely, there’s nothing as good. You start the process at a place of trust and knowledge and you have information. You don’t have to spend three weeks learning how other people work. You know how they work. You trust each other. You respect them. I was so happy when Geoff got cast. So happy. Because I knew I had to feel, well, let’s call it love for Joe, I don’t know if Roy would say that, but yeah, I think he would. And I grew to love Geoff over the year and a half we did Candide three times. And my character was a mentor to him in that also. So that energy—in other words, at the first day of rehearsal, you’re at zero or one. And one hopes to get to 100. It takes a while to get past 50. That’s all groundwork. To start at 50 on your journey to 100 is invaluable.
Same with Hollis, who I’ve worked with many times over the years. And Rob, who I have nothing with, but still, the energy is in the room. There’s a trust. To me, the only kind of good acting is when you’re out on the edge, and you’re taking a risk and you’re entering into the unknown. Because that element of danger is what makes great theater happen, and it’s exciting to the audience. You need an environment of trust for that to happen. That was there with those people. That was really helpful, and I respect them very, very much and think they’re great. That’s the other thing. It translates beautifully.
Angels in America runs through June 3 at Court Theatre (773-753-4472, 5535 S Ellis Ave). Read our review of Angels in America.