Alan Ball

The Six Feet Under creator returns to his theatrical roots. 

Illustration: Rob Kelly

Writer, director and producer Alan Ball has made a career of gently grappling with both the transience of life and the mind-fuck of mortality in works like American Beauty, Six Feet Under and his latest, a witty and emotional gut-puncher, All That I Will Ever Be. The play, about a racially charged relationship between two young men—a rich stoner and a male prostitute—marks Ball's return to writing for the theater, as well as his return to New York.

Writer, director and producer Alan Ball has made a career of gently grappling with both the transience of life and the mind-fuck of mortality in works like American Beauty, Six Feet Under and his latest, a witty and emotional gut-puncher, All That I Will Ever Be. The play, about a racially charged relationship between two young men—a rich stoner and a male prostitute—marks Ball's return to writing for the theater, as well as his return to New York. (He owns a place here and one in L.A., which makes him, he says, "the bicoastal clich.") In addition, Ball, 49, is busy casting a new HBO series and has just finished shooting a film adaptation of Alicia Erian's novel, Towelhead. We spoke with him by phone from the Los Angeles home he shares with his partner of five years and three dogs.

Is it true you keep the Oscar you won for writing American Beauty dressed in a pink Barbie jacket?

No, that is no longer true. I did for a while, but then it felt like it was kind of an unnecessary statement.

What statement were you making?

It was: See, this isn't that important to me, and I can make fun of this because I'm above this. Then I realized it's, like, Who cares? It looks kind of ridiculous. Now it's just naked.

Aside from the way you dress your Oscar, you've managed to keep much of your personal life out of the public eye.

The level of personal exhibitionism that so many people are addicted to—in terms of whatever celebrity couple is doing this or that, or who's with whom—I just think is really pathetic. That said, when somebody brings a Star magazine to the set, that doesn't mean I don't flip through it.

So we won't see any photos of you getting out of a limo sans underpants?

God, I hope not—I usually remember to wear underpants. Underpants are pretty important!

I read your new play last night—I cried at the end.

Oh, good!

What were you thinking when you wrote it?

It's hard to say, but one of the consistent themes in my work seems to be the danger of intimacy, and how painful it can be to actually get close to somebody. I'm not saying we should all stay alone in our lives; I just don't think it's quite as simple as the way people usually come together on TV and in the movies.

Of all the characters you've written, who is most like you?

They all have bits and pieces of me in them, but overall I'd have to say Claire Fisher [from Six Feet Under]. Wanting to be an artist; being the afterthought child; living in a house haunted by death; trying to make sense out of a culture that seems completely absurd; trying to find her place in it; hiding behind a level of smart-assness...

You repeatedly explore the intersection of pain and beauty in your work—how much does that come from your own experience of grief?

All of it.

All of it?

I mean, when I was 13, I was in a car accident with my sister. I saw her die in front of me. I got her blood all over me, and that changed me. It changed everything.

How?

I don't think I would have been a writer, even. I just think that experience fucked me up beyond belief—it also made me a deeper person than I ever would have been. I'm going to start speaking in cross-stitch homilies now: It opened my eyes to how truly important life is, and how truly important it is to see it in all of its complexity and not pretend it's just the nice parts. If you pretend it's just the nice parts, you're not really honoring life.

Do you believe in life after death?

I don't know. I don't believe in hell, I'll tell you that. I don't believe in a state of eternal punishment.

What would your epitaph say?

he finally shut up! [Laughs] I'm not going to have an epitaph! I'm going to be cremated and just tossed somewhere.

Really? Do you think it's egocentric to want one?

No; I just don't need it. I don't need to have a rock somewhere.

All That I Will Ever Be runs through Mar 11 at New York Theater. Workshop. See Theater, Off Broadway.