Nathan Lane: Hollywood, homophobia and Mel Brooks

Nathan Lane spent years as a jobbing actor. Then a leading role in 'The Producers' turned him into US theatre's hottest star. As the musical comes to the big screen, he tells David Usborne about Hollywood, homophobia and his debt to Mel Brooks
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The Independent Culture

Will Ferrell, the American comic actor who plays a lunatic Nazi in the new film version of The Producers, let slip a couple of secrets the other day. He likes to hang out naked in hotel rooms with the film's leads, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick; and Hollywood put the musical on the screen purely to immortalise the stage performances of those two men. "It was absolutely the only reason to do it."

It could almost be true. In the recent annals of Broadway, no one can compete with what Lane and Broderick achieved as Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom, the crooked duo who conspired to pocket a fortune by staging the worst play ever written, Springtime for Hitler. They packed the house on Broadway for a year in 2001 and again for three months in 2003. Moreover Lane, who won a Tony Award, was persuaded to reprise his role in London's West End last year when the promised star, Richard Dreyfus, cried off.

At 49 years old, Lane has arguably now become the most bankable theatre star in America. But he is not about to take Ferrell's comment seriously. In fact, he professes mild surprise that he hung on to the part for the film. For that, he thanks Mel Brooks, whose baby The Producers has always been, ever since he made the original film in 1968. A film that became a cult favourite, starring Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder. "It was Mel who allowed this to happen," an obviously grateful Lane says. "If a studio was going to make this alone I'm sure they would have wanted Jack Nicholson or somebody like that. Not me."

If Lane is already at the top of his game on the boards, it is possible that The Producers will launch him into a huge Hollywood career as well - something that, to his surprise, didn't happen after the 1996 release of The Birdcage, in which Lane performed alongside Robin Williams. The Producers comes out in the US and in Britain just before and just after Christmas respectively, and neither audiences nor critics have yet had a chance to cast judgement. Let it be said by someone who has seen it, however, that as the unscrupulous Bialystock, Lane eclipses even the two established film stars drafted in to assure box-office appeal - Ferrell and, as a leggy Swedish siren, Uma Thurman.

The film probably will be best appreciated by those who haven't seen either the stage musical, here or in London, or, indeed, the 1968 original. First there is the sheer silliness of it all - God bless Mr Brooks - and then the refreshing shock of its content. Distributors in some European countries, including Belgium and the Netherlands, have already indicated an unwillingness to screen the film. Dancing Nazis and a drag-queen Führer are still a bit much for them. (Apparently they don't get the context - that Bialystock is staging a play that by design is in the worst possible taste.) It is also crammed with vaudeville lampooning of over-the top gays, including the inevitable Village People references.

Lane is not worried if a few folks run screaming from the cinemas. "Then they should go and see Rent," he suggests tartly - another Broadway show just transferred to the screen to cool reviews. "There are people who can't wait to be offended. Then they wonder why they are not invited to more parties. Who has time for that?" If you don't get Brooks, you won't get the film, Lane says. For example: "Mel's take on homosexuals is that we're these flamboyant extraterrestrials."

Yes, as most people know by now, Lane is gay. But if the actor, a cuddly 5ft 7in with an endearing habit of punctuating his sentences with laughter that eases out of him as half wheeze and half nasal snort, is content with the film and optimistic about its box-office chances, he also betrays a certain weariness. He can no longer count how many nights he has played Bialystock and he can see no circumstance under which he will need to do it again. Now that filming is over, he feels almost liberated. "It's been a great ride, an unbelievable chapter in my life. But I feel like I have given everything that I have to Max. It's done."

The London production, he reveals, was especially gruelling; he was already exhausted and was never meant to be part of it until Dreyfus dropped out just before previews. (Why they cast someone in such a physically demanding role who had never even been in a musical in the first place is still something he can't fathom.) He had just finished a run of The Frogs by Aristophanes at the Lincoln Center in New York in October 2004 and was unpacking his suitcase at his Long Island home, ready for a three-month rest when the telephone rang. It was Susan Stroman, the director of The Producers - both the stage versions and the film - and she was in a flat-out tizzy. She begged him to come to London to step into the breach. He said no, arguing that he had to relax because the shooting of the film was going to start in just three months. But the next day she called again and started to cry.

"I thought, 'Oh my God.' I guess it was a real test of our friendship that I said 'OK.' And you say it and then it really hits you - you've got pack to up again. Two days later, I was on a plane, by the Tuesday I was in a hat and cape and standing on stage in Drury Lane. (omega) Thursday there was the dress rehearsal and on Friday we started previews. It was like the actor's classic nightmare that someone wakes you up and says, 'You've got to go and do The Producers again!'"

Not that the West End experience was all terrible. Lane gushes about working with Lee Evans, who played Bloom. One night, at the end of the scene when the Nazi forces Bialystock and Bloom to swear allegiance to the Führer on pain of death, he and Evans were meant to exit through a door stage-left, but it wouldn't open. They improvised for a full 10 minutes - to an uproar of laughter from the audience. Lane persuaded Stroman to keep the stuck-door gag in the film. Plus the British theatre-goers had a slightly different take on the play compared to their US cousins.

"What the London audiences loved was all the Nazi humour. In New York they laughed but in London they went crazy. Anything that made fun of the Germans was a riot for them. The gay stuff was like, 'Yeah we've seen that before, but give us more of that Nazi stuff !'"

Unfortunately, the physical stress of performing eventually got the better of Lane, forcing him to bow out two weeks ahead of schedule. "Literally one night I was doing the number "Prisoners of Love" and I heard a crack. It was like someone had taken a knife and put it in my back and I couldn't move. We somehow finished the show and then they carried me off. They finally said, 'I think it's time for you to go home.' "

It was then, he says, that the British tabloids got unfriendly. They had already been running envious stories about the alleged mountain of gold he had been paid to come to London in the first place. "That's a myth I would like to be debunked. All of that was tabloid bullshit. None of that was true - I was not overpaid, believe me. For showing up and helping out at the last minute I should have been paid what they said I was. But I wasn't. Because I left two weeks early, they turned against me. It was like I had stolen all the money and made off in the middle of the night without saying anything."

Tangles with the press are not something entirely new to Lane. (He nonetheless seems entirely at ease this evening.) You only need to ask him about the tortuous manner of his coming out as a gay man and he'll tell you. For the best reaction, just ask him about the British journalist, novelist, playwright and self-described man-about-town Toby Young, who famously got into hot water for daring to ask Lane about being both gay and Jewish while interviewing him for Vanity Fair around the time of the release of The Birdcage. That, anyway, is the version that Young tells, except, as Lane points out, he is not Jewish but rather Irish-Catholic by descent, so part of the story, at least, has been made up along the way.

"He says whatever he wants to say about it to make his little anecdote work. All I can remember, vaguely, was that this extremely unpleasant man sat down and looked at me with really what seemed to be hatred and said something like, 'So I guess you're gay.' And I was like, 'What? Huh?' I mean, what about it? I remember he was just like an asshole and so unpleasant." He recalls that, indeed, his publicist, who happens also to be gay, stopped the interview and exchanged words with Young. Throughout the press interviews for The Birdcage - a movie, after all, about a gay couple running a drag-show club with Lane as Williams' less-than-butch partner - Lane refused to talk about his sexuality.

"I wasn't ready to meet 12 people I didn't know and discuss my personal life. It wasn't as if I was in the closet in my personal life, but I didn't want to talk about it, I wanted them simply to look at the work." He finally did come out publicly in 1999 in an interview with Advocate magazine. "Then, of course, you do come out and they 'Yeah? So what? We already knew.' "

There may be a slight bitterness to all of this, but ask Lane if he thinks his sexuality has harmed his career, if producers have ruled him out for some roles and he answers first no, second he doesn't have a clue, and it doesn't matter to him much anyway. "You don't want to work for these people anyway, if they're sitting in a room and saying he can't play a father of four, he's openly gay. Anyway, I work mainly in the theatre and I'm not really affected by it there - you Hollywood people have no power here, go away!"

There is another cliché about Lane that irritates him - the one about all comics doing their thing to hide a sadness inside. Unfortunately for him, there is the material in his resumé to back this assumption up.

He was born in New Jersey as Joe Lane to a truck-driver and amateur tenor who went blind and then drank himself to death when Lane was just 11 years old. His mother was a manic depressive who on occasions became incapacitated, leaving Joe and his two elder brothers essentially to fend for themselves. He later won a scholarship to study drama in Philadelphia but had to drop out the day he arrived on discovering the money wasn't enough to keep him alive. It was some time later that he started dabbling in off-Broadway shows - as well as earning cash as a singing telegram - and found his path to acting. When he applied for an Equity union card, he discovered there was already a Joe Lane working. So he changed his first name to Nathan, after the character Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls - a part he would eventually come to play on Broadway. Probably, his biggest leg-up came with the part of Pseudolus in Something Funny Happened on the Way to the Forum, for which he won his first Tony Award in 1996.

Press him, and Lane will admit that his family background probably had a part in propelling him into a comedic acting career. "You know, look, there have been worse," he says of his upbringing. "Yes, there was a tough childhood at times, and my parents had their problems, unfortunately. You do develop a sense of humour in that kind of atmosphere. I am sure it has all contributed to who I became, absolutely."

What comes next for Lane depends on the fate of The Producers. If it brings new opportunities in Hollywood, he is ready. "It would be nice to have some choices, some interesting roles to do, but it's not the most important thing in the world," he says. Right now he is on Broadway in a revival of The Odd Couple alongside - again - Broderick ("We'd love to see other people," he jokes) and has plans to appear in the play Butley by Simon Graves on Broadway next autumn.

One area of is career that has not gone so well is television, especially the relative flop of a comedy series called Encore, Encore, that aired in 1999 before being shelved. Though the programme, which cast him as a retired opera signer, was a ratings loser, he says he regrets nothing of the experience, in particular because of one of his co-stars and now an important friend, the British actress Joan Plowright.

The mention of Plowright triggers a new mood in Lane. Toppling sideways on his sofa in the hotel suite rented for the interview and almost snuggling up to the armrest, he launches into reminiscences of the theatre - all involving British actresses. "Aargh," he almost moans, "there are so many great English actresses." There was the time, for instance, when he was in London and was down to have dinner with Plowright at the Ivy restaurant. She calls and asks if she can bring a friend who needs cheering up. The friend is Maggie Smith. The three of them, he says, had lots of wine and a high old time. "Maggie got Joan to tell stories I don't think she would tell normally. We just giggled the whole night." He then mimics Maggie Smith's voice: "Oh, Joan tell him about the time Vivian (Leigh) came to the theatre. Oh, Joan, tell him..." Lane also has a story about meeting Judi Dench at the Oscars and tapping her on the shoulder in the stalls. She was nominated for the biopic Iris but turned to Lane and said, "I'm so happy to see you I don't care what happens tonight." And he believed it, he admits.

Someone must have something unkind to say about Lane. For this, I go back to Ferrell. Yes, he reveals, there was one frustration about working with him on The Producers. Lane can steal the stage from anyone, no one can steal the stage from him. "You can never upstage Nathan Lane," he says with mock irritation. "You could light your head on fire and he would still find a way to get past you." Watch the film and you'll see that Ferrell is probably right, again.

'The Producers' is in cinemas from 26 December