Stage to screen and back again

Hollywood actor Gary Sinise has his roots firmly in the theatre. Robert Butler caught up with the Steppenwolf actor on the eve of his London debut
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The Independent Culture

The West End theatre is fast turning into a second home for the post-war American novel. The Graduate was a novel that became a movie that became a play. The Witches of Eastwick was a novel that became a movie that became a musical. And One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was a novel that became a play that became a movie that has now become a play all over again.

The West End theatre is fast turning into a second home for the post-war American novel. The Graduate was a novel that became a movie that became a play. The Witches of Eastwick was a novel that became a movie that became a musical. And One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was a novel that became a play that became a movie that has now become a play all over again.

The production that arrived last week at the Barbican, by the acclaimed Steppenwolf company from Chicago, stars one of the company's founders, Gary Sinise. Anyone who has seen Sinise as the Vietnam vet in Forrest Gump (for which he received an Oscar nomination) or as George in his own terrific film Of Mice and Men, in which he teamed with that other long-term Steppenwolf actor, John Malkovich, will have high expectations.

Ken Kesey wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in 1962. A year later Kirk Douglas played the lead on Broadway with Gene Wilder playing one of the inmates. The play was revived in 1973 and ran for over a 1,000 performances with William Devane in the lead and Danny de Vito as one of the inmates. In 1975 Milos Forman's film with Jack Nicholson (and de Vito again) beat Jaws at the Academy Awards to win five Oscars. It was co-produced by Kirk's son, Michael.

When I met Sinise, three days before the show's opening at the Barbican, he had just overslept. In T-shirt and baseball cap, he spoke in a low-key Illinois drawl about his reasons for going back to the play in the shadow of Nicholson's performance. "The book is told from the point of view of the chief, Chief Bromden, and the movie totally eliminates that. The film is very much a Nicholson vehicle, for him to spin around and do his thing." The play hangs on to Bromden's point of view and to the novel's original picture of McMurphy. "In the novel, McMurphy is like a cowboy: he comes in and he's got a twang, he's got big boots on, and he's a different character."

Sinise accepts parts of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest may be dated. "The mental health treatment is quite different now," he says. "Or so we're told." The battle of the sexes has shifted too. "The fact that Nurse Ratched is the oppressor has drawn interesting reactions from a more liberated, feminine audience."

But he believes the core of the story is mythic. "It's like a Western - High Noon or something - where you have the sheriff ruling with an iron fist and threatening violence, and then the lone rider comes and ends up sacrificing himself for the good of the town."

Both Sinise and Malkovich were members of the original nine that set up the Steppenwolf company in 1976. It's been a long haul. "If we had started the theatre in New York or Los Angeles we wouldn't be around today, because the actors would have been tempted to go off and do movies, you know, paying work, somewhere else. For that first period, 1976 to 1980, we were just isolated in a suburb in Chicago doing plays in a basement. So it galvanised the company. We weren't distracted."

Sinise was best friends at high school with Jeff Perry, a fellow co-founder (along with Terry Kinney, who has directed this production). Sinise found a basement in a Catholic school in his home town of Highland Park and they converted it into an 88-seat theatre. "We did everything we could to find an audience. We marched in parades and handed out leaflets at corners." They were running on "tens of dollars. We didn't pay ourselves as actors till 1981." Most of the company were from the suburbs or "the boonies" - the small towns in Southern Illinois.

They were a blue-collar Middle American bunch with aggression to burn. "We didn't like very much of anything. We had a big chip on our shoulders. That was an essential ingredient." They knew they were the underdogs and out on their own. In retrospect, the isolation was a big advantage. They worked for three or four years with "all the in-fighting, and struggling among the group to be heard, and the personal problems of growing up. We were all young, 20-year-olds, having no money. We were struggling with a lot of things - our own insecurities."

In doing so, Steppenwolf forged a style that became well known for its gutsy, macho vigour. These were visceral performances that put fear into those members of the audience sitting in the front row. During the interview, whenever Sinise demonstrates the type of acting he's talking about, he grits his teeth and pummels the air, as if aiming some low-down dirty blows at my stomach.

"Chicago is a working class town," he says. "It has a broad-shouldered work ethic. The company reflects that." Steppenwolf was always an actors' theatre. They chose plays on the basis of who wanted to play what part. The nine members were "a dysfunctional family", drawn to plays about dysfunctional families - Sam Shepard, in particular; but seldom David Mamet, as the Chicago dramatist already had his plays done at Chicago's Goodman theatre. The turning point for the company came in 1982 when Sinise and Malkovich went to New York with Sam Shepard's True West. "That was the play Malkovich was discovered in. He went off and started doing movies and the theatre developed a nationally recognised reputation."

There are now 33 members of the ensemble who come and go. Steppenwolf comprises three theatres based in Chicago. The three founders stay closely involved and Sinise - though he lives in Los Angeles - is always "in and out of Chicago". The run at the Barbican is the production's first performance overseas. It ran for 10 weeks in Chicago in the company's 500 seat theatre. It is now moving to a 1200 seater.

"A larger audience means balconies," says Sinise, displaying a little no-nonsense practicality. "We only have one balcony in Chicago, just above eye level. These balconies must be up there." He points up at the ceiling. "You've got a full two thirds of the audience looking down at you."

Balconies or not, playing at the Barbican is a kind of homecoming. When Steppenwolf started they had a manifesto in the programme that said they were in the great ensemble tradition of the Moscow Arts theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company. As Sinise cheerfully admits, "personally I didn't have any first hand knowledge of the Moscow Arts theatre or the Royal Shakespeare Company. I was just going along with what Jeff had learned in college." Now they share the same stage as the RSC. And no one's looking down on them.

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