Actor Nathan Lane’s acclaimed performances go far deeper than his much-beloved work in comedy films. His most popular performances likely include 1996’s The Birdcage, his Tony-winning work in The Producers (later made into a 2005 film) or Guys and Dolls or A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, or his Emmy-nominated guest work in the long-running ABC sitcom Modern Family. But to know Nathan Lane the actor is to love his darker, more dramatic performances.
Lane’s recent work on television and in the theater explores that dramatic side to his talent. He received strong notices for his role as F. Lee Bailey in Ryan Murphy’s The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, and his role as Roy Cohn in Broadway’s Angels in America merited another Tony Award. And he has twice played one of the toughest roles on the stage to great acclaim: Theodore “Hickey” Hickman in Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh.
This Emmy season, Nathan Lane extends those dramatic chops in Showtime’s Penny Dreadful: City of Angels. He plays Lewis Michener, a Jewish cop heavily influenced by the great noir films of the 1940s. Lane’s Michener explores four gruesome murders and the possibly related growing Nazi influence in Los Angeles politics. His performance is deeply serious and especially mournful as he struggles with growing anti-Jewish sentiments.
It’s a far cry from The Birdcage‘s “I pierced the toast!”
Awards Daily: What was it about Penny Dreadful: City of Angels that attracted you to the project?
Nathan Lane: It was offered to me! That what was most attractive! John Logan, creator of the show and all-around brilliant guy, I knew from the New York theater. Out of the blue, he sent me an email saying, ‘I wrote this part for you, and I really hope you’ll do it.’ I thought it was a terrific script, and in particular, this character was a real gift. So, I felt very grateful and lucky, and when we finally talked about it, I said I would do it. I told him, ‘You may be the only person in Hollywood who would have thought of me for this grizzled old Jewish detective. What made you think of me for this?’ He told me he’d seen me in a production of The Iceman Cometh with the late, great Brian Dennehy. So, that was very gratifying as well. It was a very special production, and it was my work in the theater that led to me getting a role like this. It’s certainly one of the most emotionally complex characters I’ve ever had the great fortune to play on film.
AD: You’re well known for your range in comedy, drama, and musical theater. Here, you’re taking on a very dramatic role in Lewis Michener. Which do you prefer? Is one easier than the other for you?
NL: Nothing is easy. Nothing about acting is easy. About 10 years ago, I was doing a musical on Broadway, The Addams Family, which was reviled by the critics but was a popular success. It gave me a lot of time to think about where I was in my life and career. Around the same time, Charles Isherwood, who was then still working at the New York Times, wrote a very flattering piece about me, sort of an assessment of my career. He, at one point, referred to me as ‘the last of the great stage entertainers,’ or something along those lines.
It was very, very flattering, but I can find the dark cloud in any silver lining. I thought to myself, ‘Is that all there is? Is that all I represent after 45 years of acting?’ I felt at a bit of a crossroads, so I set out in a bit of an experiment. As an actor, you don’t have a lot of power. You’re dependent on people casting you. In film and television, I have no power, but in the theater, I have a little bit of power where I could call someone and say, ‘Let’s do The Iceman Cometh.‘ I’d read that Brian Dennehy and (director) Bob Falls were interested in revisiting the play. I thought that was just the kind of challenge I was looking for.
It was a life-changing experience because O’Neill asks everything of you. He demands your very best at all times. He’s asking you to be as brave as he is in the writing and jump off the cliff into very, very dark places in your soul and psyche. It was the best thing I could have done as an actor for myself – to take on that challenge and what I would learn from doing it. It tested me and allowed me to grow as an actor, and for that alone, it was worth everything. All roles after that eventually led to me taking this role in Penny Dreadful. I have just loved this experience, and I hope I’m able to go back and do more.
AD: Lewis is steeped in the tradition of Chinatown and earlier film noir cops. What did you use for inspiration as you were learning how to play him?
NL: Well, first of all, it has to be on the page, so John did a lot of work to create this, what looks like from the outside, classic hard-boiled detective of old. First, it was really about doing research about the L.A.P.D., building a backstory that made sense of where this character was in his life and how he had come up in the ranks. Even though as a Jew he’s an outsider, I think everyone has enough respect for his that they don’t give him a lot of shit about that. He’s very lonely. His wife has died. He’s estranged from his two children. Because of this investigation of the Nazi infiltration of L.A., it’s gotten him back in touch with his roots and his faith.
The other side of the research was the story of the Nazi infiltration of L.A., which is an extraordinary story that not a lot of people know about. So, reading about that and the history of the L.A.P.D. and creating a backstory for myself that made sense with John’s input, creating all of that for my own personal use. There was a little rehearsal time, but they filmed this like it was a feature film. They took their time. It was 10 episodes, and we worked for 7 months. Certainly, Chinatown was a huge influence on the show, yes. What was great was to have John Logan. He’s very hands-on and on-set every day. He’s a wonderful cheerleader and gives you really great notes. He had such a clear vision, and that was incredibly helpful as well.
AD: City of Angels has Nazis, foreign entities trying to undermine American politics, illegal immigrants, corrupt politicians – all very current hot topics. That can’t have been accidental.
NL: Oh not at all. John Logan was very up front about all of that with us. What he said initially was that, if people just look at this as a beautifully shot period piece, then we’ve all failed. This was inspired by what’s going on right now, but we’re looking at it through this historical perspective. Much of it is based on facts around the creation of Los Angeles, the building of these highways and how it separated people and put people into the “Mexican section” or the “Jewish section.” It was a way of separating us all.
This was his response to the new order, the new administration, and what we’re going through right now. History can repeat itself if we’re not paying attention.
Penny Dreadful: City of Angels is currently available on Showtime.