This spring, Golden Globe Award winner, two-time Tony and Emmy Award nominee and Theater Hal of Fame member Stacy Keach returns to the Goodman portraying literary great Ernest Hemingway in the world premiere of Pamplona. Shortly before rehearsals begin, Keach spoke about his preparation for the solo show and why Hemingway remains an American icon. Pamplona begins performances May 19. Tickets start at just $20 at GoodmanTheatre.org/Pamplona.
Michael Mellini: Do you remember the first time you read Hemingway’s work, and do you count any favorites among them?
Stacy Keach: I was at the University of California at Berkley and not a very good English student. I read In Our Time, which is a collection of his short stories, and I was carried away with his prose. I felt like he was writing in a way that captured an emotional state similar to one I was in at that time. That crystalized my love for literature. He really turned me onto good storytelling. I was not a voracious reader back then; I hadn’t even been introduced to Shakespeare! It was all through Hemingway that I became acquainted with good literary works. I love The Sun Also Rises and The Old Man and the Sea.
MM: Aside from his writing, why do you find him to be such a captivating figure?
SK: He was a daredevil in many ways. He loved adventure, the outdoors and the challenges of taking risks in life. He was sort of the epitome of the macho man, the Marlboro Man of his day. What I’ve discovered, though, is that he was a very vulnerable, very sensitive person and quite fearful. There was something stirring underneath all that bravado. But he always put on a great show, a great face. He was deeply concerned about his image and maintaining that notion of being a guy’s guy.
MM: Pamplona finds him in quite a troubled state towards the end of his life. Despite the great success he achieved, what do you think he was still searching for in life?
SK: This will sound corny in a way, but I think he was always looking for truth, or at least the most un-embellished version of truth. His sparse writing style certainly reflected him working in that direction. I don’t know if we’ll ever know what his final objectives were, but, towards the end, he desperately wanted to leave the planet because he was sick and attempted suicide several times. He tried to walk into an airplane propeller, I mean good lord! I was always deeply concerned about finding a motive for that, but I discovered you can’t really put your finger on any one thing. Part of it was genetics, no question, because his father, sister and brother all committed suicide. He was also sick and could no longer do what he was put on this planet to do, which is write. I was just going over a section of the play that touches on how he survived two plane crashes in two days. He took his wife Mary on a trip to Huntington Falls in Africa in the Congo Basin. Their plane crashed, but they survived. The next day, the plane that came to rescue them took off and crashed too! They all survived, but I think he suffered physically the rest of his life from it.
MM: You previously won a Golden Globe for portraying him in the television mini-series Hemingway. Will that experience help inform your performance, and are you able to pull from any research you may have done for that project?
SK: There are elements of that to the performance that I recall, but it’s been nearly 30 years. Pamplona takes a fresh look at the later years of Hemingway’s life, so that’s where my attention is now. The thing about Hemingway is you are in a constant research mode. There’s so much to explore: not only the things he wrote, but the things that have been written about him. He was a prolific letter writer. I hope Pamplona will provide audiences some insight into things they might not know about Hemingway. I don’t know that a lot of people are aware that Hemmingway’s mother dressed him as a girl for the first years of his life called him Ernestine, not Earnest. He protested vehemently. I don’t know that the world at large is also aware of how many women there were in his life. He loved to flirt and his libido was very healthy.
MM: You face a tall order with this play as you are the only performer present on stage the entire time.
SK: I did a one-man show years ago called Solitary Confinement. That were moments in that production when I interacted with pre-recorded footage on a screen so I had opportunities to rest a bit, but with this show it’s pretty much full-speed ahead. I feel strongly that as much of the script as I can memorize before rehearsals begin will put me in a better stead. We’re working diligently. As I’ve gotten older, my ability to memorize lines is not necessarily diminished but it takes me a bit longer. So the task at hand right now is getting the words in my brain.
MM: Well, you’re certainly in more-than-able hands with the Goodman’s Artistic Director Robert Falls at the helm. This marks your third collaboration together.
SK: One of the great things about Bob is he always puts himself in the position of the audience. He looks at the piece from their point of view to make sure everything is right. The show covers a lot of topics and events from Hemingway’s life [that aren’t always discussed in chronological order] so he talks about not just making sure facts are accurate, but that everything is clear for the audience. He’s a master at that.
What I’ve discovered, though, is that [Hemingway] was a very vulnerable, very sensitive person and quite fearful. There was something stirring underneath all that bravado. But he always put on a great show, a great face.
MM: From television to film and stage classics, you’ve covered so much during your illustrious career. What’s special about working on a brand new play and presenting a world premiere?
SK: I love it; I really do. [Playwright Jim McGrath] and I have been wrestling with this piece for some time. I always sort of envisioned the possibility of doing a one-man Hemingway show. We started off in a totally different direction; at one point the entire play took place in a boat. It didn’t quite work; there weren’t a lot of places to move around! The fact that we’re premiering this show near Hemingway’s hometown of Oak Park is wonderful. The Goodman is the right place to premiere this show.