Becoming Hemingway: A Conversation with Stacy Keach

Ernest Hemingway in Spain in 1959.

Shortly before beginning rehearsals for Pamplona, Golden  Globe Award winner, two-time Tony and Emmy Award nominee  and Theater Hall of Famer Stacy Keach spoke about preparing to portray one of the greatest American writers of the 20th century, Ernest Hemingway.

Michael Mellini: You have a long, celebrated history with Ernest Hemingway. Do you remember the first time you read his work, and do you count any favorites among them?

Stacy Keach: I was at the University of California at Berkeley, and not a very good English student. I read In Our Time, which is a collection of Hemingway’s short stories, and I was carried away by 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 crystallized my love for literature. He really turned me on to good storytelling. I was not a voracious reader back then; I hadn’t even been introduced to Shakespeare! It was through Hemingway in which 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 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, 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.

Ernest and Mary Hemingway on safari in the early 1950s.
Ernest and Mary Hemingway on safari in the early 1950s.

MM: Pamplona finds him in a troubled state in the later years 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 unembellished 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 was always concerned about finding a motive for that,
Mary and Ernest Hemingway on safari in the early 1950s.

MM: You previously won a Golden Globe for portraying him in the television mini-series Hemingway. How will that experience inform your performance?

SK: There are elements of that performance 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, as 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. For instance, I don’t know if 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 on stage the entire time.

SK: I did a one-man show years ago called Solitary Confinement. There 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.

MM: From television to film to stage classics, you’ve covered so much during your illustrious career. What’s special about working on a brand new play and presenting its 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, as 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 for this show.