Nathan Lane‘s career has spanned decades and dozens of roles, but he credits everything to his origins as a theater star. All his most notable work, from his breakout on-screen performance in The Birdcage alongside Robin Williams, to his most recent role as a hard-boiled police detective in Penny Dreadful: City of Angels, can be traced back to his love of the stage — even the original animated Lion King (“not the Billy Eichner film,” is all he says about the 2019 remake).
In this Collider Connected interview, part of our remote video series which takes a deep dive into a person’s career, Lane explains that while he doesn’t feel like he has any power over his career when it comes to film and television, “I had a little bit of control in the theater.” And thus, he’s used that clout to make sure that he’s never been typecast as effeminate or a meerkat, as his theater roles ended up opening up wild possibilities for other projects.
Getting the role of Timon, which introduced him to an entire generation of young fans, was something that might never have happened if he hadn’t been playing Nathan Detroit in the 1992 Broadway revival of Guys and Dolls, which also featured Ernie Sabella as Harry the Horse. As Lane tells the story, he and Sabella both arrived to audition for the role of one of the hyenas, and so “I said to the guy running it, could I read with Ernie? I’m reading for one of three hyenas — it would be good to have someone to play off of.”
Later, after the two castmates auditioned together, the producers contacted Lane and Sabella to say “we don’t want you for the hyenas, but we’re developing these other two characters of a meerkat and warthog — this kind of comic relief, because the film was a little heavy.” (“A little heavy” is maybe a bit of an understatement, when you remember the wildebeest stampede.)
While Lane’s pedigree as a comedic actor was never in doubt, his very dramatic role in City of Angels was written specifically for him by creator John Logan, after Logan saw him in a recent stage revival of Eugene O’Neill‘s The Iceman Cometh. But Lane originally took on the epic-length theater classic, he tells us, as a deliberate reaction to commentary he read about his career after the “critically reviled” (his words) stage adaptation of The Addams Family in 2010.
“Charles Isherwood, who was still a critic at the Times then, wrote a very flattering piece, an assessment of my career up to that point,” he says. “And it was very flattering and complimentary, but it referred to me as ‘the last of the great stage entertainers.’ As I can always find a black cloud in any silver lining, I was like, ‘well, is that is that all you think of me? I’m just an entertainer?’ It made me question everything. I was at a bit of a crossroads anyway, and I thought, I need to challenge myself and I need to challenge the audience and its perception of me.”
The play made a huge impact: When Isherwood ended up reviewing the 2015 revival, he wrote then that Lane’s work in the play was “an acting feat, one might compare this to emerging from a bubble bath only to swan-dive into a frozen pond — daunting to contemplate, let alone accomplish.”
Says Lane, “I feel like I succeeded. It’s not something that you that’s easy to do — I wondered if I would be able to shift people’s perception just a little bit. I’m sure there are people who still feel the same way and I should just be their birthday party clown.”
But others — like Robert and Michelle King, who cast him in a recurring role as a “rather severe numbers counter” on The Good Wife, and the producers of The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, who cast him as their sneaky and boozy interpretation of F. Lee Bailey — were impressed. And he had no idea that Logan would, years later, be inspired to create Lane’s character of Detective Lewis Michener for the Los Angeles-set Penny Dreadful spinoff.
The Penny Dreadful set is the one to which he’s most eager to return, once film and TV production resumes and the show receives a second season order. “It’s a really impeccably cast wonderful group of diverse actors,” he says, including Danny Zovatto, who plays Michener’s on-screen partner, as well as “one-woman repertory company” Natalie Dormer. “They’re tremendously talented people and on a daily basis I was knocked out by their talent.”
Below is a full list of what we discussed — do check out the video above, if only because Lane is a gifted storyteller with a real knack for impressions (and he’s not above making fart noises).
- How Mike Nichols spent months trying to convince him to take his breakout screen role in The Birdcage.
- Ernie Sabella’s special way of cheering him up, during long mornings of recording dialogue for The Lion King.
- His less-than-fond feelings regarding Don Bluth and Gary Goldman‘s ill-fated animated sci-fi adventure Titan A.E.
- Why he feels that it’s going to be a long time before Broadway reopens.
- And perhaps a few thoughts about the current sitting president and how his administration has handled the ongoing Covid-19 crisis.
Penny Dreadful: City of Angels airs Sundays on Showtime.