Meet The Artist: DISCORD Actor Larry Cedar

Meet The Artist: DISCORD Actor Larry Cedar

AUTHOR: Erin Treat, Online Engagement Coordinator

Larry Cedar plays Thomas Jefferson in ATC’s current production, The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord. His work spans theatre, film, television, voice acting, and more. Notable roles include: Lear in King Lear (Porters of Hellsgate), Leon in Deadwood (HBO), and a starring role in the upcoming independent feature She Sings to the Stars (www.shesingstothestars.com).

ATC:
According to our background research, acting runs in your family.

Mr. Cedar:
I guess you could say that. Well, there’s a lot of actors in my family, but the one who really made it professionally first was my uncle, Jon Cedar, who’s since passed away. When I was growing up, he was the guy I looked to and said, “I’d like to do that someday.” He was on a show called Hogan’s Heroes years ago, and he’d done various television appearances and plays and traveled to regional theatres, as I’m doing now, and I just thought it was the most amazing thing. But it kind of wasn’t an option for me as far as my parents were concerned, so I didn’t really start pursuing it until much later.

ATC:
You’d actually planned to go to law school, is that right?

Mr. Cedar:
That’s correct. I’d been accepted into Hastings Law School in California and was all set to go. But, you know, I’d always wanted to be an actor, and at the last minute I decided to audition for a one-act play at UCLA that was open to all the students, and I got the part. It was a crazy play, a crazy role, and I did it and had a blast. In the audience was one of the UCLA theatre professors, who took me aside and said, “You know, you’ve got something going there. Would you like to audition for the MFA Theatre program?” I said, “I wasn’t a theatre undergraduate. How could I do that?” And he said, “I’ll get you in. I’ll make sure.” So I auditioned, and I got in, and that was it. This one really amazing man named Gary Gardner – if it hadn’t been for him, I would be a lawyer today.

ATC:
How’d it go over with your parents?

Mr. Cedar:
I told my mom, and she said, “Well, it’s fine with me, but now you’ve got to go talk to your dad.” But at that point, I was so excited about the possibility that I really could do what I’d always dreamed of doing, that even though I was scared, I knew that he couldn’t stop me and he wouldn’t stop me, and he didn’t. He was disappointed. And the irony is that after my dad retired from being a store fixture contractor in the ‘80s, I got him into the business as an actor doing commercials, and he loved it, so he came around.

ATC:
People who are coming to see you in the show will likely recognize you as Leon from Deadwood.

Mr. Cedar:
Possibly. I looked quite different. In Deadwood, I was about 20 lbs. lighter – I deliberately lost about 20 lbs. so I’d look like the emaciated opium addict I was playing. And I had a beard and glasses, and I wasn’t nearly as dignified as Thomas Jefferson, whom I play in Discord. In fact, I was the exact opposite; kinda squirrelly and weaselly and nervous and high on dope most of the time. But for me that’s the ultimate joy – to play the exact opposite, extreme characters from one moment to the next. The variety gives me great pleasure. In fact, after I’m done playing Thomas Jefferson, I would love to do something bizarre and strange. I love the extreme dimensions, filling out the possibilities.

ATC:
Can you comment on the talk about a forthcoming final season of Deadwood?

Mr. Cedar:
I would not be telling you anything that hasn’t already been written in the newspapers. HBO is planning a 2-hour Deadwood movie, which will supposedly wrap up the town’s storyline. By the end of the third (and final) season many of the characters were dead because people were shot, stabbed, strangled, or drowned in Deadwood on an almost daily basis. I’m not sure how [show creator] David Milch is going to deal with that, but I’m betting he’ll try to bring back as many characters as possible. Bullock [Timothy Olyphant] and Swearengen [Ian McShane], the two leads, were certainly still alive at the end, so most likely they’ll all be there. In any case It’ll be great to see what happens. And I would of course be thrilled to participate.

ATC:
Early in your career, you were on a children’s show on PBS called Square One. Since it was a math show, I have to ask: Are you really good at math?

Mr. Cedar:
I was actually quite good at math. I even enjoyed it, so I truly did like that aspect of the show. It was like an educational Saturday Night Live for kids. We did a lot of sketches, we played a million characters, and every sketch or scene had a lesson in it of sorts. You can still see many of them on YouTube. But the best part about doing the show was that I got to live in New York for the first time in my life. My wife and I had just had our first child when we moved there to shoot the first season. We subsequently went back for two or three months a year for four or five years after that. I’m convinced that it’s because of that experience that both of our daughters ultimately decided to pursue their careers in New York, where they still live and work. I always love spending time in New York visiting them, and of course when I’m there for an acting project..

ATC:
Were you doing theatre at the same time?

Mr. Cedar:
I’ve actually never done theatre in New York, only television or film. But I’m always looking for the right opportunity. To that end, I’ve developed a one-man show based on the works of George Orwell called Orwellian, which I’ve performed in Los Angeles and now plan to bring to New York in November as part of the United Solo Theatre Festival, a collection of one-person shows from around the world. So I guess you could say I’ll be making my New York stage debut..

ATC:
How did you get involved with Discord?

Mr. Cedar:
It was a complete lucky break. I got a call from my agent who said, “There’s a play that’s being done at a small theatre in Los Angeles. They’re looking for someone to portray Thomas Jefferson. The man who wrote it is the producer of Real Time with Bill Maher. They’ve got Armin Shimerman attached, and another guy named David Melville, and they want to just meet and talk to you.” I said, “Wow. Okay, great.”

I went in, had a meeting with Scott Carter, the writer, and Matt August, the director. The funny thing was, at the time, I didn’t know who was who – they probably said, but I was so nervous – so I talked to Matt as though he was the author and to Scott as though he was the director the entire time. I had a great discussion with them, and it wasn’t until the end of the meeting that I realized I’d mixed things up. But we got along great, and they never even had me read for for the role, which astonished me. They just said, “We’re going to do this, are you interested?”, to which  I replied, “Yeah!”

Discord has just been an amazing experience, and it’s the gift that keeps on giving. When we finished at The Noho Arts we got invited to perform the piece at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood for 12 weeks, and now here we are in Arizona. It’s been terrific.

ATC:
You’ve done a lot of research about Thomas Jefferson. Have you had issues dealing with the difference between the historical figure and the historical figure as interpreted by the playwright and director?

Mr. Cedar:
Certainly, but I look at it this way: There are three Thomas Jeffersons; the man himself, who for obvious reasons we’ll never really know. Then there’s the historical Thomas Jefferson about whom volumes have been written for us to read and research. And finally there’s the Thomas Jefferson that playwright Scott Carter portrays in his play and whom director Matt August looked to shape onstage. They’re related, they’re connected, but they’re not necessarily the same.

Scott has focused his play on very specific aspects of Thomas Jefferson’s life – the religious in particular. I’ve done my best to accurately represent those concepts and ideas. And over the course of rehearsals, Matt worked with me to shape my characterization so that it also suits the overall piece, and most importantly, resonates for the audience.

Now someone might say about my performance, “Well that’s not the real Thomas Jefferson.” To which I would reply, “You’re right. That’s Thomas Jefferson in Discord.” There are several  comedic sequences in this play that I can’t imagine Thomas Jefferson doing – I mean, it gets really silly. But you have to allow for that. The play is like a sculpture – it reveals its true self as you chip away at it. And we’re still finding things. My hope is that we’ll have perfected it by the end of the run so we can feel the satisfaction of having created the best possible Discord.

ATC:
Thomas Jefferson is probably the most immediately recognizable figure, and he’s the first one on stage. Is there a special intimidation or excitement about being the one that people feel like they know the most about?

Mr. Cedar:
I just assume that everyone knows all three of these guys, so it never occurs to me that I’d be the most recognizable. They’re all very well-known figures. But the beauty of the piece is how distinct the three individuals are. Each represents a specific dimension, both on a personal and philosophical level. Or as Matt used to say, “There are three characters on stage. A whirling dervish (Dickens), a smoldering inferno (Tolstoy), and a post (Jefferson).” The main thing I had to learn to do during rehearsal was to just stand still – to be the dignified one, the calm one, while Dickens whips around the room and Tolstoy fumes. It’s that contrast between us that makes it really fun. It’s been a process, because for some reason I was resistant to that. I tend to be a more animated actor, and I had to make that adjustment. But once I understood how that really  worked for the piece I loved it, and now I find it a pleasure to be still.

ATC:
Each character has such a distinct vocal quality as well. How did you arrive at Jefferson’s accent?

Mr. Cedar:
No one knows, of course, how Jefferson spoke. The approximation would be a Virginia accent. It’s an easy going sound, a gentlemanly approach. There’s a touch of English, which hopefully adds a distinguished quality. But I try not to get too hung up on the dialect – sometimes you can work too hard on an accent and that can detract from the performance. For me, an accent emerges from attitude. It can work both ways, but I like to think of the accent as an offshoot of personality, a reflection of character, but not the character itself.

ATC:
Without giving too much away, the slavery issue plays significantly in the show. How do you approach something like that as an actor – to find sympathy with that?

Mr. Cedar:
It’s a very complex issue. I’m reading so many books on Jefferson, and they all seem to try and circle in on this historically magnificent, great man, while somehow reconciling his ownership of slaves. The best I can conceive is that he had a major weakness. He was strongly for freedom, he was against tyranny, everything about him seemed to indicate that he could not possibly support human enslavement. He did, in fact, fight to end slavery in his very first bill in the Virginia legislature, and lost by one vote, but then apparently decided the issue was a losing battle, deciding instead to devote his energies elsewhere. In other words, he made a political calculation saying in effect, “I’ll never win with this debate, and there are so many other things I can accomplish by putting my energies elsewhere.”

There was also the other reality, that being that he clearly benefited financially from having slaves, in effect free labor. A large part of Monticello was built by slaves, his meals were cooked by slaves, his wines managed and carted by slaves, he was transported by slaves at no expense. A financially shrewd man, he actually calculated at one point that his childbearing slaves were earning him 4% a year off the income from their sale. He became dependent on this profit, like much of the south and rationalized it by saying, “Don’t worry, someday we’ll end the practice.” But he wasn’t about to give it up in his lifetime because he benefited from it on an economic level, a comfort level. As smart as Jefferson was, he was incapable of stepping outside himself and saying, “This is wrong.” And so he continued the practice.

If you’re going to play a character, you’ve got to embrace the whole person, which in this case is a magnificent but highly flawed man. But the play doesn’t shy away from that. Scott’s brilliance is that he’s found the deeply human flaws in each of these great men, exposed them for all to see, and then directed them to confront the reality of their lives. That’s a really wonderful thing for a play to do – to examine our very humanity, warts and all.

ATC:
Do you have a favorite moment in the play (that doesn’t spoil anything)?

Mr. Cedar:
There are so many, and most have to do with my interactions with my fellow actors, Armin Shimerman and Mark Gagliardi. I find them both very effective and entertaining and it’s a true pleasure and honor to share the stage with such amazing talents. There are several complex sequences which must be executed briskly and with great precision. When we get the desired response from the audience it’s very satisfying.

I also very much like the end of the play. I feel the audience is with us, and there’s a catharsis of sorts that’s quite gratifying.

But the real pleasure of the play is Scott’s words and being a part of such a meaningful and imaginative production. To me, that’s what makes theatre magnificent – when you have a passionate creative team that gives audiences a genuinely satisfying theatrical experience.

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