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INTERVIEW: Actor And Director Bob Balaban On Guild Hall’s "Squeaky," Netflix’s "The Chair," A Role He Would Have Played For Free, And More

Nicole Barylski

Squeaky is screening virtually on Sunday, March 28. (Courtesy Photo)

Guild Hall is hosting another captivating, star-studded reading this spring. Presented in association with Creative Alliance, a complimentary virtual reading of Jeff Cohen's Squeaky will be held on Sunday, March 28 at 7:30 p.m. as part of Hamptons Art Network's THAW Fest.

Bob Balaban will direct a talented group that includes Jessica Hecht, Marc Kudisch, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Ben Shenkman, and Harris Yulin.

"When I was writing the play I was flooded with memories," Cohen said about Squeaky. "Capturing my father on the page felt like he was there with me, over my shoulder, speaking to me, making me laugh. I felt a combination of sadness that he was gone and happiness that, just by thinking of him, I could conjure him and keep him alive. Writing the play gave me something very precious - the gift of spending more time with him."

We had the pleasure of speaking with Balaban about the upcoming Guild Hall production, his role in Netflix's The Chair, a part he would have gladly played for free, and much more.

This marks, I believe, your third Guild Hall virtual production - that you've either starred in or directed. Why is Guild Hall an organization you want to support?

BB: I think Guild Hall does great work in all three areas: arts and music and drama. I think they're a noble and vibrant institution. And it's been a difficult year for everyone involved with dealing with people, when they should congregate. So anything I can do to support them, I am more than happy to do.

I like the whole operation. It's beautifully done. And it's an asset to the Hamptons, and I don't want it to go away.

And it's a gorgeous theater.

BB: It's gorgeous. You probably remember it before it was renovated. But they did a beautiful renovation. They kept everything good about it and fixed the stuff that needed to be fixed. So, it's not even an update, it's just a restoration. It is beautiful. They have a great sound system. I'm involved with the Hamptons Film Festival, and we screen a certain amount of movies there, and it's just got state of the art everything.

When directing, what do you look for in production?

BB: Well, it's very simple. The first thing I look for is do I get involved with the play - even if I found it upsetting or funny or whatever. And I don't almost care that it doesn't finish what it starts off to do. I'm quite okay with plays that wander around a little bit. As long as they do two things: I have to be interested in them and I have to find some part of them different from any other play, even though how many different plays really are there... But, like a fingerprint, each play is its own play. I look for something that involves, compels, and is a little bit different.

And what was it about Squeaky in particular that you connected with?

BB: I was really fond of Jeff Cohen's writing. He's really talented. It's personal. It is the story of him, and his brother, and their father, their impossible father. I thought it was a fresh take on a familiar subject, because there's many great plays that are written about families, and they seem to manage to be a different play every time. It appealed to me because it was funny, moving, and talented.

Squeaky has quite the cast. Were you involved with casting?

BB: No, I wasn't at all involved with casting, although I couldn't have done better than the cast they're bringing to me. I think it's a great bunch of people. I oddly enough, except for Marc Kudisch, whose work I know, I actually vaguely know all of the rest of the cast either somewhat well or somewhat vaguely, but I know them all and they're all wonderful.

Another reason for me to be doing this is it's a lovely thing to hear a play read out loud with talented people that you think could actually be in this play, if we actually ever did it. I get to see the play more or less on its feet. It's not moving around, it's really a reading. People are simply reading something, but we're gonna rehearse a little bit. It gives me a chance to see how this thing works in a quick snapshot of what the play could be like, by having some great readers read it. It's a great step in the direction of telling us if this play is going to go further, what would I like to change? What can stay the same? It's a lovely stepping stone towards actually doing a production. And it gives me a chance to understand the play more without anybody having to pay for scenery or a stage manager, for that matter.

You've worked on more than 100 movies and numerous TV series. Are there any roles or productions that stand out?

BB: Yeah, a couple of things, but not always for the reason you would think it would. Close Encounters of the Third Kind stood out for me, will always stand out for me, because I got to know one of the greatest directors, Steven Spielberg. And I got to play François Truffaut's interpreter. I was one of the only people there who spoke French. Francois didn't like to speak English. So, I was on this exciting, wonderful movie with people that I loved and thought were really intelligent and nice people. And I got to talk to François Truffaut for seven months, because he had nobody else to talk to. If they hadn't even paid me, I'd have been quite happy to stand next to François.

As a play, I've done a few things that I loved doing that were exciting and interesting. One of the things I really got a kick out of doing was a play called The Inspector General. Sometimes it's called The Government Inspector. I did it on Broadway about a million years ago, and I played a 100-year-old man, by mistake. I had misread the script. I somehow got the idea that this character I was playing was 100-years-old. It worked very nicely. It wasn't until much later that I read the script, and I noticed, it didn't say anything about him being a 100-year-old man. It was really fun to be 100, I was 30 at the time.

For you, was there a key to that longevity for the many, many roles that you've played?

BB: I love being unrecognizable. It gives you lots of freedom to really turn into a different person, age-wise, hair-wise. This character had shoulder length, silver hair, like Einstein flying out in all directions. It turned out to be a lovely match. A character who is playing a servant in a comedy, and who was so old that all I had to do was when my master would say, "Get me a glass of water," my eyes would go to the glass of water 20 feet away, and the audience would start to laugh - because they knew that at my 100 years, my ability to walk and navigate furniture was so feeble, that it was just really fun. I have to say it's one of the more fun things I've been involved with.

You'll be starring in the upcoming Netflix dramedy series, The Chair. What drew you to the role of "Professor Elliot Rentz"?

BB: What drew me to it was the director's great, the cast was great, the script was great. The only downside was possibly getting COVID, but the protocols were very carefully managed. And I had a great time.

Besides The Chair and Squeaky, are you working on any other projects?

BB: Well, I'm always developing things that I should hopefully produce and/or direct, mostly for television - since who knows when movies are really coming back. I always develop a lot of things, and in the meantime, I always hope I get an acting job, because that's real. When you develop something, it can take years to do. I've developed a couple of things that eventually got made. One I did, a movie for HBO that began as just an idea to be plugged away, and we plugged away, and eventually we made it for $2, and HBO bought it. It was called Bernard and Doris, and it was with Susan Sarandon and Ralph Fiennes.

I developed a movie called Gosford Park, but it took quite a long time. You plug away at these things and you hope something's going to happen, you can't control it, then sometimes they happen ridiculously quickly, and you think it's gonna take forever. And then other times, nothing happens. But it's very exciting. I like to develop and I have a really fun time finding books that are worthwhile to develop or that I find exciting.

So, that's what I'm doing, besides the two things you mentioned. And as you know, the year of 2020 was the great year of nobody working who was an actor or director, particularly. That's just beginning to come back. I hope to be directing more plays, and hopefully finding a series or two to get started as a producer and/or a director, because I've enjoyed very much that kind of thing. I like making something out of nothing and developing your own ideas. It's exciting.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

BB: It's [Squeaky] free, but a donation would be great. If you feel like you want to help support a theater that has art and theater and music - and a lot of other things and conversations. It's a great thing to donate to. I hope people will listen. And I'm looking forward to listening to it myself enormously, because it reads very well. I can't wait to see it somewhat on its feet.

Squeaky can be screened through Sunday, April 11.

For more information, or to register, visit www.guildhall.org.

Nicole is the Editor-in-Chief of Hamptons.com where she focuses on lifestyle, nightlife, and mixology. She grew up in the Hamptons and currently resides in Water Mill. www.hamptons.com NicoleBarylski NicoleBarylski

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