A company member since 2009, Eddie Staver III made his Curtainbox debut as the haunted title character in 2008’s Danny & the Deep Blue Sea, and went on to appear as the amoral salesman Moss in 2009’s Glengarry Glen Ross, the troubled son Eddie in 2010’s Fool for Love, and, later that year, clinical oncology fellow Jason Posner in Wit. And when I mention to people that Staver is returning to the Curtainbox to play James in Time Stands Still – his first role for the company in over a year – the response I get is almost always the same: “Where has he been?”
Well, the much-admired actor has hardly been wanting for work. Following Wit, he returned to Middletown, Virginia, to continue a year-long residency at the Shenandoah Valley’s Wayside Theatre, where he appeared in such productions as Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Harvey, and, in the role of Ebeneezer Scrooge, A Christmas Carol. This past summer, meanwhile, found Staver employed in Chillicothe, Ohio’s historical drama Tecumseh!, a hugely-scaled outdoor production that, since 1973, plays to nightly audiences of up to 1,700 patrons.
Currently in the Quad Cities again before leaving for a late-fall/early-winter Nebraska Theatre Caravan tour of A Christmas Carol (this time playing Bob Cratchit), Staver sat down during a day off from Tecumseh! to share a few thoughts on his acting process, on the highs – and one extreme low – of performing Glengarry, and on the time that he literally committed murder for a Curtainbox role. (It was the murder of a plant, but still... .)
On falling in love with your characters
If you’re given the assignment to portray a character, it’s like you’re immediately infatuated with them. There’s been very few times – maybe one or two – when I’ve gotten, like, a bad script, and I’m thinking, “This guy doesn’t make sense,” or “This isn’t jiving.” But yeah, you just fall in love with them.
And you have to justify everything they say and everything they do, you know? Any behavior. Any behavior. That’s your job. When you’re given the task to portray this person, you can’t be in disagreement with them. If you don’t believe in God and you have to play a devout Catholic, then you do it. Sometimes, I guess, it takes longer to justify things. You know, if your character is committing murder, or if you’re doing something crazy like that, you might have to do a little more work with the script. But still. Immediately. You love them immediately.
We’re asked to do weird things on stage, and we’re put in weird situations. And then we’re asked to deal with these weird situations in front of a bunch of people who paid money to watch them. (Laughs.) We’re asked to act normal in screwed-up situations, in the most screwed-up situation: being on a stage, under lights, with people watching us. So yeah, what we do at the end of the day is easy – digging ditches, that’s hard – but it’s totally messed up. (Laughs.)
On trusting the script
Most of the research I do is in the script. It’s the Bible. I love lookin’ at words for the first time in a script. And I love that, like with Time Stands Still, I can’t wrap my mouth around all of Jamie’s sentences yet. But there will be a time when those words will start to come out the way I want them to, and when that happens, it’s so much fun. It’s the greatest feeling. Nothing beats the feeling of opening and script and going, “Look what I get to say!” And asking, “Why do I say it?”
Because so much can be revealed from characters in the way they say things. Like, how do you start a sentence? Where do you breathe? How do you end? Man, it’s endless. And it’s all without a correct answer, you know? Without a right or wrong. Some people like to pick apart every little thing in a play, and try to understand what it all means. Not me. It’s all about my words and the person who’s talking to me.
But you have to be careful. It was maybe the second or third rehearsal of Wit, and I was delivering a line reading the same way I’d done it before, and Phil [McKinley, Wit’s director] called me out on it and said, “This is way too early in the rehearsal process for you to be stuck in that line reading.” And he was absolutely right.
It’s an exploration, you know? We memorize those lines, but we don’t memorize line readings. Some people do. And I’m guilty of it, too. Sometimes I’ll see a line on the page and I’m like, “Oh, I know how to deliver this. This is gonna be money.” But the problem is, you don’t know how your acting partner is gonna read the line before yours. And if they don’t read it the way you think they will, your response – the way you’re planning to say the line – might not make any sense. So yeah, we put these words into our mind and into our body, but we have to be able to manipulate them.
On not playing it safe
My theory is that when you’re on stage in a scene, you have to let go. You have to, as somebody once told me, “release into the play.” You can’t be working anymore; you just have to be.
Because when you’re hanging out there like that – when you’re that free – you don’t know what’s gonna happen next. You don’t know what you’re gonna say next until you get the impulse to say it. When you’re really in that moment, it’s scary. And sometimes, if you slightly misfocus or even hear something differently, you can derail. But you have to take that risk, as opposed to playing it more safe and planning what you’re gonna say. Otherwise you’re not really in the moment. And it’s really hard to do, and there’s always a time in rehearsal when you have to do it – when you have to let go. But you have to trust yourself, and trust in the work you’ve done in rehearsal.
I think that, in your growth as an actor, there’s a point where you just have to knock walls down. And once the walls are down, you know, you can scream and you can yell and you can be touched emotionally, and it’s all okay. Once you do it, and you realize people aren’t going to laugh at you, and people aren’t gonna be like, “Look at that weird person showing his emotions!”, then you’re set.
“Release into the play.” That’s such a great phrase, I think. Because you’re not working anymore. You’re just being there and you’re living it.
On forgetting lines during performance
It was the Chinese-restaurant scene. I was sittin’ there with [Glengarry co-star] Lou Hare, and I totally went up on my lines. Just lost everything. Like, I looked down and saw that Lou had an egg roll or something, and I was like, “Oh, look, Lou’s got an egg roll... .” And then I look back up and he’s staring at me, and I’m like, “Oh, f___.” And seriously, the pause was... . I still think it was about six or seven seconds, but everyone says, you know, that when you go up on lines, it feels like minutes pass.
But this was bad news. Lou sort of gave me the look like, “What’s going on here, buddy? It’s your line.” And I looked back at him and I was like, “I got nothin’. I’m done.” I was actually preparing to, like, skip to the end of the scene, or pick up my plate and leave. Every half-second that was passing was tearing me apart.
Thankfully, Lou actually fed me my line – asked me a question that evoked the line out of me – and we got through it. But it took me a good three or four shows to really get back on pace with that scene. I’d get to that part in the show, and it was just about saying the words. (Laughs.) ‘Cause when you derail like that, it really kills your confidence.
Whatever. People screw up. We’re human, you know? But I do owe Lou forever. Eternally.
On admitting when you're good
You know how everyone says, like, no performance is perfect, and you always think you could’ve done better? Or after a show, you’ll talk to somebody and they’ll say, “Nice show!”, and you’re like, “Oh, really? I dunno... it was all right... it was a bit off... .” Because it’s the cool, suave thing to be modest.
However. (Laughs.) There were shows during Glengarry where I felt it was perfect. That’s the truth. Which is why, when I went up on my lines that time, it was devastating, you know? Because when it’s there, and it’s firing, it’s so hot! There were nights, after my last scene, when I’d go in the basement and sit there with [co-star] Mike Kennedy, and he’d be like, “I heard you up there, it sounded pretty good,” and I’d just smile and be like, “Yeah, I just killed ‘em, Kennedy.” (Laughs.)
You can’t always be the pessimist, or always be, “No, this was wrong, that was wrong... .” And oftentimes, as actors, I think that’s how we are. But I think you gotta know when you kill ‘em, and you gotta know when you’re off, you know? You have to know what’s good, and you have to know what’s bad, and when it’s good, you have to accept it.
On killing for a good role
I had a plant on my [Glengarry] desk, and I wanted it to be a plant that Moss didn’t take care of – that he got, and that he never watered, you know? (Laughs.) He got it as a gift from a client or whatever, and put it on his desk, and it sat there.
I remember buying the plant. I was talking to the florist and was like, “Hey, do you have any plants that are dying that people haven’t bought?” And she was like, “Uh, no-o-o... .” And I was like, “Well, I want a dead plant.” And she said, “Well, I’ll take your name and number, and if one dies, I’ll call you.” And I waited, like, three days and she didn’t call, and so I was finally like, “Well, I’m not gonna wait for a plant to die – I’ll just kill the damned thing myself!” (Laughs.)
But that plant, man, was hard to kill. I poured all sorts of stuff on it. I went into the cleaning cabinet and just found a bunch of stuff and poured it in there, and then put it out in the sun for an entire rehearsal. And it was still fine by the end of rehearsal, so I put it on my desk and came in the next day, and it’s still, like, growing. Someone told me to pee in it, because pee kills plants. I didn’t pee in it. (Laughs.) I ended up going with straight bleach – I poured bleach on it for, like, four days – and sprayed it with some disinfectant.
Because I liked the idea of this withered-away plant... which sort of, you know, mirrored Moss. He’s this plant that at one time was blossoming, but now he’s sort of past his prime. He’s sad and ridiculous, but still fighting. That plant totally was Moss. He was tough to go down, you know? He wasn’t going to go out without a fight.