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Terrence McNally Opens Up About His Career Documentary “Every Act Of Life”

Terrence McNally Opens Up About His Career Documentary “Every Act Of Life”

Terrence McNally

An exclusive interview.

What can one say about Terrence McNally that hasn't been said? He's an institution of the American theatre, eternally productive and provocative, with a legacy of major gay-themed work going back to the earliest days of gay liberation. He turns 80 this year, and to commemorate the occasion, he has allowed director Jeff Kaufman and producer Marcia Ross into his process, his personal journey, and his plays for the documentary "Every Act Of Life," which played to a packed house earlier this week at Outfest. Unable to make the festival at the last minute, McNally joined Kaufman, Ross, and Out via phone from his home in New York.

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Austin Dale: Jeff, when did you decide to make a film about Terrence?

Jeff Kaufman: I've always loved the theatre, and Marcia grew up in the theatre and it changed her life. We did a film about the women who started the marriage equality movement and the whole national marriage equality movement kind of stood on their shoulders because of what they did in Vermont in the 1990s. We wanted to portray a couple who came to Vermont to get married, and we discovered that Terrence and his husband Tom had a civil union in Vermont, so we reached out and asked them to be interviewed for that film. That film, The State of Marriage, is on Netflix now.

We were just so taken with the scope of Terrence's career, but also by how great Terrence and Tom are. So we said we'd ask them if we could make a move about Terrence. And they did. That was the start.

AD: How long ago was this?

Marcia Ross: We premiered The State of Marriage in Provincetown in 2015, so our interview with Tom and Terrence was in 2014. We started interviewing Terrence in January of 2015.

JK: Here's Terrence who's one of the legends of the American theatre. He's sitting on the couch with Tom, and he's so direct and loving. So bells went off!

AD: Terrence, did you find it daunting at all to have to participate in a project that was going to look back on a very long career and do it all in ninety minutes?

Terrence McNally: Well, I was so surprised that they asked me, but I didn't hesitate to say yes, because I'd probably never be asked again. And there's no guarantee the film would turn out. They had to get a lot of people willing to participate. And there wasn't that much work in it for me. Rounding up all these people to be interviewed, and doing all the archival research, that's Jeff and Marcia's work. There's a wonderful letter in the film from my high school English teacher, and I didn't even know that existed! There's a letter from John Steinbeck. They really did their work. They went to Austin, to the Harry Ransom collection there, and found these things. I really give them incredible kudos for putting all this together. I really hand it to them.

I'm really glad that my friends who they approached agreed to be in the movie. Their contributions are invaluable. And the candidness of some of the interviews, with Angela Lansbury and Joe Mantello, and then to see Nathan Lane again in Love! Valour! Compassion! or Zoe Caldwell in Master Class, things that had been caught on film. It's a wonderful opportunity to see my life. It's a great, great souvenir of my life. I know people enjoy it, but I was so impressed when I saw the finished product. I didn't know what was going to be on the screen. My main contribution was talking to Jeff. He asked me direct questions. I sat there and answered them. But other than that, the movie is theirs. They've done a wonderful job. It's a fair movie. I think it's warts-and-all. I don't think it's over-congratulatory and I don't think it's a gotcha. I think the tone is affectionate and objective.

I also think the film is also about community, specifically the gay community that works in the New York theatre. It's about trust, love, support, how we've grown as a group. It's about the marriage movement. I think it's about convincing people to come out of the closet. It's got a lot a subjects. It's not just an "And then he wrote..." movie. I think it's about something much bigger than me and my career. I think it's a very positive film. The few screenings I've been at in New York, young people have responded well, although maybe they think I'm eight hundred years old. "What was that? John Steinbeck? Wasn't he in the nineteenth century?" There's wonderful historical stuff in it too. I'm very grateful.

AD: Was there anything in the film that you'd forgotten about until you saw it on screen.

TM: Well, I forgot about that letter from my high school English teacher, Mrs. McElroy. Certainly the encounter with Angela Lansbury is something I didn't remember. But towards the end of the film - I didn't even know it was being filmed - I spoke one day at an AIDS rally in Central Park and someone filmed my speech. That's in the movie, and I'd forgotten I gave that. If someone asked if I'd spoken at an AIDS rally in Central Park, I might've said, "Yeah, but I don't remember what the name of the cause was or the year," and I think it's one of the better moments in the film. I didn't know the footage existed. And then I'm getting some award, and I say some pretty unkind things about Corpus Christi, Texas, which I didn't remember. I don't think that the film will be received too well in Corpus Christi, if they should ever book it. Those were among the surprises in the film.

JK: I should also mention, it was also wonderful to have that letter from Mrs. McElroy read by Meryl Streep, and to have the John Steinbeck letter read so beautifully by Bryan Cranston.

AD: Were there any places you didn't feel comfortable going? The film gets pretty intimate about your personal life.

TM: Yeah. It's a good chance to be honest, and it's going to be record after I'm gone. One of the things I like about the movie is that I don't feel like I'm performing for anybody. I feel like I'm pretty real about disappointments, and about loss. I talk about the number of friends and lovers I lost during the AIDS crisis. It's hard, but I talk about it. I wanted it to be about something bigger, about the gay community and the advances we've made.

When I began writing, people used to sneak into gay bars, and now I look out my window and see two men and a baby carriage. That's a lot of change in the sixty years I've lived in New York City. I hope the scourge of the closet is clear in the movie and thankfully so many more people have come out of the closet in the years since I've been here. So there's nothing to be dishonest about. The goal of art is to the honest and beautiful at the same time. If nothing else, truth is beauty. You see that in the most modest thing. That's the artist's job. You think, there's much more to this person, or this tree, even, than I thought. Artists show us. I tried to show people who gay men and women are, and I've been doing that since my first play, because Mrs. McElroy, my English teacher said, "Write what you know about," and truer words were ever spoken. And that has come out from the very beginning.

JK: Yes, you write what you know about, but I think you're also the rare artist who keeps pushing yourself into other directions and trying new things, and that shows your work has a wider scope. One of the things we try to show in the film is how beautiful your words and your writing are, and let the people connect to you work and go, "Oh my God, I want to see more of this work." And I hope that comes across too. The depth and the beauty of your words are astounding.

MR: I think, Terrence, that's why you write great characters for women. Because your writing touches the depth of the human condition and what it is to be a person in humanity. It's why you can write so many kinds of characters, and so many different kinds of relationships, because you speak to something greater that's within all human beings.

TM: I love the Oscar Wilde quote that Don Roos introduced me to: Be yourself. Everyone else is taken. That's a great quote. It's true, we all have our uniqueness. If you remind yourself of that when you are coming up with a person, it's pretty easy to make something you haven't seen before.

AD: One of my favorite moments in the movie is when this remarkable company of commentators all read from Maria's final monologue in Master Class.

TM: It's beautiful. That's something Jeff came up with. I was sitting in the first screening about a year ago, and I was so blown away by that. It was at the end of the movie, and it was just magical. The range of people doing it, and they bring so much to it. That's preserved now, you know. I write in an art form that is so impermanent, the theatre. "Why are you here tonight? It was so much better last night!" Well, sometimes movies get it right and it's there forever. There's no "You should've been there Friday." It's kind of wonderful to know these things will exist forever because of this movie, whereas Zoe Caldwell or Nathan Lane give bravura performances in Master Class and Love! Valour! Compassion! and those performances exist in people's memories. It's a very different experience. We're talking about thousands of people but in this movie, hundreds of thousands, maybe eventually millions of people will have this experience. It's kind of wonderful. I'm so happy this movie exists.

AD: Is there anything in particular you'd like the Outfest audience to take away from it?

TM: Hope. Eagerness. An appetite for the future. I know it seems like so much of the news is bad, but there are also good spots going on. I hope this movie reminds us that it's one-on-one. It's Angela Lansbury saying to a young man in great trouble, "Can I talk to you about your drinking?" That changed my life forever. We can all affect each other. We have a new congressman in New York from The Bronx, and she was tending bar two blocks from here up until two weeks ago, and she's going to the US Congress pretty soon, when they resume. She did the work, and if we want to change anything about the government, it's up to us. You know, we won the right to marry for ourselves. We've got to do the work. I hope the movie makes people want to continue to do the work. The pendulum is always slowly, slowly swinging in the right direction. Sometimes it gets held back a little bit, but we have to keep inching it forward. I hope the film makes people want to live their lives more and get involved and say "Damn it, I want to make a difference." Every one of us makes a difference, and when we forget that we get in real trouble.

AD: Before I go, I just wanted to tell you your plays were one of my avenues into opera, which has become one of the greatest joys of my life. So I wanted to thank you for that.

JK: Terrence, do one thing for Austin. Tell him one thing he should listen to when he goes home today.

TM: Something from opera? Something I think maybe you've never heard? Do you know the operas of Janacek? I can't think of the name of it, that main one?

AD: Jenufa?

TM: Jenufa. I find that a tremendously moving opera. It was not known to me until ten years ago. There was no Janacek being performed in New York. That story, I found so deeply moving. And the last ten minutes of it are as great as anything in music. But if you know it, I have three favorite operas: Parsifal, The Magic Flute, and Fidelio. They're all German, and I don't particularly love German culture. And a lot of people think of them as their three un-favorite operas, but I think those three are my holy trinity of opera. Parsifal is the shortest opera in the world, it goes by for me in about five minutes, but people say, "How can you sit there for six hours?"

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