Treat Williams was having an unusual year. He’d spent eight months, on and off, working with director-choreographer Michael Bennett as a salaried actor in a workshop production of a new musical called Scandal, written by Treva Silverman of The Mary Tyler Moore Show with music by pop songwriter Jimmy Webb. (A similar workshop process had resulted in Bennett’s greatest success, A Chorus Line.) Treat, though primarily known as a dramatic actor in films like Prince of the City, Once Upon a Time in America, and the television production of A Streetcar Named Desire with Ann-Margret, has a lot of experience with stage musicals. His first professional job was a role in Grease, and he replaced Kevin Kline in Broadway’s pop version of The Pirates of Penzance. For Scandal he had four six-week sessions which included lessons in acrobatics and dance classes every morning. But at the end of the workshop period, Scandal was still in bits and pieces, so Bennett abandoned the project.
Then Treat signed to play the lead in a feature film about Ernest Hemingway. He delved into an extensive preparation for that film, even shaving his head bald for the part. Then, only days before shooting was scheduled to begin, the project fell through for lack of money. So here he was, in the dead of summer, hairless and out of a job. Considering the circumstances, he was remarkably placid, baking in the sun on the patio of his apartment on the Upper West Side. He was thinking about playing Tom in a production of The Glass Menagerie with Joanne Woodward and Karen Allen, but he was waiting to see if he definitely had the part he’d been offered in the movie The Men’s Club, which was shooting in Los Angeles. (He ended up doing both.)
How do you feel when you’re not working?
After a while I get crazy. But I’ve just spent eight months with Michael Bennett and three months doing research on Hemingway. I consider that working. My career’s always been steady. There’s been a lot of rest and reading and catching up on myself the last two years. Not necessarily by choice. It’s not as if you say, “I think I’m going to do this now” – it just happens. But I have more of the feeling now of working because I’m really interested in something. It’s harder to say no when you’re younger. When you’re younger, you think, “I’ll never be out of work.” It gets easier, because life gets interesting. Then if you read something, and it excites you, you do it.
I’m planning for the future, for periods of being out of work. I’ll be thirty-four in December, and my lifestyle’s changed. I don’t just do whatever I want to do anymore, flying everywhere. I’m a commercial pilot. I’ve been flying since I was seventeen. There was a time I felt I would rather fly than act. I was losing the sense of why I was doing what I was doing. Hair and Why Would I Lie were well-received but unsuccessful. That got me down. My expectations were high. So I quit the business, and I flew for four or five months with a company in L.A. Then Sidney Lumet called with Prince, and I realized I could never give up acting.
What made you want to act in the first place?
Originally, it was a feeling of the sense of control. I did my first play in eighth grade – it was called If Men Reduced as Women Did, in which a bunch of us guys walked around with pillows tied around our waists. I had this Coca-Cola, and I set it down too hard on the table. It foamed up, I did a take, and there was this laugh. There was such power in that.
So I kept doing plays because I liked the idea, and I got more serious about it. In college, I sought out work as an actor. Eventually my interest shifted to the idea of creating a character, looking at the different ways people breathe or act, seeing the world through someone else’s eyes. I began to study mime, and I found that interesting, the physicality. When I did The Eagle Has Landed, I played an American Ranger, so I went down to Ft. Stewart, Georgia, and spent two weeks on maneuvers with the armed forces playing war games.
What was the Hemingway research like?
Well, flying into a Communist country with my own plane was interesting. I didn’t know if it would be confiscated, or surrounded by soldiers, or what. Cuba’s like going on the set of a western after seeing too many westerns. You think you know all about it, and then you see it firsthand. Then seeing Hemingway’s home, which is like Beverly Hills…well, it was a trip.
Where did you go to school?
Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. They talked a lot about Roy Scheider – you know, you follow the careers of guys who went to your school. I went to the University of London my last year of college, mainly as an excuse to see plays. The best thing about that was that I realized that there are bad English actors, too. They have a certain facility because of the opportunity to be in regional rep and touring classical productions, which we don’t have, but that doesn’t automatically make them better actors.
Do you prepare for a stage role the same way you do a movie role?
I always begin with the text. What is he saying, what is he doing, and what is everyone else saying about him? The luxury of doing a play is that you can break it down. You have to attack the scene in every possible way, go as far as you can in rehearsal, because you’re going to be doing it a lot. If you don’t give yourself a range of possibilities, you’re going to get bored. In film, you only have to capture a moment. Sometimes I’m wary of working things out too much in a film – I want to just let it happen.
For instance, with Hair, we improvised a great deal. But Prince of the City we rehearsed like grand opera. Sidney Lumet did run-throughs for a week at what used to be a Puerto Rican nightclub (now it’s the Ritz). It was a very difficult project – my character was a man who had to deal with the fact that doing something he thought was right was destructive to others. I had to find sides of myself I didn’t like. It wasn’t joyous like Hair was, where I flew to work every morning.
Then sometimes it’s the same old scene, again and again. Actors who’ve done a lot of stage work have an advantage in that situation, because they usually have stronger technique. There’s a famous story: Billy Wilder told Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, when they were doing Some Like It Hot with Marilyn Monroe, that they’d better be at their best in every take because “the one she’s good in is the one they’ll use.”
What do you do between takes?
I don’t like to talk when I’m working. What I do is sit by myself with the script and keep outside influences away. I don’t leave the environment. If you walk across the street to buy a bagel, and the guy gives you an argument, it can throw you off. You try to keep your motor running. It’s like sitting at a stoplight in your car – you don’t turn off the engine and get out.
When you’re doing a play, what is the last thing you do before going on?
I’m always very much alone the moment before I go onstage. Whatever gives you the strongest reality. I’ve seen actors shootin’ the shit with the stage manager, excuse themselves, go on, come off, and pick up where they left off. I can’t do that.
Do you mind auditioning for roles?
I don’t mind if I’m not being taken advantage of, if they’re really unsure. Nothing’s handed to you. The only things that come easily are the things you’ve already shown you’re capable of doing. In life, you have to struggle to get what you want.
But there are other uses for auditions besides seeing if you’re right for the role. The reason you have so many meetings on a movie is often just to see if you’re emotionally compatible with the director. After all, you’ll be working together five or six months, up to fourteen hours a day.
How do you determine if you’re compatible?
First you see their work. Then you meet them. If you go to dinner with someone you’ve never met, and he starts slapping you on the back and calling you “baby,” something’s wrong. You’re interested in their approach to the work. You’re interested in the unspoken – Is he clearheaded? Is he abusive? Is he a drunk? Will he let me take chances? Will he let me use my sense of humor? Will he force me to play the character the way he sees it? Does he have a discerning eye, or will he edit out the good stuff? Does he know what kind of movie he wants to make, or is he just making a movie? None of those things are talked about, but they’re all going on.
Are you conscious of being an actor in your everyday life?
“The Actor” is always presented as this flamboyant, Shakespeare-quoting character, the guy who comes through the back door. People think it’s a very flamboyant lifestyle. Actors do tend to be odd in their ways – it makes them interesting. I feel I’m an actor by profession. When I started I was afraid to say it. I’ve worked very hard to be comfortable saying I’m an actor. Now I’m proud of it.
Are you vain?
I’m somewhat vain. I mean, I wore a hat for two weeks after shaving my head. But real acting is the least vain thing you can do – you’re giving up yourself to present what the writer wrote, to play that character without letting yourself get in the way. There’s a kind of acting that leads to vanity because it’s based on looking good. You see it on TV. The actor may not be vain, but if looking good is what you do for a living…. On the other hand, if you spent four hours in front of a mirror making yourself up as the Hunchback of Nortre Dame, is it vanity? I’m always striving for the medium between false modesty and vanity.
Acting is a lot of hard work. I’ve been through analysis not to get caught up in the success, which came fast, heady. It frightened me that it was so easy to lose the values that brought me into this business. When you first hit, it’s the hardest time because it’s out of your control. You’re hanging on for dear life. It’s frightening emotionally. Luckily, I had a stable family background. A friend of mine who’s an interior decorator is going to redo my living room, cover the sofa, all that. He teased me and said, “I know, you want whales and boats.” And he was right.
from Caught in the Act: New York Actors Face to Face (a collaboration with photographer Susan Shacter), 1986