Since 1979, when he moved from the acting ensemble of the Wooster Group into a solo career performing autobiographical monologues, Spalding Gray has become internationally recognized as a unique combination of avant-garde performance artist and stand-up comic. From the beginning, his monologues were nearly pathological in their obsession with self-exposure: witnessing his confessions was like watching someone unravel in public. Gray was clearly on the edge, barely masking his inner turbulence with the polished demeanor of a veteran performer. He was also disarming in his candor, self-mocking in his humor, thrillingly precise in his timing and choice of detail qualities that continue to characterize his work.

If the early monologues succeeded in keeping Gray from pitching himself into the abyss he circled so precariously, they also bolstered his ego by drawing the kind of personal following rarely seen in avant-garde circles. And when he was asked to play a small role in Roland Joffes film
The Killing Fields, the experience of spending two months in Thailand, hobnobbing with famous actors and journalists while re-creating one of the most horrifying bloodbaths in recent history, became the basis of Swimming to Cambodia, an award-winning two-part monologue that completed his transformation from a borderline urban victim to underground celebrity.

We met at the Soho loft he inhabits when hes not on the road or at the house in upstate New York he stares with independent film producer Renee Shafransky. It was before noon , and he looked rumpled, like hed just gotten up; his face was early-morning puffy, red and splotchy. But as he began to talk about himself, a remarkable transformation occurred. His face cleared up, his features became more defined, and he took on a sort of glow. This is a man who thrives in the spotlight.

The idea for the first monologue came to me when we had to stop rehearsal for Point Judith because Willem Dafoe went to do a movie. We didnt want the Garage to sit empty, so there was time for me to do something. I dont like the rehearsal process at all, and I tried to figure out how I could work without rehearsal. I had this feeling of impending nuclear destruction, and I wanted to chronicle what I felt was the decline of the white middle-class world as wed known it. To write it down would be presuming there was a history that would survive on the printed page, so I wanted to do something immediate. I thought Id take a period of my life and recount it as simply as possible before an audience.

So I sat down and did this thing, and it was about forty-five minutes long. Each night new material would come to me through memory, through my imaginative film of the past, through free association this was, of course, the psychoanalytic process. Id been interested in psychoanalysis for yeas, in the idea that one is simply reconstructing the puzzle of ones life in front of another person. But I trusted the performance process more because I had a community of people anywhere from thirty to a hundred and fifty to share the experience rather than one psychoanalyst. Actually, it was reverse psychoanalysis: the audience would be my witness, and they would pay.

Since you started doing the monologues, do you feel self-conscious about your life, knowing you may use it in future work?

I dont have a strong concept of self; I feel myself to be an onion. I keep peeling and peeling. A lot of my method comes out of my interest in Tibetan Buddhism, vadrayana meditation the idea that one watches all experience and says, This is happening, and this is happening, and then this is happening, and this is my hand, and on and on, so you finally develop this observer. I realized that I was an actor before I chose to be an actor. I was always circling around the outside, and that kind of I-alone-have-escaped-to-tell-you became my signature. That comes out of my terrific fear of death Im trying to create my own world in which I am dying all the time and returning from the dead for the last judgment. Always a situation of death and resurrection. All Christians have this fantasy that the supreme moment will be that last judgment with God. When I lost that idea, I had to make my audience God, and the last judgment becomes all the time. 

Where can this work evolve to? 

Part of me wants to go back and show people in the commercial world of theater and film that I can play a character. Its good for me to read for things, because Ive lost the knack of auditioning. Competition is very threatening to me thats why I went into my own work. When I went to Los Angeles to audition for Hail to the Chief with Patty Duke, it was just between Dick Shawn and me. They were auditioning in a good-sized room, like a little theater, and all the producers were sitting in the dark. They pulled me down too early, so I was sitting outside the door for Dick Shawns audition, and it made me so fucking self-conscious. First of all, they were laughing a lot. Then a had to get his line readings out of my head and try to do something different. The problem is, you cant bring nuance to lines like, I cant do it with you anymore. How can I make love to the President of the United States ? Youre my commander-in-chief!

Were you heartbroken not to get the part?

No, because I didnt expect it at all. I took my per diem, which was $100 a day for two days, and I went to my favorite cheap hotel, the Highland Gardens , and took a vacation. I had a good time, but when the plane landed in New York , I felt deflated and depressed. When I come back from any vacation, its taken so much energy from my own work.

Sometimes I think I should have a motorcycle accident and disappear. Thats the cynical part of me talking I see how that kind of thing works, when people have to line up at a stage door to see me. Renee and I went to see Death of a Salesman, and afterwards we were going with John Malkovich to have drinks. I dont know how people recognized him he had a beret on but these autograph hounds and people with flash cameras started chasing him across the street. And John, in his inimitable way, turned to me and said, Dont you wonder why performance artists dont get followed like this, Spalding?

from Caught in the Act: New York Actors Face to Face (collaboration with photographer Susan Shacter, NAL Books, 1986)