January-February 2016 | Featured Article

Interview: Actor/Director Ed Gero

Bethesda resident talks about what it was like playing Justice Scalia

share this

Name: Edward Gero

Age: 61

What He Does: Stage actor

Grew up in: Madison, New Jersey

Lives in: Wood Acres, Bethesda

When playwright John Strand pitched his Supreme Court drama, The Originalist, to Arena Stage, he opened up his PowerPoint presentation to photos of Justice Antonin Scalia and veteran local actor Edward Gero. “Not only do they resemble one another,” Strand remembers saying, “but Ed is a phenomenal actor, someone I have great respect for.” There would be no reason for Gero to audition for the lead role. It was his. And it didn’t hurt that the Gero and Scalia families, both Catholic with New Jersey ties, had roots in Italian villages only miles apart.

Last spring, after more than a year of researching the longest-serving justice on the current high court, reading the Federalist Papers, attending oral arguments to study Scalia’s gestures, and having several private meetings with him, Gero helped draw 19,000 theatergoers to see The Originalist. Call him an overnight success, several decades in the making.
With four Helen Hayes Awards (Washington’s version of the Tonys), Gero is one of the most recognizable faces on the Washington stage. At press time, he was wrapping up his seventh run as Ebenezer Scrooge in Ford’s Theatre’s A Christmas Carol. He is slated to make his debut on the Woolly Mammoth stage in the District in April.

Gero, who lives in Bethesda, has played fictional and historical characters ranging from President Richard Nixon to artist Mark Rothko in more than 100 local productions. You also may have caught him in the dark television drama House of Cards and in Die Hard 2, where he acted alongside college housemate Bruce Willis.

Teaching has played a major role in the Gero household. An associate professor in the theater department at George Mason University, Gero has taught acting since 1991, while his wife, Marijke, taught kindergarten and special education at Janney Elementary School in the District for three decades before retiring in 2013.

The Geros moved from Capitol Hill to Wood Acres more than 20 years ago so their son, Christian, could attend Wood Acres Elementary School, Thomas W. Pyle Middle School and Walt Whitman High School. “We squeezed into the smallest house we could find in the neighborhood and never saw a reason to leave,” Gero says, adding that the neighborhood reminds him of Madison, New Jersey, where he and Marijke both grew up. “Tree-lined streets, 1940s and ’50s homes,” he says. “The Bethesda bonus is neighbors from different countries, military people, World Bank folks.”

Offstage, Gero’s passions include hiking the C&O Canal, rooting for the Nationals and hitting the links at the Falls Road Golf Course in Potomac. Bethesda Magazine caught up with him just off the practice putting green, preparing to hit a bucket of balls on the driving range.

Why is this golf course one of your favorite places?

I’m an avid terrible golfer. I started playing as a young boy, carried my dad’s clubs, and it’s part of what I’d consider to be a family value. It’s great to have a county course like this 10 minutes from home, which is also reasonable. It’s a place for actors to come and sort of unplug for four or five hours and sometimes get some business done, but it’s a humbling game.

Any hidden gems in the area you like to frequent that the tourists or even some locals don’t know about?

Sycamore Island is a lovely little canoe club on two islands in the Potomac River off MacArthur Boulevard. When we came out here from Capitol Hill in ’93, we got on a wait list. You can store your canoe or your kayak, there’s fishing and a swimming dock. To get there, you have to pull yourself across the Potomac on an old sort of Mark Twain raft.

Can you pinpoint when you first got the acting bug?

Probably my freshman year in high school. I did a couple of plays in grammar school, Catholic school, but I had this thought early on that I was going to be a priest. I spent a summer in seminary considering that, writing about it, praying about it. And my mother said, ‘God can have you for the rest of your life, I want four years in the public institution.’ So I went to the local high school. It was the last great flowering of art education in the late ’60s, early ’70s. Drama was part of the curriculum. I just found myself at home and I said, ‘This is what I want to do the rest of my life.’

Nobody in your home had come from the acting world?

My dad was a union president for 30 years, and Mom was a housekeeper. I felt totally at home as an actor. You could be part of the team. It wasn’t about where you came from, what your socioeconomic background was. If you had the tenacity and I suppose the audacity to think you could do this, you got to pitch in and play. It was a team sport.

Was there one production that hooked you?

It would have to be what I still think is the greatest American Hamlet, certainly in the 20th century. Stacy Keach, James Earl Jones, Colleen Dewhurst and Sam Waterston in Central Park—some of the greatest actors of my generation doing this material. In 1972, just before my 18th birthday, I watched Stacy work. He was enormously physical. I saw a character, and then when he spoke, I understood exactly what he was saying, because it was totally integrated with his body and his physical approach and his intention.

So in a great sense, he opened up the language for me. And I went back and saw that production five times. I knew I wanted to be an actor, but I said I want to be like that guy. So that led me towards the classics.

How did you end up in D.C.?

I went into New York after studying at Montclair State University, 10 miles away from Manhattan. Part of the myth of being an actor is you go to New York to cut your teeth. And I did. I lived there for about seven or eight years. I kept getting work out of town, coming back on unemployment, working as a bartender, as every aspiring actor will do.

I was doing a play in 1981 at George Mason University in Virginia, The Corn Is Green, playing a young boy who had a Welsh accent. John Neville-Andrews, the artistic director of the Folger Theatre in Washington, came to opening night and asked if I would like to join his company. I immediately said yes. At the end of the first year I was playing the lead in Henry V.
So that invitation to join the Folger company jump-started your career?

No question about it. I had been working in several regional theaters and I could have remained in the nomadic life that many actors do, but this afforded me a home base, a sense of permanency in this business. And then, two years later, when it became the Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger and they brought in Michael Kahn, that was a whole quantum leap forward. Stacy Keach arrives, and all of a sudden all these threads start coming together, and this is obviously the place I need to be.

Was there a moment when you knew you’d stay here for the long term?

I vividly remember waking up my first day of work, in my little digs in Abingdon, Virginia, where I was doing summer stock in 1981 at the Barter Theatre, sitting at my table, making a cup of coffee, and the chair across the table was empty. I realized that what I really wanted was balance, that the family values I had grown up with were very important to me. I was always told if you want to be in this business, don’t even think about getting married. Don’t even think about having a family. You have to sacrifice all of that. And I drank the Kool-Aid until that moment, and then thought, wait a minute, maybe that’s not true. Maybe I can do both. And Washington seemed to fit.

How is the stage different from Hollywood?

We talk about the stage as a place where the actors are in control. Film is a director’s medium, and TV is a writer’s medium. But I remember being on the set for Die Hard 2, real hard chairs with our names and masking tape on the back. The stage manager said, ‘Actors to the set,’ and I stood up, and the actor next to me said, ‘Sit down! You have to wait until a production assistant comes over with a walkie-talkie and walks you to the set.’

We all got on the set, and then the last person to come on the set was Bruce [Willis]. So suddenly I saw this pecking order. Not only how you show up on the set, but where your trailer is—the further away you are from the lunch wagon, the lower you are in the pecking order. I think it says something about how powerful film is in this country and popular culture.

Shakespeare is not part of the popular culture, which is part of the reason why I stayed in Washington—there’s a certain kind of audience here that is very intellectual, and they appreciate the so-called high arts.

I remember being on the set of Die Hard and there was some bill that was coming forward in Congress and it was on the front page of the LA Times, and I said to one of the actors, ‘Did you see what happened yesterday in Congress?’ and they looked at me just blankly and turned and walked away. It seemed to be a bit of an intellectual wasteland. The conversation was what 12-step program do you belong to, who’s your shrink, and what car do you drive.

What is it about the Washington theater community that nourishes you?

People here are interested in civics and world affairs, and to me, art needs to respond to that. The best art, the most vibrant art, is the art that speaks to the zeitgeist or reflects the zeitgeist. Washington is a community where anything that happens in the world, this is the warehouse, it’s going to pass through here. This is Athens of the modern world.

Some might argue that given the kind of press you received and the commercial response to The Originalist, playing Antonin Scalia may be the high-water mark of your career to date. When you were told by playwright John Strand that he had a part in mind for you, and it was Antonin Scalia, what was your first thought?

I was shocked, but not surprised.

It had been in the ether. People had said, ‘You’ve done Nixon, you might think about Scalia.’ Scalia? Really fascinating character. Would anybody want to go see him? That was my thought. It was this great character that no one is going to want to see, given the political landscape of my business.
To be in Washington, to be talking about a Washington figure to a Washington audience by Washington artists, to be part of a conversation about something that was very provocative, legally, and to have a ringside seat, it was life altering. For the first time, I felt like a bona fide artist citizen. This is as good as it gets, and I hope it gets better. I’m not down-sliding yet.

Describe the day when you witnessed oral arguments on same-sex marriage at the Supreme Court in the morning, and then later that evening played Scalia, sparring onstage on the same issue with his liberal law clerk.

The audience that evening was at its peak of attentiveness. They listened to each phrase with an intensity we hadn’t experienced. That level of listening rose to the level of listening in the courtroom earlier that day. The sparring took on seriousness as a result of the audience’s focus that night. That raised our focus. And we didn’t get as many laughs that performance, either. It was all Washington business that night. It was electric.

In his dissent in the same-sex marriage case this past term, Justice Scalia wrote that the court had descended “to the mystical aphorisms of the fortune cookie.” During one of your lunches with Justice Scalia as you prepped to play him, you had Chinese food, and his fortune cookie message was more than a bit apt.

I’m not sure if the clerk stuffed the fortune cookies. I’ve never seen a fortune cookie with an Oliver Wendell Holmes quote, and it happened to show up in a luncheon in Justice Scalia’s chambers. It read, ‘The mind, once stretched by a new idea, never returns to its original dimensions.’ I kept it as a souvenir.

I read that your late father had career advice for you.

Yeah, he always said I’d be a great lawyer.

When you were donning Scalia’s robes on that stage, did you ever think about your dad?

Absolutely. ‘I made it, Dad! I’m a Supreme Court justice…not in real life, but I play one on the stage.’ That has a wonderful irony to it. Plus it was the first Italian-American and Roman Catholic role I had done in my career. My whole life experience was brought to the front and utilized. It was very satisfying.

Since your families come from the same area of Italy, you may actually share some of Scalia’s DNA.

That could very possibly be the case. As he told me, ‘You look like me, but you don’t have the Scalia unibrow.’ And I said, ‘Well, I pluck.’

Despite being in Washington theater all these years, there are still firsts for you. In the spring, you will be making your debut on the Woolly Mammoth stage.

I’m going to play a pedophile in The Nether. This is about 180 degrees from Scalia. This is a new play that won an Olivier Award in London two years ago. It’s an argument play, set in the future. At the heart of it is this ethical debate about what’s real. Where does the law meet in a world where the Internet may become total sensate and you can be totally self-absorbed? And can we quarantine people with illnesses like this—do we put a serial killer inside a sensate Internet and let them kill people over and over in their house in that way? Woolly Mammoth is very edgy. They do new work, they’re trying stuff out that is way out on the fringes, so it will be fun to kind of get out there.

In the fall, you played a down-and-out Irish bloke in Conor McPherson’s The Night Alive at Round House Theatre and then returned for a seventh year to Ford’s Theatre as Scrooge in A Christmas Carol.  How do you keep that character fresh?

It goes back to being a priest. You have to say that Mass every day. I remember when I was an altar boy, Father Callaghan was saying the Mass at 6:30 and barely staying awake, and I thought if you just did it like you believed it, everybody else would.

How do you make it fresh? Well you have to listen to the play, and it’s a great story of redemption. It’s Lear redeemed. That’s a great story to tell. It’s been over 350 performances. Sometimes [onstage] when you’re mesmerized by the 10-minute dancing scene unfolding before you, it's hard not to do my grocery list in my head, but listening to the play is the best antidote.

At this point in your career, what’s your goal?

The goal is to continue to balance a life well lived in work that I love to do, that I feel like I’ve been called to do. And keep learning every day, keep stretching. And hopefully bring the audience something that’s both entertaining and also intellectually captivating.

Do you plan to retire anytime soon?

I’ve been taking my retirement in three-month increments since I got here; doing what I love to do and getting summers off. I’d rather travel, as opposed to move. It’s too important a place, too interesting a place, to leave.

GERO'S FAVORITES:

Place to watch a movie: Bethesda Row Cinema

Restaurants: Passion Fin Asian Bistro & Sushi in Bethesda and DeCarlo’s Restaurant in Spring Valley

Music venue: The Irish Inn at Glen Echo, which has jazz on Sunday evenings

Pastime: Walking his dog, Demi, on the C&O Canal Towpath in Carderock

Freelance writer Richard Harris (rlharris 05@gmail.com) has lived in Bethesda for 30 years.