Before he starred in Netflix’s Narcos and Paramount’s Waco, long before the events that inspired his upcoming turn on Showtime’s Escape at Dannemora, actor Eric Lange refined his acting chops on the stage.
Starting out as an actor on the Los Angeles stage, Lange starred in productions like Driving Miss Daisy at the Rubicon Theatre (earning an Ovation Award nomination), Ugly’s First World at the Actor’s Gang, Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart at Hudson Backstage Theatre, Asylum at the Court Theatre, and many more. He made his Broadway debut in The Country House opposite Blythe Danner in 2014.
Most recently, Lange left sunny California for New York—but not for the New York stage. Lange stars in Escape at Dannemora as Lyle Mitchell, the husband of Joyce ‘Tilly’ Mitchell, played by Patricia Arquette. Directed by Ben Stiller, the mini-series follows the events of the 2015 prison break at Clinton Correctional, a jail in upstate New York’s Dannemora, where two convicted murderers escaped with the help of Tilly—with whom both were having affairs.
“Everyone in the show is trying to escape something it seems, the prison, their job, themselves,” says Lange, “but Lyle is content with his life. He loves his wife, is grateful for his job, which he does to the best of his ability, and he looks forward to meals with his wife after work. There’s a routine he is comfortable with. It might sound like a simple existence compared to the fantasy other characters in the show have.”
Here, Lange shares his theatre roots, what it was like to tell such a recent story, and the best part about working with Stiller.
What was your first professional job?
Eric Lange: My first paid theatre gig was playing Mitch in A Streetcar Named Desire. I got my BFA in Theatre from Miami University of Ohio and moved to L.A. shortly after college. When I got to town, I couldn’t get an agent or much traction. I was a very small fish in a very big pond. But where I did feel comfortable was the theatre. So, I just started doing all the plays I could. I would do Equity waiver/99-seat theatre and the pay was little or nothing, but it allowed me to keep working on my acting chops. One of the guys I met during that time eventually became the casting director for the Rubicon Theatre in Ventura, California. He asked me to audition for the character Mitch, I got the job and my Equity card. It was pretty stunning to do the thing I’d been doing for almost nothing for years and finally get paid for it. That production still goes down as one of my favorites.
What was the stage show that has most influenced you?
It would have to be Les Misérables. I was in college, just beginning my actor training, and we went to see a touring production of it in Cincinnati. I knew very little about the show or what I was about to see, but I was blown away. The music, the story, the staging, the technical wizardry, the ensemble of performers… I was just so moved. I left the theatre that night and knew that’s what I wanted to do with my life. To make people feel the way I felt in that moment.
Is there a stage moment you witnessed (from the audience, from the wings, in rehearsal) that stays with you?
I saw a production of Angels in America in Chicago and Jonathan Hadary was playing Roy Cohn. I can’t remember the scene, but he was putting his shoes on as someone was pushing him about something. Suddenly, he became still and paused… then, shoe in hand, slammed it on the stage floor! Dust erupted, and the audience went dead silent. It was riveting. It was another early moment in the theatre for me and another reminder of what power there is in stillness and how such a simple gesture can captivate an audience.
What’s been the most rewarding experience onstage for you?
I originated the role of Elliot in a Donald Margulies play called The Country House opposite Blythe Danner. We opened it in L.A. at the Geffen, and then I was fortunate enough to go to New York for the Broadway production at the Manhattan Theatre Club. Working with Blythe was one of the great experiences of my life. She’s such a consummate actress, powerful and generous and electric… and beloved in the New York theatre scene. I was terrified of what New York audiences would think of me. I have such respect and admiration for theatre in New York and the actors that work in it. I was a TV actor with L.A. theatre cred, but I’d never done a play in New York and here I am on Broadway? I worried I would be crucified. But I’ll never forget the night our first preview ended, when the curtain came up and I walked out for my bow, the applause and the love I felt. Talking to people on the street immediately after, I just felt accepted. I walked around the city for the next hour or so tingling, just trying to grasp the fact that I was getting to live a dream of mine. I just felt immense gratitude.
Who is a collaborator from theatre who has made you better?
That’s tough. I learn something from almost everyone I work with. But, I’d have to say [director] Dan Sullivan. Getting to work with someone like that, at that level… you can’t help but up your game. He keeps you on your toes, he’s honest, and he’s incapable of bullsh*t. But that brain of his is truly a gift to the actor. His note sessions were often quiet, but he’d think about something for a minute or two and then, with no more words than necessary, he’d sum up something for you in such a brilliant way. Dan is also very restrictive with praise. He’s not rude and he doesn’t ignore you, but when you get a compliment from him it means the world. It feels earned and it makes you want to work harder.
What is your favorite part of doing TV that’s different from theatre?
Well, I like getting a second take! There’s an immediacy to theatre and a shared experience that is everything to me. But if something doesn’t come out of your mouth right… you just move have to move along and try again tomorrow. In television and film, you can just go back and do it again. You get to perfect (or attempt to) each scene, each moment, each piece of the puzzle and then someone else puts it all together. So, as a control freak, I suppose that’s a nice bonus.
What was it like to tell a true story that happened so recently in Escape at Dannemora?
Well, my wife and I love all things “true crime,” so this kind of story is right up my alley. Shooting it in and around the locations where it actually happened, the real prison, etc… you realize very quickly it’s still very fresh to all the people who still live there. I remember seeing it on the news when it was happening and feeling so sorry for Lyle. Clearly something was going on with his wife and these inmates and, when he gave his one interview to Matt Lauer, you could see this man was incredibly conflicted. He’s in a war with himself over whether to be a good husband and defend his wife, or to be honest with himself that some of what is being said about her affairs may very well be true. I remember having a very sympathetic reaction to him, so that helped in how I went about playing him.
Could you share a moment that demonstrates your working dynamic with director Ben Stiller?
Ben is incredibly smart, supportive, detail oriented, gives 110 percent and has great taste. He’s always got the entire story in his mind, so when we would work together on a moment or a scene, he always had incredibly valuable feedback. Many times, it was about not portraying Lyle in a way that would simply elicit sympathy. He’s a simple man, often very sweet (though often on the other end of his wife’s criticism), and, one could argue, in some level of denial. But Ben and I would always work to find moments when we let Lyle still have some power and/or culpability. Where can we find times that he’s actually kind of a know-it-all? Where are the moments he’s taking his wife for granted? When does he stand up for himself? These were questions he would raise that helped in both the moment to moment sculpting of the character, but also with his entire arc over the course of seven episodes. It’s often an actor’s natural instinct to play into the sympathy of someone, but it’s knowing when to pull back from that and fight that instinct that a great director helps you discover.