When actor/director Gary Sinise was 18 years old, he co-founded a small theatre company in a church basement in Highland Park, Illinois. To keep afloat, he and his colleagues worked day jobs and cloistered themselves at night in the pursuit of their craft; but from the beginning, Sinise was considered the heart of what would become the internationally prestigious Steppenwolf Theatre of Chicago. It has been many years, much hard work and several awards since then.
This year Sinise picked up a Golden Globe for his convincing portrayal of former President Harry S. Truman in HBO's Truman. Last year he was nominated for a Best Supporting Oscar for his performance as Lieutenant Dan Taylor, the anguished paraplegic Vietnam veteran in the Oscar-winning Forrest Gump, and he starred as Stu Redman, the stalwart virus-free hero in the ABC miniseries based on Stephen King's epic novel, The Stand.
Sinise is currently making his Broadway directing debut at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre with Sam Shepard's play, Buried Child, which garnered rave reviews last fall in Chicago during Steppenwolf's 20th anniversary season, and a Tony nomination as Best Director on Broadway. This production is a new version of Shepard's 1979 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, which explores the explosive family dynamics that occur when a prodigal grandson unexpectedly returns to his estranged family's Illinois farm.
While some people think Shepard's work as a playwright is dark and often too elusive for the general theatre audience, Sinise adamantly disagrees. "That's the misconception. I just happen to think that his writing is funny, and it wouldn't be funny on the stage if it wasn't funny on the page. There's a lot of funny stuff in the way the family behaves, what they say to each other and the things they do. They're unusual, yet we can recognize a lot of ourselves in them, in terms of family behavior and family function and dysfunction at the same time.
"The play operates on both a humorous and mysterious level. You can never really tell who's gonna come on, what the people are gonna say to each other and how it's gonna evolve. At the same time the dynamics of the play are so unpredictable and so interesting. Those are some of the things that were really very attractive to me in terms of staging this play."
As a director, Sinise likes control and admits he can become dictatorial. "I would say that I am very specific, and that has worked for me a number of times. I have a pretty good handle on what I'm looking for as I'm doing it and where I'm going. I don't come in with everything in mind, from the get-go. I start to live it through the actors and develop it through the actors. I want the audience to feel things before they have a chance to think about it. I try to keep them leaning forward rather than leaning back because I feel those are the best experiences. The one that hits you in the guts will make you think about it, but a play that has you just thinking on an intellectual level won't necessarily hit you in the guts. The cardinal sin for me is boredom."
Sinise "found" theatre like some folks find religion. A rebellious high school sophomore, he was close to being kicked out of Highland Park High School when, as a lark, he auditioned for the school production of West Side Story. His part as Pepe the Shark only had two lines, but those two lines became a life-changing experience for Sinise, so much so that he burst into tears on closing night. During the curtain call, the actor who played Bernardo went to the back row, grabbed him and brought him up to the front row to take a bow with the leads. "I was still crying," Sinise remembered. "All of them had seen my life change during the course of that one show, and they were rewarding me. I'll never forget that moment. I knew I was hooked for life."
In 1974, when he was 18, Sinise co-founded the Steppenwolf Theatre with two of his friends, Jeff Perry and Terry Kinney. Most of the early support came from friends and family. The company sometimes played to audiences of four, and when there were no audiences, they honed their skills. From the Steppenwolf stage the founding members began to make their way into mainstream television, film and theatre. The illustrious Steppenwolf alumni include Sinise, John Malkovich, Laurie Metcalf, Joan Allen, John Mahoney, Glenne Headley, Alan Wilder and Moira Harris, whom Sinise married in 1981.
"We worked in such a closed environment," Sinise says, "that we just kept learning and getting better. I think we had this envelope of security because we were all together, that it just allowed us to be totally uninhibited and develop our skills."
Sinise served as Steppenwolf's artistic director from 1980 until 1987. He has directed numerous other Steppenwolf productions, most notably True West, in which he co-starred and for which he received an Obie for directing, and Orphans, which subsequently played Off-Broadway and in London, and for which he received Chicago's Joseph Jefferson Award for his direction. His Steppenwolf acting credits include the Tony Award-winning production of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, for which he was nominated for a Drama Desk and a Tony. In terms of his goals, fame and fortune were not what motivated Sinise. "No, I didn't think about any of that; otherwise I wouldn't have been broke and un-famous so long," he chuckled. "I've never never had money as my primary focus. I've never been able to make a decision based on money because I work from my guts. The way I direct is the way I act, from a visceral connection to it. Can I make it emotional? Can I make it humorous? Can I make it live truthfully? Is this something that people will care about?"
Sinise made his feature film directing debut with Miles from Home, and he also directed and produced the critically acclaimed Of Mice and Men, in which he co-starred with John Malkovich. His other film acting credits include Apollo 13, My Name is Bill W., A Midnight Clear and the forthcoming Ron Howard film, Ransom.
"Once I did Of Mice and Men," Sinise says, "that cracked something for me in the movie business. I was now somebody who could act, direct and put his own movie together. Auditions weren't quite as hard because people said, 'Well, we've got to take this guy seriously. He made his own movie.' But with all the movie work I've done and I've worked with some fine people I can't say I'm more proud of that than of having built a theatre for Steppenwolf. We were just kids, but we were able to stay together and put the right people together who could work together over a long period of time and who would build a building a lasting thing." --