Richard Schiff is having a Toby Ziegler moment.
“There are so many stories,” murmurs Schiff, who played angst-riddled White House communications director Ziegler on the game-changing TV series “The West Wing.” He’s stymied: Which one to tell?
He’s talking about the time he upbraided campaign strategist Steve Schmidt for helping bring Sarah Palin on board as then-presidential candidate John McCain’s 2008 running mate. But he pauses.
Maybe first he should go into his Bill Clinton story. The one when Bubba confided to Schiff his view on picking VPs.
And then there are the Joe Biden stories, none of which has anything to do with why Schiff – 57, skinnier than you’d guess from TV, and sporting frayed jeans and a hipster’s leather hat – is chatting in a Penn Quarter health food cafe in the first place. (Explaining that leads to an Al Pacino story.) He’s in Washington to, well, of course, to hobnob and pop up on CNN doing a quick take during the inaugural events.
But for the next six weeks Schiff is really here to star in ”Hughie” for the Shakespeare Theatre Company. “Hughie” is a two-character, hour-long drama from Eugene O’Neill’s late period, written after the introspective masterpieces “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” and “The Iceman Cometh.” Schiff plays Erie Smith, a small-time hustler who does virtually all the play’s talking as he rambles to a night clerk.
“He’s one of those two-bit semi-hustlers hanging around the joints,” says Schiff, who had read the play informally with Pacino in an L.A. hotel room when Pacino was preparing his own version back in the 1990s. “When I was a kid he was one of the many guys you’d see at the OTB parlor, or hanging out at Times Square.”
How it came about was simple. Schiff was participating in a Will on the Hill benefit for the Shakespeare Theatre — “It was the cutest that elected officials will ever look,” the actor says of the politicos in costume to act in a classical play — and outside he noticed a poster for O’Neill’s “Strange Interlude.” When a staffer asked if he’d be interested in working with the troupe, Schiff mentioned “Hughie.”
He also suggested director Doug Hughes; the two had talked about collaborating before, but “Hughie” is the first time it’s working out. Schiff calls O’Neill’s focused bit of portraiture “a Rembrandt,” while Hughes says of Schiff, “He has a gift for the hardscrabble lyricism of O’Neill.”
The director talks about the “mordant intellect” Schiff flashed on “West Wing,” and says, “I always felt there was a tragic view of life there. But Toby Ziegler is a very, very different being from Erie Smith.”
“The West Wing” ended its seven-year run in 2006, and while Schiff has stayed busy on screens small and large (he’ll be in the new Superman picture “Man of Steel” this summer), he’s also found his way back on stage. In the past few years he’s done theater in New Jersey and in London, and he just finished a three-month run on Broadway with Pacino in the hot-ticket revival of “Glengarry Glen Ross.”
The theater work, he says, has been his effort to “cleanse” himself from a string of unsatisfying guest spots on TV, but on some level the entertainer’s life may always be an odd fit for Schiff. Even his start in acting was clouded with doubt. He tells a funny story of how a friend set him up for an audition with a three-year post-grad program at City College of New York. One of the auditors asked why Schiff was so nervous, and he said it was because he’d never been in that position before.
“Well, why do you want to be an actor?” the auditor asked.
Schiff replied, “I don’t want to be an actor.”
Naturally, he was accepted. And it was there in 2004, years later and well into his “West Wing” fame, that he met Clinton. They parleyed on who candidate John Kerry’s running mate might be, and the former president waxed on the importance of the decision, which led to Schiff’s later “Are you kidding with this Sarah Palin stuff?!” jab at Schmidt.
This is how Schiff talks, connecting the dots of people and events. Hughes understands the continuous jazz riff on politics and art; it turns out that they both came to Washington for protests back in 1969.
“He was envious because I had been locked up by the police and he had not,” Hughes says. “So I had the better story.”
Schiff, who has two nearly grown children with his wife, actress Sheila Kelley, was born in Bethesda. His parents were living in Falls Church then, but he has been a New Yorker since he was 3 months old. (He has lived in Los Angeles for 20 years but hates to admit it.) He was steeped in the street politics of the 1960s; one of the first things he says about himself is that after his parents’ divorce, his mother married lawyer Clarence B. Jones, whose bio includes working with Martin Luther King and trying to resolve the 1971 riot at Attica.
“In New York in those days, you couldn’t really avoid it,” Schiff says of the political action on the streets.
The tide swept him to places like New Haven, carrying equipment for a documentary filmmaker following the Black Panther trials there. He says things like, “In ’68 I found myself on the podium at Columbia University during the Columbia takeovers, listening to [activist] Flo [Florynce] Kennedy speak. She took a big liking to me, for some reason. So I learned a lot just from hanging around her.”
Schiff takes his time recounting an incident he witnessed in high school, one of those quick hot protest brush fires that involved students, outsiders, a policeman Schiff knew as Joe the cop — an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink melee.
“I’m not even sure what the issue is,” Schiff says he was thinking as the fracas grew despite a foggy agenda. “If it’s ‘Pigs Off Campus!’ I’m voting to keep Joe, ‘cause Joe’s a good guy.”
When the New York Times reported the story, Schiff says, “They did not get one — not one — detail correct.” The upshot: he hasn’t read the Times in 41 years, and utterly distrusts the mainstream media.
Was that suspicion in Toby Ziegler’s bones?
“Yeah, I was allowed to bring a lot of myself to that character,” Schiff says, and this leads to a Dee Dee Myers story. Consulting for “The West Wing,” the former Clinton administration press secretary told him about sharing her views in the Oval Office and being stunned the next day when she saw her suggestion, which had been picked up by the president, as policy headlines.
“I took that on,” Schiff says. “If I had that job, I’d be walking around with the world on my shoulders. It would feel like a very, very heavy burden. That’s one reason Toby became darker and more complex. Had I known the show was going to last seven years, I think I would have made him funnier.”
“I’m a little surprised that the next generation, I’m still hearing, ‘You’re the reason why I’m doing this’,” he says.
Political dramas and comedies were rare when “The West Wing” launched in 1999; now they’re a genre. Schiff still contributes: he’s executive-producing and guest-starring in an online drama “Chasing the Hill” that features such real-life players as former governors Gray Davis of California and Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania. As he campaigned for Joe Biden in 2008, he met young foot soldiers working for Biden, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama who said that the show had turned them on.He talks like an activist, so its fitting that as he speaks a TV broadcasts the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing a few blocks away as Hillary Clinton testifies on Benghazi. Eventually, though, Richard Schiff pleads guilty to being an actor.
“I became very acutely aware of what happens to the soul of people when doing ‘The West Wing,’ ” he says. “CSPAN became my channel. I was studying these people, because that’s what I do. What I say about politics is for the most part irrelevant, because I’m really not an expert at it. But I study behavior.”
A few minutes later he’s having a cigarette outside and describing the challenge of rehearsing “Hughie” by day and performing “Glengarry” at night — his New York routine for several weeks.
“I couldn’t dream ‘Hughie,’ because the last thing I did at night was ‘Glengarry,’ ” he explains. “Dreaming, I think, is a big part of the process. It gets it into your blood. So last night was the first night I dreamt about ‘Hughie.’ ”
by Eugene O’Neill. Through March 17 at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW. Call 202-547-1122.