Edward Gero will forever savor the first words Antonin Scalia ever spoke to him. "I'm not coming to see the play," the justice declared that afternoon in the late fall of 2014, as Gero entered his chambers.
"But I'm glad they got somebody good to do it, so I won't be embarrassed," he added. "Let's have some lunch!"
It was the first of an extraordinary series of encounters the actor, long a mainstay of classical and contemporary theater in Washington, would have with Scalia over the next several months, as he immersed himself in one of the most challenging roles of his life: playing Antonin Scalia.
Gero, with his uncanny resemblance to the U.S. Supreme Court associate justice who died over the weekend, had known for months before meeting Scalia that he would be playing him in "The Originalist," John Strand's drama about the man behind the polarizing legal opinions. The play was performed in an extended debut run at Arena Stage last year from March 6 to May 31. Before he went into rehearsals, Gero says, an acquaintance at a Washington club, David Dorsen, who was writing a book about the court, asked him if he wanted to meet the jurist.
The actor gulped. "I thought, 'Not in a million years!' " he recalled, adding that he thought at the time he needed to dig deeply into Scalia's life and writings before trying to keep up his end of a conversation with him. "I had to do a lot of homework first."
Scalia was sufficiently intrigued by the idea of his being impersonated on the stage of a major theater company to want a meaningful exchange with the man he would eventually teasingly call "My doppelgänger." And so after Gero had done some of that homework, the invitation was renewed, for Gero to sit in on a public session of the court in December of 2014 as Scalia's guest, and to have lunch with him in chambers afterward.
The opportunity to scrutinize Scalia first and ask questions of him later was, for Gero, beyond an actor's fondest wishes. "I sat there as a theatergoer and watched his behavior," Gero said this week, recalling the session. "How he moved his eyes, how he listened." Years earlier, Gero played Richard Nixon in another play and prepared by studying him on film and tape. "But now, this was an improv performance," he said of Scalia, "and a performance in person."
Gero was a bit self-conscious as he walked into Scalia's offices. "I was worried that he would think I was just a silly, frivolous actor, intellectually just a fly in the soup." He needn't have been concerned. Scalia was a warm and lively lunch companion who held forth easily — "He took complete charge of the conversation" — and poured the wine, er, liberally. They found, too, an emotional connection in their Italian American heritage, their shared New Jersey roots, their Catholic school educations.
Was there an interest on the justice's part in a bit of professional seduction? Scalia, a lover of Mozart and opera, surely wanted to encourage a robust portrayal of himself. "I was certainly alert to that," Gero said. "He had a vested interest in wanting to put his best foot forward." But the actor knew, too, that to sublimate his own personality, to draw out an essence of the complicated man he would be portraying, he had his own professional inclination to like the guy. As Gero noted, "Noel Coward once told Laurence Olivier, 'You must love the character you play, or you can't play him.' "
It seems fair to say that Gero did come to love Scalia. They never talked politics, not once, and Gero, a political independent, preferred it that way. They also steered clear of discussions of the play, even though "The Originalist," as directed by Molly Smith, provided a balanced portrait of Scalia: The piece explores the question of how we've come to a point in our national discourse when we no longer acknowledge the humanity of those with an opposing viewpoint. The meeting of Gero's and Scalia's minds occurred on subjects in which each was profoundly interested. "We talked," Gero said, "about Shakespeare and the Constitution."
They would have two or three more lunches together, and Gero would observe him further in the courtroom. "I felt as if I was hanging out with my uncle Nino," Gero said, invoking Scalia's nickname. The justice described his range of musical interests, from Vivaldi to jazz. At one point, the actor glanced up at the elk's head mounted on the wall of the chambers. "I leaned over and said, 'Did you bag that?' " Gero remembered. Scalia, an avid hunter, looked a little hurt.
"Of course!" he replied. "It would be an insult for me to put an animal's head on the wall that I didn't shoot."
"With a bow and arrow?" Gero asked, dryly, as Scalia laughed.
Scalia never did attend a performance of "The Originalist." One of his five sons did, Gero says, and came up to the actor afterward to express his relief that it wasn't a "hatchet job." The justice had — uncharacteristically — waffled on coming to see it, but in the end, declined, and explained his rationale in an email to Gero, who quoted from it for a reporter this week: "Damned if I say yes (there are sure to be parts I think are unfair, and I would be endorsing them) and damned if I say no or criticize particular features (thin skinned, poor sport). Sorry to disappoint."
Their last encounter took place after the run of "The Originalist" ended. Scalia invited Gero out for a round of skeet shooting at a gun club in Northern Virginia. Afterward, they were driven in a car back to Scalia's house. "He said, 'Come on in and have a drink' in his kitchen, with his dear wife Maureen." The actor had brought with him the shooting vest he'd worn in the play. He asked the justice to autograph it.
"I said to Maureen how much it meant to me, to have this experience," Gero recalled.
"I know he's part of my legacy. I can only hope that I'm a small part of his."