Character counts for veteran actor
Tracy Michelle Arnold and Chelcie Ross in "Other Desert Cities." | Photo by Liz Lauren
‘Other Desert Cities’
Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago
Through Feb. 17
$25 to $86
(312) 443-3800 or www.goodmantheatre.org
Updated: January 24, 2013 10:16AM
Chelcie Ross has screen credits that include high points ranging from “Hoosiers” in 1986 to playing Conrad Hilton on “Mad Men” in 2009.
Ross, who lives in the La Grange area, began acting (and residing) in Chicago in 1975, when he played Oberon for nearly a year in a musical version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the long-gone Ivanhoe Theatre.
Now best known as a film and TV character actor, having overcome a period of post-“Hoosiers” typecasting (“I played a jerk for quite awhile”), Ross still returns to the stage when he’s offered a role he finds challenging — and a little scary.
That explains why he’s appearing as the conservative patriarch, Lyman Wyeth, in Jon Robin Baitz’s Tony-nominated “Other Desert Cities.” The play explores the turmoil that erupts in the high-profile Wyeth clan when Lyman’s novelist daughter announces her intention to publish a tell-all memoir involving a deeply buried family secret. The Chicago premiere production runs through Feb. 17 at the Goodman Theatre.
Pioneer spoke with Ross about acting, families and the advantages of not being a movie star.
Q: Why did you decide to settle in Chicago?
A: Being here to catch that wave in the late ’70s, when the theater scene was beginning to develop so quickly, was a great opportunity for me. I love the city to begin with and everybody was saying ‘Hey, come work for me.’ And that’s an actor’s dream.
Q: You’ve described yourself as a character actor. Do you think they’re a vanishing breed?
A: It’s an under-paid breed. (Laughs) But I don’t think it’s vanishing. There are plenty of us, still, and more coming along behind us. People aspire to do that sort of work and it’s a wonderful thing to do because of the versatility you can enjoy. Being a character actor has allowed me to play such a wide variety of interesting roles over the years. You know, it would be nice to be a star, but if you’re a star, you just get to play you. Over and over again.
Q: What attracted you to ‘Other Desert Cities?’ Had you seen it in New York?
A: I didn’t see it in New York, and I didn’t know his work. But I read the script and… Well, it’s kind of rule of thumb with me that if a role scares me I really want to do it. If I’m thinking, ‘I don’t know if I can do that,’ while I’m reading it, it becomes more and more attractive. Because I want to find out if I’ve got the chops.
Q: What seemed scary about playing Lyman Wyeth?
A: The guy is so complicated and multi-faceted. He’s a very accomplished man who became a movie star and then got into politics and became an ambassador under Reagan. And he has so many secrets. The role really requires just about every human emotion you can think of. And I also like the little revelation involving him — more of a bomb that goes off, really — at the end of the play. I can’t say much about that without giving too much away. But I will say you can get way into the second act of this show thinking you know what’s going on. But then you get a biiiiiig surprise.
Q: Do you see any resemblance between Lyman and Conrad Hilton, who you played on ‘Mad Men’?
A: Not really, aside from the fact that Connie was also a very successful and confident man. Lyman shares that with him, but Connie was a very selfish man. He was all about Conrad Hilton and the Hilton empire. Lyman is not like that. In fact, Lyman sacrifices a good deal for his family in this play.
I really enjoyed playing Connie, though, and it was one of the nice stepping stones in m y career, like ‘Hoosiers.’ I even got a Screen Actors Guild award for playing Connie — not me personally but as part of the ensemble. That was nice. (Laughs) I’m a character actor; we don’t get awards.
Q: The Wyeths are a very specific sort of family: wealthy, successful, high-profile, high-achieving. But would you say there’s also something universal about them?
A: Definitely. If you’ve ever been a parent or a child, you’re going to find something you can relate to in this family.
Q: Reportedly, there’s a great deal of humor in this show. Where does that come from?
A: The Wyeths are very articulate, very witty and they love to flaunt that. They love verbal one-upmanship. A lot of it comes from the son, Chip (played by John Hoogenakker) who’s a TV producer with a great sense of humor. The other main ingredient is Lyman’s wife Polly’s (played by Tony winner Deanna Dunagan) sister Silda (Linda Kimbrough), who’s an alcoholic with a very wicked sense of humor — and a left-wing sensibility that’s completely opposed to Lyman and Polly’s politics.
Q: What about the family’s fractiousness? Does that come from the same source as their humor? Or is it drawing on something deeper?
A: Well, the memoir that Brooke (played by Tracy Michelle Arnold) has written accounts for a great deal of that. Along with Lyman and Polly’s veiled disdain for their son’s career, and Silda’s alcoholism. But the affection is still there. One of my favorite lines in the show says a lot about the nature of the relationships in that family. At one point I say to Brooke, “Despite your abhorrent and repugnant lefty politics, we want you to know we’re damn proud of you.”