In this occasional feature, we shine a spotlight on someone in the arts and culture world. You might recognize Daniel Gerroll from his TV roles in "The Starter Wife" and "Madoff." Soon, he'll be starring in "Skylight" at ACT Theatre. (And yes, he really did act with Prince Charles way back when.)
Daniel Gerroll has the kind of attractively lived-in face and British élan you may recognize, but not know from where.
Maybe it’s from the cable miniseries, “The Starter Wife,” where Gerroll played an English actor who falls for a fellow alcoholic (portrayed by Judy Davis) he meets in rehab? Or from episodes of the recent “Madoff” series, where he’s an aristocratic French financier caught up in a notorious Ponzi scheme? Or, going back further, from sundry episodes of “Seinfeld” and “Sex and the City,” among many other TV shows? Or way, way back, to his role in the watershed British film “Chariots of Fire”?
The British-bred, American-based Gerroll, aged gracefully into his 60s, would probably rather you knew him from his extensive stage work in Off Broadway and regional theaters. And now this quintessential stage veteran will be on the boards at Seattle’s ACT Theatre Sept. 7-30, co-starring in “Skylight,” David Hare’s potent portrait of former lovers revisiting their May-December affair after a long estrangement.
ACT artistic director John Langs had never worked with Gerroll when he invited him to portray wealthy London restaurateur Tom Sergeant. “I was looking for an actor at the top of their game,” Langs recalled. “It’s a mountain of a role.” After a casting director suggested Gerroll, he viewed more of his film roles and “called around” to other theaters. “The feedback was unanimous. Everyone said Daniel is the real deal.”
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Luckily, Gerroll (who jokingly calls himself a “theater slut,” willing to “go anywhere and do anything” if he likes the part) was able to take the job after starring this summer as British TV interviewer David Frost in a New York revival of the play “Frost/Nixon.”
Once he went into rehearsals with Gerroll, Langs became a superfan. “Daniel’s got it all,” he enthuses. “Charm, a remarkable facility with language and a seemingly endless reservoir of emotions. He also has a quality of ease in his work that draws you toward the character.” (The play also stars Elinor Gunn as Tom’s ex-paramour Kyra and Michael Monicatti as Tom’s rebellious son.)
During an early-evening chat in an ACT rehearsal hall, the good-humored Gerroll (who resides in Connecticut with his actress wife, Patricia Kalember) spoke openly and wittily about his unusual background, his prolific career and his early performance alongside a royal schoolmate and eager fellow thespian: Prince Charles.
Here are excerpts from the conversation:
What drew you to Seattle to do “Skylight”?
It was a shot in the dark … I knew nothing about ACT. Then I came to the building and it was this hive of activity! John [Langs] creates such an aura of work and creativity and trust. You really have to go outside of New York to find this.
You’ve been in David Hare plays before, but not this one?
I was in David’s play “Knuckle” in New York; it was one of the first things I did in America. Later he directed me in his play “Plenty” on Broadway. And I saw the original production of “Skylight” with Michael Gambon as Tom, but I just didn’t like it. I like David’s socially and politically conscious stuff very much, and was kind of taken aback. But when I was asked to do this here, I reread it and saw a great humanity and charm and humor, which I didn’t get before.
“Skylight” is set in London in the 1990s, and it portrays a culture clash between Kyra’s values as an inner-city teacher and Tom’s as a successful businessman.
It’s very much about Thatcherite England. Tom is someone who thrived under the febrile, capitalistic energy [former U.K. Prime Minister] Margaret Thatcher unleashed. Those of us who were anti-Thatcher were appalled by it. I left England in 1979 partly because I didn’t want to be part of it. … But Tom looks back happily on that period of making money without constraints or restrictions, which is antithetical to Kyra, who embraces the idea that we have to help people who are less fortunate.
What do you think Kyra and Tom, who is older and married when they first met, have in common that led them to fall in love?
It’s more of a subjective thing. An 18-year old girl comes up from the provinces and walks down the legendary King’s Road in Chelsea. She sees a “Waitress Wanted” ad, walks in, gets the job and in 45 minutes there’s a crisis and she’s put in charge of the restaurant. Her boss is this man who is larger than life, and young people can get swept up in a tsunami of romance.
Your own background is unusual. I read that you didn’t know who your real father was until you were an adult.
My mother was American, and my biological father was essentially German Jewish, an architect who’d built a lot of buildings in Berlin the Nazis later destroyed. I was taken to meet him once a month, and he took responsibility for my education. But I was really brought up by the man I called my dad, a clothing manufacturer in London who was a Cockney from East London, very much of working-class Jewish stock. He never wanted me to know the truth [about my parentage], but the truth comes out.
I understand one of your classmates at private boarding school in Scotland was Prince Charles.
Yes, Gordonstoun School. I was there from age 7; Charles arrived at about 13 and he was three years older than me. It was an extraordinary place, because there was a lot of mountain climbing and outdoors stuff, which was really great.
In the TV series “The Crown,” the place was depicted as really harsh on boys, and hated by Prince Charles.
Gordonstoun called it spartan. I liked it, but when I turned 13 or 14 I announced I wanted to study Judaism rather than going to chapel. I was the only bona fide Jew in the school, which caused a big scandal. I was on the receiving end of a lot of anti-Semitism. … I took refuge in the theater, which is what you do when you don’t fit in. And another one taking refuge was Prince Charles. My first play with him was when he played the Scottish king [in “Macbeth”]. Of course his family came to see it. They gave Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip these very high-backed chairs in the front row. And all the kids behind them couldn’t see a thing.
How did you learn your craft?
I went to acting school in London, and then I just did play after play after play. I wasn’t very good when I started and worked like crazy. And one day this huge play came along, “Once a Catholic.” It was a huge, stunning success on the West End and then things started to happen. You can’t make yourself successful, you just have to do what you love doing.
An early film role was in the smash hit “Chariots of Fire.” Was that a breakthrough for you?
It was the big English film of the time. My role was cut down to shreds, but just being attached to it had some benefit.
What keeps you on the road, working in regional companies like ACT, at this point in your career?
Theater seems so much more important to the culture in theaters outside New York. It matters less, in the sense of commercialism, but so much more in the sense of doing something important for the culture of the place. And I can’t stop myself! I keep swearing I won’t do it again, because it’s incredibly difficult. … On the road, you don’t have your car, you don’t sleep in your own bed. It’s a test of your mettle as a sane person. But I’m an absolute slut for theater that makes a difference.
“Skylight” by David Hare. Sept. 7-30 at ACT Theatre, 700 Union St, Seattle; $20-$85; 206-292-7676, acttheatre.org