INTERVIEW WITH ZACH GRENIER
Conducted by Linda Gross and Sonya Landau, LCG Communications, August 2013
Zach Grenier, from The Good Wife will be performing as climate scientist John Bjornson in "Extreme Whether" and will repeat the role on September 10 at 2pm at The Cherry Lane.
Questions for Zach Grenier
How did you come to be working on Extreme Whether? Had you done any previous work with Karen Malpede or Theater Three Collaborative?
I met Karen when I worked with her husband, George Bartenieff, on a play at the Public Theatre in 2006. It was "Stuff Happens,” David Hare's take on the Bush administration's 2003 march to war, in which George played Hans Blix and I, Dick Cheney. I was living in Los Angeles at the time, and our paths didn't cross again until last Spring, when Karen asked me to join the cast for a staged reading of "Extreme Whether" at Theatre for the New City.
What interested you in this play?
I found it well conceived, with fascinating characters and an urgent message. The earth is changing and adapting to our species' production of waste products and uncontrolled growth. Though we all have the capacity to understand and help slow the effects of climate change, "Extreme Whether" reveals how economic and political forces work against that life-preserving awareness. I found Karen's characters to have enough dramatic dimension to carry the weighty subject.
You have a very busy schedule, with the production of “The Good Wife” what convinced you to add this to your plate?
The prospect of working with Karen and her excellent cast, contributing something to Climate Week, and getting back, however briefly, in front of a live audience.
Your character in Extreme Whether is an expert in the field of climate science- do you have any background in science? How much did you know about climate change before reading the play? How did that affect the way in which you approached the role? Did you do any research or preparation for the role (reading academic articles, talking to scientists, etc.)?
My father, George Grenier, was an electrical engineer with a great deal of scientific curiosity. That rubbed off on me, and I find any quest for scientific truth to be endlessly fascinating. When I first entered college, my goal was to become an anthropologist, and I also spent some time cataloguing the University of Michigan’s extensive collection of fish species, until I became consumed by my interest in acting. I take great comfort in human beings' penchant for understanding the natural order of things, and I have a particular concern and interest in climate change. About twenty years ago, I read John McPhee's book "The Control of Nature." In it, he describes human attempts to harness the Earth's power and how inadequately envisioned and ill-fated those attempts often are. He even warned the world about the threat to New Orleans' levees. His book opened my eyes to the need to respect the forces of nature and taught me that we are not the owners of the planet, but rather its caretakers. The protagonist in “Extreme Whether” is based on James Hansen, whose advocacy for the awareness of climate change was challenged by the Bush administration and other climate change denier groups. I knew of his work as NASA’s head climate scientist and preparation for the play included studying his career and statements. Most of my education about history, social movements and human invention has come through preparing for the roles I’ve played.
Is it challenging to embody something rooted so deeply in scientific theory? How does it relate to portraying a historical figure? How do you think the audience responds to art that is based on very intellectual or scientific ideas?
This play has a strong dramatic event and can carry the science. One reason we go to the theater is to see ourselves reflected in the hearts and minds of the characters portrayed. If a character is convincingly expressing her or his humanity, they will be able to expound on any intellectual or scientific subject. The same goes for historical figures.
You have had a significant career in theater as well as film; what do you see as the differences in the ways the audience interacts or responds to the different media?
There's something very special about live performances. They offer the kind of communing that attracts people to ballgames and churches and fireworks displays. That said, a two hour film or play or TV show will feel like twenty years if it's not done well. I worry when I go to see a bad play, or a play badly done -- not because I wasted my time or money, but because it's bad advertising for an art form I love.
Have you done any projects that related to social or environmental issues in the past?
It's difficult to find a good play that doesn't have something profound to say socially. Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard" gives an insight into the desperation of a dying middle class. Mamet's "Speed The Plow" reveals the desolate culture of Hollywood. And then there's Brecht! I was in a play at Ensemble Studio Theater a few years ago, "Lenin's Embalmers," by Vern Thiessen, in which I played a Russian scientist whose fate was sealed when Stalin instructed him to figure out a way to immortalize Lenin. In the '70s, my wife and I traveled with a group created by Maxine Klein called The Little Flags Theater Company. We performed a musical about a coal miner's strike, the title of which was "The Furies of Mother Jones,” written and directed by Maxine. Quite an experience. I was an actor, bus driver, bus mechanic, lighting gaffer, singer, guitar and sax player. Among other towns and cities east of the Mississippi, we traveled to Stearns, Kentucky, during a coal mining strike there. I hope we provided some support. Then, as I mentioned, "Stuff Happens.”
Do you feel that artists in the public eye have a responsibility to use that attention to energize other causes?
For artists, the work comes before the cause, but we should all try to bring attention to what we care about, whatever our position in society.