THE JEFFREY COMBS INTERVIEW
By Mark Redfield
PART ONE of two
Jeffrey Combs is Edgar Allan Poe in the play NEVERMORE. Photo by Ward Boult
During production week of the Boston premiere of “Nevermore: An Evening with Edgar Allan Poe” in late October, 2014, after a busy day of texting, emailing, phoning and generally doing the never-ending business of opening a play, Jeffrey Combs (the star) and me (the producer), having dealt with dozens of details and questions and answers regarding the production as it loomed closer (Halloween) including a full day of staging the show to “work” in the Somerville Theatre and solving the lighting and sound issues with the technicians, we had a conversation about acting and playing Poe.
Jeffrey had been doing the one-man show and playing Poe in “Nevermore” since 2009. The play, in fact, was born out of his portrayal of Poe in the HBO Masters of Horror television episode “The Black Cat”. I had produced the Baltimore premiere of “Nevermore” in 2010. One person shows are as old as theater, as old as storytelling, itself. It is, in a sense, a very pure theater---just an actor and an audience.
We are both actors, and we have both played Poe. (And will both play Poe again in the future—but that’s something for another time…). And now, after two months of talking of nothing but logistics and business and problem-solving and all the grueling stuff that goes into producing a play, even a deceptively simple one-person play like “Nevermore”, I wanted to talk shop. Jeffrey was game too, because he was, at the time of this conversation, in Chicago visiting his daughter, the actor Catherine Combs, who was just ending a run in the acclaimed play “Smokefall” at The Goodman Theater. The play was inspiring—the prep Jeffrey was doing for his performance was inspiring—and so I suggested we talk about what we actors do…
MARK REDFIELD: Usually actors don’t want to talk about craft—about the art and craft of acting —or they don’t know how to talk about it-- to verbalize it. It’s easier to talk about other things. The business. What catering served for lunch. The latest gig one got, or gossip or any old thing but not about the work and process itself. It’s hard to articulate I guess, what it is we do.
Production week at the Somerville Theatre in Boston. Combs on stage as lights are focused on the playing areas. Redfield is not at his production table, but in the balcony checking the light (and taking pictures...)
JEFFREY COMBS: Yeah. My initial philosophy on acting is—it’s almost something that you can’t grasp or try to describe. I liken it to having a ball of mercury on a table and trying to grab it…it will always separate—move away from you so it becomes almost… I think why a lot of actors don’t want to talk about it is because it’s almost “ungraspable”, like a ball of mercury. Hard to quantify and verbalize something that is so instinctual.
But having said that, I do think that there are definite techniques and skill-sets that you can hone—that help you—and I would say for me I would definitely have always…I leaned on…leaned toward the “outside” informing the “inside”. In other words, there are some actors who go off in a corner and they just kind of curl up in a little emotional ball, and they try and find the little spiritual core of their process---You know, we’ve all tried that as actors, but for me, that works to a degree but, you know, I’ll take the help wherever I can get it. And if it’s a pair of shoes that I’m wearing, then so be it!
Mark Redfield (left) and Jeffrey Combs (right). At the Boston Public Library for the unveiling ceremony of Bryan Moore's bronze bust of Poe. October 30, 2014.
MARK: I understand that and I think we work the same way as actors, primarily “outside in”—using external things to trigger our imaginations and emotions and selves into shaping characters that we play. I’ve long admired those kinds of “transformative” actors, too: Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers, Olivier –on stage in particular…I asked Stuart (Gordon) during his “Nevermore” interview, if he thought that you were the kind of actor that was “freed by the mask” and not hindered by it. And by mask I mean…I mean that as a kind of metaphor. It could be anything. A certain haircut for a character you’re playing, a pair of glasses, suit of clothes--
JEFFREY: I know what you mean. Yes, yes—anybody who’s not an actor can get an essence of it if they’ve ever dressed up for Halloween.
MARK: Yeah, yeah--
JEFFREY: Or if they’ve ever put on a tuxedo--
MARK: --and suddenly your spine straightens and you start thinking of Cary Grant or James Bond. Your manner and carriage change…
JEFFREY: Right. Your carriage is different, your posture is different. You’re a completely different person with cowboy boots on than you are with tennis shoes…
MARK: Right, right—
JEFFREY: I’ve always found help in those sort of outward aids, like when I did—speaking of mask work—that’s really not far off the mark for me, not only metaphorically, but actually, tangibly. When I went to acting school up at The University of Washington, the program was…I’d say it was sort of spotty. I learned most of what I got from when I went to the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts in Santa Maria. It was a hot-bed of creativity. One of THE artistic places to be in the mid-‘70s, run by a visionary man named Donovan Marley and the people that came out of there are still working today. I mean, it was truly the gift that put me on the right path. That’s where I really learned my craft. And it was like—it was DOING---shows—all kinds of different shows. Different styles, periods, you name it. Musical to Shakespeare to Brecht to--- it was all over the place and we were on a very high end…So: then I go to an actor-training program and I was actually kind of shocked at the caliber of some of my fellow students-- “wait!” “what?!?” because I didn’t really appreciate just how much I had acquired at PCPA. But one of the most vital things that I learned at The University of Washington was from my movement teacher. He was a brilliant man. And one of the processes he took us through was mask work.
MARK: Mask work is invaluable. An incredible performance tradition—from the Greeks—comedia del arte--
JEFFREY: He would put masks out on the mat and he would start with these “neutral” masks. In other words--
MARK: --a blank, expressionless face--
JEFFREY: --“put this mask on”…it says nothing. It’s a white mask with a blank stare—there’s no character in this mask—BE THAT. And one would be real surprised just how difficult that is. To go to “neutral”—and be “nothing”. And then you would pick up a mask with a slight expression carved into it’s…very greek-theater based…but then you’d get a mask with a little character built into it and you’d put that on and look in the mirror and it would be like all of a sudden, your body would change, would contort to that. In essence, become that.
MARK: The external can have a great influence…
JEFFREY: Now jump forward to when I started doing “Star Trek” and—I did these roles and—well, you’d get there (at the studio) at four-thirty in the morning. They’d slap this make-up on you. You get a costume, and you’d be like what??? You don’t even know really who you are! Now it’s seven-thirty and you’ve got your costume on, your make-up is done and you look into the mirror, and you have five minutes before they knock on your door and say, “We’re ready for blocking rehearsal.”
MARK: Yeah—so you let the “mask”—the make-up and the costume—do its magic on you, to find, or make, who this character is…it begins to grow...
JEFFREY: You have to make some immediate, instinctive, hard, clear choices. Now. You can’t wait. It’s “right now”. Based on whatcha got. And, I just hearken it back to my training. And you just have to go with your instincts and your technique. It’s what you gotta do.
MARK: Theater training—working on the stage, really does help the movie actor. I’ve always said that mime training helps actors be better “green screen” actors. Particularly in these days of action and fantasy films where actors work in front of a “nothing”, a green screen set. And for motion-capture performing, too. That kind of training and work helps in movies.
Jeffrey Combs as Edgar Allan Poe in NEVERMORE
JEFFREY: So I was prepared. I was prepared… because I was taught well. And in several ways, every role is like that. Every role is really important to me. And I find the role—what am I wearing? How does this make me feel? And then I’m okay.
MARK: I’m very much the same way. And I like to know things as early as possible—as you pointed out—not always possible on movies or especially in television work---but certainly in theater it’s possible to know what you’re wearing early in the process.. Get the clothes, or a close approximation, as early as possible to build the performance. The earlier the better. Make those choices.
JEFFREY: Right. “Can I get those shoes for rehearsal?”
MARK: Yeah, right--
JEFFREY: That kind of thing?
MARK: Right. Which brings me to ask about playing Poe…you’ve played him—and have been playing him—for a few years now, on stage and originally on film. I want to talk about your process of “finding” him…There are two processes, or periods, that you went through, working on the character for the film, and then for “Nevermore”’ the play, so I’m asking that you dig around in the old memory banks a bit. The first process is “making Poe” for the HBO “The Black Cat”. By the way—and I’ve asked this of (screenwriter) Dennis (Paoli) and (director) Stuart (Gordon): did Stuart turn to you on the set while shooting “The Black Cat” and actually suggest you do a one-man show, then and there? Anyway, you had obviously done a lot of preparatory work on creating Poe…what do you remember about that prep work period before shooting the episode?
JEFFREY: Well…I had read a couple of biographies of Poe within a year or year and a half before Stuart had offered me the role…
Stuart sort of remembers it a little differently than I do. He remembers that it was influenced by his daughter. But what he doesn’t remember, or in tandem with that, is that—I remember him coming to my fiftieth birthday party and there were a lot of people there, and I said to Stuart, “Stu, I’ve just read a biography of Poe; why hasn’t anyone made a movie of this man?” And he went away with that. Then, about a year later I got an email from him, with a script attached. “Would you do this?”
MARK: So that is true, then: you had been interested in playing Poe before the opportunity of “The Black Cat” came up?
Elsye Levesque as Virginia and Jeffrey Combs as Poe in The Master's of Horror production of THE BLACK CAT (2007). Directed by Stuart Gordon. Written by Dennis Paoli.
JEFFREY: Yes! Right! So, so once it became a concrete thing I went back a started reading about Poe again. Started reading before I went up to Vancouver to shoot it. I began to read a lot more about Poe and I started making some real concrete decisions.
First and foremost he (Poe) had considered himself a Virginian, which is really something I thought no one had ever really instilled in their portrayal of Poe. At least in the few performances that I was aware of. So I just made that decision, of doing a nice, soft, genteel Virginia accent. Or my facsimile of it. And that sort of helped inform his poetry—sort of “lifted it” in my mouth.
MARK: I agree. Just performing “The Raven” with a slight southern accent seems to lift the color, the poetry. It's a good choice.
JEFFREY: Then there’s the whole inner thing with Poe. This kind of melancholy, brilliance and frustration within him – a gentleness and a rage—Just these dichotomies. He was very, very complex.
At the beginning of preparing, while researching, I remember feeling a great sense of responsibility to do it right. That I felt a real pressure to not fail.
MARK: I know that quiet terror. It like not wanting to be found out a fraud.
JEFFREY: (laughs) And it get’s into your head a bit and messes with you, doesn't it? So I had to jettison those thoughts, but it was definitely there. A great responsibility.
MARK: It's always good at the beginning to remember the old saying that a long journey begins with a single step. Not let yourself get overwhelmed with the enormity of what you're taking on, but work one step at a time. I find that I – one spends time trying to take the pressure off, to be able to work up crippled…
JEFFREY: And there were all the elements that I wanted right. The nose, of course (Jeffrey wears a prosthetic nose in his make-up as Poe). The look. The look really helped me into the character.
HBO's series Master of Horror brought together some of the great names in contemporary horror cinema to lend their talents to the one-hour short film format. Here is Combs and Levesque in the Poe adaptation of THE BLACK CAT.
MARK: Hair. I tend to be a “hair actor”. Get the hair or beard or mustache right…
JEFFREY: When we we about to shoot “The Black Cat”, we had one real glitch. We got up to Vancouver and the wig that was sent up was…atrocious. It was…atrocious. It looked like a bad—it was awful. It did not look like anything that was near realistic.
To their credit, the production company got the the best wig master in Vancouver, drove me out to her house—actually the night before shooting—sat me down and she pulled a wig out and said “I can get this to work” and worked a wonder through the night. That was a happy accident.
The marvelous thing was that they also built my costume for me, from scratch. These people were masters. They knew the period, knew the cut, they knew the fabric and material. They knew how to make the clothes work for my physique for the period, the late 1840s. Their work was better than anyone expected. So I had a marvelous support team around me. People cared deeply about the props and their accuracy – down to the matches!
MARK: It allows you to forget worrying about little things and get on with worrying about just being…
JEFFREY: Everybody on that production cared very much.
MARK: That kind of care and support makes it easier for the internal work one does as an actor.
JEFFREY: a lot of it is just internal work, too. I can relate. that's one of the things about Poe—we can relate to him. We can (especially as actors) understand his frustrations. Any actor can… The struggle, the artist’s struggle to get work, respect, make ends meet, be compensated fairly and yet, at the same time, know you're being used. But we go ahead because we care so much about the craft that we plunge ahead anyway. We all…we all have that. We really do. That we can relate to. So there were a lot of touchstones with Poe for me. Other things in his life that all of us know—we all have had losses in our life. It's not so hard to connect with and empathize with Poe.
MARK: And after all of this research and thinking about Poe in order to play him, to come to a portrait that you feel is full and accurate, you still have to play the script that's given you. The film “The Black Cat” uses Poe in a fictional situation, as the protagonist of that story (which he wrote…) so your finding that this character you're discovering must play certain beats in this wild story…
I want to interrupt myself and just ask you directly since I've asked your creative partners Stuart and Dennis about this—is it true Stuart (Gordon) simply turned to you on the set of “The Black Cat” after watching you in character and say, “Jeff, you ought to do a one-man show”?
JEFFREY: I remember. We were sitting in the set where I go to my publisher, my boss, Mr. Graham, and I'm asking him if he can give me an advance on a story and I remember Stuart just quietly saying, “You know? You ought to do a one-man show. I think I'm in the presence of Poe.”
MARK: Not too shabby a compliment!
JEFFREY: (laughs) And I said—well, you know, I took it as a great compliment that it was.
MARK: (laughing) Sure!
JEFFREY: But I was very resistant to the idea of a one-man show. Something I'd never done before. Never thought of doing. Something, frankly, I would NOT have done if…
Stuart never goes here, when talking about the genesis of “Nevermore”, but one of the main reasons that I finally came around to his gentle urging (to do a one-man show) was the economic downturn of ’08. When that happened the bottom fell out of everything. Including film.
Backstage after a NEVERMORE performance in Los Angeles. Hal Holbrook, who has performed in his own one-man show about another great American writer (for 50 years!) called MARK TWAIN TONIGHT! meets with Jeffrey Combs after a NEVERMORE performance to pay his respects and congratulations. Combs has said he was humbled and awestruck that Holbrook would take the time to see him. Director Stuart Gordon proudly looks on. (photo courtesy Jeffrey Combs)
MARK: It's never recovered, and in fact has changed considerably.
JEFFREY: The middle went away. There was always the high-end stuff, which always alludes me (laughs) and then even the little tiny independent “come-out-do-it-for-free-it’ll-be-fun” stuff---even that went away for awhile.
But the middle, where I had some success (or at least people would call me and ask me to do something) that evaporated. And I found myself feeling…completely helpless.
Helpless. As an artist and as a provider. It wasn't even so much as a provider. It was my spirit that was so beaten down. I finally sort of saw this opportunity as maybe a way of claiming control again. Of doing something that I had the parameters on. Something that I could – start-to-finish – it’s me. I'm not beholden to any kind of system in order for this to be done. So I saw it as an opportunity and a way out, to some sort of way to save my spirit as an actor.
End Part One.
Part Two of this conversation on acting, actors, and POE between Jeffrey Combs and Mark Redfield will be published soon!.
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