Conversation: Edward Gero on Rothko, ‘Red’

BY Jeffrey Brown  February 8, 2012 at 11:29 AM EDT

Mark Rothko was one of the giants of American art in the 20th century, known for his luminous abstract paintings, rectangular fields of color and light, which for many had an almost spiritual quality to them.

Rothko died in 1970. His life has been turned into art in the play “Red,” written by John Logan. Staged first in 2009, “Red” is now at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., in a production directed by Robert Falls.

Actor Edward Gero plays the role of Rothko alongside Patrick Andrews as Rothko’s assistant.

I spoke to Gero last week about his role:

A transcript is after the jump.

Mark Rothko was one of the giants of American art in the 20th century, known for his luminous abstract paintings, rectangular fields of color and light, which for many had an almost spiritual quality to them. Rothko died in 1970. His life has been turned into art in the play “Red,” written by John Logan. Staged first in 2009, “Red” is now at the Arena Stage in Washington in a production directed by Roberts Falls. Actor Edward Gero plays the role of Rothko alongside Patrick Andrews as Rothko’s assistant. Edward Gero joins me now, and Ed, hello. I should say we’re good friends, we’re old friends.

EDWARD GERO: We are. Yes, we are.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of a few years. Nice to see you here.

EDWARD GERO: It’s great to be here.

JEFFREY BROWN: This is a historical character in our own lifetimes.

EDWARD GERO: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is it different for you in the preparation?

EDWARD GERO: Well, it is a bit different, because of biographical and historical context it really requires some research on getting the biographical story clear and learning from that, finding character traits that might become clear in the reading. I read the Breslin biography, the definitive, spent time with the paintings, met students of Rothko who live in the area to get a sense. I’ve done a couple of other biographical characters. I did Nixon a few years ago here in Washington and Salieri is also a historical character, so they’re fascinating to do, and I think you get to combine the imagination of creating a physical life. There’s no film of him, there are only iconic photographs, so it’s an interesting process.

JEFFREY BROWN: Because there was a major Rothko exhibition here a few years ago, which I did a story on, so I’m familiar with some of the biographical text you’re talking about. He was not a pleasant man is what comes through. I mean, he was in many ways a very difficult man.

EDWARD GERO: Exactly.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you have to make us care about him.

EDWARD GERO: Well, it’s interesting. When I particularly spoke to his student — there’s a woman here who studied with him at the Brooklyn College — and she said he was a really warm, empathetic human being, and I thought, How do I reconcile that? But this personal experience was quite different from the stories I’d read in the book. So it was trying to find those values in the script, and I think that comes across in some small way in his relationship with the assistant.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, let’s look at a clip. Do you want to set this up? This is you and your assistant.

EDWARD GERO: Yeah, we’re just about ready to prime the canvas and we’re talking about his frustration about people not understanding how to look at the work and the sort of shallow approach that most people who are buying his works may take.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, let’s look at this clip from Red.

[CLIP]

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, there’s a lot of humor in that clip, but it gets to the real drama of the piece of this question of the purpose of art, the value of art in a commercial society, and this focuses on one episode, right, when he was given a commission to do a series of paintings.

EDWARD GERO: Yeah, this was the largest commission in the 20th century at the time, to do about 500 or 600 square feet of canvas for the Seagram Building designed by Philip Johnson and Mies van der Rohe, and it was $35,000 commission, which was a lot of money in 1957. So, yes, he was struggling with this, how we value art and what we want to do with it.

JEFFREY BROWN: I have always thought that one of the hardest things to do in art, in film and theater and books, sometimes is to capture the creative process itself. Now here’s what – and I think of various examples where it’s sort of unsuccessfully done. Here it works. You’re sort of seeing it happen.

EDWARD GERO: We see the canvases being stretched, we see the stretchers being built, the paint being mixed. There’s always activity during the play and sort of a multitasking thing. We’re talking about Nietzsche and the birth of tragedy while we’re mixing paint, putting up canvases, and at the center of the piece is, of course, the sort of burst of painting that happens where we both prime the canvas, which is a great moment to play.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yeah, I’ll bet, did all of this — sort of as you say ‘work’ aspects to it — did that help you?

EDWARD GERO: Oh, there’s no question about it. I spent some time talking with painters and how to paint, how he held the brush, how he mixed the paint and so forth. But it physically links us to the reality of the event. There was one moment we did where in the beginning of the play actually knocked over a bucket of paint that we were going to use later in the play, and I thought, ‘What are we going to do now?’ Well the good news was I heard the prop man running back stage to mix another bucket, but Ken, Patrick Andrews, I just tossed him a couple of towels and he just went about cleaning up. Just incorporated it into the evening.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, maybe because I’ve been able to watch you over a number of years as an actor I can ask, how does each role, leading up to this one, allow you to grow? What is it that you’re aspiring too?

EDWARD GERO: That’s a great question. I’ve had the opportunity to play these very complex, interesting, troubled men, artists — musician in Salieri, Nixon, Scrooge — it’s a kind of thing that you hope to have happen in a lifetime in the theater where you train and hopefully these opportunities will come where you get to play these great, troubled, complex human beings. And I’m very grateful for this opportunity to do that. With this particular role, there’s a little bit of the Chicago, what I would call the Chicago aesthetic. Being Italian I tend to wear my heart on my sleeve a little bit and I think maybe I do that in performance but —

JEFFREY BROWN: What is the Chicago aesthetic?

EDWARD GERO: Well, I think it’s a real aversion to any kind of sentimentality, that people have emotion, of course, but just get on with it, you have to survive the winter, they’ve worked in the slaughter houses or the railroad, there’s a real working toughness. That’s my sense. I might be imagining it, but that’s what I took from it. And I learned how to incorporate that in the role. It was a little bit sentimental, I think. Some of the press had said that in Chicago, and I sort of took that in a little bit and adjusted that along the course of the run and now here in Washington. But he’s just fierce, and it’s a really interesting thing to play. It seems more simple, but in a way I think the audiences get to come inside a little bit more and bring their own — like the art — bring their own experience, their own emotion, to what’s happening inside Rothko. It doesn’t mean that I don’t work on those things, but I don’t have to show it as much and it’s been a real interesting journey.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Edward Gero as Mark Rothko in “Red.” Ed, it’s nice to talk to you.

EDWARD GERO: Thanks, Jeff.