Tony and Emmy Award winning actor Mandy Patinkin spoke at the Slifka Center Monday afternoon. The Jewish actor, the lead in Rinne Groff’s new play “Compulsion” at the Yale Rep, answered questions from a crowd of about 20 about his craft, some of his famous roles and the influence of his religion on his life.
Q. You’ve been part of such a variety of works, from Broadway musicals like “Sunday in the Park with George” to movies like “The Princess Bride.” How do you select the projects you want to work on?
A. In my ideal world, I try to work with people I love to be with, who admire, respect and challenge me and material that speaks to me and hits something in me that I can’t even explain. It’s like meeting somebody — it’s what you feel. Do you want to have dinner again? You don’t want to know why. You don’t need to know why. You just feel better with them. And occasionally I had to make choices for economic reasons and sometimes I’ve made choices that weren’t helpful in my career.
Q. One of your most celebrated roles was your portrayal of the painter Georges Seurat in Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George.” Because the show deals with art and the creation of artistic works, did it resonate more for you?
A. It was certainly one of the core seminal moments of my personal and artistic life. I was 34, had a two-year-old son. I was going to quit during the workshop because none of my material was written.
We finished the workshop [of “Sunday”] and I get a call from Dustin Hoffman — one of my idols. Would I come in and read for the part of his son in “Death of a Salesman” for Broadway?
It conflicted with the rehearsal and run of the possible Broadway version of “Sunday.” So I go see “La Cage Aux Follies” and I turn to my wife and I say “Fine, the piece was great, I get it. But there has to be a balance and I think “Sunday” is one of these shows with balance and I have to do it.” I turned down “Death of a Salesman” so that I could be in “Sunday in the Park.” And it was the seminal role of my life, much more than “The Princess Bride.” In “Sunday in the Park,” the words that George says over and over again are “Connect George, connect!” — and that is the quest of my life, to connect.
Q. Throughout your career you’ve played several Jewish characters, from Dr. Jeffrey Geiger in “Chicago Hope” and now Sid Silver in “Compulsion.” Was this intentional? How do you feel about playing Jewish characters?
A. Early on in my career I did several Jewish roles. And all these Jewish things came one after another and I said I don’t want to be typecast. Then I realized somewhere along the line that everything I play is Jewish. Because it’s who I am. So what is that? It’s forgiveness and rachamim — compassion. They’re the nerve centers that I was taught and that I learned from the rabbis.
Q. In “Compulsion,” Sid Silver emphasizes the importance of having a Jewish producer for the stage adaptation of “The Diary of Anne Frank.” Do you think it is important that Sid Silver, a character whose religion informs nearly all of his choices in the play, is portrayed by a Jewish actor?
A. I do not, but I’ve had arguments over this kind of thing for years. The first time was with a woman who was a director for the Theatre for the Deaf. I got in this huge argument with her because she felt the deaf part should be played by a deaf person. I don’t disagree with that, but I’m an actor and I want to play a deaf person, too. And I’m sorry that there are only three deaf parts, but if I can win it then I’ll play it. I wont hurt you or walk over you, but it’s a competitive business. I’m here to be an actor and I’ll play a woman and I’ll play anybody that I can play that’s interesting.
Q. How do you feel about the fact that many people in this generation only know you from your film or TV works?
A. It’s fun — if I get lucky and you’re some little kid who’s grown up watching “Elmo in Grouchland” and somehow find that I’m the guy who’s in the movie with Elmo and then that somehow makes you want to see something you might not have seen — you go see a Shakespeare play, a Rinne Groff play or an Ibsen play that you might not have gone to.