Tony Goldwyn on Playing Morally Corrupted Characters From 'Scandal' to 'Network'

Jan Versweyveld
From left: Tony Goldwyn and Bryan Cranston in 'Network'

Currently starring on Broadway opposite Bryan Cranston and Tatiana Maslany in 'Network,' Goldwyn sees similarities between his present and past roles.

The first time Tony Goldwyn played news exec Max Schumacher in Network was at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. He was starring as Fitz Grant on Shonda Rhimes' Scandal at the time, and he participated in a one-night reading of the Oscar-winning 1976 screenplay, written by Paddy Chayefsky.

"I thought, this is a piece of theater. Why has this never been done as a play?" recalls Goldwyn, who now plays Schumacher seven times a week at the Belasco Theatre on Broadway. "And I called about it and found out that [director] Ivo van Hove was doing it at the National in London."

Goldwyn had been looking for a play to do ever since the long-running ABC hit Scandal concluded last year. He was last on Broadway in 2010 in the musical Promises, Promises, opposite Kristin Chenoweth and Sean Hayes.

He told his agent to keep an eye on Network “if it ever came to Broadway,” and then Bryan Cranston, who plays newsman Howard Beale in the production, emailed Goldwyn and asked if he would like to play Max when the show transferred to New York. (The two had starred together in the HBO miniseries From Earth to the Moon, playing Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin 20 years earlier.)

"I said I'm not available but I'll do it," says Goldwyn, who was busy shooting the series Chambers, which premieres April 26 on Netflix. "There was about a month overlap, and [our showrunner] literally wrote my character out of the final episode for me to be able to do this."

Now Goldwyn is four months into the Broadway run of the play, based on the 1976 Sidney Lumet movie about a news anchor, Beale, who has a breakdown live on the air after he finds out he’s getting fired, with his untethered rant making him an overnight ratings sensation. The personal and professional life of his colleague and news division president Schumacher slowly unravels alongside Beale's exploitation at the hands of the network and his deteriorating mental state.

 

"I find myself repeatedly drawn to characters who are struggling with their moral compass," Goldwyn says. "Max is the moral center of this piece, about news and what he stands for and what television news should be about, and he ultimately becomes corrupted himself and ends up destroying his own life."

The Hollywood Reporter went Off Script with Goldwyn to talk about coming back to the stage, what attracts him to morally compromised characters and why he invited Hillary Clinton to the show.

There are a lot of similarities between Network and Scandal in terms of how they deal with current events, politics and media. What draws you to these stories?

I always feel I'm lucky when I get to do a piece of work that's both really entertaining and a great story to tell, that has social relevance and is impactful, and is saying something about the moment we're living in. I felt really lucky to be on Scandal for that reason. As much as Scandal was popcorn, mainstream entertainment, Shonda Rhimes also had something on her mind that she wanted to talk about … No one could have known how tumultuous our political culture would become at the end of Scandal, and Network absolutely has that. So, yeah, I've been lucky. I just feel like I've stepped into things that happen to be doing that. That's not always the case.

Do you relate to Max's struggles?

We all struggle with our moral construct, and I very much relate to the challenges Max is going through in his life. Thankfully I've avoided blowing up my own life and family, but have struggled, as everybody does … William Holden [who played Max in the film], who ironically was exactly my age when he did the movie, literally looked 20 years older than me. So Max seemed like a much older man to me because we're just more youthful now than then. A man in his 50s, in the '70s, was an older guy. And now I don't feel that way. I'm in that stage of life, but I feel like I've got a lot ahead of me in terms of what I want to do. Howard and Max are kind of put out to pasture. So that was hard to get my brain around, and yet, what I've discovered for myself is what that's like, being put out to pasture way before you're ready.

You invited Hillary Clinton to opening night of Network. Why did you want her to see it?

I felt very strongly in the last election that I wanted to participate. I realized that, maybe absurdly, when you're on a popular television series, you have the ability to draw an audience and have your voice heard … So, you know, I really believe that Hillary would have been a great president, and I felt that she was intensely qualified for that job, so I said I wanted to help. I campaigned with her and did that whole thing, and so we developed a bit of a relationship and a friendship and I have tremendous admiration for her. So, yes, she came to the opening night, which was super cool.

You and Tatiana Maslany, who plays entertainment producer Diana Christensen, have a scene in Network that is filmed outside the theater and live-streamed to the stage. What have been some of the craziest reactions of people walking by?

We're walking along 44th Street, and we play this scene that then continues directly onstage. We have this sex scene onstage that's also very weird and provocative. But yeah, Ivo really wanted it to be just a live street, so there's virtually no crowd control except there's a security person there in case something goes really weird, which it hasn't. Either they recognize us and some people freak out and start taking selfies. People will react to what we're doing, because it's sort of a scene that ends up in a kiss. And so we've got people hooting and hollering. We have people do double takes. We have people do very funny reactions. A lot of it Tatiana and I don't see because we're very much involved in the scene we're doing, and behind us people are doing hilarious things, so the audience roars with laughter and we're not aware of it.

You mentioned the sex scene, which you do in the middle of a functioning onstage restaurant where audience members are sitting. What is that like?

Some people are mortified. Some people think it's hilarious. Some people are turned on by it. The worst is a teenager with their parent. 'Cause you just know that poor kid has to be like… a 15-year-old boy and his mother next to us having sex. Yeah. And some of these people have loud reactions, which we laugh about afterwards, but in the moment we're just doing our thing.

How do you prepare before a show?

I need two hours before the show to get my head into it, which I haven't always needed. I find this show requires tremendous concentration because a) there's tons going on all the time where there are images constantly flying. It's a very busy production. There's constantly a million things to look at and to draw your attention, so we need to both be extremely concentrated as actors and let the audience know what they're supposed to be paying attention to. Part of the purpose of it is that it's constant distraction, which is what television does and what our screens are doing constantly, pulling us away from what we're supposed to be paying attention to. That's kind of what Ivo's doing. I also really need to make sure that I'm dialed in to Max's emotional story.

Do you keep anything special backstage?

I was given a picture of William Holden and Peter Finch. One of my castmates gave it to me for opening night.

You also have a new show, Chambers, premiering later this month. Can you talk a little about that?

Chambers centers on a 16-year-old Native American girl. It's set in Arizona, in communities like Sedona and this girl lives in a much more disadvantaged Native American community. She has a heart attack and is saved by a heart donor. Another 16-year-old girl dies that night, and she gets the heart and survives.

The parents of the dead girl, who are a wealthy white couple played by me and Uma Thurman, want to have a relationship with this girl who has their daughter's heart. This girl comes into our life, and she starts to experience these bizarre associations with the dead girl. And it kind of becomes this supernatural thriller because you realize that the circumstances of the girl's death are not what they seemed, and you don't know what happened. Are the parents somehow complicit in their daughter's death? What exactly is going on?