Tonys 2018: Nathan Lane on Playing Roy Cohn in 'Angels in America' Under Trump

Angels in America Production Still Nathan Lane_ - Publicity - H 2018
Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

The featured actor nominee and two-time previous winner discusses his role as the real-life closeted conservative lawyer in Tony Kushner's epic masterwork, and why he empathizes with the character.

From his Tony-winning performances in The Producers and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum to his gut-wrenching turn as Hickey in The Iceman Cometh, Nathan Lane thrives on changing it up onstage. But when director Marianne Elliott and playwright Tony Kushner approached him about playing Roy Cohn in Angels in America, Lane admits that the role was never on his radar. 

"I knew it was a great part, but I just strangely never thought of myself doing it," he says. "When it came up, I read the play and was so knocked down by it and thought, 'Oh, yes, I think I have to do this.' Another mountain to climb."

Lane earned his sixth Tony nomination — this time for best featured actor in a play — for his portrayal of the real-life lawyer (and Donald Trump's former mentor) who falls victim to AIDS, despite his seething protestations that it's just "liver cancer." That nomination was one of 11 scored by the production — a Tony record for a nonmusical — including best revival of a play, best director for two-time previous winner Elliott, and noms for his castmates Andrew Garfield, Susan Brown and Denise Gough.

Reviewing the revival, The Hollywood Reporter's chief theater critic David Rooney wrote: "Lane has never been more ferocious or more blisteringly funny ... But there are also glimmers of pathetic vulnerability to humanize the monster."

In the run-up to the June 10 Tonys ceremony, THR talked with Lane about how he prepared for the role and what this two-part play, set during the 1980s AIDS crisis and first produced on Broadway 25 years ago, says about America today.

You've done large-scale musicals and marathon-length dramas like O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh. How have they prepared you to take on this seven-hour epic?

Nothing can quite compare to what this is. Even though with Roy Cohn, there are breaks; he's not on constantly. But when he is on, it's pretty intense. It costs you. And yet it's also giving you a lot in terms of the writing, which is so extraordinary and constantly inspiring. But yeah, it's a real workout …The job is you go on and you put everything aside no matter how you're feeling and you tell this story. It's a big mountain to climb every day, and you really do have to take care of yourself. That's the main thing. And live like a nun, as Ethel Merman used to say.

What was your research process for this role?

There's only a couple of books. Citizen Cohn is the main book about him that was really, really helpful and gave me a lot of information. It's like forensics. You're looking at all the pieces of information and evidence and you're looking at his childhood and basically what is it that created this human being? There are major differences between the real man and Tony's version of Roy Cohn. He certainly gives him some threads of humanity and possibly a little more humor than the real man actually had. Although there are people who will tell you how funny he was and charming. He had to be charming and seductive, and if he was your friend he was incredibly loyal.

AIDS is the thing that stopped him in his tracks, and in a way what humanized him. He lived his life saying, "I will never be vulnerable for them to attack because I'm different, because I'm Jewish, because I'm gay. I will never let that be known." And then of course he got AIDS and it branded him as being gay, which is why he said he had liver cancer until the day he died. It's a fascinating mentality. He couldn't be openly gay, especially in the world he was traveling in. Look, there's many contradictions: Even Hitler had a dog. You want to get to the human, because obviously you just can't play monstrous.

Do you empathize with Roy Cohn?

I empathize with the character of Roy Cohn. The real person, I don't. You have to separate the character from the real man. I have empathy for the character even though he says the most vile things at times. Somebody said he had a childlike need to be liked, ironically being one of the most hated men in America. There is a bit of that child in him who wants approval and doesn’t understand why people don’t get it. It's fascinating. Over the long haul, that’s the kind of thing that feeds you. That’s why I will go back to reading some stuff about him or looking at some video, that might inspire something you hadn't thought of before.

Can you talk about how you charted Roy Cohn's physical deterioration onstage?

It was based on things I read in Citizen Cohn, where you had the actual hospital records that described what he was going through. One of the most interesting things was the tremor. He had a tremor in his right hand, then it moved to his left hand. When he was talking to someone and his hand was tremoring, he would grab it and hold it to keep it from shaking because he needed to control everything, which I always thought was an interesting metaphor for him. So I do that.

Then there's a big shift in the third act when you see him in bed talking to Joe [the similarly closeted Mormon lawyer played by Lee Pace] and he's got the tremor and now his voice is starting to go. Tony has written these seizures that he has, so I wanted to show you what is to die under really painful circumstances. Because he went out kicking and screaming all the way, not surprisingly, because he fought. That's what he did. Everything with him was a fight. He was a power broker and he would fix problems. That's why Donald Trump called out, "Where's my Roy Cohn? I'm stuck with Jeff Sessions. Where's my Roy Cohn? Where's my fixer?"

You started with this show at the National Theatre in London right after the inauguration and now you're performing it on Broadway more than a year into this administration. Has the way the play is received changed at all?

In London, they were great audiences, but they were very intently listening. They weren't as effusive, except at the end when they would jump to their feet. American audiences are getting more of the jokes and more of the references than British audiences did. It's reframing the play.

This is an American play, and the audiences have been very enthusiastic here. It's just now the play feels downright depressing and feels more relevant and essential than ever. Tony was talking about the Reagan era, the planting of the seeds for where we've wound up now with this administration. And how we wound up here. So yeah, other than that it's a great time to do the play. Tony was very excited about that — that it would be done on Broadway in the midst of this political insanity where democracy itself is under siege.