Brian Markinson and Angels in America go all the way back to 1993.
The busy actor had just replaced Kevin Spacey in Lost in Yonkers on Broadway when the curtains rose on Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes down the street. “We were on different dark nights, and I got to see Angels when it opened,” says Markinson, over lunch in North Vancouver earlier this month. “My connection to it was very visceral.” Kushner’s play ended up winning numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play.
Fast-forward to 2003, when Markinson appeared in the Emmy Award-winning HBO miniseries Angels in America. Markinson played the character of Martin Heller opposite Al Pacino’s Roy Cohn.
This month, Markinson returns to Kushner’s Herculean text yet again, this time in the Arts Club Theatre Company’s production of Angels in America: Millennium Approaches (Millennium Approaches is the first part of the play; the second part, Angels in America: Perestroika, will open the Arts Club’s 2017-2018 season in September). Markinson will portray Roy Cohn, the role that Pacino played in the miniseries and for which Roy Leibman won a Tony Award for Best Actor in 1993.
Markinson has strong feelings about Angels in America. It’s in his top five plays of the 20th century (“I put it in the same breath as Death of a Salesman or A Streetcar Named Desire”) for a myriad of reasons, chief among them that it manages to be “a very intimate play, as well as being epic.”
Angels in America delves into the early days of the AIDS crisis, when individuals in power breezily dismissed it as “gay cancer” and tens of thousands of lives were lost. The play contrasts the lives of five individuals struggling with identity issues alongside the crippling effects of stereotypes and an incurable diagnosis.
Markinson remembers those days well. The Illinois native was working the New York theatre scene when the AIDS epidemic hit the city. “I lost teachers. I lost classmates. It was a very, very scary time.” Markinson’s wife, Nancy, was on the front lines of the crisis. “My wife worked with people with AIDS, and she would go into their apartments and she would grocery shop for them and care for them,” says Markinson.
Theatre might be Markinson’s first love, but the Vancouver-based actor is a familiar face to television and film audiences around the world. His lengthy credit list includes Mad Men, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Charlie Wilson’s War, multiple Star Trek series, and, most recently, key roles on Chris Haddock’s CBC spy thriller The Romeo Section and Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce – an astounding success considering he didn’t step onto a film set until he was 30-years-old. “I thought I was going to go [to LA] for 10 weeks [for a play], but all of a sudden, I had agents and managers and work in television.” Markinson ultimately spent a decade in LA, and had “a very good run.”
Markinson grew up in the Chicago suburbs and studied acting in London and New York City. He’s worked with many of the greats, including Woody Allen, Robert Redford, Sean Penn, Mike Nichols and Aaron Sorkin. He considers himself a journeyman: “There’s something great about being a journeyman; you have a career and you build a reputation over a period of time and a body of work. My life and my reality are far beyond what I ever expected for myself, because I wasn’t ambitious. It was enough for me to work.”
Whether he’s on screen or stage, Markinson gravitates towards darker, heavier characters, like that of the father who murdered his eight-year-old son in an award-winning episode of NYPD Blue. “David Milch, who created NYPD Blue, said to me, ‘This guy is not outside the realm of human experience or behaviour,’” recalls Markinson. “And so I always look at these guys as damaged in some way, and how do I challenge an audience to empathize with a person who maybe on the surface would seem abhorrent and a monster and irredeemable?”
Roy Cohn, the character he plays in Angels of America, is one such character. Cohn is one of the few characters in the play based on an actual person; he was Senator Joseph McCarthy’s chief counsel and represented Donald Trump during the latter’s early business career. “[With] Roy Cohn, it was never fight or flight. It was always fight,” says Markinson. “It was, ‘Say a lie long enough and loud enough, and it becomes the truth.’” Markinson’s challenge is to find the humanity, even in a villain like Cohn, and “get out of the way of [Kushner’s] beautiful words.”
Angels in America: Millennium Approaches’ cast also includes Lois Anderson, Damien Atkins, Ryan Beil, Craig Erickson, Stephen Jackman-Torkoff, Gabrielle Rose, and Celine Stubel. Kim Collier directs the production.
Angels in America: Millennium Approaches runs Mar. 23-April 23 at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Theatre. Tickets at artsclub.com.
Web exclusive: More from our interview with Brian Markinson
On how the Arts Club’s production of Angels in America changed after the US election:
“[Director Kim Collier] had worked with the designers beforehand and designed a whole other set, and had gone through all of the transitions, and then the election happened, and she called me up, and she had the designer redesign the set. It went from this more nondescript setting, like a hospital, to a completely different set that really smacks of Washington: pillars and marble and the idea of a coliseum and these people being thrown in the midst of this towering thing and telling this story and testifying. She asked me if I thought it was too on the nose, and I said, ‘This is the time where we can be on the nose.’ I hope it resonates with people, because in that scene that I did as Martin that I’m playing now as Roy, the character of Martin lays out the whole Republican manifesto, and here we are. We’re here.”
On the toll of playing darker characters:
“It’s cumulative. I started smoking again when I was doing Norman [on The Romeo Section], and I hadn’t smoked since I was a kid. You have to take care of yourself. I know during the NYPD Blue thing, because it was such a protracted shooting schedule, it was a month living with this guy who had been raped as a kid, who was lying, lying, lying, and it ended with this incredible confession speech. By the end of it, I would just come home and weep and sob. You can’t help it. I don’t consider myself a method actor. I don’t walk around with that stuff. It happens organically just through living with that material over a period of time, and what you are forced to tap into, not even consciously, so yeah; you try to eat well and you take a hot shower – but you could ask my wife, like depending on who I’m playing, I’m playing a real evil character right now in Angels, there is residual resonance. You walk around with it.”
On reasons to say yes – or no – to a role:
“I think there are a million different reasons to say yes. A big paycheque is a reason to say yes, even when you know it won’t be the most rewarding material. I’ve learned over the years to listen to my gut. When I don’t listen to my gut, I really regret it, and I go into it because of a paycheque, and even with the paycheque I think, ‘Ah, it doesn’t feel right.’ If it’s great on the page, or a director or actor that I admire, those would be a reasons to do it. I’ve done favours for friends, so there’s a bunch of different reasons to do it, and there are equally as many reasons not to do something. But for me, I like meat. I like playing darker, heavier characters. I’ve always liked to be challenged, and scared.”
On his short-lived career as a boy soprano:
“As a very young kid, I was a boy soprano. I was a member of a very famous children’s chorus called the Glen Ellyn Children’s Chorus and I performed in Carnegie Hall and toured and worked with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and worked on these massive symphonic choral pieces. It was incredible. Of course, then your voice changes and you’re out in the cold.”
On when he’s happiest at work:
“I had a blast with Norman [on The Romeo Section]. I’m happiest when I’m on stage, in front of an audience, because something happens. [For Angels in America], we’re now working in a room with just our staff, but then you put it on stage, and you bring an audience in, and they change it. They teach you what you don’t know about the character, what’s coming across, and so for me, I’ve never lost that love of being on the stage. I love great writing. That’s my thing. I love the camaraderie. I’m having a gas on Girlfriends’ Guide [to Divorce]. I’m doing love scenes. I’m doing naked love scenes, which is, I know! At 55, you’d think they would learn, but I just love doing it. I love doing it. But those characters like Norman, if [Chris] Haddock would write a Norman series, I would sign up in a heartbeat to do that."