Watching Eric Bogosian get photographed is like watching a lion at feeding time. He instinctively feasts on the ritual, deconstructing it, decoding it, laying it bare. As an actor and writer for more than three decades, Bogosian knows 8-x-10s and magazine spreads. Black shirt, black jeans, hands jammed into pockets, he needs only a few seconds to get ready, and he hits all his marks, ever the pro.
"Brooding is bad," he cracks while affecting a serious pose. "Threatening is good."
Between shutter clicks in his sun-flooded loft in ultra-gentrified Tribeca, on the block where Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel were neighbors when junkies and mobsters still roamed the desolate streets, he marvels aloud at a set of photos in New York magazine. They were disconcertingly unglamorous portraits of New York actors, including an image of Bogosian alongside Matthew Broderick and Tim Robbins that made them look almost constipated. Photographer Dan Winters "likes to use lights that just blow the image out so that everybody seems drained," he says. "Look at De Niro. He looks like some guy down on the Bowery. Amazing."
Bogosian ’76 is known for seizing on this kind of detail in his writing and performing. Social observation is the oxygen of his work. The solo shows that made his reputation in the 1980s and ’90s—Men Inside; Fun House; Sex, Drugs and Rock ’n’ Roll; Drinking in America; Pounding Nails into the Floor with My Forehead—are built on these exhilaratingly acerbic takes on modern life.
While the shows are single-handed events, they present disparate chorus lines of characters of every background and disposition, with one chameleonic portrait bleeding into the next. Bogosian calls them "plays for one person." However diverse their voices, they share one distinguishing trait: a sensibility that goes way beyond cynical and takes the audience straight into the abyss.
"Nobody does cascading nihilism the way Eric can," says Roger Copeland, the Oberlin theater and dance professor who directed Bogosian in a campus production of Woyzek in 1976 and has followed his career since. "He takes the negativity of the angry loser imagining his revenge on normalcy to the absolute outer limits. It’s almost like a glimpse of the infinite."
In September 2006, Bogosian surprised longtime fans of his nihilistic tours de force by accepting the role of Captain Danny Ross on USA Network’s Law & Order: Criminal Intent. The show has its hard edges even by cable standards, but not quite the kind Bogosian favors.
It isn’t that he’s in the mainstream for the first time; he has tasted this kind of success frequently over his lengthy career, such as when he starred in Oliver Stone’s film of his hit play Talk Radio. Richard Linklater filmed his adaptation of another stage hit, SubUrbia. And, he played the villain opposite Steven Seagal in Under Siege 2. But Law & Order offered the Bogosian of the 21st century, the 55-year-old father of two teenage boys, an attractive notion of stability.
"I do a lot of heavy lifting on this show," Bogosian says matter-of-factly while waiting backstage in his costume of navy blazer and badge at the L&O set at New York’s Chelsea Piers. "The guest stars do a lot of the emoting. They never do exposition. [Co-star Julianne Nicholson] and I have to remind everybody what the consequences are."
In his expansive dressing room overlooking West Side Highway, which could rent for $10,000 a week, all seems calm and bright. Piano jazz plays faintly on the stereo. Costumes organized and hung with care (and helpful Polaroids attached) guide the star through his many outfit changes.
"Oberlin does something to people. You become someone independent who goes outside the status quo and tries things. For me and my peers from Oberlin, Bill Irwin and Julie Taymor...self-starting is a big part of what we learned."
Bogosian is dedicated to the show and appreciative of its elements, especially the fact that it shoots 10 minutes from his apartment. "It’s not Kurosawa down there," as he puts it. "It’s a TV show." He candidly frames the show as a solid base of operations for his ongoing writing (a novel, his third, is due out in the spring), stage acting, and screenwriting. Just as Bogosian was getting used to wearing a badge in 2006, Talk Radio was revived on Broadway and SubUrbia returned to Off-Broadway’s Second Stage. There have always been multiple facets to his professional life (including some TV roles and even a short-lived series he created, High Incident), but this particular TV gig grounds Bogosian’s many pursuits so well that it’s amazing he never pursued it.
"I don’t watch TV," he says. "Occasionally I’ll catch it in a hotel room. But they called me. This show is a lot like Twilight Zone in the ’60s, and it’s all the best character actors in the country. No one knows their names, but they get to just come on and chew the scenery."
This would not have been a suitable home for the Bogosian of a generation ago—aggrieved, vein-popping, "dissolute," in his word. But these days, it fits. "Slowly but surely, over the years of writing and performing, I developed the skills to learn and deliver this kind of material."
Playing opposite Vincent D’Onofrio, Chris Noth, and, in the current season, Jeff Goldblum, has been satisfying, even if the scenes are straightforward. On a recent day of shooting, the dialogue unfolded at a steady pace and the set hummed with activity. An entire episode can be shot in just 10 days, Bogosian’s part in three. The studio is a highly efficient mill. L&O creator Dick Wolf became one of the most powerful forces in the TV business by amassing a huge number of high-quality episodes and allowing NBC to "multiplex" them across its broadcast and cable schedule. (USA is owned by NBC Universal.)
After the clapperboard signals action, Bogosian, as Captain Ross, assesses a suspect’s response to questioning. "I’m with Logan," he says evenly. "He may have pressured her to have his baby, but I don’t see him pushing her skull in."
The actors discuss a couple of potential adjustments. Bogosian, like a focused quarterback in a two-minute drill motioning to the sidelines, asks the director for another take. Five minutes later, they’ve moved on to the next scene.
Watching an afternoon of this, anyone who has followed Bogosian’s performing path would be sorely tempted to assume that the former firebrand has mellowed. Such are the occupational hazards when your career from your mid-20s was defined by intense, one-man shows. No co-stars or elaborate costumes or stints as a second banana—every night was center stage and pedal to the metal. Isn’t a police procedural just about the opposite?
"When I did Barry in Talk Radio, he was such an angry guy and so mercurial," Bogosian says. "Well, there are parts of me that are really like that, but what I do when I’m doing Barry is remove the parts of myself that temper that. There are parts of me that feel guilty. Barry never feels guilty. Captain Ross never smiles. That’s the way I am in part of my life. I just leave out the parts of my life that are more affable or more approachable."
It is not exaggerating to say that Bogosian learned the craft of such modulation in the Oberlin theater department, though that was not an inevitable outcome in the mid-1970s. While the department has a distinguished history and many notable alumni, it has never been terribly conventional, especially when compared to the approach next door at the Conservatory. In the 1970s, with avant-garde pioneer Herbert Blau shaking things up and a preoccupation with the experiments of Robert Wilson and Mabou Mines, "I was getting confused in the department," Bogosian recalls.
"Students at the time had a weird kind of obsession with how something felt onstage rather than how it looked," Copeland says. "It was a form of therapy for the performer where the students practically ignored the audience." In Woyzeck, the German expressionist tragedy whose title character of the oppressed soldier prefigured Bogosian’s ranting characters, Copeland gave Bogosian specific physical direction and urged him to externalize the performance.
"He really gave me concrete stuff," Bogosian says. "You never know when a teacher’s going to turn you on, but that was significant."
Bogosian may have been more receptive to the message because of his circuitous path to Oberlin, vividly described in his 1996 book of the screenplay to SubUrbia. Only after completing the manuscript did he realize that he had written the story of his life at age 20. After enrolling at the University of Chicago "on a cloud of hippie attitude," he was surprised by its rigor and eventually decided to leave school and return to his hometown of Woburn, Mass., a Boston suburb with a mix of industrial decay and commercial sprawl.
A period of profound drift followed—encapsulated by the play’s elliptical wanderings—but eventually, "I figured out that since I was doing nothing with my life anyway, I might as well do nothing at college," Bogosian writes in his book. "And since college was pointless (this was my reasoning), I might as well do something pointless I enjoyed. So I transferred to Oberlin and entered the theater department there. And in this great ass-backwards feat my professional life began. Through this deep insight my life changed."
When Bogosian arrived at Oberlin in 1974, the currents rippling through campus and the broader culture may have made his head spin at times, but they ultimately galvanized his sense of purpose and self-reliance.
"Oberlin does something to people," he says now. "You become someone independent who goes outside the status quo and tries things. For me and my peers from Oberlin, Bill Irwin and Julie Taymor … self-starting is a big part of what we learned."
Two years and a life change later, Bogosian graduated and immediately lit out for New York, where he performed downtown, including at The Kitchen, the legendary venue whose cross-media lineups included everyone from Bill T. Jones and Cindy Sherman to Laurie Anderson and David Byrne. Between 1976 and 1982, he appeared in 16 of his own works, many of them solos, before a scout from Joe Papp’s Public Theatre finally gave him his big break.
"Oberlin also has this close connection with New York City," Bogosian says. "That allows you to become familiar with the city without being too threatened. I was such a suburban kid. New York was just too much. But Oberlin allowed me to figure out how to negotiate New York. And it has a really solid value system that continues to be part of me today. My kids go to Friends’ school, Quaker school.
"It’s really important; that foundation cornerstone stuff has to be about how your values interact with others and your place in the big picture, which is a big Oberlin thing," he adds. "People can mock it and say, ‘you liberals’ or whatever. But it works for me."
Dade Hayes is the assistant managing editor of Variety in New York.
Eric Bogosian will speak at Oberlin on February 4 as part of Oberlin’s 2008-09 Convocation Series. The performance starts at 8 p.m. in Finney Chapel. Admission is free and tickets are not required.
Bogosian’s full-length play subUrbia will be performed on campus in the days surrounding his appearance. Directed by Associate Professor of Theater Paul Moser, the play features a group of young people in their early 20s who spend the night in a mini-mall parking lot.
January 30, 31 and February 3, 5, 6, 7 at 8 p.m.
For tickets, please call (800) 371-0178 or visit www.oberlin.edu/artsguide/tickets.
Eric Bogosian’s writing is often as spikily entertaining on the page as it is onstage. The following is an excerpt from his 1983 solo performance, Fun House, which later appeared in print.
A man sits at a table, speaks in a growly, inner-city voice.
"Every time I have fried calamari, I feel like I’m going to blow up!...Vincent, be a good boy and pour your uncle a cup of coffee there...Just half a cup, no sugar, I’m having a diet...
So Vincent, you go visit Frank in the hospital? How’s he doing, he’s doing OK, right? Just gallstones, right? I was gonna go visit him last week but I got home from work and I couldn’t move! I even bought him a geranium for his room there, but I left it on the Mister Coffee machine in his office and it got all burnt up!
So how’s he doing? He’s doing all right, huh? Just gallstones, huh? Gallstones is nothing! I saw the whole operation on Marcus Welby, M.D. Right on TV they showed it. Very simple operation, I could do it myself. They just make one little cut in the stomach like this...then they got this thing, uh like, it’s like a grapefruit spoon, OK? They take this grapefruit spoon and they dig out those gallstones. That’s all...and then they throw ’em away. Throw ’em away right in the garbage. They don’t even keep ’em. You figure for the amount of money you pay for that operation they’d at least give you the gallstones to take home...show ’em to the kids...give ’em to the dog to play with...Forgetaboutit!...Merv Griffin had those gallstones one time, he was back on the show in two weeks."