Life appears to be good for actor Vincent Gale, much like it does for his character Austin in True West.
Gale’s face, along with that of Brian Markinson, is plastered all over town in posters and ads for the Vancouver Playhouse production of Sam Shepard’s American classic about brutal sibling rivalry. He’s appeared in several of the most talked-about shows by the city’s biggest theatre company over the past seven years, from 2002’s Proof through to 2006’s Vincent in Brixton. And his film résumé is peppered with some of the smartest movies to have come out of B.C. and Canada—among them, Dirty, Last Wedding, and most recently, American Venus, whose director, Bruce Sweeney, happens to page Gale midway through our interview in the empty Playhouse lobby at Dunsmuir and Hamilton. Gale’s good fortune stretches to his home life, as well, where he and his wife, fellow actor Jennifer Clement, are raising an active two-year-old son named Max.
In a town where a lot of actors struggle even with a day job, Gale seems like one of the success stories: an artist at the top of his game who can support himself and his family with work that has integrity. But Gale can’t help but see the parallels with his character in True West, a show that’s all about duality and the differences between the way we’re perceived and who we really are. In it, Lee, the beer-swilling brother of successful screenwriter Austin, says, “You got the wife and kids, you got the whole slam,” and Austin insists it’s not as easy as it all looks.
“I feel very fortunate but it’s a lot of work. This business is hard but it’s what we signed on for,” Gale says candidly. “I work constantly. I fuckin’ hustle. I’m working on stuff for two years from now. It’s the only way to survive. It can all stop in a second if you don’t keep the hustle going. There are so many actors.”
It was about two years ago that local director Dean Paul Gibson and Playhouse artistic director Glynis Leyshon first approached Gale about starring in True West, which opens tonight (April 3). Gale says the work had been seminal for Gibson, who like many of his colleagues had first encountered it in acting class. It would be the only work by Shepard to be staged at the Playhouse since the late Larry Lillo’s production of A Lie of the Mind in 1988. Premiering in 1980, True West follows orderly Ivy League–educated Austin as he retreats to his absent mother’s suburban L.A. home to write a screenplay. When his menacing petty-thief brother, Lee, unexpectedly arrives, they become locked in a showdown.
It’s an edgy work that larger theatres tend to stay away from, but it draws big-name actors. John C. Reilly with Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Malkovich with Gary Sinise are some of the most famous New York pairings. But Gale wasn’t as awestruck by the play as many of his colleagues—at first. “See, I was brought up by women—my father died when I was young—and I have two sisters and a mother and a grandmother who were there, but there were no men in my world. So maybe that’s why I never really gravitated toward Shepard; a lot of it is sort of male energy and cowboy energy. It wasn’t something I instantly identified with.”
All that changed, however, as he started immersing himself in the work. “It’s an extraordinarily constructed piece of writing,” he explains. “The mythology behind the play is that he wrote it in his mother’s kitchen, 40 miles outside of Los Angeles exactly where the play is set, with a bottle of whiskey in front of him. There’s not a loose thread in the piece. Everything resonates and it has this cumulative effect that is staggering. So now I’m kind of awed by being in the middle of it.”
Though he doesn’t have a brother to draw on for the part, he’s made up for that, he says, in the bond he’s formed with Markinson. The New York–based actor, who’s worked with everyone from Woody Allen to Mike Nichols, has become one of his closest friends over the past six months of preparation on the project. Their roles are intense, and sometimes physical, as the brothers build to blows.
The work may be hard, but Gale is loving theatre so much these days that he and his wife are planning to give up most of their film and TV work—other than locally created movies—and get back entirely to the stage. “Starting in about 2001, I began doing about one [stage] show a year. Before that I hadn’t done more than about one show in 10 years. I started looking back and I realized in the last seven or eight years, I’d done one project that I felt any kind of pride about. And I was in a great place financially and we had a good life, but I just went, ”˜What am I doing? It’s just soulless.’ ”
That brings us to the title, True West, and the way, for Sam Shepard, the term represents an unattainable, mythical ideal in America. Gale puts it simply: “the grass is always greener”. That idea resonates as he speaks about his early days as an actor in this town, circa 1990—around the time he first did a Shepard play, States of Shock, at the tiny old Station Street theatre on the edge of the Downtown Eastside.
“Again it’s all about perception. When I was doing those shows at Station Street, all I could think of was having enough money to buy a new pair of shoes, or be able to go out for a meal, or the fantasy of owning a car, never mind a new car. But when you fast-forward 20 years, you think, ”˜Oh, those were the days,’ and, “Wasn’t it fun,’ and, ”˜It was all about the work.’ ”
Still, you get the sense that Gale, as he refocuses on the theatre world where he had his start in Vancouver, is drawing at least a little closer to that True West we’re all looking for.