When Washington, D.C.-based actor Edward Gero agreed to take on the role of Antonin Scalia, he had no idea of the unlikely relationship that would develop between him and the late Supreme Court justice. Prior to Scalia’s passing in 2016, Gero had visited “Nino” dozens of times, and bonded with him about their shared backgrounds, love of Shakespeare, and passion for language. Gero talked with Shelby Wenner, Court’s Associate Director of Marketing, about his process to understand this character, and his hopes in bringing The Originalist to Chicago.
Tell me a little bit about the process of getting to know Justice Scalia, from an artist’s perspective.
For me, the actual person and the character in the biographical play are deeply intertwined. I had the opportunity to meet Justice Scalia about six to seven months before starting rehearsal, but I decided that was too soon; I had to do my own research first! So I read biographies on him, I read The Federalist Papers, books on the Supreme Court, and so on.
In November of 2014, I was invited as Justice Scalia’s guest to a hearing, and lunch in his chambers afterwards. I was sitting in his guest seats, and when he came out into the Court, he looked over at me. We locked eyes and regarded each other—it was a very long stare, and I thought to myself, “As long as I don’t melt, I’ll be fine.” He finally looked away, and off he went. He was very engaged in that particular hearing, asking a lot of questions and using many behaviors that I could use as an actor.
We had lunch afterwards, and he was very charming. He said to me, “I want you to know that I won’t be seeing the play, but I’m glad they got someone good to do it.” We talked about some ideas that I had to understand his legal interpretations and theory. I used an analogy of how I approach Shakespearean work: with text analysis, syntax, and semantics, deriving meaning from the text itself. He said that this was perfectly analogous to how he approaches the United States Constitution. This really confirmed my early decisions about how I thought his mind worked. We talked about music, Italy, our New Jersey roots, our religious background. He had a command of language that I hadn’t experienced before. He said to come back anytime I liked, and I took him up on that offer.
What was it like meeting him?
Life-altering. Inspiring to be in the presence of someone who had such commitment to democracy and the law. What surprised me about him was his humility. Like a good actor, you serve the playwright. Like a good justice, you serve the law. Being in the courtroom is like being in the theatre… words really matter.
Has acting as Justice Scalia in multiple productions of The Originalist as the world changes drastically affected your relationship with the play’s meaning?
I was present for the Obergefell v. Hodges hearing [the landmark civil rights case in which the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples are guaranteed the fundamental right to marry], I had lunch with him afterwards in his chambers, and I performed The Originalist that night. The audience was trying to read the tea leaves to see if there was anything there—but we didn’t talk politics. For him, it didn’t matter if you didn’t agree with him. What was important to him was what you thought, and how you arrived at it. Let’s challenge it, poke holes in it, and move on. The fact that we vilify people who disagree with us was not something he was doing. Fundamentally, it was about taking the law and democracy seriously.
What hass changed since his passing and the last election cycle are audience reactions and expectations. What started out as a lecture to the political left about being open-minded has become not only that, but also a cautionary tale to the right. A consistent and transparent conservative to whom words matter is seen as a hope, and people appreciate him more because you at least know what you’re going to get every time.
When not performing on stage, you are on faculty at George Mason University. How does working with and teaching students interact with your profession as an actor?
There is definitely influence; Jade [Wheeler, playing Cat] is actually my former student! We come by the relationship organically and honestly, which is a great boon to the play. It’s been wonderful to work with her.
I’ve been at George Mason University for over 25 years. My students value my role as a professional actor, as a role model for students showing that having a life in both a theatre and in a community is possible. I’ve made a serious commitment to regional theatre, but I spend nine hours a day at George Mason on Mondays, the Equity day off. This schedule frees me to go to rehearsals, bring best practices back to the classroom, and my students are able to come to performances to see me hopefully walking the walk.
What are your hopes for bringing The Originalist to a Chicago audience? How do you hope this play lives on in the future?
I love Chicago audiences: they’re smart, hip, critical, diverse. From the vibrancy of a college town, to the working class, and all the way up the scale. They like grit, and they like new ideas. I’m excited to see how they respond.
As a Shakespearean actor, I’m used to playing a lot of characters people love to hate, but I’ve never played one that audiences hate to love. It is my hope that audiences get a sense of the human being that I got to know, and in so doing, reconsider their ideas of the man and the Justice. I hope the play engages audiences to reconsider how they conduct their civil discourse. Work at listening, especially when we disagree. Get out, get engaged, express yourself, and vote! ■
Don’t miss Edward Gero as Justice Antonin Scalia in The Originalist, May 10 – June 10, 2018.