Art Alone Matters: A Conversation with Raymond J. Barry
– originally published in The Florida Review Vol. 39, Number 1 & 2, 2015
After accepting his essay (published in this issue) and artwork (see the front and back covers), the editor-in-chief, assisted by several interns from The Florida Review, interviewed Raymond J. Barry via email. Our discussion ranged from art to acting to writing to philosophy. TFR thanks all the interns involved, especially Danielle Isaiah and Thomas R. Heller, who put in extra time editing the questions. The full list of interns involved in this interview appears on the final page of the conversation.
The Florida Review: You’ve written and produced several plays. How does your long experience as an actor affect your work as a playwright?
Raymond J. Barry: Dissatisfaction with the roles I was offered during the sixties and seventies encouraged me to write plays. Too often, not always, during twenty-three years of performing some eighty plays in New York City, I was cast in roles that were not completely satisfying. My physical appearance during my twenties and thirties resembled that of a bouncer in a bar (which I had been for a brief period), so directors and casting people never imagined me playing the role of an artist. I accepted most roles to earn a living, but again, too frequently I was at the mercy of a physicality that betrayed the possibility of performing characters that suited my sensibility. Therefore, I began writing parts for myself.
In 1982, I isolated myself in my loft, refused to answer the telephone for a fifteen-hour period, and wrote Once in Doubt in its entirety. I wrote what my intuition demanded, and the play poured out of me without interruption. The main character is Harry, a painter, who is enmeshed in a dysfunctional relationship with his girlfriend, Flo. That duo represented the emotional location in which my soul thrived at the time; creativity, combined with passionate, carnal love for a woman. The following day, I literally begged Ellen Stewart of La MaMa to produce the play, and she acquiesced to my passionate plea. Thereafter, Once in Doubt enjoyed numerous awards and productions all over the country: New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Dallas, four productions in Los Angeles. Colleges like Yale, the University of Michigan, and the University of South Dakota also did the play, and later it was published. I became addicted to the independence of writing personal material and never stopped writing plays.
TFR: What about when you write prose, in particular, personal essays? Are there insights from acting that inspire your work?
Barry: Yes, the “life of an actor” has given me a great range of experience useful for writing personal essays. That life is a precarious one, involving at times inordinate terror, lack of income, and every insecurity imaginable. To earn money during the lean years, I had to work in humbling circumstances as a dishwasher, waiter, busboy, a day laborer, and as a longshoreman. I worked on Manhattan’s Pier 28 during the sixties and early seventies, whenever acting jobs were scarce. The union was forced by the Civil Rights Act to integrate black men, so they placed all of their black members on that one pier to satisfy the law. But there was too much work for the amount of black union men, so they permitted a coterie of hippies, like me, to work side by side with them. The night Martin Luther King was assassinated, I was the only white man to “shape up” for work, alongside those bereaved black longshoremen. It was a memorable evening of hauling freight in the wake of the death of their leader. The impressions of their grief I wouldn’t have witnessed on that tragic night, if I hadn’t chosen an actor’s life and accepted all that accompanied that choice. Those dignified, saddened black men whose leader had been killed by someone of my race, left an indelible imprint upon my understanding of racism in America, about which I have written a wealth of material. In fact, every part- time job has brought me in touch with ordinary, working people, trapped by their economic circumstances and proud to be working with their hands. Many of the characters I’ve played reflect ordinary working men, who are doing their best to support their families. They are earthy, rough, proud men who can do a hard day’s work without complaint. I am one of them in addition to being an actor.
Self-doubt as an actor has given birth also to self-investigation, which is why I write. Acting has forced me to withstand the humility of failure at every turn. Frequently shyness and lack of self-esteem has haunted me. In my early twenties, I was forced to overcome the initial terror of performing in front of people. The aging process alone is an obstacle if one allows it to be. Fear of being judged lies at every turn, not to mention being inadequate as a performer, while executing a particularly difficult role. In a sense, acting for a profession, in spite of its potential for creativity and enjoyment, can involve a plethora of doubts about oneself. This has been true in my case certainly, but whenever my career wasn’t going well, I licked my wounds and endured, either from naïveté or from blind stubbornness. And I wrote what was going on internally to investigate the dynamic of my thought processes.
What could enhance my understanding of life more than outright failure and sticking it out for eventual recovery? Today I am a whole person, humbled by my inadequacies, but proud to have survived the inhospitable, public world of theater. Learning “how to do it” has given me personal satisfaction and insight into the source of both my weaknesses and strengths, all of which have become fodder for writing essays about life’s perils, as well as its joy. In essence, acting on stage has served as a metaphor for living itself, providing universal subject matter for writing based upon “the life of an actor.”
TFR: You’ve continued as a visual artist throughout your acting career. In your essay, you write of first embracing acting as a kind of relief from the solitary life of an artist. Do you still see creating art and acting that way? Do the two pursuits have anything in common? And how and why have you continued to do both?
Barry: That period of my life the essay describes was very different than this current period. Then, I was a young man very much alone, struggling to discover who I was as an artist. Hived by myself in a small storefront, slept on a mattress on the floor, and was trying sincerely to figure out what was inside of me. Today I live in a comfortable home that I own with a wife of twenty- five years whom I love very much and three of my four children (one grown), all of whom occupy much of my conscious thought. I wasn’t particularly happy when I was in my twenties. I was alone and struggling. Creative life was difficult. Acting provided contact with the outside world and relief of sorts. Today, my existence has taken a reverse direction. When I’m not shooting a film, I spend all day at my studio and find desired solitude away from the babble of family life. Painting is a quiet activity separate from the noise of children. I need that quietude on a daily basis with the enjoyable prospect of returning to them at night. Visual art and acting complement each other well, but they are not related directly as art forms. Money is earned by acting, and peace of mind is gained by painting alone in my studio. Today my family provides necessary contact with the world around me. They are enough.
TFR: Do you ever miss the days when you lived in your art studio, focused on that art, and washed dishes by day to support the habit?
Barry: Sometimes I have told friends that the purest time of my life was when Hived in that Lower East Side Manhattan storefront, carving logs. Pure in the sense of its lack of physical comfort and ultimate creativity. But this claim overlooks one important detail that defines who I was as a man then. Severe anxiety attacks left me helpless and in a desperate state of depression during those years. That state of mind was a creative one to be sure, but I never wish to revisit it again. Today I “support the habit” not by washing dishes but rather by acting in films and television, which is not only creative unto itself but also far more lucrative.
TFR: Some of your paintings and sculptures appear to be self-portraits. If they are, does creating those works bear any resemblance to what happens when you write essays and other self-portraits in writing?
Barry: The only resemblance I can think of is the concentration involved in doing both. That focus, when writing or painting, is sublime and embodies the essence of who I am. In fact, painting for me is not of self. My attention is upon the work itself and how to coordinate line, form, and color into a beautiful unit that makes absolute visual sense. My focus is outward, not inward. I forget myself when I paint.
TFR: The artwork you’ve contributed to the front and back covers of this issue of TFR strike the editors—who are just writers, not artists—as abstract. Could you describe the difference between creating a self-portrait and doing a more abstract painting, drawing or sculpture?
Barry: The imagery of a self-portrait already exists in the real world. Abstraction allows one to invent innovative forms, shapes, and colors. Similarly, nature creates original forms by means of natural selection, genetic diversity, mutation of chromosomes, and interplay of gene pools among species, the result of which we can see before us. Contrarily, artists face a blank canvas and invent what pleases their eyes, often original forms never seen before, starting perhaps from nature, perhaps from imagination. What they arrive at is dependent upon their visual intelligence and, of course, personal imagination and courage. Freedom to create what has never existed before is the potential of an abstract work. This is contingent upon originality, expressed by the artist’s arrangement of line, form, and color, and quite different from re-creating what has already been seen in nature beforehand. Neither is worth more than the other artistically. Either can provide value to the artist creating the work.
TFR: Do you ever approach writing or acting with the same spirit of creativity that results in abstract art?
Barry: I don’t think about creativity when I work. Every day I work continuously in three different media, writing, acting, and painting. I simply go to work, decide what I want to do on that day, and do it by habit. Creating is a routine for me, at times a bit dull, but I always appreciate the freedom I’ve designed for myself and the abundant time available to create. Once in a while something magical will happen in a performance, like, for example, the bedroom scene between Tom Cruise and me in Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth ofJuly. Or I’ll look at a finished painting and agree with myself that it is beautiful. Or I’ll write something while in a zone that turns out to be magical, but I can never force that to happen. Usually I’m on automatic pilot. Showing up is the main objective, daily, and then working in a disciplined fashion. Since creativity is so much a part of what I am, the “spirit of creative activity” is not noticeable to me.
TFR: Do you still work with walnut logs?
Barry: No, I do not, and I feel a certain sorrow for that. The logs I carved weighed half a ton, were eight feet high and four feet wide. I found them in Kingston, New York near a railroad drop-off Huge logs lay on the ground by the dozens, waiting to be shipped to a furniture company, I believe. I would drive a truck there from New York City on a Sunday and load a couple into my truck, bring them back to my storefront and roll them inside with the help of three or four male friends. It was heavy work, but I had an uncanny talent for carving that today leaves me with a gentle longing to do it again. One sculpture would take more than a year to carve. It was robust, heavy, masculine work that required physical strength. I liked the muscularity of working with chisel and mallet. Unfortunately, I sold much of that work without a gallery negotiating price and was paid far too little for each piece. I didn’t know better at the time. Eventually, I turned to painting and drawing, which are more accessible media, especially when traveling to location when I’m shooting a film. The sculpture from that period can be seen on my website (http://raymondjbarry.org).
TFR: You’ve acted on stage, in movies, and on TV. What are the challenges of each venue?
Barry: That’s a tough question. Fear comes to mind. All actors deal with fear, especially on stage. It takes maturity and a lot of experience to get over that. Freedom from fear is followed by total relaxation, which is a funny animal; difficult to know what relaxation is, but when it arrives before a camera or on stage, it is a magical state of mind where the actor can do no wrong. Personally, I’ve arrived at a point where I handle any of the three media pretty much the same. Knowing the lines is important to me, gives me the freedom to fly when necessary, without hesitation, with a sense of sureness about what I’m doing. I like the sweat involved in doing stage work. It’s blue collar work. You get dirty. You sweat. It’s live, so anything can happen. Once I slipped on some spilled tea when I was performing Once in Doubt and fell off the stage, taking a table and chair with me. I didn’t miss a beat, kept the lines going as if it were part of the play, threw the table and chair back on stage, hopped back up and continued speaking the lines, as if nothing had happened. It was an opening night, and the next day we received rave reviews.
When doing live stage, you get nervous before the show begins, and then you roll it out like a pro if you’re at your best. With television, one must be efficient, know your lines, don’t waste their time because they have a deadline, so they don’t want an actor forgetting his lines and eating up minutes by having to do retakes. The quality of television is improving. Recently I did FX’s Justified for most of its run, about five years, and it was a quality series. I was proud of being part of it.
I like films the most. Three of my favorites are Born on the Fourth of July in which I play Tom Cruise’s father; Dead Man Walking in which I play the father of the boy murdered by Sean Penn; Interview with the Assassin in which I play the alleged second gunman who shot President Kennedy, the lead role. I enjoy being in quality films that say something significant about our world. I enjoy films the most, but to be honest, I’ve had memorable, life-changing experiences doing all three.
TFR: Do you have a favorite? And if so, why?
Barry: My favorite is Born on the Fourth of July. The character I played, Mr. Kovic, Tom Cruise’s father, was sensitive and helpless to the ways of the world. He works in a grocery supermarket. I had a magical acting experience playing Tom Cruise’s father, particularly when he returns home paralyzed. I was worried about doing a good job in that film, partly because I respected Oliver Stone so very much and partly because I cared so much about the anti-war message of Oliver’s script. My character, Mr. Kovic, didn’t have much to say, but when Tom Cruise and I shot the homecoming scene in the bedroom, I improvised much of the scene, making up most of the lines. Suddenly I was saying words that weren’t written but based upon my need in a tragic situation. It was an emotional scene with actual tears forthcoming. I’m not able to do that on cue, but something about my son in a wheelchair genuinely affected me, and I became extremely vulnerable in the presence of my paralyzed son. The work was truthful and moving to audiences. To this day I don’t know how it happened, which is a good thing. Sometimes acting takes me to an unexpected, emotional place, as it should. That’s when I’m really involved in the present, as opposed to pretending.
TFR: Two of our editors are major fans of Arlo Givens, fromJustified. We are writers and editors, not actors. So we are wondering—and this question probably sounds naive to an actor—are there any qualities that Arlo and Ray share? The way we are thinking about it is this: Is playing Arlo more like writing fiction (pure invention) or nonfiction (drawing upon experience)? What is your view of Arlo as a character?
Barry: Playing Arlo was more like writing nonfiction. My work in Justified was enriched by my perception of Tim Olyphant, who played my son. My relationship with him was based upon reality. He was an arrogant young man during the shoot, seemed to know it all, giving notes to actors and generally felt he was the boss on the set. Internally I worked with the perception I had of him, and successfully, I might add. In a pinch, I always felt I could kick his ass if push came to shove, and that gave me an upper hand whenever we dealt with each other. My physical power over him gave me the edge at all times. I was confident that he would be a pussy in a tight situation and that I would always come out on top. His overbearing personality gave me something solid with which to work, and I was grateful for that during the years I worked with him. Also, Arlo is an anarchist, as I am. His life is free, a drug dealer, who makes his own rules. I am also an anarchist, an artist who lives by my own rules. The character of Arlo fits me perfectly for that reason. Jean Genet, in his book Our Lady of the Flowers, espoused the parallel between the criminal and the artist. For me, Arlo made the perfect match for both the artist in me and the criminal aspect of the character. I loved Arlo for that reason, loved playing him.
TFR: What’s it like to play someone for so many years, in so many manifestations?
Barry: The experience was stabilizing for a number of reasons. My income was guaranteed for five years, so my family was taken care of for the duration of my run with the show; private schools and such. I have a son at Amherst College, which costs me a bit of bread. Also, I befriended the grips, electricians, the cameramen and the directors, as well as Graham Yost, the producer. Everyone was aware that the show was successful, so we all felt good about what we were doing. The character was easy to play for me, so I had no difficulty executing what was written. Justified was definitely a smooth experience that also allowed me time to paint and perform my latest play, Awake in a World that Encourages Sleep, both in Los Angeles and in New York City without worrying about money.
TFR: What were some of the most challenging roles you played—that is, once you got past those early leopard skin and cardboard sword appearances?
Barry: In 1982 I played Laertes to Rip Tom’s Hamlet and Geraldine Page’s Gertrude. Needless to say, I was surrounded by some heavy-weight company and felt the pressure of measuring up to their level of expertise. I loved Rip Torn’s acceptance of me, his encouragement and confidence in my abilities on stage. Geraldine was her usual brilliant self. I felt she respected my work, and I did well in the role. I love Shakespeare in spite of the dubious impression in my essay.
In 1985 I played the lead role of Gitaucho in Dennis Reardon’s The Leaf Peopleon Broadway at the Booth Theater. Joseph Papp produced the show and cast me personally. Tom O’Horgan directed and it was a grand success. The part required that I do a dance at the end of the first act that involved numerous kicks and cartwheels, daunting choreography that left me exhausted every night, not to mention the acting required. This was my first Broadway play. I loved the experience.
From 1968 to 1970,1 played the role of Cain in the Open Theater’s production of The Serpent, directed by Joseph Chaikin. We performed the play in New York City, Algeria, Israel, Switzerland, Berlin, Paris, London, Copenhagen, the Shiraz Festival in Iran, and in New York City. Also for numerous prison audiences. The part was physically exhausting, poetically written, and brilliantly directed by Joseph Chaikin.
From 1989 to 1999,1 played the role of Harry in my play Once in Doubt at La MaMa in New York City, four productions in Los Angeles, the Remains Theater in Chicago, the New Theater in Dallas and the People’s Light and Theater Company in Philadelphia. The play won the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award, four Dramalogue Awards and a Maddy Award. The role was physically and emotionally draining and stretched my appetite for writing.
In 1995 I performed the role of the son in my play Mother’s Son, another role that expanded me as an actor. Tom Waits, the famous singer/musician, repeatedly came to the show, night after night, interested in the musicality of the play’s rhythms and overlapping of lines. The role of the mother was played by the great talent, Judy Jean Burns, with whom I’m currently working on my new play, Foreclosure.
TFR: You were a philosophy major at Brown University. Did your studies there have an early—or lasting—impact on your life? Your acting? Your art? Your writing?
Barry: During my years at Brown University, I was introduced to the concept of existentialism, a term that had been bandied about by various folks had come across in my travels. The theory was often misunderstood by me, until I took a course with Professor Feinberg in the field of ethics. Actually existentialism refers to moral responsibility for one’s choices, assuming that humankind has “free will” to choose. Once choice is made, according to the school of existentialism, a person has an obligation to embrace all of the repercussions of that choice, both good and bad. I became fascinated with the notion that I would become in my adult life whatever I consciously chose, and most important, that I had the ability to choose in the first place. Acting was my choice for a profession—later painting and writing became part of the experience, also by personal choice. Today all of the repercussions included in those choices must be embraced from a moral standpoint. The entire package of an “artist’s life,” with all of its challenges and rewards, is an integral part of my original choice, even today at the age of seventy-six, a glorious age I might add. After being defeated so often with a few victories sprinkled in between, how very fine it is to be alive!
TFR: So now you are an artist, actor, and writer. Do you plan to continue balancing these three art forms? Or do you see yourself emphasizing one in the next few years?
Barry: This is the age of specialization, I’m told. Hogwash! I’m a Pisces and do many things. That’s the way I’m built. One art form feeds another, and my family feeds all three. It’s all one, regardless of the media chosen for the day. I’m not attempting to beat anyone with quantity. Rather I’m seeking the truth of my experience as a man in a confused, chaotic, inhospitable world. That experience contains the great pleasure of exploring many forms of expression. When one isn’t comfortable, I’ll try another, and why not? We are able beings who can do many things well. And then we die.
TFR: In your essay, you write of having, early on, a desire to impress. That is part of what you call “the way about me then.” When you create art, whether visual art, a piece of writing, or a character on stage or screen, do you encounter that desire? Is it something to cultivate or combat?
Barry: Complicated question. Being liked is surely part of it. I think about the early roots of my creative activity, when I painted and drew in elementary school and my mother’s reaction to my work, how she complimented everything I did, as if I were the next Picasso and how encouraging my art teacher was in grade school, Miss Sax, how she chose me to paint the wall murals for every season of the school year, as each year passed. I wished to impress my mother then and my art teacher. Mother was a painter, a published writer, and later when she was sixty-one years of age, she wrote me a personal letter about her life that I asked her to perform on stage in a play I had written called Blue Heaven. She did perform an edited form of the letter in that play in New York City, after which I directed her in four more plays, as a member of my theater company, Qaena Company. She continued acting to age eighty- eight, did many plays,.a number of films, including Trading Places with Eddie Murphy, and Arthur with Dudley Moore and Liza Minnelli, and later became David Letterman’s mother for many years on his television show. At age ninety-four she died. Her stage name was B. Constance Barry, and she can be looked up on the Internet.
Why am I telling you this? The reason is that my mother is the root of my entire value system; that is, what I deem important. She taught me when I was very young that art is the single most important thing in life; not money, but art for the sake of art. Art alone matters and perhaps one’s children matter too, but the message she gave was that art was, above all, the single most important thing, regardless of the media in which it is expressed. Somehow her message stuck in my psyche. It became the essence of that for which I was placed on Earth; that is, to make art, to say something poetic about my existence, to make beautiful objects, paintings, essays, whatever. Surely I would like to leave an impression upon people that is favorable, but in fact I simply must do what I do without argument and without ulterior motive; simply do it fully and run out of life eventually. There is no choice anymore. The choice was made years ago and now it is stuck in my craw like a chicken bone that won’t budge. Only habit is left, the routine every day.
I’d like to be good at what I do, and I’d like for people to appreciate my offerings to the various worlds to which I give, but the reality is that I have no choice anymore. My work, writing, acting, painting must be done, regardless of how they impress people. They are my addictions. They are my way. If people are impressed, and I would like that to be the case, I am grateful for that, but I am no longer trying so very hard to impress. So little time is left, so few laughs, so few glimpses at my children, my wife; so little time to think. Action is what counts now. Sounds so dramatic; maybe I should calm down. My six-year-old daughter needs attention.
Many thanks to the interns who helped develop the questions used in this interview:
Miranda Campbell, Spencer Card, Rebecca Cobb, Marissa Downer, Victoria Flores, Arthur Gallina, Edgar Gomez, James Harries, Thomas R. Heller, Elissa Harvey, Ashley Hudlow, Danielle Isaiah, Parik Kostan, Katie Loughlin, Alyssa Merwin, Patrick Moreno, Kayla Phillips, Emily Shannon, Brittany Steele, Shaun Stoffer, Feline Telcy, Heather Vazquez, and April Welker.