The Guy Next Door
Interview by Simon Monger
Harry Groener is the man behind one of the best Buffy villains Joss has yet dreamt up, Mayor Richard Wilkins III. Along with rogue Slayer Faith, the Mayor wreaked havoc on Sunnydale throughout Season Three, culminating in his Ascension on Graduation Day, in which the Mayor turned into a giant snake demon.
Harry was born in Germany, but moved to San Francisco when he was still very young. He got his degree from the University of Washington and began his acting career on stage, appearing in eight productions including Oklahoma! He has been nominated for the Tony Award three times and on television has appeared in Star Trek: The Next Generation, Dear John and, of course, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
On film Harry has featured in Steven Spielbergís Amistad, Sam Mendesí Road to Perdition and, most recently, About Schmidt, a bittersweet comic drama starring Jack Nicholson.
Meet the man behind the Mayor.
It seems that a lot of the time [series creator] Joss Whedon handpicks actors for the show. Did Joss request you, or did you simply audition along with the other hopefuls?
Joss does on occasion choose a specific actor for a part but that wasnít the case with me. I auditioned along with many others. We read a few scenes, he gave me a few notes, I read the scenes again and that was that. I believe I had a call back. Actually I donít remember if I had a call back but a few days later I got the call from my agent that I got the part. I was very pleased. Hereís an interesting side note. I auditioned for the very first principal, whoís name I canít remember [Principle Flutie]. Thank God I didnít get it. In the episode where Buffy and the Mayor meet for the first time, in the cafeteria, there was a bust of the first principal in the hallway. Just think, that might have been me.
Had you watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer before you appeared in it? Similarly, do you still watch it?
Yes, I had watched Buffy before and loved it and yes I still watch it and love it even more.
The quality of the writing for Buffy is unparalleled. It must be a lot of fun to read such great dialogue, especially when youíre playing the bad guy.
Yes. The writing is wonderful and it was a joy to read the script of the next show because there was always a surprise and it was scary and funny. Joss wrote so well for the Mayor. It was dry and kind of understated and yet very unpredictable and as a result he seemed dangerous. Joss never wanted him to be overtly evil. He always wanted him to be like the guy next door. Your neighbour.
The Mayor comes across as very caring Ė he remained with his wife as she aged and died; he took Faith in and treated her like his own daughter. Were you drawn to the fact that he isnít evil, plain and simple, but is instead far more complex?
When I started the show the scripts never had any information about his family. I assumed he had a wife but it was never really talked about and we never talked about kids or any of that. One of the interesting and sometimes frustrating things about doing a series, any series, is that the actors almost never know anything about their characterís history. Itís down the road that you find out you have a brother, a sister, a twin, or that you have a disease or that youíre not who you think you are. Itís all up to the imaginations of the writers, and in this case, Joss in particular. So, I didnít know how I felt about my wife or that Faith and I would get together. That was as much of a surprise to me as it was to the audience. When I read the script of that episode and the Mayor goes to the door of his office and opens it and Faith is standing there, I said ďOh my god, how cool is that?Ē
The mayor does come across caring but make no mistake; he is very clear about what he wants and will do anything to get it. Things get more complicated when Faith enters the picture because he begins to care for her, he becomes more paternal. That becomes his weakness.
Part of the joy of Mayor Wilkins is that you donít play him completely straight. Was it important to you that he had a fun side?
The part never read straight villain to me. He always had a strange, sick, and at times, simple sense of humour. Joss was also very clear about how to play him. He didnít want it too heavy. His danger and his horror are in his ordinariness. Is that a word? Joss wanted a lot of the lines to just be tossed off, almost thrown away, never hit hard and villainy. Again, is that a word and is that how you spell it?
How much creative input do you have when it comes to the character of the Mayor?
I had some input with regards to the Mayorís character but it was all pretty much on the page. I could add little touches in the scenes that I felt were him. Things that reflected his fastidiousness, his obsessive cleanliness. He seemed a Virgo to me. He seems to be an ďeverything in its placeĒ kind of guy. Including the bodies. No mess and no foul language.
You play the Mayor as an almost innocent man, who appears to only want to help Sunnydale. Having him behave like a normal, Ďnon-evilí character makes him all the more horrifying. Did you like that almost two-faced aspect of his character?
Again, the Mayor has a definite agenda when it comes to the world and in particular Sunnydale. There is nothing innocent about him really. Itís very smart of him to seem quite normal to everyone. He must keep up appearances. Heís holding public office and is in the spotlight. Anyone who threatens that cover becomes a threat and must be dealt with quickly. And, yes, I loved the duplicity of his nature. It was a lot of fun to play.
Mayor Wilkins at first seemed to be only a brief one or two episode character. Did you know from the beginning how important he was ultimately going to be?
We knew at the audition that this job would be eight episodes, so that was great. I didnít know what was going to happen to him. I knew he would die at the end, of course, but I didnít know how and I didnít know how important he would become.
It still amazes me how good the effects are for Buffy. Were you impressed with your snakelike demon; and how did they actually do it, especially the transformation?
The special effects for the show have always been good and I really liked the snake. There was a head about three feet tall that was a puppet and was manipulated by a bunch of guys and I saw that at the graduation location which was an actual high school. It was fantastic and all these muscles moved in its face and its eyes did great things. It was weird standing next to it. The larger snake at the graduation was computer generated of course. I had a suit that was rigged to break away as my body began to transform and get bigger, a la the Hulk. But the suit didnít work. There were all these little strands of fishing line attached to various parts of the suit and they ran off camera to three or four people on either side of me off camera. At the crucial moment they were to pull the lines and the suit would rip apart. Well, it didnít. It stayed attached. I just felt myself pulled from both sides and I had to stay centre as best I could for the camera. It was very funny. Well, we didnít get the shot so we had to shoot it in front of a green screen at the studio so they could put it in later. But the same thing happened, the suit wouldnít rip apart. It finally did rip enough that they could finish the scene but it was quite an effort for those eight people. Not to mention the crew who had to stifle their laughs. It was a fun day.
The huge snake that crashed its way through the school was obviously computer generated, but the walls breaking up was real. They had to rig the walls to break apart and then pull the camera through the school, break up the walls and doors as if the snake is crashing through and then put the snake in after with the computer. I did the voice over for his final, ďOh, oh,Ē or ďOh my,Ē or whatever I said, in New York.
In Lessons, the premiere of Season 7 now airing on Sky One in the UK, you reappear as part of a morphing figure who takes on the form of all of the seasonsí Ďbig badsí, from the Master to Warren, ending up with Buffy herself. Without giving too much away, will we be seeing more of you?
I think the original idea for season seven was to have the villains come back at least one more time after the first episode but I havenít heard anything from them so I donít know whatís going to happen. Probably nothing. And Iím in New York anyway so I couldnít unless they shot it here.
Given your background in musicals, do you wish that the musical episode Once More, With Feeling had come along three seasons earlier?
No, I don't feel sorry that the musical episode wasnít in the third season. We might be pushing it to have the Mayor sing, but you never know. If anyone could write and make it work, Joss could.
What factors do you take into account when deciding whether or not to take a part?
I'm not really in a position to decide whether or not to take a part, in TV and film primarily. I have that option more in the theatre. In TV and film I've been very lucky. The parts have, for the most part, been good. But I do have to audition for them. Iíve been offered roles but very few and theyíve been good. The factors to consider can be quality of character, and by that I mean is it interesting, or quirky, or funny, or really evil? Time can be a factor, when does it shoot, and where and for how long? Are there family obligations that outweigh the need or desire to do the job? Family should always come first, I believe, as do most of the actors I know.
Iím not a big fan of musicals, with the exception of Cats, which I love. What was it like appearing in one of the longest running Ė if not the longest running Ė shows of all time?
Cats is the longest running musical...at least for now. It was incredible. Itís really cool to know youíre going to be in the hit of the season. And we knew. Everybody knew. We knew it would run for a long, long time, and we knew that everybody in the world would want to see it and they did. So many stars and celebs came. Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, Robert Redford, Cary Grant, Dudley Moore, Gregory Peck, Ray Bolger, President Carter talked to us backstage, and many, many more. I did it for fourteen months. There was a girl who was with it for the entire eighteen years. Her name is Marlene Danielle and she's a miracle. It was a very special time in my life. I got a Tony nomination and made some fast friends.
With a stage performance you have to go out night after night for, in your case, maybe months at a time. How do you remain focused for such a long period of time, and do you ever tire of it?
Long runs a difficult. The experience can be coloured by the quality of the show and the people involved. It also helps to have a lot to do too. If youíre the lead it can be great. If you're in the chorus or playing a small part it can get very boring. Iím fortunate; the two long runs have been Cats and Crazy For You. I did Crazy For You for three years and it went by so fast I couldnít believe it. But nothing prepares you for the experience of a long run except a long run and you donít know how youíll handle it until you do it. Noel Coward said he couldnít do a show for more than six months; then he would have to leave because it would drive him nuts, he would get bored. There are actors who really canít do a show, any show, for very long. Of course it also depends on the show. Right now Fiona Shaw is playing Medea on Broadway and itís a limited run. Thank God! The poor woman would go nuts if she had to play that part for a year or more. But if youíre in The Producers, thatís just a ball and a half and who couldnít do that show for a while? Basically you say to yourself, I have a responsibility to the audience to tell this story as if for the first time. For most people in the audience it is the first time and you must take them on that ride. Thatís your job. And every show is different in its own way. You can still learn something new, hear something new. Thatís one of the things that makes the theatre different from film and TV: itís happening right now, no cuts or re-takes. You're walking that tightrope without a net. Once that curtain goes up, you're on your own. So go for the gold and have a ball.
What are the differences, if any, between acting on stage and acting on screen?
One of the differences between film and TV and the theatre is that, in film and TV, the control is more in the hands of the director and the editor. They can make you look good and they can make you look bad. In the theatre, once that curtain goes up, itís all up to you.
In film and TV an actorsí focus is more on behavior. You have to be more aware of how a person behaves in a given situation because the camera can be so close that we, in the audience, will be able to tell if you're faking it. You have to be more real. Itís different in a sit-com, of course. You can be bigger. In the theatre, we all agree, audience and actor, that the exaggerated behaviour and the louder volume of the voice are natural and real. The actors must do that so they can be seen and heard all the way to back of the theatre. This changes depending on the size of the house. In film and TV the director of photography makes sure youíre seen and the soundman makes sure youíre heard. All the actor should worry about is the reality of the scene. And, of course, if you make a mistake, they cut, and you do it again.
Theatre guarantees an immediate audience reaction Ė whether good or bad! Ė while on television and film the reaction is delayed. Do you miss the applause when working in front of the camera?
What makes you think they don't applaud on the set of a film or TV series? It doesn't happen often but it happens. It has happened to me a number of times and itís really great when it does because itís coming from the crew who have seen everything. It means a lot. But, to answer your question, no, I donít miss the applause.
I donít know about America, but in Britain, while theatre does do well, it is not as successful as cinema or television. Does it frustrate you that many still see the theatre as an elitist pursuit?
Film and TV is much more successful than the theatre here in America as well. Iím not frustrated by it because I see it as more people going to the theatre than ever before. The medium is different but it's still the theatre. People are addicted to stories so theyíll go to the theatre or to the movies or to their TV sets to get them. I think itís great. What is frustrating, especially here in New York and on Broadway, are the ticket prices, which are way out of hand as far as I'm concerned. It does mean that only the people who can afford it can go to the theatre. Young people canít go and theyíre the ones we need in the seats because theyíre the future theatregoers. But Iím not one of those people who believe the theatre is dying or dead. Itís not. Itís changing all the time and has been since it started almost three thousand years ago.
Television and film allow you to work with a much larger canvas, enabling you to film in five different locations, for example. Theatre is a far more focused, static setting. Do you enjoy the freedom that television and film allow you and do you miss that with the stage?
Itís a lot of fun to go on location for a shoot. Especially if you get to go to England, or Italy, or even Russia. Gangs of New York spent nine months in Rome. Not too shabby huh? But in the theatre we can take you to all the same places but it requires that you use your imagination, and sometimes that can be better than the real thing.
You have put on many different accents for your various stage and screen roles. Do accents come easily to you, and how do you go about perfecting an accent?
Accents do come easily to me and probably because German, Russian, and Estonian were spoken in my house. English is really a third language for me. I spoke German and Russian first and had to learn English in school. My family immigrated to this country [America] from Germany, after the war, when I was two. I grew up in San Francisco. I guess I just listen to an accent and try to duplicate it. I have a very good ear. And my family was very musical so that might contribute to the ability to pick up accents.
You have attended science fiction conventions in London and Scotland, for your work on Buffy primarily. First of all, do you enjoy the experience and meeting the fans?
I love going to the conventions. The fans are terrific and enthusiastic and very respectful. And I love talking to them about Buffy and other Sci-Fi shows because Iím a big Sci-Fi fan. Iíve been a Trekkie from way back and I love a lot of the new shows. I'm so sorry Farscape is going off the air. It was the best as far as Iím concerned. Great stories, great characters, great make-up and fantastic villains. I havenít been to a convention here in the States but the two in London and Scotland were a blast.
Secondly, are you surprised that, despite your vast career, you are probably best known to those under thirty for being a 100 year old, slightly insane Mayor?
You reach so many people with TV so Iím not surprised that Iím best known for my role on Buffy. But, the people I meet on the street not only reference Buffy but they reference Dear John, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Cats, Crazy For You, and now they mention Road to Perdition and About Schmidt. So Iím known for a bunch of things.
It is frustrating to hear of television shows being axed after short periods of time because audiences arenít watching, often due to company interference. This seems to be true of Joss Whedonís recent foray into science fiction with Firefly, where the studio rejected his pilot and demanded heavy re-writes. In this respect, is the stage easier in that studio bosses donít affect it?
The stage has its own ďstudio bossesĒ; theyíre called producers. It can be affected the same way. Too many cooks in the kitchen or you get a fabulous chef. It all depends. The Broadway show The Producers has a million producers and the show Iím doing has only one. They can all make the same mistakes. But the only reason a show gets cancelled is because not enough people are watching and the only reason a show closes on Broadway is because not enough people are coming. Simple. Moving shows around on TV is a common problem and sometimes it works and most of the time it doesnít.
We often hear about the Nielsen ratings. Itís got me baffled, so can you explain how it works?
The Nielsen ratings are a way for the big networks, ABC, NBC, and CBS particularly, to find out who's watching what. Iíve never really understood them. A particular cross section of the country is selected to be a ďNielsen familyĒ. Theyíre asked to write down what they watch each week, or it might be for one week, Iím not sure; and then from that information the networks determine what shows are the most popular and therefore stay on the air. Iíve never met anyone from a Nielsen family and Iíve never been asked to participate and I donít know of anyone who has. Who are these people? And why do they have so much power? The ratings really donít reflect what a lot of people are indeed watching and the networks should wise up because it could mean advertising dollars. According to the Nielsen rating system, and I think Iím right here, one person represents 10,000 people. If itís not 10,000 I know itís reeeaaalllyy a lot. Well, if thatís true then every person who stops me and talks about Buffy represents 10,000 viewers and a lot of people stop me and talk about the Sci-Fi shows I did. When I was doing Crazy For You here on Broadway, and I did it for three years, I would sign autographs after the show. Hereís an example of some demographics. I did a series for NBC for three years called Dear John and I did one episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called ĎTin Maní. When I came out to sign autographs, just as many people referenced Star Trek as they did Dear John. Thatís got to tell you something about the size of the Sci-Fi audience. It's huge! And itís not reflected in the Nielsen ratings. Whatís wrong with this picture???!!!
You appeared in Steven Spielbergís excellent slave drama, Amistad. Did the presence of Steven influence your decision to take the part?
I was very lucky to get Amistad because I didn't have to go in and audition for Mr. Spielberg. They sent over my tape and I was cast from that. That almost never happens, at least to me, and having never had the good fortune to work with him I really wanted to do it. But you also have to realize it was a very, very small role. It wasnít a matter of me having a choice of directors or of films. If you are lucky enough to have the opportunity to work with Mr. Spielberg you take it.
You appeared in Sam Mendesí American Beauty follow up, Road to Perdition, which is a truly stunning film. What drew you to the project?
Nothing ďdrewĒ me to Road to Perdition. I got a chance to audition for the film and I was lucky and got it. I really wanted it because of all the great people in the film and because of the chance to work with Sam Mendes. Heís a wonderful director, very generous. Tom Hanks was the best. Heís just a regular guy, very down to earth and very funny, not to mention a fabulous actor. It was a good time.
You star in About Schmidt with one of my favourite actors, Jack Nicholson. He has a bad reputation. Is any of it justified, or is that tabloid sensationalism?
What bad reputation? I honestly don't know what youíre referring to. Iíve never heard anything about Jack being trouble on the set, or not knowing his lines, or being late for a call, or treating people badly. What bad rep? Youíre giving too much credit to the tabloids. Please, please be smart when it comes to these publications. Theyíre really out to make a buck. My experience on the set of About Schmidt was a surprising one. Jack gives off this persona of being Mr. Cool, nothing fazes him, always in control. Well, when I first met him he was very shy, and stayed that way for about three days into shooting the scene and then finally he felt comfortable enough to make conversation. Connie Ray, who played my wife, felt the same way. I was very surprised. He was great, very kind and also very funny and he loves to have a good time when he works.
You have performed Shakespeare, including Twelfth Night and Romeo & Juliet. Of course, in Britain Shakespeare is rammed down our throats from the age of twelve, so we grow to appreciate his work; but is there an audience for his plays in the US?
Thereís a huge audience for the Bard in this country. What with the New York Shakespeare Festival, New Jersey Shakespeare, Great Lakes Shakespeare, Alabama Shakespeare Company, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, The Globe Theatre that does one or two Shakespeares a year, The Marin Shakespeare Festival, Utah Shakespeare, Los Angeles Shakespeare, not to mention the other regional theatres. So, yes! There is a very large audience for Shakespeare in this country.
You appeared in a musical interpretation of A Comedy of Errors, called Oh, Brother! Do you think Shakespeare would have approved, and do you feel it is important to try and make his work relevant for modern day audiences?
Oh Brother! I wish youíd seen it. Shakespeare would have loved it. You might want to ask if Plautus would have approved of what Shakespeare did to his story Menaechmi. Thatís the main source for A Comedy of Errors. Shakespeare uses music throughout his plays, as Iím sure you know, so he would have been pleased as punch that a musical was made out of his comedy. It was a wonderful show that the audience went crazy for and the critics destroyed Ė unfairly in my opinion. It was a delightful piece of fluff that the critics eviscerated. Donald Driver wrote the book and lyrics and Michael Valenti wrote the music. The plot was basically the same except it was set in modern times and in the Middle East. Very inappropriate now but fine back then in the mid-eighties. There was a wonderful song written for the two sets of twins that started with Shakespeareís lines, ďI to the world am like a drop of water / That in the ocean seeks another drop; / Who, falling there to find his fellow forth, / Unseen, inquisitive, confounds himself: / So I, to find a mother and a brother, / In quest of them, unhappy, lose myself.Ē It is a beautiful song, it was a fabulous show and Bill would have loved it. And no, I donít think itís important to try and make his plays relevant for todayís audiences. Don't underestimate todayís audiences. Theyíre very, very smart and can glean from his plays all that is relevant and significant without placing them in another time or place. However, his plays are so great and so timeless that they lend themselves to almost any interpretation. Iíve been in a number of productions that were set in various times and they were beautiful and worked very well and the audience got it all. His themes are so universal, the characters go through the same problems that we go through today and if heís played right, he can and will sound like a contemporary author. It is such a joy to hear the audience laugh uproariously at the same joke they laughed at 500 years ago. Mr. Shakespeare would be very pleased with the way his plays are being presented all over the world. I love his plays.
You seem to have covered pretty much everything, but is there anything that you would really like to do that you havenít yet?
I've done a lot and in just about every medium but there isnít one special thing that I've never done that I want to do. I don't really have parts that I want to play or shows that Iím dying to do. I want to do more film and hopefully the parts will get better and better. I just want to keep working. So far that's exactly what Iíve been doing and in this business I'm one of the lucky ones.
You have worked more or less constantly your entire life, on stage, film and television. Do you ever think it might be nice to have some time off?
Unfortunately, actors have many ďunscheduled breaksĒ in this business. We are constantly looking for work and we can have a lot of down time. That can drive you crazy or you can take advantage of it. Dawn and I would love to be able to take a ďvacationĒ. We havenít had one since Ď94 when we got to go to Italy for two weeks. Oh my god it was wonderful. Hopefully there will come a time down the road a piece when we'll feel comfortable enough and the time is right that we can take that ďvacationĒ. Itíll just be us, and itíll just be swell!
My thanks to Harry Groener -- Simon Monger
If you'd like to reprint all or parts of this article, or if you'd like a copy of the issue this article appeared in, you may contact Mr. Monger at this address.
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