A molecular-biologist-turned-Buddhist-monk says altruism is the answer to many of the world's most pressing challenges. Can concern for others help solve wealth inequality, climate change and world hunger?
For seven years ending in 2006 “The West Wing” was one of the hottest shows on television. It won four consecutive Emmy Awards for outstanding drama series. Richard Schiff played the role of White House communications director Toby Ziegler. He brought a brooding sense of seriousness and purpose to the role, which earned him an acting Emmy. Among his post-“West Wing” work, Schiff recently finished a run on Broadway in “Glengarry Glen Ross” with Al Pacino. Now he’s in Washington to star in Eugene O’Neill’s play “Hughie.” Schiff joins Diane to talk about his career on film, stage and TV – and why he did not set out to be an actor.
- Richard Schiff Emmy Award-winning actor.
Video: Inside The Studio
Emmy Award-winning actor Richard Schiff discusses what’s behind the success of “The West Wing” television show. “It was a perfect storm of good luck, I think,” says Schiff. He goes on to explain why he almost didn’t show up at his audition for the role of White House communications director Toby Ziegler.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Richard Schiff has appeared in more than 50 films, including Steven Spielberg's "Lost World Jurassic Park." But he's perhaps best known for his work on the hit television series "The West Wing." He played White House communications director Toby Zieglar. The Emmy award-winning actor has just begun a starring role on stage in Washington in a Eugene O'Neill drama. The play is titled "Hughie."
MS. DIANE REHMRichard Schiff joins me in the studio. I'm sure many of you will want to be part of the conversation. Give us a call, 800-433-8850, send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org, follow us on Facebook, or send us a tweet. Good morning. It's so good to meet you.
MR. RICHARD SCHIFFGood morning. It's a pleasure to meet you. How are you?
REHMThank you. I'm good, thanks. Is it true that you never set out to be an actor?
SCHIFFYes. Yes, I confess. That's true.
SCHIFFIt's hard. Yeah. I asked myself that sometimes before even this run of "Hughie," where it's a tough play, and I asked myself, how did I get into this position? Why am I doing this? I wasn't one of those people that you hear about. I hear actors getting interviewed quite a bit and they go, oh, no, I knew when I saw this production of so-and-so…
SCHIFF...when I was three...
SCHIFF...that this is what I wanted, you know. And I envy that, but that was never the case with me.
REHMWhat was the case for you? What was the direction you thought you were headed in?
SCHIFFWell, I don't know. I was certainly interested in sports.
REHMWhat -- which sports?
SCHIFFBaseball in particular.
SCHIFFStill hope that I might be able to...
SCHIFF...some day get up the -- well, with all the new drugs around...
SCHIFF...you know, I still have a shot at playing center field for the Yankees. Who knows?
REHMThat would be great.
SCHIFFBut -- and then I got into the histories a little bit in college and was studying modern European history and so on. But I got into theater, but I started out as a director.
REHMBut go back to the history part. Did you think maybe you'd become a teacher?
SCHIFFI thought maybe possibly -- I always was fascinated with Clarence Darrow...
SCHIFF... as a -- I thought maybe I could do some of that kind of work as a lawyer.
REHMSome of that kind of work.
SCHIFFYeah. But I'm not a great reader. I'm a very, very slow, painfully painstaking reader, and so I thought, I'll -- yeah. I might finish one law book in four years of law school or whatever. So I thought it was wise not to pursue that.
REHMI think it was wise too.
SCHIFFAlthough I've since met one lawyer who I told this story to, he's a very successful lawyer out in California, who said he can't read -- he's a very slow reader too.
SCHIFFVery hard for him to read. I said, how do you work it out? He says, I just figure out what the gist is, and listen.
REHMListening is key.
REHMYou have to be on stage practically the whole time in "Hughie," so you had lots of lines to memorize. That's tough.
SCHIFFIt's getting harder as time...
SCHIFFOr maybe it just feels that way. I did a one-man play called "Underneath the Lintel" which I did at the George Street Theater in New Brunswick, and then took to the West End in London, and that was about a hundred minutes alone on stage. This is, thankfully, less than an hour, "Hughie." But I don't know how you do it. You know, I came off the play yesterday -- we had a matinee yesterday...
SCHIFF...and it went very well yesterday, I have to say. And I came off the stage going, you know, which part of my brain was working so well today, you know? Because other days I'm -- because it's still new. I'm still new in the play, and, you know, so what I'm doing isn't necessarily in my blood yet. It isn't like second nature yet.
REHMTell me about the play, who Hughie is, and who you are.
SCHIFFWell, Hughie was the night clerk in this flea bag hotel in New York City in 1928, and my character's name is Erie Smith, who is kind of a two-bit hustler, gambler, of which there were many in the old days and around Times Square and Broadway in New York City. And the kind of character that Eugene O'Neill hung around quite a bit. All the guys from "Iceman Cometh" who hang around in the bar with pipe dreams. He's one of those kinds of guys.
SCHIFFAnd he comes back from a five-day bender when you meet him in this play, and it turns out he was on a drunk because he said goodbye to his friend Hughie who had just died, his night clerk friend. And he really spends the good part of the play trying to make the new night clerk like the old night clerk because he needed a friend. He needs somebody to kind of witness his life to verify his existence if you will, you know.
SCHIFFI mean, that's the existential look at it, but he just needs somebody to talk to, and so he waxes on about Hughie and why -- he says things like, he wasn't in my class, I don't know why -- I don't know why I miss him. I don't get it. I don't -- he goes, his checking out was a real KO for me, and damned if I know why. He wasn't in my class, you know. He didn't know none of the answers. He was just a sucker.
SCHIFFSo it's a portrait. It's a portraiture. I look at it like it's a little Rembrandt, you know, those portraits that Rembrandt painted of those characters in cafes. And when you go into a room and there's a bunch of those Rembrandt's portraitures, that happened to me in a museum somewhere, I don't know where. It might have been here in Washington. There's just one room. It was all these portraits all over the museum, and then I went into this one room and all of a sudden the room was alive.
SCHIFFAnd you look around and the eyes of these characters were full of life, and you could see the souls of these people, and that's the way I kind of look at what O'Neill did with this character, Erie Smith. You know, the kind of guy you don't notice if you walk by him on the street in New York, now, or back then in 1928, but who O'Neill noticed and kind of dug into his soul a little bit.
REHMEmmy Award-winning actor, Richard Schiff. He is appearing here in Washington in Eugene O'Neill's play, Hughie. And if you'd like to join us, 800-433-8850. You said that yesterday, Sunday, was particularly good. Was it you, or was it the audience?
SCHIFFGreat question. Excuse me. It was me. But there are nights when that -- you feel an audience, the collective mood is very different than the night before, which is one of the fascinating things about doing live theater. Everybody's different, including the performers, but the audiences are particularly noticeable as just -- they're just different from night to night.
SCHIFFWhen I was doing "Glengarry" just recently on Broadway, I notice quite a change from night to night as to how the audience response. Sometimes they were just Al Pacino fans and they just wanted to see Al, and you can sense that. And other nights they came because they love Mamet and they love the play, or they love the other actors in the play as well as Al.
REHMWeeknights, weekend nights different?
SCHIFFThursday nights it turns out were particularly reactive, receptive audiences. Saturday nights were typically people who came in full from dinner and a little bit...
SCHIFF...a little bit -- a little bit too much wine.
SCHIFFAnd so they were more laid back. But it wasn't -- it wasn't definitive. I mean, some Saturday nights were great, you know, but it just -- it was fascinating, you know. And I felt that even more during the one-man play because I -- the audience was my other actor, because I was talking to them the whole time.
SCHIFFSo I relied on them a little bit more, and sometimes it got very quiet. This was in London. And then I had to learn that just because they were quiet didn't mean that they weren't listening. In fact, they were probably listening a little harder.
REHMWhat's it like for you to be on the stage by yourself? What's the initial feeling as you walk out there and look at the audience, which you may not be able to see because of lights.
SCHIFFYes. As a matter of fact, it was a bit of a running joke because I don't like to know when people are coming, people I know, you know. People always say, hey, I'm coming on Thursday...
SCHIFF...let's have dinner afterwards. I go, no, it's not a social event for me, you know. Maybe we can have dinner, but surprise me because I don't want to -- because to me, the relationship is anonymous, you know, and it feels better -- it feels more right when I don't know who's out there, and when I just feel that collective energy and I can't identify individuals. That's just a quirk that I have. I mean, other actors don't necessarily have that. Some do.
SCHIFFBut when I was talking to this -- directly to the audience, I very specifically wanted them to be anonymous to me, because that fit who that character was in that play. He didn't know the audience. He had no way of knowing who the people were that were coming to see what he had advertised around the streets of that city. And so the running joke was that I could see about 13, 14 rows into the audience, so anyone that they thought that I might know, an American actor or something that came to the box office, they would say, hey, I would love a seat fifth row center, and they would go, sorry, we can't give you that.
SCHIFFYou have to sit in -- when Martin Sheen came and surprised me, he was -- he had wanted to sit up front, and then they told him, and oh, put me in the back. Put me way in the back. And so he sat in the last row in the orchestra just to be respectful to my wishes.
REHMRichard Schiff. Emmy Award-winning actor. He is here in Washington, starring in Eugene O'Neill's play, "Hughie," for Washington Shakespeare Theater Company.
REHMAnd if you just joined us, Richard Schiff is with me. He's the Emmy Award-winning actor who played the character Toby Ziegler on "The West Wing." He's here in Washington starring in the Eugene O'Neill play "Hughie" for Washington Shakespeare Theater Company. He began his acting career doing experimental works in New York's downtown theater district and independent films. Join us, 800-433-8850.
REHMOf course you know how much everybody adored "West Wing" and hated for it to go away. How did you feel about its going away?
SCHIFFI was -- I personally was ready.
SCHIFFYeah. It has been seven years of doing one character. And, you know, Aaron Sorkin had left and Tommy Schlamme, who were the original creators and creative forces of the show. And I miss them very badly when they left.
REHMBecause you felt?
SCHIFFI just thought that, you know, they gave me great freedom in creating that character. And Aaron and Tommy, both, reacted to my impulses and we had what I consider one of the great collaborations of my lifetime, rather than my marriage. And I miss them very badly when they left. The writers that took over were very talented, but they didn't quite get Toby, I don't think, the way...
REHMIn the same way.
SCHIFF...that Aaron -- Aaron had told me privately, so I hope he doesn't mind that I say this out loud, but that I was his favorite character that he's ever written, largely due to our, you know, collaboration and our creating it together. And so I miss them. And plus, it was seven years, it was time for me, just creatively, to move on probably a few years before it ended.
REHMJust one tiny detail I'd like to ask you about, apparently you were wearing a wedding ring for a while in the show. And then somebody noticed it and said, so are you Toby Ziegler, married?
SCHIFFWell, this is what happened. Tommy Schlamme, who I just mentioned, was our producer, show runner, director. And he came running up to me at one point, he said, we just noticed in editing that you're wearing a wedding ring. I said, yeah, I've been wearing a wedding ring since the pilot. I don't remember even when this was, sometime in the first year or second year. It has been a while into the show. And I said, why. And he says, well, he goes, well, what's your story? Are you married?
SCHIFFBecause they hadn't written my personal life yet. And I said, no, in my mind, he's a widower. He lost his wife and that's part of the reason why I created this kind of darkness, this little sadness about him. And they said, oh, okay, well just so you know, we just wrote your ex-wife.
SCHIFFAnd I went, oh really? Yeah, is that going to mess you up? And I said, well, let me adjust.
REHMShe turned out to be a member of Congress.
SCHIFFYes, yes, played by Kathleen York quite wonderfully, I might add. She was great to work with.
REHMSo, and then what did you do about the wedding ring?
SCHIFFWell, then we just adjusted the storyline and it turned out that we created a storyline whereby Toby never wanted to not be married and wanted to get her back. And that became the storyline. So he never took off his wedding ring.
REHMWere you okay with that storyline?
SCHIFFKind of like -- so it's kind of like "Silver Lining Playbook" my character, Brad Cooper plays.
REHMAll right. Let's hear a clip from an episode of "West Wing" called "In Excelsis Deo" about a homeless veteran.
MS. KATHRYN JOOSTENThe president would like to see you.
JOOSTENDid you use his name to arrange a military funeral for a homeless veteran?
JOOSTENYou shouldn't have done that, Toby.
JOOSTENYou absolutely should not have done that.
JOOSTENThe president's in the mural room.
MR. MARTIN SHEENHi. How you doing?
SCHIFFI'm fine. Thank you, sir.
SHEENApparently, I've arranged for an Honor Guard for somebody.
SCHIFFYes, sir. I'm sorry.
SHEENNo, no. Just tell me, is there anything else I've arranged for? We're still in NATO, right?
SHEENWhat's going on?
SCHIFFA homeless man died last night, a Korean War veteran who was wearing a coat I gave to the Goodwill, it had my card in it.
SHEENToby, you're not responsible.
SCHIFFIt took an hour and twenty minutes for the ambulance to get there, a lance corporal of the United States Marine Corps, second of the seventh. I got better treatment in Panmunjom.
SHEENToby, if we start pulling strings like this you don't think every homeless veteran would come out of the woodwork?
SCHIFFI can only hope, sir.
REHMThat's quite a scene.
SCHIFFYou know, I just drove on the way here by the Korean War Memorial and just remembered shooting that whole sequence. In the Mall, finding the veteran on the bench and the kiosk, and then shooting that little sequence in the memorial, which apparently is illegal. So we were doing some guerilla filmmaking back then, sneaking shots in the memorial. But it just all came back to me as we were driving over here this morning.
REHMHave you seen the Vietnam Veterans?
SCHIFFOf course, yeah. Yeah, I spent quite a time at the memorials when I first came to D.C. when we were, first started shooting here, yeah.
REHMTell me about your voice. You said to me during the break that you lost your voice during "Glengarry."
SCHIFFWell, this has been recurring in my career on occasion. I've lost my voice a few times.
SCHIFFDoing loud roles. First time was doing this big comedy called "Talking Minx" back in New York, I think the first play I did when I came back to being an actor in my early 30s. And it happens when I get sick and this character was similar -- he had a long 20-minute monologue and he was ranting and I had to miss a performance, which is the only time that's ever happened.
SCHIFFAnd it happened during "Glengarry." I got a flu shot from a doctor and the flu shoot went right to my vocal cords. And right when we were rehearsing, and that was a scene that I'd decided to play very loudly, kind of a shouting scene in "Glengarry" towards the end. And it just so happened we rehearsed that scene about 10 times that day and I went full out.
SCHIFFAnd then I had to get steroid shots and all this kind of stuff to keep my voice going. And then I discovered a vocal cord massage that I was telling you about, which saved me. So every night I was just massaging my vocal cords. There's a thing called, I forgot what it's called, but he vocal cords get stuck open and people literally cannot speak. And this massage has enabled people to start talking again after not speaking for six months or a year,
SCHIFFSo that's what I used. And I find it very ironic that in my -- in our chosen profession that we have issues with speaking. It's kind of like Beethoven being deaf.
REHMYou know, I go the other way. My vocal cords clamped. So they clamped shut. But yours, you're saying...
SCHIFFNo, that's where the technique came from is that the -- I don't know what it's called but it is a thing where they got stuck open, so you get no so sound.
SCHIFFBut I think either way the massage, which is a whole lot better than getting steroid shots, you know, it's -- which fooled you to think that your -- that you can sing and that you can hit homeruns. No, they're not anabolic. But I did have a very good workout after I took the steroids and I thought, oh, well, I'll take advantage of this for a while. And then I found out they weren't anabolic steroids, so they weren't -- it was all in my head.
REHMYou know, speaking of in your head, do I understand correctly that while you were actually playing in "Glengarry Glen Ross," you began memorizing "Hughie"?
SCHIFFWell, I started rehearsing during the day while performing "Glengarry" at night.
REHMI mean, talking about split brain concentration.
SCHIFFYeah. It wasn't easy, I have to say. It was pretty exhausting. I didn't think it would be as exhausting as it was because "Hughie" is a demanding role and "Glengarry" is a demanding play. And I was going from one great American writer to another in one day. I don't know, I think it helped my performances in "Glengarry" somehow.
REHMTo be memorizing "Hughie" at the same time?
SCHIFFWell, no, it wasn't that. I was just being so warmed up by the time I got to the theater. You know, it's like running the marathon and then running the sprint.
REHMHow much coaching have you got in -- down there in front of the stage if you forget something?
SCHIFFWhat do you mean, how much coaching?
REHMIs there somebody there who can help you if you're lost?
SCHIFFOh, yeah. Oh, yes. No, I actually went up on lines the first show of "Hughie" and had to call line, which is the first time I've ever done that. So I called out line and then somebody is nearby to -- who's following on the script, which they do. They should do it for everybody. I mean, it happens on occasion quite often where...
REHMDid that happen during the...
SCHIFFYes. The first time that had happened where I couldn't recover in my life. So I had to call line. I just got lost. You know, I look at it because of "Glengarry" and because of the slit attention and because, you know, I even talk about you need to dream what you're working on, otherwise it doesn't really get into your blood. And I mentioned this in an interview the other day because I was doing "Glengarry" at night, I couldn't dream about "Hughie."
SCHIFFI was dreaming about "Glengarry" or whatever else came into my night life. So I was late, starting to really dreaming about "Hughie" and getting it really deep into my system. So I'm using these previews for "Hughie" as really rehearsals -- and rehearsal and discovery, which is what Al Pacino does for every performance. So maybe I'm learning from him, because he never really looks at it as performance. He looks at...
REHMIs he fun to work with?
SCHIFFI love Al. I've worked with him before. I've known for 15, 20 years. In fact, I did the very first table read of "Glengarry Glen Ross" the film because back in 1990, whatever that was, because somebody had seen me in a play in Los Angeles and invited me to do the first read and ended up auditioning for the character of Moss and they kept me in New York for quite a while until they could find the right movie star to do the role instead of me.
SCHIFFIt turned out to be Ed Harris who was brilliant in it. But -- and then -- but that led to doing "City Hall" with Al, and I've done another movie with him, read "Hughie" with him, about 11 or 12 years ago when he was getting ready to do it, just to read it with him, I couldn't do the -- play the night clerk. I think he was thinking about that. But I was off doing a movie, I could not do that.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Before we open the phones, I want to ask you about a partnership you mentioned earlier, your wife, your marriage.
SCHIFFMy beautiful wife, yeah.
REHMHow that's been affected by all of your acting career, what does that take into your marriage and vice versa.
SCHIFFWell, it's so much to answer about that. My wife is named Sheila Kelley, very fine actress in her own right, was very much the it girl back in the '90s before she got "L.A. Law." She was in "L.A. Law" for a while, but she was doing some big movies back then and still acts quite a bit. Was on "Lost" recently and "Gossip Girl." But has a whole another point to her life right now. But for instance, just the other night I was a little bit stuck with "Hughie" and had a two-hour Skype with her where we just started talking about.
SCHIFFAnd she has this very great knack of reminding me why I decided to take a project in the place, which gets all the crap out of my head. It gets me refocused on just explicating the work and not worrying about other things that get in the way. But do you know what she does now?
REHMShe's a pole dancer.
SCHIFFShe initiated -- she originated the entire industry pole dancing as exercise or what she calls erotic movement. She doesn't even focus so much on the pole. Although that's obviously very much a part of what she does. She started the whole thing, the whole worldwide sensation. She just did a TEDx talk, which people can find on TED.com or TEDx, whatever it is. Look up Sheila Kelley, with two Es, K-E-L-L-E-Y. And find her TED talk.
SCHIFFIt's phenomenal 18-minute description of what she does and what she's focused her life on, which she considers part of the fourth wave of feminism, really just having women embrace their sexuality and beauty and make that a part of the power of their being and right to the core of the soul of who they are. And it's a phenomenal journey that she's on that, you know, I run it to women, they come running up to me on the street going, your wife has changed my life.
SCHIFFIf it wasn't for her, you know, they're crying or they're laughing. And it's like, you know...
SCHIFFSo she has a very direct effect on people's lives, on women's lives and it's quite...
REHMAnd clearly on your life as well.
SCHIFFWell, she's a remarkable woman, beautiful and believes in the deepest and most profound aspects of love, which I think a normal guy like myself wouldn't really think too much about. Otherwise if it were not for the woman kind of focusing him on it a little bit.
REHMSo you're here in Washington during this play, "Hughie."
SCHIFFI tell you if all the characters -- a lot of the characters in O'Neill's plays wish they had a Sheila Kelley in their lives because they wouldn't be as down and out. And it's really a connective thought, because what Erie Smith lacks in life really is love, any real connection.
SCHIFFWhich has to do with people finding a way to get sustenance out of a connection with another human being, whether it's friendship, whether it's love or marriage or whatever it is. And as O'Neill said privately in his life, when you get too much of it, it will kill you. But if you have none of it, that'll kill you too. That's what he felt. That was part of what he wrote. He wrote about the excesses of things.
SCHIFFToo much food will kill you. Too much drink will kill you. Too much love will kill you. That was his point of view.
REHMRichard Schiff, Emmy Award-winning actor. He's here in Washington, performing at the Washington Shakespeare Theater Company's performance of Eugene O'Neill's "Hughie."
REHMAnd it's time for emails, website questions, phone calls. Here's the first question form the website. "Please tell us how you retained your" -- I think he means "obtained your current theater role? Did you seek the position or do you have an agent who found it for you? And what makes this character so right for you?
SCHIFFA very good question. Would it be great if agents were to get me every job that I got? But that's not the case. I was here doing a fundraiser for the Shakespeare Company of Washington, D.C. "The Will on the Hill," you know, where the senators and congressmen and justices come down and they do a fundraiser. And they all dressed up in Elizabethan garb and we did snippets from Romeo and Juliet. They were adorable.
SCHIFFThere was one congressman standing right in front of me. He was the first one to go on stage and he was bouncing around on his feet. And I tapped him on the shoulder and I said, you're really into this. You're not nervous at all, are you? And he goes, oh I do community theater back home all the time. This is nothing for me. You wonder why they can't get along and pass a bill, because they were having so much fun together that night.
SCHIFFWell, later in the night I was outside looking at a poster of Eugene O'Neill's strange interlude. And the managing director of the theater was out there with me. And I said, you guys do O'Neill? You don't just do Shakespeare? And he goes, oh yea, why? And I said, I've always been interested in doing Hughie. And he said, okay.
SCHIFFSo that's pretty much how it happened.
REHM...how it happened.
SCHIFFYeah, but I've been taken -- I was taken by that play many years ago. I started working on it in the class, reading it. And, I don't know, there's something about this guy who just is so different from me. I'm not--I don't mind being alone. This is a guy who can't be alone, who can't go upstairs to his room. He's got to keep talking even though he doesn't get anything from this particular night clerk.
SCHIFFHe's so vulnerable and lost and it's something that I recognize in myself and in other people at times in their lives when they just -- they don't know what to do because they're in too much pain or they're -- they can't find their own soul at that moment or something. You know, they're -- they need some verification that they exist, some connection with another human being. And I certainly understand that.
SCHIFFYou know, I'm not a two-bit hustler and I don't talk a lot generally unless I'm sitting with a lovely woman who's asking me questions. But I think the deeper part of Huey I connected very much.
REHMAll right. Let's...
REHM...let's go to Indianapolis. Good morning, Ben.
BENGood morning, Diane. Thank you so much for taking my call.
BENAnd Mr. Schiff, what an honor, sir. I just want to tell you, growing up, maybe any mistakes that a youth makes and falling away from my family, especially my father, at the time West Wing was on it became a weekly thing for me to sit down with my dad. And every week we were just totally glued to the TV set. And watching this show, which you know, first of all, this is the show that all other shows attempt to be and fall drastically short. What a show. This show really brought...
REHMAll right. Ben, let me tell you. We've got lots of callers waiting. I'm so glad you like the show and admire Richard Schiff. Let's have your question.
BENYes. Well, it's really just a statement pretty much. The show brought my father and I together. And without this show I don't think that I would have the relationship with my father that I do today. So I just wanted to thank you.
REHMThat's interesting. That's interesting.
SCHIFFWell, thank you for that, Ben. You did -- I guess our show did for you and your dad what baseball did for me and my grandfather.
SCHIFFYou know, so it's nice to be compared to baseball because that's my first love.
REHMAll right. Let's...
SCHIFFThat's very sweet, Ben. Thank you and I'm glad you're getting along with your dad.
REHM...let's go to Droer (sp?) in Benenden, England. Good morning to you.
DROERYes, good morning, Diane. Thanks for taking my call.
DROERMr. Schiff, I'm equally a huge fan of the West Wing. I was going to ask about the connection between the character Toby's views and your own views -- political views in real life. Martin Sheen and Bradley Whitford, for example, are outspoken in their liberal views, but Allison Jenney is a bit more reserved and focuses more on her work as an actress. I was wondering, you know, where do you fit into that?
SCHIFFWell, I certainly had influence on what Toby's views were certainly when Aaron was writing. But I've been called an activist. You know, I'm here in D.C. quite often working on various causes, whether it's union rights or more mental health issues or arts and education or the NEA grant -- or NEA funding and so on. And I've written actually -- and in England been published by the Independent, co-published by the Huffington Post writing articles on American social and political issues.
SCHIFFSo I'm out there often with Bradley and Martin. We were all here together fighting for the union rights bill. So I guess it's somewhat similar to Toby, although I'm not mainstream, like Toby worked in the White House. I do not.
REHMYou're a big fan of Joe Biden.
SCHIFFYeah, I was going around, yeah, in 2008 to all of the debates and the pleasure, the honor of sitting down with Joe Biden for three hours in a courtyard and -- with his and his son and his brother. And after that decided to campaign for him because I wanted to keep his voice in the discussion. I thought he was very helpful. It was very helpful to have him in the debate, in the discussion back in '08 knowing full well that it was going to be either Hillary or Barack Obama ultimately becoming the candidate.
SCHIFFBut I thought Joe was very -- Joe -- the vice president was very honest certainly about foreign issues. He was the only one talking about Pakistan at the time. So I had the honor of campaigning with him in Iowa and would have continued had he continued in New Hampshire.
REHMSo looking ahead to 2016, if both Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden ran, where would you be?
SCHIFFThat's a fair question. I think Hillary is -- the Secretary is quite a force and I think would have become a remarkable president actually. And I think she's a force that, if she were to take on the burden of running and becoming president, that I think -- you know, I think it's a force that can't be denied.
REHMTo Little Rock, Ark. Jeff, you're on the air.
JEFFGood morning, Diane. Thanks for having me on the show.
JEFFAnd, Richard, it's a great honor to talk to you today. One question -- I know so many people are waiting to get on, so I just want to ask you this. How difficult is it to separate yourself from the part you're playing with Hughie and the part of Toby in the show? And do you ever get -- I'm sure up there where you are there are many critics who'll say they went to the show. And I know I'm a choir director and we'll get criticisms from articles of -- and they'll say, well, it wasn't like Bach or it didn't sound like when one lived then. But, you know, it wasn't authentic enough.
JEFFThat's one question. And then the other, have you ever tried playing parts of, you know, like for instance I just saw Gary Sinise play the part of George Wallace. And I actually thought that he was meaner than George Wallace actually was. But just a thought, and thanks for taking my call.
REHMAll right, Jeff.
SCHIFFI'm not sure about the second part of the question. I don't want to play George Wallace, if that's the question. I saw that. I thought Gary did a great job. I think he's probably leaning towards, do I ever play anyone in real life -- in a real life character. I did play Jerry Wexler in the movie Ray, who was a great record producer from Atlantic Records.
SCHIFFBut as to the critics I don't read the reviews. It's a very -- I think being a critic is a very difficult job because it's the reason why I wasn't a sports writer. I love baseball so much, I don't want to ruin it by having to go to a game and have to think about what I was going to write, you know, about it. When you got to a play and you know you have to criticize it and you know you have to write either positive or negative responses to it then you're not an audience member. Then you're somebody else. You're not giving yourself over to getting into the trance that happens when good story-telling happens.
SCHIFFYou're too busy working and so you're not going to react to it the way a normal audience person will react And so it can never be worthwhile, in my opinion. You know, the critics are very smart, some of them, and I'm sure they have something to contribute to the overall...
REHMBut are you saying you never read the critics?
SCHIFFNo. It's dangerous. It's even worse when they're positive reviews. I know for "Underneath a Lintel" I got these rave reviews I was told. The director came up and said, actors dream about these kinds of reviews. And I was like, well I definitely can't read those because it's going to get into my head what they loved about it and will get into your head. And, you know, acting is a house of cards, you know. And some nights it gets blown over and some -- it's all -- it's live.
SCHIFFIt's like -- we were watching the Super Bowl yesterday and, you know, some athletes rise to the occasion and sometimes something else happens where they -- you look at Olympic athletes. I often think of them and feel for them because they spent four years for one moment. They get to that moment, they're on the platform, you know, and some of them embrace the moment and sometimes the moment gets to them and they don't perform well.
SCHIFFAnd that's the danger of live performance so it's tricky enough without worrying about what someone whose job is to criticize will think of you and what will write about you.
REHMDid you watch the halftime show?
SCHIFFI actually did. It was the first halftime show I ever watched.
SCHIFFYeah, basically to see if Beyonce was lip syncing.
REHMWhat did you think?
SCHIFFYou know, I think it was a pretty silly thing, the halftime. They're so full of glitz and spectacle. I love Beyonce. I think her voice is just, you know, divine. It's just phenomenal and beautiful. But all of that dancing and fireworks kind of just distracts me from -- and all of those moves and looks. Just stand there and sing "Halo." Just sing one song. Just sing "Halo." Just get rid of everything else. Let me just watch you and your face and listen to your voice sing that beautiful song as beautifully as you can.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." One question about the cast of the West Wing. Lots of people said, what a group working together. How wonderful they all were. How did it work?
SCHIFFYou know, it was a perfect storm of good luck I think, you know, that whole experience, West Wing. Everyone was talking about how political shows don't work. You know, there were all kinds of other ideas for the president until Martin Sheen ended up working out. I think without Martin it's another show altogether. So that was a stroke of luck.
SCHIFFIt was very lucky for me that Tommy Schlamme and Aaron Sorkin were running that show because, well, it's too long a story but NBC had no desire to hire me at that point in time.
SCHIFFA year before, I didn't show up for a test that they had -- you know, that they caved to my demand -- the agent's demands for the price. I was getting offered all these test deals and not showing up to the tests because I realized I didn't want to do television. And at the last minute I just wouldn't show up. And it infuriated NBC and they were like, we'll never hire him if he doesn't show up. And I was like, I'm not showing up. I don't want to do -- I'm just not, sorry.
SCHIFFAnd so the next year when this came around, Tommy took me out after one of the rounds of auditions and said, well you're going to come to the test at NBC. And I said, well just so you know I might not show up.
REHMI might not show up.
SCHIFFAnd Tommy goes, yes I've heard that. And he goes, well I hope you do. And I said, well also just so you know, if I do show up I might be really bad. And he said, yes I've heard that, too. But -- because the test deal experience is just dreadful. You're sitting there, you know, auditioning for a bunch of people in suits who sell soap for a living. And, you know, no disrespect, but, you know, that's really what their job is. Their job is not to evaluate talent. Their job is to evaluate what talent will sell advertising for them. And I know I'm not at the top of that list. So it's always been a fight whenever I've gotten a network show.
REHMSo you got past it.
SCHIFFI showed up, yeah, mostly because Tommy was so sweet. You know, he put his hand on my shoulder and said, I really hope you show up. And it was this feeling of you know, there was -- Tommy Schlamme has since becomes a very important figure in my life. He's a mentor, he's a confidant and he's -- and that moment was part of the development of that relationship.
REHMOkay. So just before the audition, did you think I'm not going?
SCHIFFIt's moment to moment. It's one of the great things that my wife Sheila Kelley has given to us both, is just we do this moment-to-moment thing where -- because she's terrified with auditions. Not terrified, but just she -- it creates dread in her. And so we do this thing where it's -- we'll get in the car -- we'll work on the audition, we'll get in the car, we still don't have to go in. There's no law that -- there's no gun to our head. We go to the thing. You know, we go park, we go to the door, we sign in. We still don't have to -- we go into the door to start -- we can still leave. So that's what I do moment to moment. That's how I did -- do you have to go? Go. I see your arm coming...
REHMYou know what I'm glad?
REHMI'm glad that you came here this morning.
SCHIFFThank you. I am as well.
SCHIFFIt's a pleasure to meet you.
REHMThank you. And great to talk with you. Richard Schiff and the award-winning actor. He is in Washington starring in the Eugene O'Neill play "Hughie" for Washington's Shakespeare Theater Company. And now we can all go back and watch seven seasons of West Wing. Thank you for being here.
SCHIFFAbsolutely my pleasure. Thank you.
REHMAnd thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
Most Recent Shows
Kate Mulgrew, who stars as "Red" in the Netflix TV series "Orange Is The New Black", opens up in a new memoir about her complicated family and the baby she gave away for adoption as a young woman.
On the 100th anniversary of the publication of Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken," a discussion about why the poem and poet are well-loved but misunderstood.
"My Brilliant Friend" by Elena Ferrante is the first of the mysterious Italian author's Neapolitan novels. The series tells the story of a life-long friendship between two working class girls in Naples. Critics have called Ferrante “one of the greatest novelists of our time.” Yet nobody knows her true identity. Join Diane and her guests for a discussion of “My Brilliant Friend.”