You’ve seen Mark Povinelli in such films as Water For Elephants or Mirror, Mirror, or if you’ve been really lucky, you caught him on stage in such shows as Mabou Mines Dollhouse, an adaption of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House or playing French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec in Belle Epoque. On a beautiful fall morning, Povinelli greeted David S. Zimmerman with a batch of fresh berry scones and hot rich coffee. His cats and dog made cameo appearances.
David Zimmerman: Is that your Pez collection?
Mark Povinelli: Of course! When my wife, Heather, and I moved into our apartment some years ago, I wanted to collect something, but I didn’t have the money to collect art or something of value. So I thought, “Pez are really cheap. Let’s collect Pez.” It’s a perfect thing to look for during garage-saleing, which my wife loves to do. But now that we have kids, it’s torture for them to go “garage-saleing,” but if they’re looking for Pez—
Zimmerman: But why would garage-saleing be torture for them?
Povinelli: Growing up, did your parents ever say on a Sunday after church: “Let’s just drive around and look at stuff”? It was just torture. We would all sit in the car, and they’d look at houses or stop at some little fruit stand or something, and it would just be miserable. That’s what it is for my kids. Hey, it’s Saturday morning. Let’s get up and stuff you in the back of the car and drive aimlessly around neighborhoods looking for people’s crap. But now we have—I don’t know exactly—it’s between 500 and 600 Pez.
Zimmerman: I have another friend who collects those, but I don’t know if she has as many as you.
Povinelli: This top middle row, that’s the valuable Pez. Some are worth hundreds of dollars. Once you tell people that you collect something stupid like Pez, and then they find them for you. They’re a conversation piece. A friend was moving into a new house and moved out the old fridge, and behind it was a bag of old Pez from like 40 years ago.
Zimmerman: Do you ever find Pez in other countries?
Povinelli: They do have different ones with different characters in Europe and Asia; I’ve picked up some.
Zimmerman: I still have a few somewhere in a box.
Povinelli: What do you have? Go find them!
Zimmerman: Now I know what to get you for your birthday. Let’s talk about your work; you’re constantly working.
Povinelli: Eh! I want to work more! There are 10 actors on the planet who are like, “I work too much,” but the rest want to work more. But yes, I shouldn’t complain. I’m very fortunate.
Zimmerman: You traveled around the world as the male lead in A Doll’s House?
Povinelli: Yeah, it’s kind of a woman’s show, but she needs a husband to play off of. I workshopped it in New York and then at the Sundance Theater Lab before we mounted it in New York City in, like, 2003. At the time, I was playing Dr. Rank, the supporting best friend of the husband, who was played by a guy named Peter Dinklage, whom you may have heard of before.
We were roommates at the Sundance Theater Lab and became friends. He’s one of my favorite people. He’s awesome. But the theater didn’t have any money—no theater does—so they didn’t have any rehearsals beyond our workshops. They got a run in New York for five weeks, and they paid the theater company enough for, like, one week of rehearsal, to get us up to speed again. Basically it was a tech rehearsal. And a day before that rehearsal started, Peter left the show, because he had shot The Station Agent that spring, and it was being released that fall, and that’s when we were up, and he was gonna have to do all this press junk, and he couldn’t do it. And he told them, like, seven days before we opened. So they came to me, and they were like, “Mark, how would you like to be Torvald, the main guy?” I was like, “No, I don’t want to do that.”
Zimmerman: Oh, no!
Povinelli: I didn’t want to because I was comfortable in the part I had. I thought it fit me. I didn’t have the confidence or the gravitas to play the other role, which is funny, because I’m married in real life, and I was the same age as Peter.
Zimmerman: It’s interesting how we put ourselves in boxes like that.
Povinelli: I absolutely did. I was like, “Hey, I come onstage, and I do funny stuff.” And my Rank was very funny and charming, or so I thought. And Peter had this undeniable presence. He has that je ne sais quoi.
Zimmerman: That magic.
Povinelli: You can’t teach it, although he’s well trained and very talented. There’s just something else, too. So I didn’t want to try to do what he did, ‘cause I can’t do that. But I said, “yes” after some plotting and pleading [on their part].
Zimmerman: You had only seven days to learn the lines?
Povinelli: There wasn’t really much of a choice. And then we did a couple of rehearsals, and I was terrible as that character.
Zimmerman: From your viewpoint?
Povinelli: No, pretty much everybody’s. (laughs) Torvald is the quintessential male. He’s very alpha. That’s the whole point. He’s domineering and comfortable in his position, so Nora feels trapped like a doll, because she’s just being puppeteered around by him.
So after a couple of rehearsals, Lee Breuer, the director said, “Stop trying to play him like Peter played him.” I was doing a bad impersonation of Peter playing Torvald. Because every day in rehearsal that’s what I heard and saw. So the director was like, “Play him like Rank would want to be Torvald.” Which is the essence of the play also: Rank dreamed of always being Torvald and was always too sickly and too weak—
Zimmerman: Opposites, those characters.
Povinelli: He’s totally the wannabe Torvald. So it worked.
Povinelli: Lee’s brilliant. Peter played it scary and intimidating, and I played it very like a guy trying to be that powerful guy and not always succeeding. So it’s funny a lot because you could see that not every guy is cut out to be a domineering prick, some just try to be one because that’s how society tells us we’re supposed to be. The show was a huge success, and it changed me as an actor so much, ‘cause it did give me that confidence that, “Wait a minute, there’s a whole other side of me.” The show had a lot of sexual tension and a lot of sexual dynamics that—
Zimmerman: Don’t you get naked onstage?
Povinelli: I got all nudey onstage.
Zimmerman: This just takes me to another thing: I remember when Corey Allen saw you audition for The Beautiful People, and said, “That’s him. That’s the lead of the play.” So you have that power.
Povinelli: You’ve been so kind to let me do workshops for Meet the Biz. What I try to express more than anything to actors is: You have to know yourself in and out and know all the tricks you use to cover up the things you’re insecure about and really understand them. You may not always get underneath that, but you have to be aware of them. I think a lot of people think of acting as: I’m playing somebody else, so I’m gonna put on this façade and be somebody else. But you can’t unless you really know yourself.
Zimmerman: You went to Edinburgh, Scotland, with this show?
Povinelli: Yeah. We went to about 35 venues throughout the world. About 10 of them were in the US, and 25 were outside of the country, including Stuttgart, Paris, Oslo and Moscow.
It was the best, because somebody else was paying for it, and I knew I had a job. It was very grueling, but I loved it. This was powerful theater with a message. It got people uncomfortable, shocked them, and made them think. Some people hated it, and it changed some peoples’ lives. That’s the kind of theater you dream of doing.
We would fly into a city like Oslo. We’d land, and they’d start erecting the set, and the actors would have a day and a half just to play around Oslo. And you had a built-in group of friends that you were traveling with. Oftentimes there’d be a local assigned to you, who would take you around. And then you’d start doing the show. You’d have your days free, and then they’d have some kind of state party for you, because all these were government festivals.
Zimmerman: Were you married at the time?
Povinelli: That was the only drawback. I was married and had two young kids. I’d get a phone call saying, “Hey, you’re goin’ to Paris for three weeks.” And half of me would be thrilled, and the other half would be like, “Oh, sh*t, I have to tell Heather that I’m gonna go away, and have fun taking care of the kids and pets.” I’d be in these places and go, “This is amazing. I wish I could show it to my family.”
Zimmerman: You couldn’t just bring them with you.
Povinelli: I’ve been to every corner of the world and literally every continent, and they came three times, so that was nice. But three out of 25 is nothin’. My wife has always been crazy supportive. And she’s not in the arts. She’s a teacher. I think what attracted her to me was this actor side of me that wants to go off and try new things. But that’s also the part that drives her crazy, because then I have to travel. It’s been hard, but we’ve gotten through it. We just celebrated our 17th wedding anniversary.
Zimmerman: Happy anniversary!
Povinelli: Thank you. We’ve worked out well, and absence makes the heart grow fonder.
Zimmerman: Where did you meet?
Povinelli: I met her when I was 16, and she was 14. I lived on the East Coast, and she lived in Santa Barbara. We were at a dance, and I saw this girl, she was a teenager. Me and my buddy were like, “Hey, let’s go stand with them!” So we did that, like, sort of the stand-near-each-other dance, and she does not remember that. And during the dance, she was like, “Whatever. Here are these two tools dancing with us.” So two years later we actually became friends at one of those conferences hosted by Little People of America. Every year they have a national conference somewhere around the country. It’s like a combination educational seminar, therapy session, frat party, and wedding—all smashed together in one week. They’re really lively.
So we became good friends. Right away there was a connection. And then four years later—’cause we’d see each other for a week and then go away for 51 weeks—we started dating. But we would get together for Christmas sometimes. One of the guys would throw a big party, and we’d all fly in.
Zimmerman: I love that, because sometimes people say, “If you don’t click right away, it’s not a relationship.” But I’ve always thought that you could build a relationship.
Povinelli: Definitely. It takes a while for me to wear somebody down, so having the time was helpful.
We dated long-distance for a few years, and finally ended up in the same city. I had moved to Minneapolis to be an actor, and she moved out to Minneapolis to start grad school at the University of Minnesota. Then we really started dating. We were in the same city; it worked.
Zimmerman: I’ve met her. She’s amazing.
Povinelli: And beautiful.
Zimmerman: She is. Let’s talk about Lincoln Center?
Povinelli: Oh, yeah, that little up-and-coming theater.
Zimmerman: You performed there.
Povinelli: I did. I probably shouldn’t say that I get all my good jobs from Peter Dinklage bailing out, but…
Zimmerman: (laughs) Is that, like, the thing?
Povinelli: I’ll take his scrap. “You can’t get Peter? Get Mark, then.” They were doing a workshop of a play, a new piece about Toulouse-Lautrec, the French painter. They were workshopping it, and Peter lived in New York. He was the guy. Then The Public Theater hired him to do Richard III; he couldn’t turn down Richard III.
Zimmerman: Of course not.
Povinelli: So he went off and did that, and then they were like, “We’re gonna mount this show and now we don’t have a lead.” So they auditioned around, and I got cast. I used to walk totally out of my way, across the front steps, past the Met, past the whole front of Lincoln Center, thinking: I can’t believe I’m here. There would be a big poster of Lautrec, this painting of his. It was an amazingly beautiful show. It didn’t quite work because it didn’t know if it wanted to be a play or a performance art piece, so it was good in spots but never truly coalesced. There hasn’t been a successful piece about him yet, and he’s one of the most fascinating people who’s ever been on the planet. Brilliant, troubled, complex, dark, and so crazy talented.
Zimmerman: That must have been fun to play.
Povinelli: I dived into his life and read all these books about him and went to the New York Public Library and found all these old writings of his. Went to every museum I could. I was on tour with A Doll’s House, and luckily the year before, I’d gone to a museum in Paris that’s basically 80 percent Lautrec, a Lautrec museum. So I was like, “I’m glad I did that. That was fortuitous.”
Zimmerman: Not every actor does this, but you do your research. And I know that you say at times, “I don’t know if I can do [this part],” but you have such a command as an actor that people can’t stop watching you.
Povinelli: My wife makes fun of me all the time, ‘cause she says I’m so safe. I pretend I’m this artist/theater/dangerous person, but it’s not by accident that I have the life I have with a dog, cats, two kids, a wife, and a picket fence around my front yard… But in the theater I’m like, “All right, you know what? I am gonna go naked. I am gonna literally and figuratively just bare whatever I can.” It’s like my playtime, my therapy.
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Zimmerman: Your amusement park.
Povinelli: That’s a good way to put it, but I don’t want to be on a roller coaster in my real life. Some people do.
Zimmerman: I think maybe because they don’t have the outlet you do.
Povinelli: I think you may be right. I think I got into this because growing up different, and so profoundly from birth size-wise, I was on stage all the time. I’d walk out of my house, and I was on stage. People would stare at me. I’d go to the grocery store, ride my bike… I could never be anonymous. So when I found the stage, it was the only time I could control people looking at me, and how they felt about me. I couldn’t control those things when I was out at the grocery store.
Zimmerman: How is that sometimes?
Povinelli: It’s really annoying, but I’ve come to the realization that it’s them not me, so I feel very comfortable with that. It’s like, “You really can’t handle this? How stupid of you?”
Zimmerman: So you think some people can’t handle it?
Povinelli: Oh, my God, no! It’s amazing, because there’s little people all the time now on reality TV. Now we’re getting the, “Hey, you’re on that show.” And I’m like, “Really? What show is that?” And it’s usually a reality show, like little people doin’ whatever they do on reality shows. … I had this experience 10 or 15 years ago when I was doing Doll House, and flying to Australia. It’s an 18-hour flight. And the guy sitting next to me was from LA—and this was in the infancy of reality television—so he’s a producer/content/creator guy. He said, “I’ve been watching you the whole time.” And already I’m a little creeped out by this. Then he goes on: “It’s just amazing how you navigate and you exist and you can do all this and get on this plane.” I’m like, “What’s my other option? I’m just doing what everybody else is doing.” And he was like, “I want to make a reality show about you and your life.” And he started asking me a bunch of questions, and he was like, “Can I film some of this.” I’m stuck in the window seat for 18 hours. So I say, “Sure, okay.”
Then we get off the plane, and he’s like, “Can I film you while you get your bag?” I’m like, “All right, fine, if you want to.” So I’m standing there waitin’ for my bag like everybody else, and he goes, “You know, this isn’t that interesting.”
Zimmerman: Oh my God! (laughs)
Povinelli: It’s not freakin’ interesting… I mean, my existence shouldn’t be entertainment for you. It shouldn’t scare you or make your day or make you feel better about yourself. Some people will be extra-friendly and walk away like they did a good deed. But then again nobody’s perfect. Before I knew more people who were in wheelchairs, if I went and helped a person in a wheelchair, I’d feel really great about myself. I’d think, “Isn’t my life better than his because that was easier for me than for him.”
Zimmerman: I guess it’s human nature?
Povinelli: Right. And check this out: About 20 years ago or so, I’m just out of college. I’m at an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) training seminar. My future wife, Heather, had somehow gotten into it, ‘cause she was doing training with the Burbank police or something as part of her studies. So the woman speaking is introducing the next speaker. Meanwhile there’s this guy over in the corner in a wheelchair with—at the time I didn’t know it—cerebral palsy, and he’s really making a big ruckus, making loud sounds, being disruptive… I’m like, “This is really great that they included him, but somebody needs to take him out of the room so we can get down to business here.” So you know where this is going…
Povinelli: So when she says, “The next speaker is Ted Johnson, a lawyer from northern California who has won the biggest case for the ADA against the government…,” and it’s him, and he’s brilliant and hilarious, I feel like the biggest a** ever. Then one day, after Ted and I had become good friends, Heather and I were walking to dinner, and he was riding next to us, and he says to me: “So, is she your girlfriend?” I say, “Yeah.” And he says, “How do you guys have sex?” And I’m like, “Yay! You’re an ignorant a**hole, too!”
Zimmerman: Good one. So let’s talk a bit about Water for Elephants. I remember when you said, “I’ve auditioned for something, and I can’t say what it is,” and then you got it, and it was so thrilling.
Povinelli: When I auditioned for Water for Elephants, I knew it was a big deal. I read the book in one night and thought: “It’s such a great book; I’ve got to do this part.” Two days later I was in the casting director’s office. But I gave only an average audition. Like, I walked out of there and felt, “That’s not good enough.” I questioned why I was even in this business.
Zimmerman: What made you think you weren’t good enough?
Povinelli: I have to do enough prep work to get in the right mindset so that I go in there with my choices of what I want to do and then execute them. As opposed to going in there thinking, “God, I hope they like me. I wonder what they think. Do they want somebody who’s older? Do they want the guy sitting next to me?” So when I gave a very safe audition of what I thought they might want, based on 10 things that I have no control over, I felt really down, because those kinds of roles come along so infrequently… Those defining parts that could change something.
Zimmerman: Filet mignon.
Povinelli: Yes. So I was bemoaning all of this to a friend, and he was like, “You just need an acting coach to get you right.” So I went to an old friend who’s an acting coach, and 30 minutes later, I was like, “Yeah, that’s right. That’s what I need to do.” And I went in there (for the callback), and I did exactly what I wanted to do. So I got Elephants. It was so much fun. It was a big-time movie set and very intimidating, because you suddenly have license to do stuff. So often you’re on a set, and they kind of wheel you around, “Stand here, say this. We don’t have time, get out of it.” This was, “All right. We’re gonna sit down and figure this out. We’re gonna rehearse, and we’re gonna make moments,” which was exciting, new and terrifying.
But there was a giant elephant on set. I’d be talking to the trainer, and this trunk would come and start sniffing me as I was talking. There’d be lions. My character had this Jack Russell terrier that was his best friend, which went on to be way more famous than I’ll ever be. It was in The Artist, that Oscar-winning silent movie. Uggie was on the cover of every magazine. I was on an airline flight, and Uggie was on it.
Zimmerman: I think he just died.
Zimmerman: That’s what I heard… So I’m gonna throw out a name and see where you go with it: Marlon Brando.
Povinelli: I once took acting class with Marlon Brando, which makes for the best bar story ever. So when I was shooting this summer and there were four main guys in the cast, Steven Zahn, Michael Imperioli, Romany Malco, and Ben Chaplin, I’m thinking, “How do I endear myself to them?” So one night when we were out, I just casually dropped it on them: “I took an acting class with Marlon Brando.” I had the floor for the next two hours.
Zimmerman: How did you ever get to take a class with Brando?
Povinelli: One night I’m sittin’ at home, and a buddy, Marty Klebba, calls me up around 10 at night and says, “Hey, do you want to take an acting class with me tomorrow?” I said, “Nah, not really.” He’s like, “Uh, it’s being taught by Marlon Brando.” I said, “What time? Where do I need to be? Let’s go!”
Povinelli: So sure enough, in 2002, Marlon Brando taught an acting class, and I think he had the intention of making it into a series of videos or DVDs called Acting by Marlon Brando or something, that you would buy so he could make some serious cash. Like Michael Caine’s got these acting technique videos, and Brando wanted to have his. So we were at this abandoned warehouse in Hollywood. You had to sign all these waivers, which I’m probably breaking now by talking about it. But anyway… you walked into this room, and there’s a bunch of folding chairs set up, a playing space, a dais, a giant throne in the middle of the dais, a lamp, an oriental rug, and a giant fern. It seemed so preposterous, and you’re just sitting there with maybe 30 other people in the class.
And then out walks this giant, giant man in a black muumuu, and he comes and sits down on the throne and says, “I’m Marlon Brando.” And then for another two or three weeks, I went to acting class with Brando. He wanted a kind of “United Colors of Benetton” acting class where he’d sit there and be like, “I want two Chinese acrobats in my class,” and then the next day somebody went and found two Chinese acrobats and they’d be there.
Zimmerman: And they were acrobats and not actors?
Povinelli: Right. And one day he said, “I want two little people.” And the First AD knew Marty, and Marty knew I would be all over it, so he called me, thank God. So Marty and I show up, and Marlon puts us in the front row, and he’s like, “So we have two very special guests. Your names?” “Mark and Marty.” “Hank and Bill?” “No, Mark and Marty.” “Hank and Bill?” “Okay, Hank and Bill.”
And then maybe my favorite moment in my entire career: He stops and looks at me and goes, “Are you in a Pepsi commercial?” At the time I had been in a Dr. Pepper commercial that had been running. I’m like, “Yeah, I’m in a Dr. Pepper commercial.” He’s like, “I saw that last night. That was a nice job.” I’m like, “Oh, my God, Marlon Brando has seen my work, and he’s talking about it! It’s amazing!” It was some silly holiday Dr. Pepper commercial, but I didn’t care.
So he took a break and had us come up. The whole class was improv. He had us do an improv with his Samoan bodyguard, who was also not an actor. The three of us did this improv, and then the class talked about it. He was lovely. He was so gracious… Well not to everybody; he could be volatile. But to us he was super nice. He was out of this world.
Zimmerman: I hope those sessions get shown on TV.
Povinelli: They will never be on TV. Variety or somebody did an article about it last year, like, “Whatever happened to—?” They’ve talked to his estate, and whoever controls it said, “No one will ever see those tapes. It will never happen.”
Zimmerman: I love that story!
Povinelli: And there are so many stories within that story. Like Sean Penn and Edward James Olmos and Harry Dean Stanton and Whoopi Goldberg and Thomas Jane and John Lovitz, the homeless guy he had in the class… One day Marlon was outside in the alley having a cigarette or whatever, and there was a homeless guy sifting through the garbage, and he’s like, “Hey, you want to take my acting class?” The guy was like, “Okay.” And then there was a homeless guy in our acting class. Philippe Petit, the guy who walked across the wire on the World Trade Center—
Zimmerman: He was in it? Oh, my God! Did you stay in touch with any of these people?
Povinelli: No, because then they were a bunch of no-name actors like myself, and I would love to see some of them again. There were probably only 15 or 20 of them who exist, but to have a reunion and say, “Okay, what do you remember? What happened from your perspective?”
Zimmerman: That would be a great documentary.
Povinelli: You’d have to get a hold of the registry. I have no idea how you’d find those people. I don’t know how many of ‘em are fessin’ up like I am. It was wild. It was so bizarre. And the next day I was like, “Do I go back? Am I invited back?” I said, “I’ll show up and if they kick me out, they kick me out. How can I not show up?” And I did, and nobody said anything, and I was there for the rest of the class, which was maybe two weeks.
But then what happened was, Marlon comes in one day and sits down. He’s telling us about this actor he knows that is the greatest actor of our generation, and we’re all intently listening. By the time he’s done with his little spiel, we’re like, “He’s totally right.” Marlon could tell you anything. I talked about Peter having magnetism. Marlon was like nobody else I’ve ever seen or will ever see. He started talking about this guy, and you’re like, “That guy is the greatest actor of all time, absolutely. He’s amazing!” The person he was talking about was Michael Jackson.
Zimmerman: Oh, my God!
Povinelli: And then in walks Michael Jackson. And he’s in our class. He wants to be an actor now.
Zimmerman: Did he have bodyguards?
Povinelli: He came in with, and I wish I were makin’ this up, he came in with Brando’s grandson, who’s like nine, and one of the producers kids who was 12 or whatever. They flanked him and sat down, so then Michael Jackson was in our class. He sat there, and he didn’t say a word. It was so bizarre. He’s like as far away as I am from you, just watching this class taught by Marlon Brando with Whoopi Goldberg sittin’ behind me and John Lovitz on the other side of me, whatever, and then the next day Michael wasn’t there, but Marlon said that Michael had had such an amazing time that from now on he wants to have class up at the Neverland Ranch. “So tomorrow there will be a bus, and we’ll all get in the bus and ride up to Neverland Ranch and have class there.” (laughs) I’m thinking, what is happening? What the hell is this? So the next day we show up ready to get on this bus, and Marlon’s not there. He’s sick.