There’s something about the number 28, apparently For it was a total of 28 years that actor Robert Newman appeared in the role of Joshua Lewis on the soap opera Guiding Light — a show that holds the record as the longest-running TV drama in history. Meanwhile, last April, actress Catherine Russell entered her 28th year starring in the Off-Broadway mystery Perfect Crime — which also happens to be the longest-running play in New York City history.
Lacking a calculator nearby, we haven’t done a full tally, but Newman, who has pivoted strongly toward live theatre since Guiding Light went dark (he earned two Daytime Emmy nominations and appeared in more than 3,000 episodes), is appearing in the role of Inspector Ascher in Perfect Crime for a five-week run — or, well, about 28 performances.
Our interview begins with a personal statement:
Robert Newman a husband, a father, an actor, a vocalist, a union activist and a reasonably good golfer. I work in a business that is unrelentingly brutal, so I have to find balance between that and what I think of as real life. True life. My wife, my two now grown children, my crazy extended family, all of whom influence my work on stage or in front of a camera. Even my Union work keeps my brain working in a different way than my acting career. I’m currently the National Vice President of SAG-AFTRA for Actors and Performers and represent roughly 140,000 of our members. Organizing, public speaking, encouraging challenging and inspiring others to participate. These are just some of the things I love to do. And when I golf, I often play alone. No cart. Just me and the clubs on my back and the walk.
And now, 5 questions Robert Newman has never been asked:
What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?
Well, being asked to write 150 words on myself starting with “Robert Newman is…” is certainly in the top five. I’m always pleased and surprised when I’m actually asked about the craft of acting as opposed to “how many times has Josh been married and divorced and to how many women?” I suppose “How do you handle all the rejection?” is up there. At least the question implies understanding of the nature of my business. (“We drink” was my answer.)
What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?
A fan (a woman) once asked me, “Why do you always turn your face away from me when I try to kiss you on the lips?” I tried to explain to her that even asking the question is inappropriate.
After spending the majority of the last 30 years acting on a soap (and in the same role, no less!), you have really plunged into theater work in recent years. To what degree did the rigors of soap acting alter or inform your approach to stage acting? Or vice versa?
The upside of my soap background is the speed with which I work. More and more I find that theaters all over the country are cutting back on rehearsal days, mostly due to budget issues. At PCLO, for instance, one gets all of seven days to mount a huge musical. Because soap work allows for little or no rehearsal, I’ve spent 28 years training for this kind of situation. I have no fear of limited rehearsal time, and (by the way) no fear of walking on stage opening night knowing that not all things are 100 percent in place, but the ride will be what it is and wonderful.
The down side is this: In soap work, you develop the ability to memorize up to 30 pages of dialogue a day, but you also have to dump it out of your brain as soon as it’s shot because you have 30 pages tomorrow. Binging and purging, I call it. After 28 years of that, I find I have to constantly return to the dialogue on stage during the run of a show and continually shove it back into my brain, basically because it wants to get out.
You segue effortlessly between genres — one minute you’re Tevye in Fiddler at the Barn Theatre in Michigan, the next you’re Inspector Ascher, as noted, in Perfect Crime. Which medium and genre do you like best? Which is personally most challenging? Which one makes you work hardest?
Well, the answer to all three in terms of medium is theater, theater, theater. Strange that after 30 years in front of a camera, I’m still most comfortable on stage. I like the audience. I like how they become a part of our process. We all gather in a space and have a kind of unspoken agreement that if we say a line in a certain way, they will laugh. Or sing a certain lyric they will cry. So they become part of our rhythm. Like breathing. This, to me, is very different than film or television. As to genre, I like it all, but because I’m a singer and an actor, I’m very much drawn to the way a musical can tug at the heartstrings in it’s own unique way. Regardless of medium or genre, I’m always looking for a good character and good storytelling. Both Tevye and Ascher fit the bill in their own ways.
Your Twitter feed is pretty cool. As a — pardon the expression — veteran actor, how does the dizzying rise of social media enhance your career? Do you fear any loss of privacy?
I’ve come to understand, reluctantly, that social media is necessary to the business. Perhaps it’s just my age, but it took me a while to realize the importance of staying in touch with your audience through Twitter, Facebook, etc. I still don’t think I’m very good at it, but I’m giving it my best shot and I’m often pleased with hearing from fans on projects I’m doing. I’ll keep at it, but I think my usual position is behind whatever the curve is.