MICHAEL SEAN McGUINNESS -
A Good General Doesn't Like Bloodshed
“There is no defeat until it is over. It is not over.” – Ulysses Grant
Where are you from and where do you live now? I was born in Corning, grew up in Syracuse and went to high school in Philadelphia. I live in New York City now.
Did you start out wanting to be in the theater? I wanted to be an archeologist originally. But at some point I realized I would spend a decade digging a one-square-foot hole with a teaspoon. At the same time, I was sort of the class clown and I thought, I can go into the theater and play an archeologist.
Roughly how many plays will you perform in this year and in how many different locations? In an average year I do three to four plays and one or two TV projects. Maybe a film. Some years I do more. Some less. What I do mostly, though, is audition. I do that three times a week. Each time I have to convince myself that I can play that role in order to be convincing. Every time, it’s the same process with that same energy and belief. By the end of every day, I’m exhausted.
Cite a couple rolls you’ve enjoyed and tell me what made them so appealing. I’ve done a lot of Shakespeare. In my first professional role, I was a servant in Julias Caesar. My line was “Oh, Caesar.” It was a small part, but it made me realize how difficult the job was. I had to show that inconsequential characters have epic reactions. Then, I got to play Malvolio in Twelfth Night. He’s a prig, the head servant in the household. He’s trying to be lord of the manor – above his station. He’s put in prison, tortured, humiliated. The audience thinks ‘what a jerk’. Then, ‘oh, he’s a funny jerk.’ Then the audience takes his side. It’s been my favorite roll because I get to be so many versions of the same person in one play.
Have you done any research for your character? Yes, absolutely, I’ve been living in the Civil War. I’ve also done research into the Revolutionary War. I believe the North and South were infused with tales of the Revolution. Right now, I’m immersed in biographies of Lincoln and Grant. I listen to the music of that period, too. It all feeds into your brain and soul and finds a way out in the performance.
What films or book have influenced your impression of the Civil War? PBS did a documentary series about Grant. That has been very influential. And, I watched Ken Burn’s Civil War. I’ve read about George Washington, too. I try to choose sources that are more contemporary to the period. I seek
subjectivity – not objectivity.
Give us some insight into your character. His father was a tanner, but he hated the smell and sight of blood. That was a paradox. I’ve read that a good general doesn’t like bloodshed and wants to get it over with as quickly as possible. As a commander, Grant was known for being super-aggressive. He brought as much strength as possible to the weakest part of the opposition. I believe that strategy was to avoid more conflict; to finish. It goes back to that hatred of blood. It seems odd, but I think he had a quiet outlook on life.
Have you worked with playwright Elizabeth Diggs or director Regge Life before? No, neither of them. They both were deeply engaged in the casting process. I enjoyed reading for them.
What might the audience take away from this production? Just like now, those were fractious times. I would like people to come away with the idea that it is possible not to hate your enemy. After the Terms of Surrender were signed, the Union soldiers started to hoot and holler. Grant made them stop. He said, “These men are your comrades now.” We have more in common than what pulls us apart.
GRANT & TWAIN will be performed at PS21, Chatham, NY. Performances: Sept. 27, 28, 29 at 8pm. Matinees: Sept. 29, 30 at 2pm. For tickets go to http://ps21chatham.org/event/grant-twain/.