The first time I met Steven Weber was at a lunch given by the former president of our alma mater, Purchase College, during which I was not only starstruck and thereby possibly incoherent, but also moved by the genuine affection and support that Steven expressed for his school, the Conservatory of Theatre Arts at Purchase. By that time, Steven had already gained widespread renown as a television, film, and theatre actor, having starred in the sitcom Wings, the miniseries version of Stephen King’s The Shining, films such as Jeffrey and Single White Female, the Old Vic’s production of National Anthems and the Broadway production of The Producers, to name a very few of his many varied performances. Fast forward to the present and the number of Steven’s roles, appearances, animated character voice-overs, and audio book narrations has expanded to an extraordinary degree and range. Last year, he starred alongside Fran Drescher in the sitcom Indebted, and most recently, his role as Dr. Dean Archer on the series Chicago Med has been promoted from recurring to regular. It is from Chicago that Steven generously took the time to answer my questions.
First of all, how are you and what have you been doing these past seventeen months?
I think I’m reasonably well, reasonably happy, reasonably fit, reasonably employed; I’m reasonable. In the last year plus, I have not worked for ten and a half months but I’m lucky enough to have built up a kind of a cushion which wasn’t that badly impacted. There were a couple of people I knew who passed away—this was at the beginning when Covid was just starting to rage—and that was a wake-up call. Since then, I have just been going along like everybody else, being respectful of all the protocols and trusting that greater minds and more disciplined persons than myself would help get things moving again, and that seems to be the case. I’m a realist and an optimist. But the realist part was tested in the last four years really; the whole Trump period was tough. I feel that things are improving slowly; in the greater sense, as terrifying as it still can be, I feel like all the parties are exposed politically and socially so we really know where we stand now, and we’ll see what happens in the future.
Did you discover anything surprising about yourself in isolation?
I was surprised at how well adjusted I was for the most part. I wasn’t panicking, which would have been my default response many years ago; my hair would have been on fire. I was strangely okay. I mean, nobody knows what’s next and we just adapt to whatever comes our way. On a spiritual level, if you want to entertain that, it forces you to just kind of be in a place of acceptance and being.
You are filming episodes of “Chicago Med” at the moment. How does it feel to be back at work?
It’s great! This is a continuation of the job I started this past February.Talk about people who are smarter and more disciplined than me: the whole set-up here with Chicago Med is amazing. They have such great spirit and organizational facilities, everybody is tested all the time and wearing masks, but everything is still up and running, and it’s fun. I’m grateful to be a part of it all. And Chicago is nice too.
How’s the weather treating you?
It’s nice and temperate, it’s warm; it hasn’t gotten hotter than hell yet. But I was here for the first time in many years this past February and it was like being on Pluto. It was bone-cracking cold. Now it’s really nice, and it’s a great place.
You were just promoted to a regular on “Chicago Med,” congratulations!
Thanks! It’s so weird, I’m a journeyman actor, I’m a gig guy, I go from gig to gig—and long gigs are great—so I’ve been getting a lot of calls from people congratulating me and I’m thinking, what did I do? I didn’t realize there had been a public release of the news.
I came across your posts in “HuffPost” and enjoyed many of them. One post in particular titled “$port$ Talk” is, in essence, about how we’re in danger of losing the pleasure of doing something just for the sake and the happiness of doing it well because we often focus on commercial value. Do you think this pandemic may have shifted that tendency a little because people have actually been enjoying doing things at home just for the pleasure of doing them?
First of all, when I was writing those, I had so many opinions, and just technically speaking, I can’t even read those posts anymore because they’re so tortured. I worked so hard to try to be clever or wordy, and people used to call me out on it. I used to defend myself saying that I did love language—and I still do—and I wanted to use words that I don’t ordinarily spit out in conversation. Anyway, that’s beside the point. But to your question… it’s hard to say. I feel like there have always been people who have been able to enjoy themselves or pursue their passions without having to put a dollar sign on them. However, our society, in my opinion, has become so commercial, especially with the advent of technology and social media where people are convinced that they can’t matter unless they live a life that’s public and they get public affirmation and appreciation: likes, followers, and all of that. To me that’s an outgrowth of a kind of celebrity culture where anybody can acquire the trappings of celebrity if they have followers or if they have a very public portrayal of themselves.
I do think that there are people who don’t need that, who can pursue their art or their passion or their work and find comfort, affirmation, and pleasure without having to hear the applause or without getting clicks and likes. I know that there are people out there who create and are satisfied with that. At the end of the day, you come into this world alone and you die alone. I’m not trying to get dark. But you have to be able to live with yourself, live with your creations and the things that you want to do that are hopefully beneficial and constructive, without having to get approval from a wide audience. And yes, maybe quarantining has made that more possible.
On the other hand, had it not been for FaceTime or Zoom, quarantine would have been really difficult, especially for people like my mother who is going to be 84 years old and lives in New York City while I’m out in L.A. The visual contact was essential so that was a really good application for technology in a situation which could have been a lot more isolating. Then again, maybe isolation and stopping people in their tracks is what we need as a species: just stop, stop for a second. It’s the valuing of quiet rather than that capitalistic impulse of monetizing every available bit of psychic real estate where everything must be filled with something that’s commodified or commercialized; I don’t think that’s healthy.
Why did you stop writing for HuffPost?
Because I wanted to be sort of an entertaining pundit…. That writing got a little bit of attention here and there, and I’d done a couple of episodes of Bill Maher’s old show, Politically Incorrect, which was funny and entertaining and where I was able to throw a few silly things in that got laughs or applause, so I felt like I can do this. Then later on I was on Real Time with Bill Maher. The three guests were Darrell Issa, a Republican Congressman from California, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Danish MP and refugee from Somalia who was threatened with assassination but who became this incredibly dynamic, very well-respected political figure, and me, schmuck from Wings. So, Darrell Issa is talking, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali is talking, and I’m sitting there realizing that I really don’t know what I’m talking about, that all my knowledge and all the cues that I was taking and writing about were just superficial responses to media. I rarely did deep dives into the subjects that I was opining on. So eventually I stopped.
Would you think about writing something else, like your memoirs?
I’ve thought of it. But then I thought, who cares? It’s just more fodder. Everybody has a story, and everybody has the hero’s journey, really. I’m a Jewish kid from Queens. I’ve been lucky, and I’ve also had my own travails… I do like to talk.
As an actor of both film and TV series roles, how do you approach a series role as opposed to a film role? Obviously, in a series you need to sustain that role over a long period of time, and you don’t even know the ending whereas in a movie, it’s more condensed. Is your approach different between the two?
There are differences in the approach. Some of it has to do with the kind of role it is. If it’s a light-hearted role and you’re doing a film, it requires less intensity, a different way of working than it does if you’re doing something that’s darker which requires more searching, more effort to bring out the darker elements. I don’t really do that many films and the roles I’ve done in them, for the most part, are short.
The last film role of yours that I saw was Anton in “The Perfection.”
That was pretty intense! It was so crazy, but great fun. That’s an example of having to sustain a kind of intensity in order to give it some verisimilitude, so that it wasn’t over the top. How about that ending? It’s not a good date film.
No, and you can’t be eating popcorn when you watch it.
You can’t eat anything!
How do you feel after a film like that; does it do anything to you?
Not a film like that so much, but I was on this great series that too many people did not see called Get Shorty, with Ray Romano and Chris O’Dowd, where it’s about the world rather than the literal story of the book: it’s organized crime meets the film industry. I played an awful guy, not quite a Harvey Weinstein type but in that ballpark. To kind of live in that skin for a while, to be that guy was not enjoyable—and it’s like putting that skin on you every day. And I’m not an actor with the intensity of Daniel Day-Lewis or Jamie Foxx. I suit up for the day, then take it off and go home.
You started performing really young. In one of your first appearances as a kid, you played a dragon and you stole the show, and that’s when you got bitten by the acting bug.
Yeah, I was in a school play of Where the Wild Things Are which is a great book by Maurice Sendak. It was a small part, but I started ad-libbing and I got applause and laughter, and that was it!
In one of your posts, you expressed that you believe in the importance of studying one’s art. Let’s talk about our alma mater—Purchase College—which we both love. How do you think that your performing instincts were nurtured at Purchase?
I love Purchase. Purchase was the best part of what was an eight-year-long study for me. I went to the High School of Performing Arts for four years and that was my first foray into a serious approach to acting. But it was going to school at SUNY Purchase under the mentorship of Joan Potter that really impressed me with the idea that one should study theatre if one wants to be a serious actor. Without it, I wouldn’t have had an understanding of the breadth of theatre and theatrical training. I would have just been a guy who got his training from watching TV and making a room full of people laugh.
Purchase imbued me with an appreciation that this art is thousands of years old. If you choose to go down this road and take the time to research it, you’re going to understand that it’s not just to make money or to make people laugh or cry, but theatre is deeply rooted in human experience and civilization, and that matters. If anybody asks me for advice, I usually say: please study theatre and do plays if you can, that’s part of it. It’s not just performing, it’s speaking incredible language, learning style and the mores of other cultures; it forces you to take the time, to slow down and learn something before you blurt it out. And that’s what we did at Purchase. We went into the masterpieces and did long, lugubrious, arguably entertaining productions, but it was essential to do hours of Shakespeare or Shaw or Chekhov, roles that I might not ever get the opportunity to play again.
Yet some say that too much studying can be detrimental to a performer and stifle those instincts.
I think there is a possibility that somebody can study too much but then they have to think about what they want to do: do they want to be an academic in theatre or do they want to perform? At one level, you never stop studying, but if you want to be an actor, at some point you have to leave the nest, the nest being the world of studying. On the other hand, if studying is what gives you pleasure, then do that.
And when they leave the nest, a lot of aspiring actors have to do all kinds of jobs before they catch a break. You did as well.
Of course. I was an elevator operator, I was a short order cook, I was a messenger, I worked in the garment district. I did all those things to keep me housed and fed. Luckily, it all led me where I wanted to go. But also, being in theatre and being an actor can aid you in many other disciplines, some of them not in the performing arts. And I always thought, if I hadn’t been able to sustain myself as an actor, I still liked the world of it enough that I would have found a place in that industry, even if it was on a crew, being a dolly grip or a carpenter or in lighting or being a filmmaker or an editor or working in a theatrical agency. I like this world and the people in it.
So maybe if you want to be an actor but are finding some difficulties pursuing that specific aim, then you can find some place within the industry that might be more suited to you. And your years of study, while not getting you in front of an audience, might actually be helpful behind the scenes. Look, many years ago they used to teach Shakespeare almost as an obligatory subject because it gave people poise and confidence when they had to recite; it taught them speech, language, history, style, so there’s more to be gained from theatrical study than just performing.
Do you miss doing live theatre?
I do miss it, in theory. I would love to go back to it, and I’m sure at some point I will. It’s also terrifying. In my experience, as an actor it’s way easier to work in film and TV, almost anyone can do it, but not anyone can do a play. It requires more of you. When you’re on stage it’s amazing and beautiful, and also frightening and hard because it’s just you out there, so I have a little trepidation. The energy of theatre is of course much different from film and TV; it’s something that is really basic and essential: that connection between you and the material, you and audience, the audience and the material; it’s pretty incredible. When it works, it’s amazing.
You’ve performed on Broadway in shows like “The Producers” and “The Real Thing.” What has New York City meant for you and for your career?
New York is my hometown. I will always be a New Yorker even though I’ve lived in Los Angeles for more years than I did growing up in New York. New York is the spiritual center of my acting; it’s where I learned. There is a living, breathing theatre community there that I haven’t found anywhere else. It always calls to me, it’s still in me, and the experience of working in theatre in New York is just beautiful because it’s a great microcosm of the experience of being a New Yorker. It holds what’s implied by the masks of comedy and tragedy in the very heart of all the buildings and all the theatres and the people that you meet. It’s something deep and grounded and rich. You’re part of a canon. Doing a show in a Broadway theatre is of course the pinnacle of any actor’s dream. My two sons were born in Santa Monica and sometimes I still forget they’re not New Yorkers.
Do they want to follow in your footsteps and work in the industry?
No. They’ve flirted with acting here and there. But they’re great musicians. One of my sons is going to Berklee College of Music in Boston, and my older boy is a great Indie rocker. They have a much deeper understanding of their art than I have. I can only really act when somebody gives me a job to act; they’re constantly composing, playing, practicing, and jamming with their friends. What am I gonna do? Recite monologues to the mirror? That’s sad. So, it’s a little different when you’re an actor; you’re kind of waiting.
What would you like to see happen in this country in 2022?
The eradication of the obstructive, negative, damaged dysfunction that is deep in the heart of a lot of this country. There are noble, loving, compassionate, constructive, smart voices out there that are ruled by science and logic and pragmatism that have nothing to do with oppressing people and marginalizing people. I want women to take over, enough of all these men! I say women should hurry up already and take over the world. I want the movements that are happening to continue to fight that kind of entrenched, racist, classist mentality that has just really sown destruction. We have to reset ourselves because if not, as we’re seeing, nature is going to reset us.
Top Photo Credit: Elizabeth Sisson/NBC