The Long Red Road

Greta Honold, AB'08, stars in acclaimed new play directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman.
I really wanted a liberal–arts education instead of pursuing a degree in theater. The benefit of acting professionally throughout high school was that it gave me the opportunity to work with amazing artists. The reason they were amazing artists is that th

The theater world was abuzz when the Goodman Theatre announced that Philip Seymour Hoffman would make his Chicago directorial debut with “The Long Red Road,” a new play by Brett Leonard. Hoffman’s decision to cast rising star Tom Hardy in the leading role only increased the anticipation.

But when the play debuted, it was Greta Honold, AB’08, who caught many critics’ eyes. “Much of the advance buzz about the production has centered on Tom Hardy,” Albert Williams wrote in the Chicago Reader, “but his intensity is matched in every respect by Greta Honold.” The Chicago Sun–Times praised Honold’s “exquisitely tuned” performance, while Variety noted that “Honold was relentlessly believable in perhaps the hardest part.”

We asked Honold about “The Long Red Road,” working with Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and why she chose the University of Chicago.

How did you get started in theater?

I started acting when I was about 10 or 11. It was this after–school activity that went awry. I played a lot of soccer, and my mother especially is very artistically inclined, and she wanted to balance out my activities. For some reason, I really took to acting. An opportunity to perform professionally came up, and it just sort of snowballed.

What made you decide to come to the U. of C.? Did you ever consider attending drama school instead?

I really wanted a liberal–arts education instead of pursuing a degree in theater. The benefit of acting professionally throughout high school was that it gave me the opportunity to work with amazing artists. The reason they were amazing artists is that they were amazing people. And I just thought that for me, because I had already worked so much, I wanted a break from it. Is this something that I really wanted to do? I had no illusions about how difficult it is as a career. I wanted to take some time away to think about whether it was what I wanted to do.

You majored in anthropology. What drew you to the field?

I didn’t know what I wanted to study, going into college … What drew me were the people. The professors were really fascinating; in retrospect, [anthropology is] the study of why people do what they do. And that’s what an actor does. I find myself thinking like an anthropologist all the time.

Tell me a little bit about your character in the “Long Red Road.”

Her name is Annie, and she’s a young woman teaching on an Indian reservation in South Dakota. She’s teaching from Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States. She’s the daughter of an alcoholic and the girlfriend of an alcoholic. She’s the archetype of a codependent woman who is … determined to help everyone. She’s a fascinating character. I immediately saw in her things I related to, and things that I didn’t, and things to investigate and explore. As an actor, you can’t judge these people—and these people don’t do the most admirable things. You have to advocate for them, and you grow to really love then.

Was it intimidating to audition for Philip Seymour Hoffman?

Yeah, pretty much. It was pretty nerve–wracking. I remember waiting outside the audition—I was sweating and shaking. But then the minute I walked into the room, [I realized] he was just a person. The thing you always forget is that everyone wants you to do good—you’re wasting their time if you do bad. Everyone is rooting for you. I snapped to, and everything was fine.

What’s he like as a director?

He’s a great director. He’s really smart and has a keen intellect and a keen sense of people. He nailed all of us as actors and knew exactly what our weaknesses and strengths were. He is a true artist, and he has the highest of standards for everyone he works with. It was challenging at times. He didn’t accept anything less than perfection, which is impossible. He understands that the work is never complete, and you never get it right. I learned a ton from him.

What’s a typical day like for you?

We have eight shows a week, and Monday is my full day off. During the day, I’m free, and then I go to theater in the evening. This play is particularly exhausting. It’s an emotional play. On Sunday evenings I’m totally wiped. It does kind of wear you out. The number of hours I’m actually at work is [pretty small]. But of course [you spend] a lot of hours in the rehearsal process. By the time the show opens, you have time to recover.

Do you have any pre–show superstitions or habits?

It depends on the show. But I’ve found that this show wears on my body. Before the show I try to spend some time doing some yoga and breathing and stretching out my body. The minute I’m on stage, I start tensing up. And I like to check in with the other actors. I do some vocal warmups, and I remind myself who I am, and who my character is, and how she got to this place. I try to remind myself to have fun. I have this little mantra I have said to myself ever since I was a kid: “Be there, be honest, have fun.” I usually say that to myself before I go on stage.

“The Long Red Road” runs through March 21 at the Goodman Theatre.

—Susie Allen