Dallas — Jaston Williams is starring in Theatre Three’s production of Tru, a monodrama about the late Truman Capote, author of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, In Cold Blood and several scandalous stories with thinly disguised portraits of his New York society friends. The play begins with Capote’s response to being dropped by people he considered his crowd because of these stories and moves to other areas of his life and work. Written by Texas-born playwright Jay Presson Allan, and directed by Marty Van Kleek, the show premiered on Broadway in 1989 with Robert Morse in the role.
Williams is an award-winning playwright and actor. Together with Joe Sears, he co-wrote and co-starred in Greater Tuna, the first in a series of four comedies set in the small Texas town of Tuna, featuring 20 characters, all played by the two actors.
We caught up with Williams to talk about reprising his performance in Tru, which he has done at Austin’s Zach Scott Theatre.
TheaterJones: Truman Capote was a dwarfish, plump, balding, deliberately fluttery man in the period depicted in Tru. How important do you think it is to physically look like a real person you’re portraying?
Jaston Williams: I think you do what you can. It’s especially important with an older generation that remembers all those appearances on Carson [The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson]. I’m getting all my hair cut off today, right when it’s getting coldest in Dallas. I have an undersuit that gives me the beefy body and sagging belly. At this point in his life, Capote was going to seed. It was nine years after the publication of In Cold Blood, and he’d started going into a personal slide of drugs, alcohol and not creating anything. Instead, he became a personality. In a line in the show he says, “I used to be famous for being a writer, now I’m famous for being famous.”
You first did Tru 12 years ago at Austin’s Zach Scott Theatre. What kind of research on Capote the man did you do?
The Clarke biography [Gerald Clarke’s Capote: A Biography, 1988] has been my greatest source from the beginning; Capote was completely honest with him. Also, a friend had an old LP of Capote reading his work. Then a few years ago we started talked about doing Tru again, and we did a revival at the Zach Theatre in 2013. It’s such a beautiful script. The amazing thing is that Jay Presson Allen wrote a hysterically funny play about a man with an acerbic wit, and yet it’s incredibly sad. You watch him decline. It’s a play about alcoholism, in some ways.
Capote once said that all writers drink. Do you know anything about that personally?
I have a strong affection for a good vintage wine. I lived in New Orleans for 13 years, where my appreciation grew. Luckily for me, I can discipline myself. Writers back then did drink. Now we spend a lot of time talking about our health, and then, I’m convinced, everybody goes home and drinks his organic vodka.
How does working in Theatre Three’s in-the-round stage affect your performance in Tru?
I did it in-the-round at Zach Scott’s small theater. The space was more like an octagon, and here it’s more like a rectangle, so we’ve made some adjustments, but not a lot. Most of my training was done in the round. Really keeps you on your toes.
Certainly you’ve played a full two hours a night in live performance in the Tuna plays, but you were shifting into at least 10 different men and women. Have you performed other one-man show like this? How hard is it to carry off a whole play by yourself?
You can’t blame anyone else for not giving you your cues. You carry an enormous responsibility. I’ve done several one-man shows. I just closed a one-man show in Austin in September. It’s called Maid Marian and the Stolen Car—about my life in theater. I don’t have to make anything up—just calm down and remember.
Are you going to bring your new show to Dallas?
I hope so. It won a lot of awards in Austin and I love Maid Marian very much. Not sure where; I also have a relationship with The Eisemann Theater in Richardson and Casa Mañana in Fort Worth.
Truman Capote has had some impressive interpreters on stage and in film. Did you watch YouTube excerpts of Robert Morse’s Tony Award-winning performance in the Broadway premiere of the play? Or Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal of the author in Bennett Miller’s biopic Capote?
I saw Bobby Morse on Broadway twice and I was astounded by it. I’m also friends with Jay Presson Allen, so I was thrilled about the Tony. For me, the tragic story of 2014 was losing Hoffman and Robin Williams in one year. I met Robin Williams on a couple of occasions, and when I heard what happened I wished I could have done something. It’s ridiculous for me to think that, I guess. In some ways, he was a genius. Hoffman was, too. Interestingly, Hoffman was not physically at all right for that role—he was a much bigger man—and yet he got those mannerisms down. Then Infamous came out a year after Capote, and Toby Jones played Capote. Jones was a little bitty guy, so they could stand him right next to Jeff Daniels with no camera tricks. He was perfectly cast, and he was magnificent—looked so much like Capote it was eerie.
As far as my own performance in Tru, you gotta start from scratch. By the time I did it the first time, I had a lot of distance from seeing the Broadway show. The Capote in Tru is a different animal than the one in the movies. The play shows him at point of disintegration. He never recovered after In Cold Blood; he just went downhill.
Capote was a talk show fixture in his day. Drunk or sober, he gave good talk. Did you watch those clips to tap into mannerisms or to help incorporate other aspects of the man into your performance?
Oh yes. The clips totally informed my performance in the first act of this play when he drinks a whole bottle of vodka. He’s totally smashed. There’s a famous video clip of an interview where he’s so pathetic, slurring his words. There are even some lines Allen put in the play I think she got from that interview. “I’m not like anybody else,” he says. That’s the line reading. He’s giving it you! Capote was sad, terrifying, dangerous with his opinions. Before the Internet, when Capote said something about somebody it could be tremendously damaging. There was even a suicide connected with his releasing those stories [excerpts from Answered Prayers, the Unfinished Novel, Capote’s posthumously published work naming real people he knew]. Anne Hopkins, a socialite with a shaky past, got an early copy of the story and killed herself. These socialites opened their doors to Capote and he was taking notes. At the same time he was hanging with the rich, he also was writing this book about people at the opposite end of America’s spectrum, the outlaws and outcasts.
What opinion of the man do you expect theatergoers to walk away with?
He’s just another human being who happened to have an amazing talent, a genius for writing. He creates things of such beauty you value them as art. You may find an artist revolting—but eventually every artist lives by the work. People don’t realize how complex creative genius is. Robin Williams was a funny man, but an amazingly serious actor. People don’t want to hear about your tragedies. They like to think there’s somebody out there who can always make you smile. Underneath the wit, Truman Capote was a very complex individual. He was no hypocrite. He also revealed everything about himself. His writing is already in the classic canon. People will be reading Capote for a long time.
Capote infamously said that, based on his many years of experience in film and stage work, good actors are not particularly smart—certainly not compared to writers. In your experience as both a writer and actor, which one is harder? What takes the most brainpower?
I don’t know. Writing is difficult and when I write something I really love it’s more rewarding than acting; very private, very personal. When you’re writing and you think, “Oh that’s it,” you’re alone. When you find that moment on the stage an audience acknowledges it. I can’t make a blanket statement like Capote’s. Look at Daniel Day-Lewis or Tom Hanks—they’re smart. We have our share of stupid actors but we’re nice to them; they can’t hurt you.
The Tuna plays are terrific satire—Greater Tuna was originally written in response to the Moral Majority in the 1980s, and it’s still relevant today. What does Tru say about modern society?
Capote was actively non-political. He didn’t get involved in causes. The only exception was the death penalty. He said anybody who witnessed an execution could not still come out and support the death penalty. [Capote witnessed the execution of the men he wrote about in In Cold Blood.] But in this play we see him take on a part of society that felt they were protected, entitled. They let him through the door and he showed the world a side of them nobody else had.
Which Tuna character would Capote have been best friends with? Which character would he love?
He would relate most to Stanley Bumiller, the Tuna outcast who went to reform school, and murdered a judge. Capote considered himself an outcast. He would probably really love Aunt Pearl Burras, because the most significant character in Capote’s life was his Aunt Sook, who he wrote about in A Christmas Memory. The story was all based on reality, and is a beautiful section in this play. Aunt Pearl has a lot of Aunt Sook in her; she’s the salt of the earth, and Stanley was her favorite nephew. He would probably have killed Vera Carp.
What’s it like working with the Theatre Three team?
I’m having a wonderful time. Jac is such a legend. I can’t believe it’s taken me 40 years to finally get to Theatre Three. We’ll rehearse a while, then we stop and Jac and I start telling theater stories until the director tells us to get back to work. I’m having a ball.