Actor Lee Sellars didn’t know much about the latest character he was hired to play.
He knew the man lives in 1954. He knew he works as a house painter.
“I know he’s married because he talks about his wife in the play,” Sellars says. “And you can sort of draw the conclusion that he lives in New York, or he wouldn’t have been picked for jury duty there.”
But that’s part of the challenge — and thrill — of acting in Twelve Angry Men. Sellars is one of the stars in the George Street Playhouse’s new production of the classic Reginald Rose play, about a jury of strangers locked in a room to decide whether a teenage boy charged with murder should live or die.
The piece itself is almost 60 years old. Rose wrote it as a television script in 1954 and later adapted it into a play. It was turned into an Oscar-nominated film in 1957. And it’s been made into TV movies and performed on stage countless times since. But it’s the kind of play that audiences keep coming back to, if only to see how different actors interpret it.
“It’s a very malleable piece of theater,” Sellars says. “You can do pretty much anything with it.”
For Sellars, Juror No. 6 is another entry on a long, varied resume that includes TV guest spots on everything from Law & Order to The Sopranos to Chapelle’s Show, roles in films like Groundhog Day and The Savages, and a run playing Officer Krupke in West Side Story on Broadway. This is also his third George Street Playhouse production, having already starred in The Pillowman and The Subject Was Roses at the vaunted New Brunswick theater.
Culture Vultures’ Brent Johnson spoke with Sellars about the mystery of his newest role, how he lied to land a part on ER, and how he moonlights as the lead singer of an alt-rock band named Eelwax Jesus.
Culture Vultures: When you have a role where there character doesn’t have a name and not much of a background, is that liberating as an actor? Or is it terrifying?
Lee Sellars: I’ve never had a character with no name. In TV and film, yeah, all the time. But in a play, no. So it was a little weird. Then you sort of make up a name and you make up a background that you think matches. The whole play is about listening anyway. It’s about these 12 guys
that don’t know each other and get put in the same room, and they have to make some pretty serious decisions. You just sort of see how each
one of them reacts to the stimuli around them. I just took Juror No. 6 and did a lot of listening and sort of drew my conclusions from that.
But it is different. Ordinarily, you get a part and it has a name and you know a lot more about it. But I think Reginald Rose wrote it this way because of his jury experience. And the fact is: You don’t know anything about your fellow 11 jurors. I think he wrote those characters so they wouldn’t know anything, so we would all discover it on our own.
CV: You’ve said you made up a name for the character in your head?
LS: Ordinarily, I’d make up a name. This time, the props people gave the [prison] guard a list of fictitious names for him to just have a prop to check names off of when we came in. And I liked mine so I stuck with it. [laughs]
It was like “D.S. Atkins.” So I came up with “Daniel Stewart Atkins.” I thought it was kismet or something. I could have made up another name, but when I looked at that prop, it was like the first or second day or rehearsal, and I was like, “Okay. That’s my name. I like it.”
CV: You’ve played a judge on Law & Order — one of the many television courtroom dramas. And we live in a world where court cases are often on TV. Does that make this play seem a bit dated or boring? Or is it even more relevant now because of it?
LS: I think more relevant. A little bit is kind of hard to relate to, because times change. The play was written over 50 years ago. But I find it’s more relevant because of the subject matter and because it is about things other than whether this kid is guilty or not. It’s about the way we look at people that aren’t like us. There are
characters in the play assume this young man is guilty simply because he is not white.
There’s one guy — Juror No. 10 — who goes through a huge rant about how they’re not like us. And I think you could see that just as prevalent today as in the 1950s, no matter what minority it’s aimed at. Prejudice and racism is something that as long as human beings exist we’ll probably have to deal with.
One of the things I think the play tries to do is draw the difference between prejudice and racism. To be quite honest with you, I’m not even sure if I’ve discovered what I find the difference to be. The fact that 12 strangers get together and pronounce judgment on somebody they don’t even know, you would hope these people would try to keep their opinions as unbiased as possible. But you take one of the more famous trials in the last 20 years — the O.J. trial — and the racial ramifications of that trial were enormous, inside and outside the jury room.
And some people in that room [in our play] are prejudiced [against the defendant] because they make it personal. There’s another juror who likens this young man to his son, who he hasn’t seen in two years because he ran away. You find he’s trying to punish his son by punishing this young man who he doesn’t even know. Every judge
admonishes a jury before they go into a room that you have to deliberate on the facts and the facts only. But you find out that’s almost impossible for human beings to do. It’s very hard for humans to look at things just black and white.
LS: Wow. I think that I do. I think I would vote the same way that I do in the play.
CV: That’s one of the great things about this play. As it’s going on, even the audience wonders: How would I vote?
LS: Absolutely. I think it’s hard for people to listen to this play and not try to figure out if he really did it or not. I defy you to watch this play or watch that film and not come up with your own opinion as to whether this kid did it or not. It’s a classic piece of writing.
CV: Speaking of the movie, the film itself is iconic. Did you avoid watching it because of that?
LS: Ordinarily, I would avoid that. I remember, I did Of Mice And Men a few years back, and I decided not to watch the movie. I was on Broadway in West Side Story for a couple of years, and I decided not to watch the movie again because I knew my Krupke was going to be so different from the one in the film, I didn’t want to be influenced by it in any way.
But this one, I had just seen it. I didn’t know anything about the play. And I had just seen [the movie] two or three years ago, just on a whim. I rented it and watched it. So it was still kind of fresh in my mind. And I said, “The heck with it.” So I watched it again. And I’m glad I did this, because I really found that it was very helpful
to watch it but also to realize the play is really much different. Sidney Lumet [the director of the 1957 film version] made a wonderful movie. But you’re able to do things on film that you can’t do on stage. You can do close-up shots, you can take your time. It was very informative to watch Edward Binns play Juror No. 6 [in the movie] —
the way he approached it, and the way the other characters approached it.
But in the end, [the play] is a different version of it. When you get on stage and start doing it — as with any play — it’s a family up there. You’re playing with them. I’m incredibly happy. There are some incredibly good actors on that stage.
CV: Do you think some people might not realize there’s great theater at places like the George Street Playhouse, an hour away from Broadway?
LS: I would say that’s very true. I would say people tend to stick with what they know. And it’s hard to go out of those boundaries. I do think it’s unfortunate, but I also see it picking up. I see David Saint [the theater’s artistic director and the director of Twelve Angry Men] and the people at George Street doing everything they can
to draw a new audience to the theater. It’s really a lovely theater. I was just amazed at how many people it will seat, and it’s still so intimate. And there’s a fantastic staff. It looks good, it sounds good, it’s a professional theater.
You have to get out there. I know people complain about traveling on New Jersey transit, but it doesn’t take long at all. And it’s incredibly reasonably priced. It’s just a fun place to be around.
CV: A question about your resume: You guested on both ER AND Chicago Hope — the two famed medical dramas of the 1990s?
LS: I did. ER was a recurring role as a helicopter EMT. I lied to them and told them I had ridden in a helicopter before. So they hired me.
My first day I was on the set, I met George Clooney before he was famous. Anthony Edwards was more well-known before George Clooney at the time. I got into the helicopter, and this guy looks at me. He’s the pilot, and he’s gonna land on the top of the building, and I jump out and yell some medical mumbo jumbo. We get up in the air, and he says, “You better strap yourself in.” What he had been told is [the director] wanted this really exciting loop around the Sears Tower in Chicago. He’s like perpendicular to the ground, man, going around the Sears Tower. And there’s no doors on the thing. I’m literally looking down at the lights of Chicago, and the only thing holding me into that helicopter was a seatbelt. I thought I was going to die. And I was like, “Never, ever lie about anything ever again.”
CV: And you sing in a band called Eelwax Jesus?
LS: My partner in crime is a man named Max Baker. He and I have been friends for something like 20 years now. He and I started improving a bit when we were doing plays. We were sort of doing our Peter Cook-Dudley Moore thing, and we started adding music to it. People really liked it, so we kept doing it.
We’ve got three CDs available on iTunes and all that stuff. It’s called Eelwax Jesus, even though it has absolutely nothing to do with Jesus. It’s just a random name. I don’t know where we came up with it. Some bout of silliness. Probably too much scotch was involved.
Somebody called us art-rock one time. They said we kind of remind them of The Flaming Lips. I don’t know. We just have fun.
CV: The song playing when you click on the band’s website — “Is This Another Love Song?” — sounds like David Bowie fronting a 1980s college-rock band.
LS: It’s off of a CD called Origami Monkeys. [laughs] We have a blast.
“Twelve Angry Men” plays through April 8.