- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Supreme Court deliberations are famously conducted behind closed doors, so veteran Washington actor Edward Gero can’t spill the details of his lunchtime conversation in the chambers of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

“The content of that [conversation] is off the record,” Mr. Gero told The Washington Times. “But I can tell you that he was very generous and funny.”

But the insights Mr. Gero picked up are on display as he tackles the lead role in “The Originalist,” a play about the combative, conservative and hypersmart justice. The script focuses on Justice Scalia’s often biting court opinions.

Mr. Gero, a 30-plus-year veteran of the D.C. stage, has the unique opportunity to portray the larger-than-life contemporary figure. The play, written by John Strand and running at the Arena Stage through April 26, follows a fictional dialectic between Justice Scalia and an upstart Harvard law clerk, played by Kerry Warren. Mr. Strand wrote the play specifically with Mr. Gero in mind.

Mr. Gero, in addition to undertaking painstaking research on the judicial writings of Justice Scalia, as well as studying his mannerisms and vocal inflections in video and audio recordings, sought kinship in his summit with the Reagan appointee. Both men are Italian-American — in fact, their ancestors can be traced to within 7 miles of each other in the Old Country — born and raised in New Jersey in the postwar period and hail from Roman Catholic families.

“He is a very ardent Catholic,” Mr. Gero said of Justice Scalia, whose son is a priest with the Diocese of Arlington, “and I’m practicing, or at least trying to get it right, I suppose,” he said with a laugh.

“By the end of the time I spent with him, I felt like I was spending time with an uncle. Very warm, very generous and a very streetwise person of Italian-American upbringing working his way up to the top. And he hasn’t forgotten his roots.”

The title of the play refers to Justice Scalia’s reputation for interpreting the “original” spirit of U.S. laws — of his leaning toward an originalist and textualist approach. Mr. Gero likens interpretation of laws to a modern actor interpreting the language of Shakespeare.

“What are the etymologies of these words, and what does it mean in terms of the period in which it was written?” he said. “There’s a school called ‘historicism,’ which is analogous to [judicial] originalism: What did the words mean when they were written, and what do they mean [now]? So I had impulses about that as a viable approach to making [it work] in the play.”

Mr. Gero studied theater at Montclair State University, not far from his hometown of Madison, New Jersey. One of his classmates was Bruce Willis.

Mr. Gero then crossed the Hudson and spent years in New York hunting acting jobs — complemented by occasional bartending — in the world’s busiest theater scene. A chance to work a winter season at George Mason University first brought him to the nation’s capital in 1981. He was then invited to join the Folger Theater Group — which later became the Shakespeare Theater Company — an experience Mr. Gero describes as “a dream come true,” the chance to at last be a professional player.

He either “had to go back to New York and look for work, or stay here and do the work I was trained to do,” Mr. Gero said, “and that’s what I decided to do. I didn’t want to be a nomad; it wasn’t in my cultural background. Washington afforded me the opportunity” to get married and have a son.

The three hot zones of American theater traditionally have been New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, but Mr. Gero has never looked back. He said Washington is fast becoming one of the best places in the country for theater, where artists have more access to political figures than anywhere else on earth.

“I want to believe that Washington really is the Athens of the modern world,” Mr. Gero said, “so artists should come here to speak to power. [Figures like Justice Scalia] are our neighbors. They are our colleagues. They come to see the plays. You can’t do that anywhere else in the United States. You can’t do that in New York or Chicago or LA. You don’t have this kind of access.”

The capital also offers actors and playwrights the chance to grapple with national questions such as “What is our identity? What is the Washington mythology?” Mr. Gero said. “Well, here it is: [‘The Originalist’ has] a Washington playwright, we have a Washington actor, a Washington figure, and the flagship of American regional theater” in the Arena.

Contemporary politics all too often seem dominated by an ethos of who can scream the loudest, a notion Mr. Gero decries. Instead, he prefers the dialectical nature endemic to the Supreme Court, which Mr. Gero describes as “the great American Socratic classroom.”

“Here you have people who hold very different views [but who agree to] have a dialectic to get to the truth.” In this vein, he points to the wildly divergent views of Justice Scalia and fellow Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who can nonetheless “be the odd couple and go to the opera together.”

Mr. Gero said that for the intellectual acumen of the nation’s highest court, it is far from a theatric atmosphere. He points to the incredibly high “level of listening,” which made him “understand why they don’t want cameras in there, because it’s not a visual exercise. It’s about listening, but everybody is listening at such a high level. And I think really that’s what the play is about — looking at what is it about America that we jolt to demonizing people for what positions they have.”

In fact, Mr. Gero’s father hoped young Edward would grow up to be a lawyer.

“I’m not an attorney, Dad, but I play one on stage,” Mr. Gero said with a laugh, saluting his late father.

While his destiny followed the path of Spencer Tracy rather than Clarence Darrow, Mr. Gero nonetheless sees a kinship between the professions of litigator and actor, which may have further strengthened his persona of Justice Scalia.

“We want to be empathy machines,” he said of the two virtuosities. “We want people to come to our point of view. And we want to do that with a sense of integrity, with a sense of the truth.”

This goes back to Mr. Gero’s notion of how Washington theater provides a unique venue for speaking truth to power simply by inhabiting a character.

“I put on a mask of a character, and everyone in the theater knows that I’m pretending,” he said. “So now that that’s off the table, we can actually tell the truth.”

Although he strives for truth in “The Originalist,” Mr. Gero has had his fair stabs at inauthenticity.

His old Montclair classmate, Mr. Willis, ensured that Mr. Gero got a role in his 1990 star vehicle “Die Hard 2,” in which, Mr. Gero proudly recalls, he spoke “the immortal line: ‘Fugi 601, execute published missed approach procedure and hold,’ which took me about eight hours to learn.”

It was Mr. Gero’s first time on a large soundstage in Hollywood. He recalls fondly the experience of being in a major film, even as an also-ran listed in the credits simply as “Engineer,” and of acting in scenes alongside Fred Thompson, later a U.S. senator from Tennessee.

Mr. Gero also had a small role in Mr. Willis’ film “Striking Distance” in 1993. Mr. Willis, through his representatives, declined to comment for this article.

By then firmly entrenched in Washington’s acting scene, Mr. Gero never felt the pull to be in Los Angeles full time and try to follow Mr. Willis’ golden path to stardom. In fact, he recalls that while filming “Die Hard 2” he spoke with someone on the street about current events, which elicited a blank stare.

“The questions [in Los Angeles] were, ‘What car are you driving?’ ‘Who’s your shrink?’ ‘What 12-step program are you in?’” Mr. Gero said. “That’s just not my environment. It just isn’t.”

Turning his back on Tinseltown, he said Washington is quickly becoming a hot spot for film and TV, with shows such as “Turn” and “House of Cards.” Mr. Gero had a small part in “House of Cards,” in a scene taped in the Department of Motor Vehicles.

“I think it’s a great theater town, enormously vibrant,” Mr. Gero said of his adopted hometown, which has several theaters devoted solely to Shakespeare’s plays.

“When I came here [in the early 1980s], there were three theaters, maybe four. Now they have 60 or 70. We create more equity, more so-called professional contracts, than any other city outside of New York — even more than Chicago. People from Chicago would [take issue] with that, but in fact we actually sell more tickets,” he said.

He said Chicago is becoming a city that exports rather than imports its actors. By contrast, he said, Washington does not export its actors.

“To me, that’s the next step. But, as a place where artists want to come, people are coming, and we’re very welcoming. And I think that’s part of what it is to be in the political landscape: Come and speak; the First Amendment is alive and well.”

The capital’s stages continue to vibrate thanks to that spirit, exemplified by Mr. Gero’s channeling of Justice Scalia onstage.

“I feel like I’m acting less and less as I get deeper into the character,” he said of his impersonation of the judge. “I just feel that as an actor who has spent 35 years [in D.C.], I [finally] have the opportunity to become an overnight success.”

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