A Day in the Life of Michael McKean of ‘All the Way’
The comedic actor, now on stage as J. Edgar Hoover, shares his sleep issues, his favorite late-night host and why this play is so personal to him
The riveting new play All The Way depicts the complicated months between John F. Kennedy’s assassination and the presidential election of Lyndon B. Johnson (played by Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston). Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan shows how pivotal political figures including J. Edgar Hoover; Martin Luther King, Jr., Governor George Wallace and LBJ helped shape the course of history during a complex and volatile time.
Michael McKean, who plays J. Edgar Hoover, first saw the play 18 months ago at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and knew that he wanted to be involved. “The play really worked on the stage,” says McKean. “Robert Schenkkan has done more research than you can possibly imagine over a period of 15 years to create this play.”
That time in history also resonated with McKean, who was 16 when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. “That’s a real crux time of your life, and it was a really interesting time” explains McKean. “The first piece I ever got published [in the school newspaper] was about the three Civil Rights workers who were murdered [in 1964 in Missississippi]. Locally, I worked for the LBJ campaign. I campaigned for my new Congressman Lester Wolff and I did a lot of democratty things during that time. I saw how some battle lines were drawn.”
McKean is familiar to audiences from his seriously eclectic career in TV (Laverne & Shirley Family Tree, Saturday Night Live), movies (This is Spinal Tap, Best in Show, A Mighty Wind) and on Broadway (The Pajama Game, Gore Vidal’s The Best Man). He is also refreshingly down-to-earth about his life (which includes taking the subway to and from the theater and cooking a mean chili). Here, the actor shares the joys and challenges of a two-show day.
I don’t sleep terribly well. I’ve been an insomniac all my life and I don’t take anything for it. So I usually get up a little creaky. I have a little espresso/cappuccino maker which is a cheapy but it’s the only kind I’ve ever had. I make myself some coffee which Annette [his wife, actress Annette O' Toole] has set up for me. These days she’s going off to work around 9:30 because she’s working on a workshop of a new musical [Bright Star, written by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell]. So I rattle around. I go online and check my emails. And eventually I roll towards the door. In this weather I don’t go out running around like I do in the spring when you’ll find me in the park.
I took the train to the theater so I can get there in plenty of time. I take the subway because it’s a really good way to travel and pretty damn reliable. It’s at least as reliable as the post office, just a little faster. I grabbed a sandwich at a local establishment and ate it in my dressing room.
At the theater, I got into Mr. Hoover. I put the little microphone up under my wig. We’re all miked for various reasons at various times. But I’m usually pretty loud. I got the knot on Mr. Hoover’s tie as close as I can get to perfect. I get out on the stage and take a look at how good the house is. If there’s a lot of people there, that’s a good thing. If there’s not so many, well we still have to do the same job.
During intermission, I change my clothes. I go from being Senator Robert Byrd to Hoover because I play more than just Hoover. It was a pretty good show. Bryan had a cough and he was really fighting that. Everyone was just amazed. If you know someone’s not feeling great, but you look at them and they’re nailing it anyway, it’s a really remarkable performance. I got through Hoover’s actions. I see where it goes and whose life I can screw up. And then we’re done and take a bow.
After the show, it takes me about 30 seconds to get out of the wig and the wardrobe and out the door. I say, ‘I’ll see you in a few hours.’ Sometimes I’ll stay near there, but yesterday I wanted to come home. So I hopped on the train and came uptown. I love being able to go home because it’s just a short hop.
Annette showed up about half an hour after I got home. We’re just barely seeing each other because of our schedules right now. I had already warmed up some chili for myself, but I said, ‘Oh, I want to take you out someplace real quick.’ But she said, ‘No, you have to go.’ There’s an awful lot of sacrifice. My chili was real good. I watched about half of an episode of House Of Cards. I like that show. I’m still not done with the first season. And we really like True Detective a lot. And we’re watching Helix on the Syfy channel, which is really fun because it’s kind of horror/sci fi and has some particularly good actors.
I went back downtown to the theater to be there for half hour [the half hour before the show begins]. I got into Hoover again. I do vocal warm ups and empty my head of stuff that doesn’t need to be there. Paradoxically, I do that by sometimes shoving a lot of music in it. Right before I go on I usually have some music going in my dressing room. I have very eclectic tastes. I like a lot of new stuff and a lot of old stuff. And I have all kinds of it on my phone. I also have 80 Jack Benny radio shows on my phone. That’s a nonsensical sentence but it’s true. It’s awesome.
Bryan was warmed up and doing an amazing job. He’s still not feeling great but just hammering it home. Amazing. I’m kind of goal oriented when I’m doing a play, so I just come up with whatever I need to come up with when it starts. There have been times when I felt really, really terrible and sick but I go on. You almost don’t think about where it comes from because it comes. You just get through it. You may not be giving the greatest performance or the one you want to be remembered for, but you got through from the start to the finish.
I got home. Annette was asleep, so I watched the rest of House of Cards and a little bit of Jimmy Fallon, a little bit of David Letterman. Jimmy Fallon is great. He’s got a real friendly, familiar vibe to him. People like him for the right reasons. He’s a good guy who comes across as a good guy. So it’s a well-done show. But I’m not into comparatives. Everybody’s been good and lousy for as long as I’ve known about them. Maybe Jack Paar was on for five years or whatever. He wasn’t brilliant every night.
I tried to go to sleep. I on and off slept. That’s about as exciting as it gets.