A running theme throughout the career of theater director and actor André Gregory is proving that the seemingly impossible is actually possible. It might seem impossible to direct a production of Alice in Wonderland (1970) in which six people play all of the most iconic characters from Lewis Carroll’s two Alice books, transforming into different characters or animals before the eyes of the audience without the aid of makeup or costume changes, on a stage that had only one table and a single strong light. But Gregory did so with his theatre company The Manhattan Project, and their work became an international success.
It might seem impossible to make a film that primarily consists of a series of conversations at a dinner table between two men as exciting as any action movie. But My Dinner with André (1981), which he co-wrote with longtime collaborator Wallace Shawn, features scenes where Gregory tells stories that are so vivid and thrilling that you can practically see them. Gregory’s charismatic performance helped make My Dinner with André an unlikely success and led people to reimagine what a film could be.
Now, at the age of 86, Gregory has done something that he himself would have previously thought impossible: he has written a memoir.
“The one thing I always said I would never do is write a memoir,” Gregory told me in a phone interview. “I live very much in the present and don’t really like dwelling on the past.”
Even six years into the process of writing his book, his aversion to the genre would help lead him to call his book This is Not My Memoir, which he still defines as not being a memoir in some ways.
“It isn’t linear. It doesn’t cover everything. It’s kaleidoscopic in structure.”
Gregory also cited that the book is different from other memoirs in that it depicts how he changes over time. It features what he calls his transformation from a “pained enfant terrible into a guy who feels peaceful and good about his life. So you might say that it’s as much a novel as it is a memoir.”
It’s also a close look inside of the mind of one of America’s living artistic treasures, with a structure that moves at the speed of thought. Gregory jumps around in time, punctuating his stories of helping Billie Holiday sing in public for the last time when he was a young assistant stage manager, and directing plays like Uncle Vanya, with some favorite quotes and musings on what is happening in contemporary America. Gregory said that this free-flowing approach to structure happened organically.
“As I say about my painting and also about my directing, when I begin, I have no specific goal. I don’t have anything I know I want to say or want to do. The work simply grows out of the process itself,” Gregory said.
Much of Gregory’s work has the ring of prophecy to it. There are many scenes in My Dinner with André (which he hopes people will watch “as a parable of approaching Fascism”) that are relevant, but Gregory’s monologue about how technology (in the case of that film, electric blankets) leads people to not notice the world around them is especially relevant in our screen-addicted world. In addition, Gregory has directed productions of his longtime collaborator and friend Wallace Shawn’s play Grasses of a Thousand Colors, which imagines a future where human-caused changes to our environment result in the rise of a deadly virus. It feels especially prophetic in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Prophecy isn’t so much that you can tell what’s going to happen in the future,” Gregory said. “It’s that you have an acute sense of how to look at the present, and see what seeds there are in the present that will lead to a future.”
In addition to his work as a director of that play, as well as theatre productions that have become the films Vanya on 42nd Street and A Master Builder, Gregory is an actor who has been in some great films. I particularly admire his passionate performance as John the Baptist in The Last Temptation of Christ, for which he prepared strenuously. Gregory noted that he “read The Book of Isaiah about 30 or 40 times. I’d go into Times Square and preach the end of the world. When we were on location I went into the desert alone at night to somehow pick up the energy of the stars.”
That film was a passion project of Martin Scorsese, whom Gregory said was “probably my best director.” To illustrate Scorsese’s close attention to directing actors, Gregory told me a story about working with him on location:
“We did two or three takes of a speech, and he [Scorsese] said, ‘Great, let’s move on’ and I said, ‘You know, Marty, I keep feeling that there’s a lot of emotion under this speech that I haven’t tapped.’ And he said… something like, ‘Well, let’s do another take. Do the first sentence faster, but let there be more space between the first word and the second word. And then when you come to the end of a sentence, take a longer pause before you go into the next sentence.’ I said, ‘Can you say that again?’ And he said sure, and he said it again, and I did it and whoosh, all of this emotion was there. That’s someone who knows what he’s doing.”
In addition to his work in theatre and film, Gregory has been outspoken about politics for decades. Even at 86 he remains active politically, raising money for Joe Biden and retaining a belief in the power of protest.
“There would have been no integration of schools if it hadn’t been for the protests,” he said. “There would have been no end to the Vietnam War if there hadn’t been protests.”
On a personal level, getting to ask Gregory about the state of the world today was the part of our conversation for which I had been the most excited. In the aftermath of the 2016 election, when I was feeling sad and angry, I read something that he had said in conversation with theatre director Anne Bogart in the early 2000s. Gregory remarked that the task of artists was “to sit around the fire in these terrible, frightening, cold times, and nurture the flames. Our task is to give beauty, perfection, precision and hope.” His words inspired me as an artist and as a person. I was eager to get more wisdom from Gregory about how to act in times such as ours.
In our conversation, Gregory initially held off on the idea that he should be telling others how to take action in response to what was going on in the world. “I don’t think you can ever say what you think others should be doing,” Gregory said. “All you can do is do what you are called to do.”
He went on to note that he considered that terrible events can lead to counter-movements. “The horrors of police brutality have led to Black Lives Matter. The patriarchal system has led to the MeToo movement. There are signs of change on the wind,” he said, even as he expressed fear about the fragility of America’s democracy.
I enjoyed my conversation with Gregory, and thanked him for it. Later that day, however, I got an email from the person who arranged our interview saying that he wanted to talk to me again. I got in touch with him, and he said that he’d been thinking about our conversation.
Gregory noted that there are great acts one can do in turbulent times. He cited Greta Thunberg’s voyage across the Atlantic Ocean to participate in a U.N. summit on climate change as an example. But he acknowledged that not everyone can do things on that scale.
“If you can’t do that, go clean up plastic on a beach. And if you can’t do that, smile and be kind to a stranger.”
Gregory talked about the importance of doing such positive acts every day, and how great change can spring from small actions. I thanked him, and we hung up. I felt a little like Wally does at the end of My Dinner with André: more observant, relaxed, and awake to the wonders of the world. I felt eager to do what Gregory had done throughout his career: prove that the seemingly impossible was possible, as both an artist and a citizen. I would set about doing that, however, after I had finished reading This is Not My Memoir for the third time.
Jesse Pasternack is a graduate of Indiana University. During his time at IU, Jesse was the co-president of the Indiana Student Cinema Guild. He also wrote about film, television, and pop culture for the Indiana Daily Student. Jesse has been a moderator at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival and is a friend of the Doug Loves Movies podcast. An aspiring professional writer-director, his own film work has appeared at Campus Movie Fest and the Anthology Film Archives in New York City.