Actor Tom Schanley has worked on many television shows such as “Criminal Minds,” “Dexter,” and “NCIS,” but recently he’s been at Santa Barbara’s Center Stage Theater rehearsing Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” in the lead role of Brick, a self-loathing alcoholic who finds out that his father is dying. I spoke with Tom about his career, the freedom of expression in theatre and television and his connection to a man who despises untruthfulness.

 What is it like performing a play in crutches?

Well, it’s a physical challenge because Brick is on stage for about 90 percent of the time, so while I’m sitting down a lot, the character does move and there’s quite a bit of action and a lot of flying around… It’s about the timing, in terms of staging, being certain places and only using one leg…it’s a challenge. But at the same time it really adds something, as an actor, to have to do something like that that I normally wouldn’t have to do. It really helps you with the character because it’s not something that you’re used to doing. And it’s interesting because Brick broke his ankle the night before when this play takes place, so it’s a new experience to him as well.

This play, and particularly your character, is known for questioning dishonesty, not just from an immoral standpoint, but also a nihilistic one. How do your own personal convictions regarding dishonesty, whether with good or malicious intent, contrast or coincide with Brick’s?

That’s an interesting question. I would say honesty is always the best way to go because dishonesty catches up with you in the end. I know that’s kind of a clichéd answer, but what’s interesting about the play is the way that honesty and dishonesty are used to soften the blow here and soften the blow there, and it’s sort of a comment on human nature as opposed to just a way to discourage lying; because I don’t know a person alive who doesn’t lie. However they call that — whether they lie to themselves or to, you know, like a police officer about how fast they were going — everybody lies. It’s just part of human nature. We say that it’s bad, but even honest people tend to go on with their “white lies” that they tell.

But what it has to do with my own feelings — you’ve got to put yourself in a different place, and the circumstances of this play are so extreme where everything is just happening RIGHT NOW, that it all gets magnified within the context of the piece itself.

“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” is over half a century old but many of its themes carry a lot of weight today, particularly the Southern attitude towards homosexuality and especially telling lies for “the greater good.” How do you feel that this adaptation reinforces those themes and updates them for a modern audience?

It isn’t just lying for the greater good, because Brick is also lying to himself in a way, and [he is also] failing to see the forest for the trees about not lying to Big Daddy. I think that during the course of the play, he goes from real self-loathing and loathing everyone else to really respecting people, including Big Daddy, as he rolls through to the end of Act 3. As far as the homosexuality goes, and critics around the world will think I’m crazy, but I don’t think that the question of whether or not Brick is homosexual is as much about the attitude as the doubt. His friend is the one who admits this to him, and it makes him wonder if everything was a lie. Homosexuality back then, and in that region, to me wasn’t so much about anybody really being gay, but the thing of homosexuality itself. The essence of it.

Have you seen the 1958 film with Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor?


Due to the MPAA codes of that time, the homosexuality undertones were omitted from the film, which led Tennessee Williams to criticize it.

Because it was all about selling tickets. Nobody wanted to see Paul Newman quite possibly being gay on screen. Good, bad, right or wrong, it was all about selling tickets. The script was very different from the play.

 In film and television in particular, there are a lot of those codes and regulations on what you can and cannot say, even in this day and age. Theatre generally doesn’t have these restrictions. With this in mind, which medium would you say you prefer?

I don’t believe in having too many restrictions. But, at the same time, restrictions force writers to say things in much more clever ways. Anybody can tell somebody to fuck off, but if you can’t say that, how would you do it? Some terrific films have come around because somebody just didn’t have the money to do it one way, so they had to get creative. “The Blair Witch Project,” for example. They made that for $30,000, which isn’t a lot of money, so the producers had to get creative.

Film is so in-your-face, because you can see everything and it becomes more about the visual, but theatre is more about the language. A lot of good playwrights will have the freedom to say something in a simple way, but choose to say them more cleverly by finding a really visual way to say what they want.

We’ve talked about your acting career, but you’ve also done a bit of writing. In 2005, your film “The Hard Easy” was released. How much does your acting experience influence your writing?

I can’t tell you how important it is to me. You just get a feel for dialogue when you grow up in theater, reading the classics. It just gets into the back of your mind. It makes it easier to just write the script so that the only really difficult part is structure, because you already know how you want each scene to look. I attribute that to my experience as an actor.

Are you currently producing any more of your written work?

I’m doing a rewrite on a film script and for a television show right now. Nothing currently in production, but there are irons in the fire, as they say.

You’ve been working in film, television and theatre for over twenty years now. What advice do you have for aspiring actors?

Really be sure you want to do it. I was lucky when I was young and coming out of the gate hot, right out of college. As time goes on, most actors, including me, are not super successful; we don’t all have houses in Malibu. But we do it because we love it, and it’s easy for a young person to say “well, of course I love to do it,” but in the back of their mind, they’re thinking that they might get that break, and the chances are that they actually might not. But that shouldn’t discourage them if it’s what speaks to them, and if [acting] is really what they love. And I also think they should know never to forgo an opportunity to learn something. Knowing more about more things is what really helps you as an actor. Always be out there learning everything that you can.

“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” runs at Center Stage Theatre in downtown Santa Barbara from Sept. 13 through Sept. 23. Tickets are $20 in advance and $30 at the door.