Tony Awards 2018: The Crossroads That Led Nathan Lane to ‘Angels in America’ (Exclusive)

Nathan Lane
Brinkhoff and Mogenburg

“I wondered if I could shift other people’s perception of me a little,” the actor tells ET.

Nathan Lane, nominated for playing Roy Cohn in Angels in America, is one of ET’s Standout Performances on Broadway.

About eight years ago, one of our best comedic actors decided to embark on an experiment: Nathan Lane tried to stop being funny -- or at least to seek out roles that didn’t emphasize that talent as much.

“I was at a bit of crossroads,” Lane says. “I felt like I needed to shake things up and challenge myself, because I felt I had more to offer as an actor, and I wondered if I could shift other people’s perception of me a little -- if they would go along for the ride.”

For Lane, the role of Roy Cohn in the current Broadway production of Tony Kushner’s two-part epic Angels in America is “the culmination of all that work.” The performance landed the two-time Tony Award winner his sixth nomination, this time for Featured Actor in a Play; it’s one of a whopping 11 nods collected by the revival, directed by Marianne Elliott (War Horse, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) and also starring Andrew Garfield, both nominees as well.

In truth, Lane’s turn as Cohn -- a fictionalized incarnation of the notorious lawyer, a protégé of Sen. Joe McCarthy whose clients included our current president -- can be hilarious at points, as can Kushner’s writing generally. “There’s about 20 minutes of B-roll footage of the original production you can see on YouTube, and though it’s obviously a serious play, a masterpiece, you see people just roaring with laughter.”

Lane notes that, in life, “Roy Cohn was funny. If you talk to people who were friends of his, people he was loyal to, they would tell you he was great fun to be around. If you see television clips of him, he comes across as sort of nerdy and impolite, but he was a funny, charismatic personality.”

Angels, of course, in tracing the early AIDS era and its relevance in American history, ultimately paints a darker picture of Cohn. “He was a very contradictory human being -- a self-loathing Jew and self-loathing homosexual who would never let himself be vulnerable to attack that way,” Lane says. “He was a lifelong registered Democrat who only worked for Republicans and conservative causes. He’s a fascinating character for a writer to take on. Everyone’s aware of him now as Trump’s lawyer and mentor, but it’s really Tony Kushner who kept his name alive, through this character.”

Performing Angels’ two parts, Millennium Approaches and Perestroika -- which run seven and a half hours combined, including intermissions -- can be exhausting, Lane allows, “but it’s a good tired. Tony Kushner’s extraordinary writing carries you. Even when you’re saying, I don’t know how I’m going to get to the end, his words are always there to support you and guide you and inspire you. It’s one of those plays that costs you, but you feel very fulfilled by it.”

Lane certainly arrived prepared, having starred in a production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh (now being revived on Broadway with Denzel Washington, also a Tony nominee) that ran four hours and 45 minutes, first at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in 2012, then at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2015. “Iceman prepares you for everything,” Lane muses. “After that, everything seems easier. And there are a lot of similarities: Tony’s a huge O’Neill fan, and he’s asking some of the same big questions.”

Critics have pointed to the timeliness of Angels, despite its 1980s setting and the fact that it premiered more than a quarter-century ago, arriving on Broadway in 1993. “We were in the Clinton era then, looking back on the Reagan period and height of the AIDS epidemic, and there was a sense of, ‘Aren’t we glad that’s over?’” Lane says. “Now we see the seeds being planted that led to something like [the election of] Trump happening, so it feels more resonant and necessary than ever, and Tony seems more prescient. As with all great plays, you come back to it and find new things. That’s why I think it’s one of the greatest plays of the 20th century, and that it will survive long after us.”

Asked about his plans for after the production wraps, Lane quips, “To go out to Long Island and lie down for a couple of weeks. Read a book again.” Awards season can be particularly trying, he admits, with its added demands. “But it’s a special thing that’s happening, and you have to embrace it.”

The 2018 Tony Awards hosted by Josh Groban and Sara Bareilles will be handed out live at Radio City Music Hall in New York City on Sunday, June 10, starting at 8 p.m. ET on CBS.