The actor discusses Gene’s God complex and questionable teaching methods.
HBO: Is Gene Cousineau based on anyone you know or have studied with?
Henry Winkler: I’ve had teachers like Gene, and I’ve had great teachers. I studied with Stella Adler, Bobby Lewis. At the beginning of my career, I thought that I was like a forest ranger: I planted a tree and I wanted it to grow for 75 years. Here I am at 72 and I’m still having the time of my life. I have the career Gene couldn’t get. This career has always eluded Gene, so he creates Cousineau’s life in the confines of a school where he has his students applaud him. Lord, that’s crazy. He is a god in there and that’s about it. And then he’s not even lovely to these people.
HBO: We see him not being “lovely” in that first scene when he’s berating Sally.
Henry Winkler: And then pretends he’s doing it for the good of her art. I know — as Henry — because I’ve taught classes, you can get a student to learn or taste something different than what they were doing in a scene and you don’t have to kill them. You can do it with love. You can cajole them along the journey.
HBO: But Gene doesn’t do that.
Henry Winkler: No, because he gets to be the boss. He gets to work out his aggression.
HBO: He hasn’t had the easiest time as an actor. It was hard to watch the scene where he auditions for a one-line role.
Henry Winkler: Let me tell you, I have been there. It doesn’t even matter how many lines, you just know that it has crushed every bone in your body that the audition you just did is so horrible, you’re nowhere in the vicinity of what the writer wrote. You leave the room and think, “My career is probably over. I can’t do this anymore; I have no idea how to fix what I just did.” And then there are other times when you get Barry and your life is dew on the morning grass. It is sparkly and delicious and fresh and smells good.
HBO: What does Gene think of Barry when he first joins the class?
Henry Winkler: Gene really cares about his students’ . . . ability to pay in cash, to pay on time. And if you can do that, there is definitely a chance you’re an artist.
HBO: Was it hard for you to play a character you find morally problematic?
Henry Winkler: No. What is hard is beginning. Making a character is like doing a jigsaw puzzle but all the pieces are blue — different shades of blue. And now you’ve got to put this puzzle together to create a living breathing human being. That is difficult. Not the character, himself, but finding his humanity — even in his insanity.