A Conversation with Stephen Adly Guirgis

By Amy Dresner 04/03/17

We speak with the writer of "The Motherf*cker with the Hat" about his play, sleazy sponsors and his friendship with the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. 

Stephen Guirgus, author of The Motherfucker with the Hat and producer of Netflix's The Get Down
Artists pretend not to care, but they do.

If you don’t know who Stephen Adly Guirgis is then I don’t know what you’ve been doing with your life. He’s one of those multi-hyphenates that makes us all feel pathetically unaccomplished: actor-playwright-screenwriter. He’s written 10 plays that have been performed on and off Broadway, not to mention all over the world. He’s won numerous awards including a goddamn Pulitzer for one of his theatrical masterpieces, “Between Riverside and Crazy."

He’s also an accomplished actor, having appeared in nine feature films including Meet Joe Black and Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret. His television writing credits include NYPD Blue and The Sopranos. And, oh yeah...he’s one of us. I fell in love with Guirgis’ work when I stumbled upon his play The Motherfucker with the Hat. Motherfucker is a hilarious, shocking, and brutal look into the lives and loves of addicts in (and out of) the 12-step program. It made me both giddy with its expletive-filled rants and uncomfortable with its accurate portrayal of AA’s dark side. I got the opportunity to ask Guirgis, who is now co-creator/writer/executive producer of Baz Lurhman’s The Get Down on Netflix, a few questions about the program, art, and his friendship with the late Philip Seymour Hoffman.

* This interview has been edited. *

I LOVED The Motherfucker with the Hat. It’s so raw and so un- PC. I love that you use words like “faggot” and “retarded.” Since PC culture and “microaggressions” have become more of a talking point in America since this play premiered on Broadway in 2011, do you think it will be received differently? Is it something you even care about?

Thanks so much, Amy. I guess I’m really fortunate because the play is actually still being performed around the country basically all the time, and nobody seems to take issue with the words, the language, or even the title of the play. But I know what you’re talking about, and yeah, it is something I care about. I think most artists ACT like we don’t care about that kind of stuff, but the reality is we mostly are in fact very sensitive -- and even over-sensitive-- about what people think. In Motherfucker, yeah, there’s lots of crazy language, some of it is not “PC,” but the way that language is used is, I think, not mean spirited. It’s just how the characters express themselves. And it’s clear the characters in the play are very human & flawed but hopefully they are seen and heard as being relatable to the audience and therefore worthy of our empathy and understanding. Plus, hopefully, these character are also pretty funny. Humor is the great equalizer. It brings us together. So the language - even at its most crass -- it seeks to unify rather than divide. But the “PC thing,” it can be tough. For example, last night I tweeted a NY Times article about Trump wanting to eliminate The National Endowment of the Arts, and I tweeted something with it where I said, basically: “Don’t take the bait, focus on Russia and Tax Returns, this bitch is going to go down in flames.” I called Trump a bitch. A few minutes later, a woman tweeted back and asked me to remove the “sexist language” and that I should know better since I was “an Artist.” And you know what? She was right. I mean personally, I like calling Trump a bitch. I wouldn’t call Kelly Conway a bitch (and maybe my aversion to calling a woman a bitch is actually sexist too). But Trump? Hell yeah. In fact, I often call him “Cheese Doodle Bitch.” But -- I get it. “Bitch” IS sexist. So I deleted the fuckin’ tweet. But that’s in my real life. A play is a different story. In a play, I can say what I want.

It’s obvious to anybody in a 12-step program that you’re personally familiar with the hypocrisy, sexual predatory behavior, extremism and righteous bullshit that can come with the fellowship. Can you briefly fill in our readers on your own history re: addiction/recovery or your experience with 12-step programs in general?

I’m a huge fan and believe 100% in 12-step programs. They save lives. They elevate existences. Miracles happen in those rooms. I believe in the 12 Steps and 12 Traditions. I believe in the Program. In fact, I cherish it. And yes, I am personally familiar with the rooms. So, Motherfucker With The Hat is not about dissing 12-step groups. But I will say this: The Program is perfect. But the people in it are not. We are all a work in progress whether we are inside or outside of those rooms. But nobody gets into a 12-step room and stays because they are so sane and saintly and well-adjusted when they walked in. That’s why one of the most important phrases in the 12 Traditions is, for me, when they talk about “Principals before Personalities” -- in other words, the message is perfect, but the messenger -- on occasion -- can be shady. Not always. Not even mostly. But sometimes. Just like in life OUTSIDE the rooms. And as a result, sometimes shenanigans can occur. And they shouldn’t. But it happens. And that really bothers me because this shit is life and death. People die. A 12-step room should be sacred. But we’re human. Sometimes shit happens. Which is why women need to watch out for women, and men for men -- and we ALL need to look out for -- and encourage and protect -- the Newcomer. I sound like I’m fuckin’ pontificating here. And I’ve been in and out of the rooms over the years, so maybe I should just shut up. But, you know, it’s true. It just is.

You started off as an actor at the Labyrinth Theatre Company, this sort of “gym for actors” and then fell into writing on a country workshop. Can you tell us about that? Do you miss performing, or does the writing sort of satiate your need for self-expression?

I love acting way more than writing. I still play small parts in movies from time to time. But not often enough -- because I always get stuck writing. And really, I miss performing on stage. So I’m acting in a play this summer. In August. I’m doing American Buffalo opposite Treat Williams at The Dorset Theater festival in Vermont. Maybe I’ll suck. But fuck it. I love it too much not to try. As far as writing goes, yeah, I fell into it kind of by accident. At Labyrinth, from the very beginning, we were encouraged and empowered to be multi-disciplinary. My friend John Ortiz asked me to write something. A little one-act. So I did. And everyone seemed to really like it. So they all kind of forced me to keep writing. And I did -- mainly because I didn’t want to let down my friends. And eventually, I guess I became a playwright.

You met Philip Seymour Hoffman in 1996/97 while you were both doing a play. You two ended up becoming best friends, a friendship that is almost off-Broadway legend at this point. He even directed five of your plays. How, if at all, did he influence your writing and/or artistic discipline? What would you say is the most important thing he imparted to you as an artist?

Actually, me and Phil became close around 1995. First, he was in one of my plays, then yeah, he directed my plays for the next ten or eleven years. Phil really and truly was gifted, and yes, I learned so much about everything that goes into being an artist from him. But also, and perhaps more importantly, Phil worked harder and cared more about the work than anyone I’ve ever known. Phil inspired me to work harder and to care deeply and to take actual personal responsibility for my time and to free myself in order to make the best and most positive use out of whatever talent I had. Phil emboldened me to tell the truth and to tell my truth -- and to let it be ugly or beautiful or well said or inarticulate. Look, back then we all saved each other. We all inspired each other and pushed each other and we all worked very, very hard. But more than anyone in my life, Phil saved me. And liberated me. He believed in me and I guess he loved me, and because of that love and belief, he gave me huge slack to flounder and fail and he always had my back. And so yeah, the art stuff, he was huge for me. But really, where he helped me most was with the life stuff. For most of our time together, he was more important to me than anybody -- my family, my parents, girlfriends, other friends. He really was my Touchstone -- someone I could count on 24/7 without fail. We definitely and often would have fun together with our friends, but mostly our relationship was about doing the work and being there for each other with the often difficult life stuff. And mostly it was him helping me with my life. Because Phil was always rock solid. Like seriously rock fuckin’ solid. The last couple of years, it was a different story. But how his life ended was not who he was. Phil, though he could be difficult, was the kindest, gentlest, fairest, and most sensitive and emotionally attuned guy I’ve ever known. And yes, a brilliant artist. Probably a genius. But really, I just loved him. I loved him so much. I’m not alone. We all loved him. What did he teach me about being an artist? He taught me how to say “No.” He taught me that it takes almost as much pain and effort to do something really well as it does to do it poorly or only so-so -- so you might as well suck it up and do what it takes to do it really well. I guess he taught me to trust myself. And he exposed me to a standard work-wise where one is always striving and never satisfied. It’s a hard way to live, but it’s also the only way to live. Sometimes we’ll do good work. Sometimes our work will be not as good. But if we’re always striving to do honest work and we do it with effort and integrity, then, maybe we’ll still beat ourselves up, but we won’t be cheating anybody -- including ourselves. And that’s, it’s not “rah-rah” bullshit. It’s valid and true. Worth striving for.

A primary theme in The Motherfucker with the Hat and your work in general, is stunted growth, adults who are still immature and trying to get their shit together. Do you think this eternal child thing is part of being an addict and recovery is really about growing the fuck up finally?

I think you’re right about my work, but the answer to your question is I don’t know. I think I write my plays seeking answers to those kinds of questions, but I often live my actual life seeking to avoid having to incorporate the answers. I can’t write just for the sake of writing. Or just for a paycheck. I write about what keeps me up at night. I write because something is fucking with me. I guess I try to turn my “inner-bullshit” into something positive by writing a play or a TV script. And hopefully, it doesn’t suck. And some people maybe will like it. And maybe they can relate to it in some way. When that happens, it’s a gratifying feeling.

What’s a question that you’ve never been asked in an interview that you wish you’d had? Pretend I’m smart and asked that.

Um. I wish someone would ask me if I wanted the keys to their beach house. Or if I would mind if they took me out for drinks with Keith Richards. In Jamaica. And Peter Tosh was there and still alive. And Tennessee Williams too. And then someone dropped acid in my drink and I suddenly knew how to surf. And play guitar really well. And then I saw my mother and father again. And Phil. And some other people I’ve loved and lost. And we watched the sunset on the beach. And then it was time for me to go. And a Holy Woman tapped me on the shoulder and said, “You’re okay. It’s okay to just be who you are. Now go. Go back to work.” And I surfed back to NYC. And when I got home, my girlfriend told we were gonna have a baby. A son. And we were both really happy. And I ate a tuna salad sandwich. Brushed my teeth. And then we went to bed...

Follow Guirgis on Twitter at @CookieRiverside.

The Motherfucker with the Hat is playing March 10 – April 2nd at Road Less Traveled Theatre in Buffalo, NY.

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Amy Dresner is a recovering drug addict and all around fuck up. She’s been regularly writing for The Fix since 2012. When she isn't humorously chronicling her epic ups and downs for us, she's freelancing for Refinery 29, Alternet, After Party Chat, Salon, The Frisky, Cosmo Latina, Unbound Box, Addiction.com and Psychology Today. Her first book, My Fair Junkie: A Memoir of Getting Dirty and Staying Clean was published in September 2017 by Hachette Books. Follow her on Twitter @amydresner.