LOS ANGELES — Sitting behind an oblong wooden table with a microphone and a lone glass of water is writer-actor Spalding Gray. Best known for parlaying a small role in the Academy Award-winning film “The Killing Fields” into his 1985 Obie-winning one-man show “Swimming to Cambodia,” the plaid-clad, silver-haired author of 18 monologues has ruminated on everything from claustrophobia and death to psychotherapy and sharks. Critics have long compared the actor, famous for his comical neuroses and flawless delivery, to Mark Twain and Woody Allen.
Tonight, at UCLA’s Freud Playhouse, Gray revives “Swimming to Cambodia” for the first time in 15 years. The 90-minute monologue focuses on Gray’s search to experience the “perfect moment” while shooting “The Killing Fields.” His confessions, musings, observations and anecdotes take the audience on a journey from behind-the-scenes Hollywood deal-making to the beaches of Thailand. Laden with Cambodian history from the Vietnam War and harrowing details of the Pol Pot regime that took some two million lives, it ranges from the horrific to the highly comic. In 1987 Jonathan Demme turned his performance into a film; it later appeared in book form, propelling Gray to cult-hero status. “‘The Killing Fields’ couldn’t be made now,” he says. “A lot of films fall through the cracks. Today, it’s all small indie or large blockbuster moneymakers.” Of course, Gray isn’t against appearing in the occasional Hollywood-star vehicle. He recently played Dr. Geisler in the sappy Meg Ryan flick “Kate and Leopold.” But he prefers meatier roles on and off Broadway, like the stage manager in “Our Town” and the lead in last year’s Gore Vidal play, “The Best Man.”
Gray’s self-described “horizontal” celebrity has given him the flexibility to work with the likes of Steven Soderbergh, who directed his 1996 monologue film “Gray’s Anatomy,” and James Taylor, who collaborated on a CD version of “It’s a Slippery Slope.” The latter was an especially personal performance, which chronicled his breakup with longtime companion and collaborator Renee Shafransky and an extramarital affair. (Gray, who lived in Manhattan for more than 30 years, currently lives with talent agent Kathie Russo and their three children outside Sag Harbor, N.Y.)
“A lot of people think they know me,” says Gray, thanks to his confessional performances. “I’m open to talking to fans backstage, but they don’t really know me.” The intimate bond audience members feel has spawned plenty of fans and even a few groupies. “My pants disappeared while touring in Santa Cruz and then in Seattle,” he recalls indifferently. And yet, Gray admits that after all his years in theater, he still gets a thrill from that “perfect performance.”
“You feel you have hit all the darts on the dartboard,” Gray says. “All the laughs and quiet moments are there.” Does Gray, who turned 60 last year, ever think of retiring from the monologue circuit? “Every day,” he says wryly. “But these things get booked a year in advance.”