Preparing for my phone call with actor, playwright, and director André Gregory, I felt a bit like the socially anxious Wallace Shawn at the beginning of My Dinner With André.
Gregory is something of a local celebrity. He is best known for My Dinner With André, a popular art-house film from 1981, directed by Louis Malle. In it, he and Shawn have a weighty philosophical conversation over dinner. Gregory also founded the Manhattan Project, an avant-garde theater troupe in the ’60s, and he worked with Malle to shoot Vanya on 42nd Street in 1994 — a filmed “rehearsal” Gregory leads of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, held in the rundown New Amsterdam Theatre in Manhattan. Most recently, he appeared in Jonathan Demme’s A Master Builder, an adaptation by Shawn of the Ibsen play.
Last month, Farrar, Straus and Giroux published Gregory’s This Is Not My Memoir, co-written with Todd London. It traces Gregory’s life and career through a series of vignettes. Some are very funny, some strange, some poignant.
In the book, Gregory writes that he was born in Paris to Russian-Jewish parents. He later learned that his father was probably a Nazi sympathizer, which was part of the reason they were able to escape to the U.S.
But the book is not limited in its autobiographical scope. It is also about love — his first wife, Mercedes, died of cancer in 1992, and he married documentary filmmaker Cindy Kleine in 2000 — as well as spirituality, self-improvement, and art in general.
Gregory lives just down the road from me in Truro. He’s often seen at Longnook Beach, a place he mentions several times in the book.
“We came to the Cape about 20 years ago,” he says. “It was Cindy who brought me. I had never been. And the minute I got here, I felt this is home. I felt at peace. I loved it.” Something about the quality of the light here makes you feel nearer to God, he says.
Gregory spent seven years working on the book. “It takes a lot of time to make anything that’s worthwhile — for instance, a marriage, or a relationship with a child,” he says. London, his co-writer, was indispensable in structuring the book. “The only other partner I’ve ever had who was like a brother is Wally.”
One of the funniest scenes in the book happens when Gregory is in Philadelphia, early in his career, directing the avant-garde play Beclch, by Rochelle Owens (who, coincidentally, lived in Wellfleet until recently). It’s about sex and cannibalism, among other things.
The young director Gregory was so focused on other things — such as making the theater look like a jungle and smell like rotting flesh — he didn’t notice that the Haitian musicians he had hired had sacrificed a goat in the alley, prompting someone to call the A.S.P.C.A.
“I got ejected by Philadelphia in a paddy wagon,” Gregory says, expanding on the memory. “My board tried to fire me, but I wouldn’t go. They said, ‘We won’t pay you,’ and I said, ‘That’s OK. I’m staying.’ Finally, they called a paddy wagon, and the police took me across the state line and dropped me in New Jersey. I had to hitchhike home.”
Here on the Cape, Gregory has started drawing and painting, studying with artist Richard Baker. “When you direct a play, you need to find rehearsal space,” he says. “You have to find backing to pay the actors. You have to find actors. You have to create a schedule. But with painting and drawing, I just go into the barn with a brush or a pencil. That’s all I need.”
I ask Gregory if people often confuse him with the semi-autobiographical character he presents as himself in My Dinner With André. “People very often think that’s me,” he says. “We have so many different sides. I’m sure you show a different side to your parents, to a friend, to a teacher.”
At that moment, I was probably playing the role of a nervous cub reporter.
“Over a rather long rehearsal period one day, I came across four voices,” Gregory adds. “There’s André the awful rich kid. André the theater guru. There’s André the used car spiritual salesman. And then, there’s an André who is just kind of authentically simple. Once I found the four voices, I knew how to form it.”
In This Is Not My Memoir André Gregory shows many sides of his personality and of his fascinating life — and not just those four.