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Joel Grey on Cabaret

Stage and screen legend Joel Grey on photography, directing and the enduring appeal of Cabaret

With 60 years of Broadway experience behind him, Joel Grey could just rest on his laurels. Instead, he’s charting new territory. Recently Grey—one of only eight people to have won a Tony and Oscar for playing the same role, in his case the Emcee in Cabaret—released The Billboard Papers, his fourth published collection of photography. He’s also been working behind the scenes, co-directing the recent Broadway revival of The Normal Heart as well as an out-of-town production of On Borrowed Time that he hopes to mount soon in New York.

Here, Grey chats with DuJour about his work—as an actor, director and photographer—his star-studded memories and why he’s happy to let someone else take a turn in Cabaret.

You recently released your fourth book of photos. Your work has been the subject of museum exhibitions and gallery shows. How did you first start taking pictures?

I’ve been taking pictures all my life. About 10 years ago a friend of mine stopped by my house and said that my stuff was very good. He was an editor, and he said to give him everything I had. I did, and three months later he came to me with a mock-up of what would be my first book. It sold immediately and was also a gallery show and that’s how that all started.

Was this the plan?

I never thought of this. I loved doing it and seeing the photos in my own house, but I never expected to have them out in the world.

The Billboard Papers is a collection of photos of billboard. What was it about them that fascinated you?

It’s because of the layers. The final image in the book is of the big head of a man and there are layers underneath it—including a Louis Vuitton pattern and a hand-painted something—that have nothing to do with each other but combine to make something interesting and beautiful.

You’ve also been directing theater. After acting for so long, what made you decide to try that out?

I directed On Borrowed Time recently in New Jersey, and that was the play I made my own debut in when I was nine years old. I understand actors’ instincts, and it’s a joy to help them find a character in a play. It’s also like making a drawing or a picture. I’m still hoping that at some point in this next year that I will be able to find a New York home for On Borrowed Time. That’s my big focus.

You’ve also had acting gigs on series including CSI and Nurse Jackie. Are you planning to take on more roles?

It would have to be something very unusual. I love the freedom of being able to have a day in which I do a number of things. When you’re in a show, your life is very limited. It’s worth it for the most part, but I would have to do something so different from anything I’ve done before.

Many people are most familiar with your role in Cabaret. Now that show is back on Broadway; what do you think makes it continually interesting for audiences?

It’s about a highly provocative moment in history. Everyone’s interested in Weimar Berlin and the decadence that goes along with it. There’s something interesting about observing people doing dreadful things—or sexy things or outrageous things—and not having to do them yourself. The other thing about Cabaret is that it’s a story that needs to be told always. It’s a cautionary tale about Nazis and anti-Semitism.

It’s also got the most amazing score—the songs are forever good and everybody likes to be in it. Especially kids in high school. It gives you a chance to be naughty on stage in front of people, and I wrote the book on that.

Alan Cumming is in the role of the Emcee now, but is it something you’d ever want to revisit?

Never! I did it, and then I did it again. That’s enough.

So, what’s next for you?

I’m also working on a memoir. I’m done with the first couple of chapters and should hopefully have it done by the end of the year. I’ve been a journal keeper forever and I’ve uncovered great memories. I’ve been looking at my life in a critical way regarding how things come together to make you who you are, and that’s always fascinating.