Campbell Scott has performed on Broadway opposite his mother (Colleen Dewhurst), starred in films with Julia Roberts and Drew Barrymore, appeared on TV (including the recent ABC series "Six Degrees"), and directed such movies as the award-winning "Big Night." But the most terrifying experience he says he's had is standing in a rehearsal room 2 feet away from the watchful eyes of the director and the playwright of "The Atheist."
"It's horrifying," Scott says with a laugh. "I can't fake anything. I have to talk directly to them while I deliver this character."
"This character" is Augustine Early, a miscreant journalist who chronicles his own wild rise and fall in Ronan Noone's one-man play, which opens at the Wimberly Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts tonight, directed by Huntington artistic associate Justin Waldman.
In the fast-moving show, which had a reading with Scott in the Huntington's "Breaking Ground" festival last year, Augustine traces his path from trailer park denizen to celebrity journalist, leaving the wreckage of people and places in his wake. He begins by explaining that once he lost his faith in God, there were no longer any boundaries, so he's used his position as a journalist to wield power with impunity.
But Scott says Augustine is no manipulative madman. "He's not crazy at all," Scott says by phone from his home in Connecticut. "He makes perfect sense, to himself. Every time you think he's completely irreconcilable and vicious, he reveals some vulnerability. When I did the reading last year, people laughed. They recognize him."
Exploring the fine line between shocking and sympathetic is something Scott has done before, offering a performance in "Roger Dodger," for example, that gave the character unexpected depth. "The key is to surprise yourself," says Scott. "Then you know you're going to surprise the audience."
He acknowledges it's been hard to get a handle on Augustine in part because the character is so complex. In addition, there are other characters whose voices and mannerisms would be fun to add into the mix. "I'm tempted to do other voices," Scott says. "I like being other people a lot. That's what I do. But if I do lots of characters, the audience loses Augustine. I'm trying to just do a hint of everybody so that you can differentiate them."
Ilana Brownstein, the Huntington's literary manager, has been following the play's evolution since Noone began working on it as a Huntington playwriting fellow. "Something happens when someone else tells your story back to you from a different perspective," she says. "When you add someone of the caliber of Campbell Scott, you give the playwright a real sense of the play's strengths and discover where the holes are."
Augustine may be an utterly amoral journalist, but Scott says the play is not about mocking or denigrating the profession. Before Noone emigrated to Boston, Scott points out, "Ronan worked for newspapers in Ireland, and I think the play is a lot about how difficult the job is. Can you really be objective? Where does your morality lie?"
Although Scott says it's no fun being alone onstage, working on "The Atheist" as it emerges through drafts has been fun. "The script is musical," Scott says. "Good writing is always that way. It has to have a rhythm to it, and when a musical theme plants itself in you, it's easier to play. In rehearsals, when we find something that turns out not to be musical, Ronan changes it or gets rid of it."
For Scott, "The Atheist" has also been a welcome change from working on his upcoming film "Company Retreat," which he has written, directed, produced, "even catered," he says. "It's ostensibly a mockumentary in the Christopher Guest vein about a reality TV show doomed from its inception. It's about what happens to a bunch of people when they end up in the mountains with nothing to do."
Scott finished filming 50 speaking parts in 17 days, and he had only a two-day break before starting the "Atheist" rehearsals. He still faces the task of editing 80 hours of film.
"I can't fall apart," Scott says. But maybe a little bit of exhaustion will add to his portrayal of Augustine, who's at the end of his rope.
"He's a wonderful character," Scott says, "and if I can make audiences laugh, be moved, and even a little creeped out, I've succeeded."