Brow Beat

How Do You Play The Originalist?

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and actor Edward Gero.

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and actor Edward Gero.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images; Photo courtesy Greta Hays, Arena Stage

Last month, veteran Washington actor Edward Gero sat in on the Supreme Court’s oral arguments, a notepad on his lap. He watched the nine justices enter the courtroom from behind velvet drapes shortly after 10 a.m. But Gero had his eyes trained on one person in particular: Antonin Scalia. He examined the justice’s expansive gestures and tics and took diligent notes: “Fidgety, heavy brows, blowing through his lips, finger in his mouth, awaits—then pounces from the chair, swings around—launches his questions, his upper body very active, right hand always moving.” Watching Scalia’s every move, Gero was slowly learning how to be him.

For the past year, Gero—an award-winning Shakespearean actor who’s played Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol as well as icons from Richard Nixon to Mark Rothko—has been researching and unraveling the longest-serving justice currently sitting on the nation’s highest court. Gero will star in an upcoming production of The Originalist, which begins previews March 6 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater in D.C. The playwright, John Strand, calls Gero the “perfect person” to play Scalia. “In my power point presentation, as I pitched this to Arena Stage,” Strand said, “I had a picture of Ed Gero alongside Justice Scalia.” Antonin Scalia turns 79 on March 11; Gero is 18 years his junior. But they have the same intense eyebrows and expressive face. “Not only do they resemble one another,” Strand said, “they are both New Jersey-born, Catholic, Italian-Americans whose families come from the same area of Italy.” And Strand was convinced that Scalia would make the perfect subject for a drama: “He is very theatrical, if not operatic. … He’s a showman at heart.”

So in October of 2013, Strand told his friend Gero that he’d written a play with him in mind. There’d be no need for auditions. The lead role was his. Gero was immediately excited. As polarizing a figure as Scalia is—and even Patricia Arquette called him out backstage at the Oscars for his comments that the Constitution (she meant the 14th Amendment specifically) doesn’t protect against sex discrimination—it’s worth remembering that he was confirmed, pre-Bork, 98–0. When was the last time Washington was that united about anything?

Early in the rehearsal process, Gero was asked by a friend of Scalia’s if he wanted to meet the Justice. “Absolutely not,” Gero said, “I haven’t done sufficient research. How could I possibly have a substantive conversation?” He was “intimidated,” he said, “given Scalia’s intelligence and verbal acuity.” He knew that the justice was a combative, larger-than-life lightning rod who firmly believed the Constitution’s meaning was fixed when it was enacted. But that was about it.

So he devoured Joan Biskupic’s Scalia biography, An American Original. He read the Federalist Papers. He watched Scalia’s confirmation hearings online, brushed up on his Ted Kennedy accent, and watched Scalia’s 2008 60 Minutes interview, in which the justice told students at Oxford, “Sometimes people come to me and in quiet [say,] ‘Justice Scalia, when did you first become an Originalist?’ You know, as though it’s some weird affliction. When did you start eating human flesh?” Gero marvels at Scalia’s timing. “He gets the laugh that he expects.”

By December, when Gero was invited to lunch with Scalia, he felt ready. They talked about their passion for the arts—Gero has been in several productions of Macbeth, while Scalia played Macbeth in High School in New York. “By the end of the hour, I felt I was with one of my uncles, one of my father’s brothers,” Gero recalled. He’s had several sessions with Scalia since, and has gone to see him talk with soldiers, military leaders, statesmen and students. “It’s close to stalker status,” Gero joked. The two have built enough of a rapport that they now call each other Ed and Nino. Gero says his job is to “fall in love with the character he’s playing.” And Scalia, he raves, is “a teacher, a performer, a street fighter, a real pugnacious guy with a 40-pound brain.”

But it’s not just the speech patterns and the gestures (as well as a new hairline) that will turn Gero into the Originalist. Scalia is also known for his love of hunting. (He’s even taken Elena Kagan deer hunting). So Gero went to the NRA gun range in Fairfax, Virginia, to get comfortable with the kind of semi-automatic assault rifle often used to hunt deer. “I was petrified,” Gero said.

One day last month in a rehearsal room at the Arena Stage—two of the walls lined with dozens of head shots of Justice Scalia—Gero-as-Scalia faced the actress Kerry Warren, who plays a liberal Harvard Law graduate named Cat. She informed Scalia that she would be interviewing for a clerkship at the Supreme Court. “We should probably warn him,” said Scalia. “Which Justice is it?” “You, sir,” Cat replied.

In the play, set during the the 2012–13 term, the conservative justice and his liberal clerk become formidable sparring partners. They debate how to formulate Scalia’s dissent in United States vs. Windsor, which struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act. And in a stroke of poetic irony, as Justice Scalia and his law clerk wrangle onstage, the actual Supreme Court will be hearing much-anticipated arguments on same-sex marriage in April. “A lucky shot,” said Strand.

There have been hints that Scalia himself may attend a closed rehearsal, even a performance. In any event, Gero is ready. Scalia’s biographer, Joan Biskupic—who has been covering the Supreme Court nearly as long as Scalia has been on it—attended an early reading of the play, and marveled at the way Gero captured the irritation and self-amusement in the justice’s voice. “Scalia is a cross between a kind of operatic Pavarotti and a comic Jackie Gleason,” she said. “He embraces life, but is constantly ticked off.” Biskupic suggested Gero add slightly more vinegar. And now she’s especially eager to see how Gero “walks into the room”as Scalia. “If he has the gait, the movement, filling the room as the man himself does,” she said, “he will nail him.”