July 30, 2014 SIGN IN | REGISTER

Schiff's New Role Connects Him to the District

“It was a big deal. It’s very hard — very hard.”

Courtesy Carol Rosegg
Schiff is probably best known, at least in the D.C. area, for his role on “The West Wing” as the grumpy but endearing White House communications director. In “Hughie,” on stage now at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre, Schiff plays a man remembering his only friend.

Richard Schiff looks happy. At least, for him.

He’s a uniquely Washington celebrity, best known for his role as salty White House Communications Director Toby Ziegler on NBC’s “The West Wing.”

Before that show, Schiff said in a recent interview, he was “never into mainstream politics.”

But since his “West Wing” tenure, Schiff has campaigned for Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., been a guest at the White House several times and has been to every subsequent Democratic convention. He’s currently an executive producer for the political Web series “Chasing the Hill,” which stars several “West Wing” alums, including himself. Whether he likes it or not, Schiff’s stint as Ziegler has tied him to D.C.’s world, likely for his career.

The man who played Toby is quiet, grave and guarded. He writes about politics and pens some short fiction. He hasn’t trusted The New York Times, he said, since it screwed up a story about a protest he witnessed in high school “from soup to nuts.” He prefers quiet and solitude. He loves his wife and hosts a reading group in Los Angeles for writers of all stripes.

Today, though, as he settles into his role in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of Eugene O’Neill’s “Hughie,” Schiff is downright pleased, very un-Toby-like.

O’Neill’s Way

That day’s performance of “Hughie” went well, he said.

Schiff walks from the backstage door through the lobby of the Shakespeare’s Lansburgh Theatre, picking his way past the Wednesday matinee crowd.

Wearing a leather fedora with the brim turned up, dark jeans and a zippered sweatshirt under his coat, he’s laid-back as he walks out the theater, down the street and around the corner to a marbled space on Pennsylvania Avenue to sit on the lip of a fountain dried up for the winter. Then he lights a cigarette.

He doesn’t normally smoke, he said, but his latest role calls for it.

Schiff is in town to play Erie Smith, the loquacious gambler in “Hughie.” The role, his D.C. debut, comes on the heels of his Broadway debut, where he played George Aaronow opposite Al Pacino’s Shelley Levene in the recent revival of David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross.”

Schiff sees both works reflecting the political and cultural fears of the times.

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