News & Politics

Actor Who Played Antonin Scalia at Arena Stage Remembers His “Friend”

Edward Gero in costume as Antonin Scalia. Photograph by Lauren Joseph.

Edward Gero last saw his “doppelgänger” in June, when Antonin Scalia invited him to go skeet shooting at a Rod & Gun Club in Northern Virginia. Gero brought along the same hunting vest he wore while playing Scalia in The Originalist, a play about the late Supreme Court justice that ran last spring at Arena Stage. He asked Scalia to sign it, and he wore it again on Wednesday when he went back out to shoot skeet in memory of his friend.

Gero, an award-winning Shakespearean actor, was lauded for his performance as Scalia in John Strand‘s play. The one-act depicts a fictional relationship between the longtime justice and a liberal law clerk he hired in the wake of the 2013 decision in United States v. Windsor, the case that brought down the Defense of Marriage Act. The New York Times wrote that Gero played the role “with terrific verve and snappy humor.”

Before rehearsals started, Gero met with Scalia several times to learn his mannerisms and prepare for the part. What started out as observational training turned into a friendship, and though Scalia never saw the play, the two remained close after it ended. Gero was in his car when he first heard the news of Scalia’s death on the radio: “It took my breath away as if it hit me right in the chest and pushed me back into my chair,” he says. “It’s a great loss.”

Though Scalia was 18 years older than Gero, the two look a lot alike. Gero remembers eating at a restaurant with Scalia shortly after the play opened, when a patron came over to compliment him on his performance. “You mean, when I played him?” Gero answered, pointing to Scalia across the table, who burst out laughing. In the days following Scalia’s death, both Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson‘s Twitter account and the Huffington Post mistook Gero for Scalia by publishing press photos from The Originalist. “I know, thank God, he’d be laughing at that, too” Gero says.

Gero first met the justice around December of 2014, when Scalia heard about the play and invited him to a Supreme Court hearing. They had lunch afterward.

“We shook hands and the very first thing he said was, ‘I just want you to know that I’m not coming to see the play, but I’m glad they got a good actor to do it so I won’t be embarrassed,’” Gero says. “He put me at ease immediately.”

The two hit it off. Apart from their striking resemblance, they found similarities between their ancestry and religious heritage. Gero also likened Scalia’s textual interpretations of the constitution to how he to parses through Shakespeare scripts.

Gero and Scalia never discussed how The Originalist‘s lead character should be played, nor did their conversations ever get overtly political. “I said, ‘Mr. Justice, this is my entry into the way you think,’” Gero says, “not what you think, but how you think.”

When The Originalist opened at Arena Stage, Gero says he did each show with “Scalia-Ray vision,” knowing that he performed to a mostly liberal audience. While he doesn’t think the play swayed any political opinions, he hopes his rendering of Scalia helped people understand the justice better as a human being.

“Our knee-jerk reaction as Americans is to vilify the person who doesn’t agree with us, who doesn’t share a point of view” he says, “and that’s certainly not what the court is about, it’s not what Democracy is about. Have your point of view, but for God’s sake listen. Listen with respect.” Gero hopes this takeaway will align with Scalia’s legacy.

And Gero himself had misgivings about some of Scalia’s dissents. He says he was torn about the Obergefell v. Hodges decision last June, which legalized same sex marriage nationwide, because he had “family and friends and colleagues, some of whom have served this country with distinction in the military, who yearn to feel fully enfranchised.” But at the same time, he knew how disappointed Scalia was in the ruling. He penned a letter giving his condolences, saying, “I just want you to know, if you sting, I sting with you.”

In one of their last correspondences, Gero sent Scalia a thank you note for taking him out hunting. He read out part of Scalia’s response letter over the phone:

Let me return to the brief good news, which was really the reason I started this letter to the doppelgänger. I have enjoyed the friendship that The Originalist serendipitously created, and I hope that the end of one will not be the end of the other. We must keep in touch and you must come now and again to hear a case and share a modest lunch. Let me know. Warm regards.

Gero says he hopes that in coming years Strand and director Molly Smith will revive The Originalist, which audiences may now look at in a new light.

“He’s a part of my legacy as a performer and I can only hope that in a small way I become a part of his legacy,” Gero says.

Gero, along with his wife, plans to pay his respects as Scalia lies in repose today at the Supreme Court.

Jackson Knapp
Assistant Editor