New England native Spalding Gray was raised in Rhode Island and schooled in Massachusetts. As a writer and actor inclined to serious spells of depression, he humorously integrated his anxieties and experiences into stage performances. He was often seated at a desk with only a microphone, notebook, and a glass of water. Within this minimalist aesthetic, Gray's monologues were simultaneously funny, touching, and scary. His wholly authentic style was influenced by Allen Ginsberg, Ramblin' Jack Elliot, and the American autobiographical movement. After studying at Emerson College, Gray attended a workshop at the Open Theater in 1969. Though he appeared in a string of sleazy, forgettable films during the '70s, he mostly worked in experimental theater. In 1977, he co-founded the Wooster Theater Group in New York City. Two years later, he performed his first monologue: Sex and Death at the Age of 14.
Gray traveled to Thailand to play a bit part in Roland Joffé's war drama The Killing Fields, and that experience grew into Swimming to Cambodia, an Obie award-winning one-man stage performance and a 1987 feature film directed by Jonathan Demme. Gray also earned two Independent Spirit Award nominations for the film and finally found a lucrative way to merge his talents for both writing and acting. After a brief appearance in David Byrne's True Stories, he showed up in random feature films over the next decade. Often playing a doctor, priest, professor, or other man of influence, he appeared in everything from mainstream romantic comedies (Straight Talk) to weepy melodramas (Beaches) to dramatic thrillers (Diabolique). Gray returned to theater in the late '80s to play the Stage Manager in a Broadway revival of Thornton Wilder's Our Town. He also started writing a novel, Impossible Vacation, an experience that grew into Monster in a Box, a one-man stage performance and feature film directed by Nick Broomfield.