Back performing in the UK for the first time in 22 years, Robert Sean Leonard
appears in To Kill A Mockingbird and chats with The American
Robert Sean Leonard is... Wilson from House to millions, Neil Perry from Dead Poets Society to many, a great stage actor to New York’s theater-goers — and a guilt-filled Dad to his four-year old daughter, who he’s just dropped unwillingly off at school. To London audiences he’s soon to become Atticus Finch in a new production of To Kill a Mockingbird in the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre.
Back in Los Angeles he has been collecting clothes in preparation for his new role. “I don’t want to be all Daniel Day-Lewis about it but just I can’t walk into that rehearsal room wearing a J. Crew T-shirt and say to the little girl who’s going to play Scout, ‘Hi, I’m your father...’ So I went down to Fox and got some suits from the Thirties. I don’t always do it, but if you’re doing a Shaw play for example, it helps to not be in Reeboks. You walk differently... It’s about avoiding the shock of rehearsing something for three weeks then trying on your costume and finding out, oh dear, you can’t bend over!” he laughs.
“In this case, with To Kill a Mockingbird,I couldn’t be more terrified. There are many ghosts I wouldn’t mind wrestling in front of 1200 people, but Gregory Peck’s is not one of them. I have every confidence in the world in Tim [Timothy Sheader, Artistic Director of the new production], and I’m excited to try and mount this, My sister and my friends say I’m a great choice for it... but God, I wish I felt that way. I’m going to do the best I can. I think there are qualities I have that are right for this guy, but I just look at the picture of Eleanor Worthington-Cox [one of the girls who will share the role of Scout, and the youngest recipient of an Olivier Award for Matilda The Musical] and think, I can’t meet that girl wearing jeans! The presence this man has in the book is so powerful. I said to Tim, I have no interest in exploring the dark underbelly of Atticus Finch. Peck got it right. What you see is what you get, he’s what Harper Lee describes. A man, at that time, raising two kids alone wouldn’t show the cracks, even if there were any... And that’s a long-winded way of explaining why I’ve been at Fox raiding their wardrobe.”
So Robert doesn’t feel the need — as many modern actors and directors do — to deconstruct an iconic character, turn stones and find the darkness in the soul? “No, and there’s something else. The story is a bit of a trick. You’re seeing Atticus through the eyes of an eight year old girl, in one sense, even though she’s writing the book as an older woman. I don’t think she’s saying, When I was eight I thought my father was a shining example of truth and principles but now I realize he was nipping gin in the back room and having an affair with Calpurnia! That’s not what this book is about. It’s about the best you can do in this world. The town looks to him to fight the battle.”
Sometimes it’s OK to have a hero? “Yes — there’s a reason Luke Skywalker wears white and Darth Vader black. It’s storytelling. Atticus is conflicted and worries about his worthiness to raise children, and he hears his sister’s complaints about his parenting. He has doubts about some things, but not about the big ones — not about Tom Robinson.”
It’s been 22 years since Robert’s last appearance on the London stage, in another American classic play, Our Town. A simple question: why, and why now?
“Why is always a tricky question. The answer’s almost always, because they asked! I had done theater since I was fourteen in New York, then Dead Poets Society came up when I was nineteen and I became internationally known on some level — a pretty low one, but a level. Kevin Wallace, who was producing Our Town in the West End with Jemma Redgrave, thought I’d be right for it. It was one of the first slam-down offers I had without meeting anyone or auditioning. It’s so familiar in America but it hadn’t been done in England since the Forties. I thought, what an experience. I see a lot of similarities between it and Mockingbird. One is set in the North-East, the other very much in the South, but they’re both, rightly. warm American classics.
“And why now? I’d been doing a lot of theater and a few years ago my wife and I knew we were going to have kids soon so I decided to do a TV show because we had no money. I got very lucky in walking slam-bang into Hugh Laurie and having eight years of financial success with House. But then I told my agent I didn’t want to get up at 3.30 in the morning and drive through Malibu Canyon to sit in the make up room at 5.30. I wanted to do some plays. I did Pygmalion at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego.” He pauses. “Actually I don’t know how this came up! I’ve only had one conversation with Tim — I must ask him. I tried hard to get into his production of Into The Woods in New York last year but I didn’t get that... So, why? Why not! I’m terrified, that’s another good reason.
“It’s an interesting book, people feel strongly about it and take it very personally. I so enjoyed revisiting it when this came up: the gentle presence of Boo Radley, the phantasm that floats over the book and runs on this parallel track of free judgements... nigger-lover, trash, all these words that float through the book. And it all comes back to this little girl wondering about this phantom in a house she never sees. It’s about how we treat each other. He gives her a soap carving of herself, and sticks of gum, and he puts a blanket over her as she watches a neighbor’s house burn down, so gently she doesn’t feel it, and eventually saves he her life — probably. As Atticus says at the end, Thank you for my children. My God, of all the residents in that town to say that to. It’s so beautiful, so moving, it resonates on so many levels, that’s reason enough to try to create a theatrical experience from it. I’m looking forward to even failing — and certainly to trying.”
Robert on House
There’s an old quote from Robert about being in House: “I didn’t want to be the lead guy. That’s too much work. But I thought that it might be fun to be the lead guy’s friend.” That’s unusually ego-free for an actor — and Atticus Finch is the opposite. How does he square that circle?
“It all depends on the medium. I’m not a film lover. I read Joaquin Phoenix, and even Ethan Hawke who’s a friend I’ve had for years, talk about film and it’s not how I feel. I enjoy elements of film, but not many. To me there’s a reason you make such a lot of money doing it, and that;s because it’s such a pain in the ass. The hours are so horrible, you don’t get to read your daughter a book at night. Maybe there are some people who like disappearing into that world for sixteen hours a day, but I don’t. I like my family and my dogs and reading Stephen King books. Theater is my first love, and I think I’m better at it.
“With House, I watched Hugh struggle with that. He was there from the first shot of the day to the last. He did all the press and had to go to all the parties and opening nights. Even the awards — it’s nice when you’re being honored, but you gotta go. There’s something nice about sitting by a fire reading, and you’re wife says ‘Oh, Hugh’s won a Golden Globe’, and you say ‘That’s great!’. Attention’s nice, but for me a little goes a long way. But then again, having just played Henry Higgins in Pygmalion and now Atticus, I guess you’re right, I do go for the jugular when it comes to the theater.
“In House I was happy to stick my head in his office and say, ‘Hey, have you seen Cuddy’s ass today?’ and then go home. I didn’t watch it, it didn’t affect my life. When I give something I care deeply about, like Mockingbird, I’m happy to be in the pilot’s seat.”
Before House, Hugh Laurie was a comedy actor in the UK, but he was always in collaborative, ensemble roles, not the comic standing out front. “Oh yeah, and when we first did the pilot it was considered an ensemble like ER. House was clearly the most interesting character but he was very much in the shadows, a mystery character who didn’t even meet the patient ’til the last scene. The mantra of the pilot was, who is this guy House...? Who is my doctor...? a bit of a Keyser Söze thing. They quickly got rid of that because Hugh was so good and they brought him front and center. It didn’t have a title, it was called ‘the untitled David Shore project’, and when they picked it up and called it House, Hugh called me and said, ‘I’m dead, my life’s over’. It was a great boon for me in every way. I have seen episodes and it was always good creatively.”
The Regent's Park Open Air Theatre production of To Kill a Mockingbird runs from May 16 to June 15. For more details, visit openairtheatre.com.