Shuler Hensley is an American actor who, outside of the theatre world and especially the musical theatre world, is little known in the UK.
Currently, he can be found in the Theatre Royal Bath’s Ustinov Studio in the modern tragedy The Whale, in which he plays the morbidly obese Charlie, an Idaho man who is close to death. Critics have raved about the play, but The Whale is only the most recent of Hensley’s achievements on these shores.
Twenty years ago (and the only American playing in that South Bank cast) he won the Best Supporting Actor Olivier Award for his portrayal of Jud in Trevor Nunn’s Oklahoma! at the National Theatre. That production was one of the few American shows ever to have enjoyed a fresh UK revival that itself was then shipped back across the Atlantic to become a hit in New York too. On Broadway in 2002, reprising the National Theatre production, Hensley’s Jud earned him not only that year’s Drama Desk Award and Outer Critics’ Award, he scooped the Tony too!
For those of us lucky enough to have seen the show (I was one) Hensley’s work was unforgettable. Nunn’s Oklahoma! was choreographed by Susan Stroman – who went on to work closely with Mel Brooks in transferring his Young Frankenstein from a hit comedy movie onto the stage. Stroman didn’t hesitate in proposing Hensley to create The Monster when the show opened on Broadway in 2007. Ten years later Brooks and Stroman brought the show to London, where Hensley was again the only American actor employed, going on to magnificently (and far from monstrously) re-create his Monster for the West End. After The Whale’s opening night in Bath last week I caught up with Hensley to learn a little more about him and his career.
Jud, The Monster, and now Charlie. What draws you to playing such dysfunctional individuals?
That’s a very interesting question. I think as a character/actor, I guess I’m just drawn to characters who we (by which I mean the general public or society) think we know based on our initial impression. Usually, it’s a visual impression. He’s the dirty farm hand. Or he’s the morbidly obese guy who can’t get out of his apartment. It could be anything. Then, understanding that, and sort of as an actor, just trying to figure it all out. People don’t go into life wanting to be labelled. I think we want to fit in. We want to be a part of everyone else’s journey.
That’s the interesting thing about these characters – finding something that I think we all can recognise in a person, and then sort of flip it and say, “Well, wait a minute. Actually, I can relate to that.”
And once you’re able to do that with an audience, and you’re able to take a stereotypical character and make people start questioning that, then I think it’s really powerful and interesting for the viewer to say, “Wow. Maybe there is some worthiness to these people.”
I mean, I play a lot of villains. I play a lot of darker characters. But with my research and with my knowledge of these people, in reality I have found that these dark souls don’t thinks of themselves as psychopaths or a villains. They often think, “Well, I’m right and everyone else is wrong, so it’s not like I’m evil.” And once you can figure that out then you can really portray someone who is deeply believing in what they’re saying. Does that make sense?
JB: It makes perfect sense. In The Whale, where you have to endure a particularly spiteful daughter – there is a moment when you, her scorned and obese father, realise the good that lies within her. It’s a heartbreaking, powerful moment that you perform beautifully.
Moving on, what sympathy do you think we can or should feel for Jud in Oklahoma!?
Shuler Hensley’s Jud Fry
Shuler: Well, Jud’s an interesting character. When Oklahoma! first came out especially the film, I think there was a necessity to draw a line between who’s good and who’s bad. But what I find fascinating about Rodgers and Hammerstein is that actually they don’t write that way.
If you look at things like South Pacific and you look at Oklahoma!, there’s a lot of good and bad in everyone. And Curly, although he may be all fluffed up in the movie, he’s got a dark side. He’s got a very vengeful side. In the song Lonely Room for Jud, which incredibly was cut from the movie, that’s a vitally important moment to get inside Jud’s head.
Listen to the lyrics of Lonely Room – it’s a love poem. It’s a wanting to belong. It’s a wanting to get a bride and fit in, and be loved, and to love someone. I mean, we all can relate to that, but what’s interesting about Richard Rodgers’ music is that underneath that love poem is dissonance.
I talked to Mary Rodgers about this, his daughter before she passed, and she said that he considered Lonely Room to be one of his greatest compositions ever because it so well contained the emotion in what’s happening within the song. Jud is a perfect example of somebody who doesn’t think of themselves as being a villain, but for whatever reason has been put into that situation and is defensive.
Think of “Poor Jud Is Daid”. If you take that out of being a comedic duet and saw what Curly was doing, he’s being horrible to Jud.
JB: It’s horrendous bullying.
Shuler: Quite. People laugh and scoff in that song, but if you can create moments where the audience – and I mean Oklahoma! is the quintessential American musical – if you can get them to hear a song for the first time in a way that makes them start to question their judgement, THAT is what live theatre is all about.
I’ve worked with Hugh Jackman (who played Curly in the Nunn production). That was his first thing here. I’ve worked on films and movies and people like Hugh and a lot of these guys like Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart who’ve made success in movies and TV come back to theatre.
And the reason is that you can’t re-create a live audience or a live experience because you’re in it with the audience. And so when you create a touching moment for a villain like Jud or a touching moment for a morbidly obese gay man like Charlie, there’s a palpable connection with the audience in a live environment that can’t be re-created.
JB: You just mentioned Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. You recently played alongside them in the Broadway production of No Man’s Land. Tell me about working with those two theatrical knights, on Pinter.
Shuler: It reminds me of like a Sunday Times crossword puzzle. It’s very cerebral on the surface, but if you go along with that then you realise that there’s a lot of stuff going on that’s beyond the words or underneath the words, or between the lines. And that’s what was so fascinating with it. We actually worked with the neurologist Oliver Sacks who Patrick invited into to our rehearsal process.
He helped us with the fascinating aspect of the whole play being about false memory. I think we all have it. I mean, if you have a sibling, you can both remember in great detail sometimes different versions of the same event. Both versions cannot be true because they don’t line up. It’s just a fascinating journey in false memory with Pinter dialogue.
JB: Let’s move on to Mel Brooks and Young Frankenstein.
Hensley as The Monster
Shuler: Well, where to begin? I consider Mel Brooks to be a dear friend of mine. I talk to him on a regular basis. He’s nearly 92 and he couldn’t be a younger soul. I think it’s the throwback to when he started as a comedy writer to Sid Caesar’s show of shows. I believe that’s what it’s called. In the writing room was Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, a very young Woody Allen. Those types of guys who had to come up with a weekly comedy line – No, I think Mel said there were about 70 shows a year.
The idea of coming up with something funny and throwing it like a spaghetti, throwing it against the wall and seeing if it sticks. That’s Mel’s mentality with everything. He didn’t want to re-create the movie. He wanted it the musical of Young Frankenstein to be an original experience even though everyone can relate to the lines and the scenes that everyone remembers from the film.
Having him say that from the beginning was such a relief because I didn’t want to try to create or re-create the version of The Monster from the film because there’s just no way to do that.
We had the Broadway run and then I did it on tour because I wanted to experience what that was like for the American audience, which was amazing because everyone loves Mel Brooks.
So after 10 years probably Mel just called me up. I talked to him occasionally within that gap, and he kept saying, “Shuler, I’m getting this to London. I’m telling you. It’s going to go to London.” And Susan Stroman and I would laugh about it because I’ve worked with Susan Stroman on a number of projects and we do readings. I’d say to Susan, “Have you heard from Mel?” And she’s like, “Oh yeah.” And lo and behold, he got it here.
I said, “I’m going to do it. I’ll do whatever you want me to do.”
And then when we got here, he came in and completely re-designed it, re-thought it, let a lot of the leads and people experiment with lines. He was here for five, six weeks. I mean, he’s very hands on, and super energised. I can’t even begin to tell you how amazing that man is, and he’s constantly thinking.
JB: The Whale – tell me about your journey with this astonishing piece.
Shuler Hensley and Ruth Gemmell in The Whale
Shuler: It started six years ago. They had a reading of this play called The Whale and they said, “We’d be interested in Shuler reading this.” So, they sent me a copy of it, and when I read it my jaw dropped. I just felt such a connection to not only the characters, but the style of writing and the rhythm of the writing, and the use of pauses and things not said that should be. It was all contained within the script. That was just reading it.
And then you get to the actual table read. A lot of times the things you think are going to happen just don’t, but pretty much everything that I was hoping for just naturally happened within the table read. I think we all went away from that thinking, “This is something really amazing to be a part of.”
And then the writer, Sam Hunter, is just one of those people that’s just an old soul and a wonderful human being. He sets all his plays in Idaho, which is where he’s from. And it’s sort of autobiographical in some aspects, but in others it’s hints of people he knows and has entered his life. The storyline of Mormonism reflects how prolific that creed is that part of the country.
Idaho’s up in the north west corner. It’s sort of a No Man’s Land (not to bring another play into it of course!) but it really is. I mean, if you ask a typical American about what would a normal person from Idaho be like? They’d have no clue. No clue.
JB: And in the politics of modern America, Where would you say Idaho sits?
Shuler: I don’t know. I think it’s a mystery. It’s just like a frontier. I have been to Moscow, Idaho once. I drove down from Seattle, Washington because there was a wedding that I was a part of. The bachelor party was in Moscow, Idaho. It feels like you’re in the middle of outer space because there were no street lights at the time, so you’re driving through these massive national parks in the dark. You can just see as far as your headlights are, and then all of a sudden there’s this town. It’s a big town but it’s sort of surrounded by wilderness, so very isolated. It’s just a really interesting area. I wouldn’t know what the politics are because it’s its own world.
JB: Is there a hope that The Whale may come into London?
Shuler: That is our hope!
Whenever there’s something I’m doing in the States that I really believe in, I always think of how we can get it to England because I think the theatre community here is very knowledgeable. The British are very supportive of theatre and I’ve just loved working here.
The Whale plays at the Ustinov Studio until 2nd June
Photo credits for The Whale images: Simon Annand