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BWW Interview: Shuler Hensley, Big Man on Broadway

Shuler Hensley is used to filling big roles. This imposing 6-foot-4 actor from Atlanta has appeared on Broadway and in film in larger-than-life roles like the villainous Jud Fry in OKLAHOMA! and Frankenstein's monster-twice! -in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN and again, on the screen, in VAN HELSING.

But he now faces his biggest challenge in his current dual roles being performed in repertory-as Briggs in Harold Pinter's NO MAN'S LAND and Pozzo in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot.

Hensley shares the stage with an acclaimed cast-Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen (both of whom have been knighted) and Billy Crudup-and all have received raves. The existential plays have not only been challenging audiences since their opening, they have also been heartily amusing.

"One striking aspect of both of these plays is the amount of humor they have," Hensely said recently, "and how responsive the audiences have been to the humor." Hensley came to the plays without a lot of preconceived notions because he wasn't that familiar with them. "I had never read any Pinter or Beckett before these productions and I think it served me really well," he said. "It's been fun and exciting to go into these plays without much baggage."

"Of course I read them before rehearsal. But what has been so wonderful is that the meaning is as much in what is not said as what is said," he said.

"The whole process in what we are doing can be found in the 'Pinter pauses,' and the more we rehearsed, the more defined each character became for me," he said.

Beckett's Waiting for Godot is a seminal piece of classic theater that explores the roles of time, identity and meaning, as does NO MAN'S LAND, Hensley said. "The first thing that attracted me to doing these plays was the cast. I'm in awe of all of them," he said. The casting process itself was seamless for Hensley. "The casting director had suggested me for these two roles and we pretty much went to lunch, had a chat, I read through the plays and I was honest about my excitement and confusion," he laughed. "I knew that whatever other roles I'm able to spend nine months doing, it doesn't get any better than this."

As Pozzo in Beckett's revival, Hensley is both a cruel tyrant and a confused character. Waiting for Godot has been called the most important play of the past century and continues to challenge audiences no matter what their age, Hensely said. "You have only to see the stage door after a show, to see all the young people lined up in addition to the older fans."

Hensley's observation about the audience's enthusiasm extends to his own. "I still get butterflies every day going to work, and it's been one of the few times I try to get to the theater earlier than I have to. The butterflies are not so much about nerves as they are like the start of a race.

"The first day of rehearsal was a bit jittery for me," he admitted. "It's like that starting any new play-like the first day of school. It's just wonderful."

Hensley's interpretation of Pozzo was encouraged by Director Sean Mathias. "He said to gravitate towards my character on a personal level," Hensley explained. "Because I'm from the south, Pozzo sounds very southern to me, and that feeling while speaking the words was an interesting exercise. The reversal of Pozzo's circumstances change so dramatically in the second act, it may strike some as two different plays," he said.

"Audiences are so used to being spoon-fed by entertainment, but in these plays just when you think this guy's a hero or a villain, everything changes."

Pozzo's curious relationship with Crudup's Lucky (who seems anything but) has become second nature while on stage, Hensley said. "Both couples in the plays seem like old married couples in a strange way. In fact I read that Beckett would take actual conversations he had with his wife and use them in a lovely flow of conversations in his plays.

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Naomi Serviss Naomi Serviss is an entertainment/spa writer whose roots include covering Broadway. She has written for Newsday, The New York Daily News, The New York Times and numerous magazines and websites.