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BWW EXCLUSIVE: 2011 Tony Award Interview with John Benjamin Hickey

With a 2011 Tony nomination for Best Featured Actor In A Play for his magnetic turn in the critically-hailed revival of Larry Kramer's THE NORMAL HEART on Broadway and a leading role on Showtime's THE BIG C co-starring real-life close friend Laura Linney, as well as a busy film career that boats memorable turns in THE REF, ME & MY SHADOWS: LIFE WITH Judy Garland, FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS, the recent remake of THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123 and TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN, John Benjamin Hickey is a very busy man. Nevertheless, he was kind enough to recently take some time out of his beyond busy schedule to talk all about his stage and screen career - including sharing some revealing anecdotes about starring in THE CRUCIBLE with Liam Neeson and Linney, as well as working with the esteemed playwright Arthur Miller himself, in addition to his work in Terrance McNally's LOVE, VALOUR, COMPASSION, Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall's revival of CABARET, and, of course, all about the George C. Wolfe/Joel Grey production of THE NORMAL HEART starring director/actor Joe Mantello that he is participating in now. Plus, we have his thoughts on his recent GOOD WIFE appearance, feelings on the place of political theatre in society today, what roles he would like to take on in the future, his affection for the work of Edward Albee - and much, much more.

The Anything-But-Normal Actor

PC: What was it like finding out you were nominated for a Tony Award for THE NORMAL HEART? This is your first nomination.

JBH: I had been in five shows on Broadway - all five of which received slews of nominations - and I was never nominated. I was, of course, always happy to be a part of those shows, but I had never been nominated until now. So, I was just so thrilled beyond words and surprised and honored and grateful. I mean, I've been doing shows since '95, so that's a solid twenty years on Broadway almost. This is my first one. 

PC: How did you find out the news?

JBH: Well, Matthew Broderick - who is an old, great friend of mine - texted me just as the nominations were coming out. He texted me and said, "Turn on the news." I was on set in Stamford, Connecticut, and I thought maybe there would be good news, but I was called to set that day to shoot a scene. And, then, Laura Linney - who, of course, is my co-star on the TV show - stopped the set when we were about to start rolling and she said, "Everybody - I'd like your attention. Cast and crew please gather around. I just want to let you all know that I am acting with somebody - John Benjamin Hickey - who just got nominated for a Tony Award." And, you know, the place erupted.

PC: Wow! What a moment.

JBH: Yeah, it was just an amazing way to find out about it.

PC: Tell me about your relationship with Laura Linney

JBH: Oh, Laura is a dear, dear, old friend of mine. We went to drama school together twenty-five years ago. I mean, what better kind of way to find out? It was such a great moment.

PC: What shows did you perform in together in school?

JBH: We never did anything in school together because she was a year under me. But, many, many years later, we did THE CRUCIBLE together on Broadway - and, we had the time of our lives, because Liam Neeson is also one of our best friends. And, then, now, we play brother and sister on THE BIG C. So, I've had this sort of great connection to her and with her for so many years and I just think she's the most sublimely gifted actress.

PC: And she has been nominated for many Tonys herself.

JBH: Oh, God, yeah. She's been there many times and won many awards. So, it's like, when we were talking afterwards, "Oh, this is what that feels like? It feels pretty good!" And, she was like, "Yeah, it does feel pretty good, doesn't it?" (Laughs.) So, that was great.

PC: What was it like working with the playwright himself - Arthur Miller - on that great revival of THE CRUCIBLE?

JBH: He was in the rehearsal room with us. His wife, the legendary photographer, took photographs of us - of Laura and myself - that I cherish. She passed away right around the time we opened and then Arthur passed two or three years later. But, to have Arthur in the room and to have Arthur talking about the play…

PC: Can you try to explain what that was like?

JBH: I've told this story before, but: on opening night he came out for the curtain call and Laura - who is my old, old friend - she turned to me and said, "Let's make sure we remember this moment for the rest of our lives." Because, you know, for actors like us it just doesn't get any better than being in the room with Arthur Miller

PC: He is the great American playwright.

JBH: Yes, he is. And, now, I can actually say the same thing with Larry Kramer: he has been with us every step of the way with THE NORMAL HEART. 

PC: What have been your impressions of Kramer working on this?

JBH: He is such an extraordinary human being. Such a brilliant bad-ass. It's just a privilege to be able to work with these living legends.

PC: How did you first experience THE NORMAL HEART? Did you see the original production directed by Joel Grey?

JBH: I did not see the original production. To be honest with you, I've only ever seen a reading of it. I saw a reading many, many, many years ago at the Roundabout that Barbra Streisand had put together - because, I think, at that point in time, she was connected to doing the movie.

PC: What did you think of it? 

JBH: I was completely floored by the play. I thought it was absolutely brilliant. That was twelve, almost fifteen years ago. So, when I came aboard for the benefit reading that led to this production, I wasn't really aware of its dynamite relevance and prescience. 

PC: What are your feelings on the piece, looking at it again now, all these years later?

JBH: It just feels like it was written yesterday, you know? To me, as a piece of dramatic literature, it doesn't have any age or sense of nostalgia. Of course, it is a period piece and it is about a devastatingly cataclysmic period of time in our not-so-distant past that not a lot of young people are even that familiar with.

PC: What would you say to someone my age, in their twenties, about the relevance of the play when it was written and now?

JBH: You know, I think so many doors have been opened for the gay community, as far as the dangers and horrors of HIV. There is so much more out-ness now. So many doors have been opened by brave people like Larry - he banged a lot of those doors open himself. I think, sometimes, when doors are much easier to get through that people aren't as aware of the struggle that got people through those doors [in the first place]. I think that one of the great things about the play is that it is this stunning alive history lesson/political thriller/love story. It's just got everything in it.

PC: What is it like working on the text with the playwright sitting in the room with you?

JBH: Being in the room with Larry: the play is brand new to him. The way he talks about the play and the way he let us work on this new production of it - it was like it had never been done before. I think he sees it as a living, breathing, incredibly necessary work of art. And, I think he's absolutely right about that.

PC: And it's constantly evolving.

JBH: Absolutely. Absolutely. Also, I think any young person who would be told to see this play to learn about a terrible period of time would also be surprised, shocked and delighted at how terrifically exciting the play is. I mean, I think it is a very exciting play that young people love because it has got so much passion in it. 

PC: Without a doubt.

JBH: So, for that reason alone, you know, I think it's such a great thing for young people to get to see.

PC: What about dealing with immaturity in audiences who may not be familiar or comfortable with the material? Walk-outs? LOVE! VALOUR! COMPASSION! I would imagine was also treated similarly by audiences.

JBH: They are gay-themed plays - they are gay-centric plays. They are. I think that audiences, though, are so much more open-minded than anybody ever gives them credit for. When we did LOVE! VALOUR! - first, at the Manhattan Theater Club - I don't think any of us thought that it was going to have a popular appeal, but, then, the next thing we knew, it was on Broadway. 

PC: Indeed, it was.

JBH: I think that the matinee crowds - and I love the matinee crowds, by the way, and there is no reduction in that term to me; they are my favorite audiences - they are there for a collective, human experience. So, whether the play is about gay guys; gay guys falling in and out of love; or gay guys facing their mortality and facing cataclysm and pain and suffering - you know, we all share the same human DNA; the same human fabric. So, it's weird - it's like the plays that I've been in that have the most popular appeal have been the plays that confront the idea of gay relationships, gay love and gay life very, very frankly and audiences have loved them. Straight audiences have loved those plays.

PC: You made the distinction between matinee audiences and other ones - what is the difference in your experience?

JBH: (Sighs.) Umm, what is the difference? 

PC: I'm asking you!

JBH: (Laughs.) I don't know - sometimes you can palpably feel with a matinee audience that they haven't had a full day behind them. 

PC: Interesting.

JBH: Yeah, you know, a full day in which they are looking forward to dinner after the show and maybe getting a good night's sleep. You know, there is an eagerness about a matinee crowd, it seems like - just generally speaking - that they are really happy to be there. I feel that way about some evening shows, too, but there is something kind of crisp about a Saturday matinee that I absolutely love.

PC: What about iPhones and the distracting cell-phone lights?

JBH: Yeah, we've had a couple, but - and I'm touching wood when I say this - we haven't had it as much as we had in the past. I hope that it continues that way, because it is a pretty big pain in the ass. There is so much and there are so many of them now, I think that - I hope that - people collectively feel more conscious and inclined about turning that f*cking noise off before they come into the theatre.

PC: Tell me about working with Brian Murray - who is another truly brilliant actor who has also done this column.

JBH: I did Mary Stuart and, also, THE CRUCIBLE with him. He is one of my great heroes of the theatre. Truly.

PC: Did you see him in the new Albee play, ME, MYSELF & I?

JBH: Oh, my God! I loved him in that so much - and I adored the play. He was genius in it.

PC: And Liz Ashley?

JBH: Oh, I adored her, too! I thought that was just a f*cKing Brilliant, brilliant evening. 

PC: What do you think of Albee in general?

JBH: Albee is just like… it is a dream of mine to get to do an Albee play; to get to work with him. Oh, what a dream. I just think he is one of the greatest.

PC: Coming from someone who worked with Arthur Miller one-on-one, no less! What's your favorite of his pieces and what roles are most enticing to you?

JBH: I'm a big, huge DELICATE BALANCE fan. Of course, I'm also a Virginia Woolf? fan - I've loved that play forever and I would love to play George at some point in my career. It would be a dream of mine. There is like this dream list of people I'd love to do it with - one, in particular, who I won't name!

PC: Who? Laura?

JBH: (Laughs.)

PC: You'd love to work with Albee, though?

JBH: Oh, yeah - just the idea of getting to work with him is so exciting. I love all of his plays. I just love them.

PC: You'd be great in THE GOAT, as well. 

JBH: Oh, my God! That's another one! Yeah - sh*t! I mean, that's one of those things where it's like, "Name your favorite Bach concerto," or something, and you suddenly forget the ten that you love so much. 

PC What about taking on Murray's role someday in THE PLAY ABOUT THE BABY?

JBH: Crazy! So crazy great! Him and Marian [Seldes] together were so, so brilliant in that. (Pause.) One of my great memories.

PC: David Burtka was great in that as well. 

JBH: Absolutely. He was.

PC: Are you excited about Neil Patrick Harris hosting the Tonys?

JBH: Oh, yes! I didn't know that yet. That's brilliant, because my mouth kind of hangs open at how gifted he is - and, he is such a wonderful guy, too.

PC: Did you see him in ASSASSINS?

JBH: Yes! I loved him that production so, so much.

PC: Of course, it was directed by your NORMAL HEART co-star Joe Mantello. What is it like working with him as an actor?

JBH: Well, it's an incredible experience for me - you know, I have this with Laura, too - because I've known Joe for twenty years now. He's one of my best friends. We've been through so much together - he's directed me in five plays and one movie. So, we've grown up together in the business, in many ways. I've seen his astronomical, so-well-deserved success. And, to have this opportunity now is positively surreal.

PC: Why so?

JBH: Well, because I know him so well, he is so easy to listen to onstage: A, because this part is like breathing for him - it's just such an extraordinary marriage of actor and part to where it never seems like he's acting; he just seems like he is this person - and, B, I find it so easy to listen to him because I've been listening and talking to Joe for a large part of my adult life. So, it's this incredible added benefit of acting with him onstage every night.

PC: That must be such a dynamic and fulfilling experience for you - onstage and off.

JBH: Really great.

PC: What about doing another musical - I remember seeing you in CABARET back in the late-90s!

JBH: Oh, my God!

PC: That was a wild show - especially at Studio 54.

JBH: Oh, my God. Yes! I think that CABARET was the beginning, middle and end of my illustrious and brilliant musical theatre career, though. (Laughs.)

PC: What was it like to do a musical for an actor known primarily for plays?

JBH: I'm not that much of a singer - I only sang a couple of lines in that. But, the f*cking unbelievable experience of not really being a musical theatre performer, but getting to be in one of the biggest hit musical productions in recent memory - a legendary production with an unbelievable cast and an unbelievable concept. And, when we were doing it at the Henry Miller Theater - now, the Stephen Sondheim Theater - and, then, later, at Studio 54, in two extraordinary venues in which to perform a show - it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

PC: Indeed.

JBH: It turns out it might literally be a once-in-a-lifetime experience because I think my musical theatre career is over now for good. (Laughs.)

PC: What was it like with Rob Marshall and Sam Mendes, two super-directors, at the helm?

JBH: Yeah, two of the greats. The two of them figuring out how to do that show together and each of them giving each other their extraordinary gifts - they complimented each other so much. I just have memories of that whole time that I hold very, very near and dear to my heart and I will cherish them forever. Natasha Richardson, especially. I was a very, very lucky man to get to work on that show.

PC: I have to ask a few questions about your film career: THE REF with Ted Demme?

JBH: He was a genius. I was in the very first thing he ever directed, too - this little short film called THE BET.

PC: What was he like? His few films are all quite impressive.

JBH: Oh, I loved him so much. He was an angel. As gifted a director as he was, he was an even better man. He was just a magnificent man. That was a real, real loss.

PC: Rosie O'Donnell spoke so favorably to me about working with him on BEAUTIFUL GIRLS - she, too, called him a genius.

JBH: Oh, yeah. Totally. He was very, very, very special. I still miss him.

PC: What about working with Judy Davis again on ME & MY SHADOWS: LIFE WITH Judy Garland, the best TV film ever made?

JBH: (Laughs.) That was f*cking great - and, Judy Davis: talk about a bad-ass! And, her and Tammy Blanchard together - what insanely, insanely great performances.

PC: What was becoming Roger Edens like?

JBH: It was heaven. I got to do so much research. I did so much research with Lorna [Luft], who wrote the book. Robert Alan Ackerman directed it, who was so brilliant. It was just so great to be able to learn about that period of time and how Roger worked with Judy and helped her so much with her profoundly brilliant, innate gifts. And, the times of those musicals and the MGM studio. Then, also, one of my best friends is Victor Garber - who is also in the movie [as Sid Luft]. So, that was a really great time.

PC: What about working on THE ICE STORM with Ang Lee?

JBH: Love, love, love Ang Lee. So brilliant. I got to do that with Kevin [Kline] and another of my very good friends, Allison Janney. I've been lucky, man. I've worked with some great people and a lot of them are friends of mine. I'm a very, very lucky guy.

PC: What is it like working with George C. Wolfe on this production of THE NORMAL HEART? Another one of the greats.

JBH: Ah, yes, indeed. George is a genius. He is just a profound theatre visionary and artist. He thinks like a true artist and he has such a great sense of humor and humanity. He loves actors so much and he was so good and kind to us - because we were all so shot out of a canon on this. I was so very lucky to have been able to work with him on this.

PC: What is the story behind that controversy in previews when this was billed as a reading and not a full production?

JBH: Well, we just didn't know if we had enough time. But, because of George and Joel and because of the dedication of this extraordinary cast, we just all put the pedal to the metal - as they say in trucker language - and just doubled-up our efforts and got ourselves up to playing speed. Without denying any of the process, we all just got on the same page and realized that we have to work doubly hard to make this happen and make this the production that Larry deserves - and the audience deserves.

PC: And what about working with Ellen Barkin?

JBH: She's the best. She's the greatest. I adore her. And, she's so brilliant in the part and she is so tough. She is such a great actress and she is so intelligent and beautiful. She is just the bomb.

PC: Define collaboration.

JBH: Collaboration to me is… my favorite collaboration in the theatre is the collaboration between the actors and the audience because it's just that thing that happens when the only thing left that is left on the human scale is that human beings come to look at other human beings act out stories. I think that there is a trust and a bond that is formed night after night after night that is irreplaceable for an actor. There is no greater high. There is no greater honor.

PC: What's next?

JBH: I am shooting Season Two of THE BIG C and that premieres in late June. Get your Showtime on!


JBH: No, no. That was my one and only TRANSFORMERS. (Laughs.)

PC: Any plans on returning to THE GOOD WIFE?

JBH: I don't know yet - I'd love to be asked back. I had a really great time doing it. 

PC: This has been an honor. You're always amazing, John.

JBH: Thank you so, so much, Pat. You've been so sweet and I really appreciate it. Bye bye. 



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From This Author - Pat Cerasaro