BWW Interviews - Christopher J. Hanke Chats THE NORMAL HEART and 'The Client List'


Christopher J. Hanke has been extremely busy since exiting the successful Broadway revival of HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING last year. The actor recently wrapped filming on an episode of Lifetime's new series 'The Client List', which will air this Sunday, June 10. Tonight, he opens at Washington DC's Arena Stage in the Broadway production of Larry Kramer's 'The Normal Heart' in the role of Tommy Boatwright. 

Hanke has played leading roles in various Broadway and off-Broadway productions. His roles have included Ethan Girard in the national tour of The Full Monty (2002) and Nick Piazza in Fame on 42nd Street (2003, off-Broadway); and on Broadway as J.T. in In My Life (2005), Mark Cohen in Rent (2007) and Baldwin in Cry-Baby (2008); and Claude in Hair (2008 -Central Park production). He has also appeared on television in recurring roles on Three Rivers and Big Love and had a recent guest-starring role on ABC's Brothers & Sisters. 

Hanke took time out of his final rehearsal in DC yesterday to chat about what it was like to work opposite Jennifer Love Hewitt and why he believes the Tony Award-winning Normal Heart has as much relevance today as it did when it was first written.

Can you tell me a little about your role on the Client List which will air this Sunday?

Well first of all, it’s a very sexy new hit show for Lifetime so that’s cool. And growing up knowing who Jennifer Love Hewitt is, and having this huge idea that, “Oh my God, Jennifer Love Hewitt!” - I mean to be able to sit in scenes and to be acting opposite her was very surreal and a very cool thing. She is a dream and an ultimate professional and was so giving and wonderful. My whole experience of my shoot was really kick ass!

Did she tell you to call her ‘Love’?

(laughing) I do call her Love. She didn’t say to, but I just picked up on it. Everyone else called her ‘Love’ they were like ‘Hey Love, would you mind if I try this? – so yeah totally, it's her nickname and she embodies it perfectly.

But as far as my character, I play Luke Jergenson, a new love interest, or possible love interest for one of the character’s in the show.  He’s a yoga instructor and a kind of spiritual, zen, free flowing guy who really connects with one of the girls on the show. And there’s a bit of a twist with Love’s character - we actually know each other from earlier in our lives and that comes out in the episode and it's about how they’re connected and what their relationship is. Even though Luke’s love interest is with another character, most of my scenes are with Love’s character.

Is this possibly a recurring character for the series?

You know, it's a new show and no one quite knows yet how the storylines are going to go. But definitely, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see my character come back in a couple of episodes to kind of further that story along. I’ve not been told that for sure but my fingers are crossed. As I said, everybody was so lovely to work with I kind of feel like we all felt a really good chemistry. I hope that happens. It would be fantastic! 

Do you have a preference for TV over theater?

I get asked that question a lot and I kind of feel like when I’m doing TV I prefer theater and when I’m doing theater I prefer TV because I just feel like I miss the other medium. But I’ve done a lot of TV and a lot of theater and I’m just happy to be able to do both, to be able to switch back and forth – that’s a huge plus and I just want to be working as an actor wherever those jobs come from.

I wanted to ask you about The Normal Heart which you open in on Friday in DC.  

Yeah, we’re doing the Broadway production with this amazing cast (see photo below!) for the summer. Larry Kramer said that it’s really important for this play to be done in Washington for him since it has never been done before here. Washington plays a big part of this story and Larry had tried to get the play to come here three times and on each occasion was thwarted for one reason or another at the last minute.  So it’s really important  - he’s very excited that it’s finally being done and therefore I’m also just elated to be a part of this Washington debut.

ACT theater in San Francisco has come forward and they are also going to be doing the Broadway production on loan, or whatever the words are, about a month after we close here. This cast has been approached about doing it but we haven’t really gotten involved yet as far as if we’re all going to be able to do it but we’re happy to be here in DC, the nation’s capital.

And it's also very timely since DC is going to be hosting the 2012 International AIDS conference this summer.

Yeah – I don’t know if that was by design or complete flukeness but we are very, very happy to be here during that. I think there’s a lot of crossover activity that Arena has already put together for the cast. I know that part of the original AIDS bill, which is currently in the possession of the Smithsonian, they're going to have that inside the new beautiful glass museum in the Arena Stage and it will be displayed in the lobby for the public to see and people to be moved by and to go back to that part of history. So that’s a really cool thing for everyone who is here this summer.

The play is often described as ‘ahead of its time’. Do you think the relevance of it has changed in 2012?

You know I don’t think so because a lot of the themes in the play, even taking HIV awareness or education out of the mix, are still so relevant. Ned Weeks has this great line where’s he’s referring to the Jews during the Holocaust. He says “history’s worth shit if people are not looking back to what has passed and not learning from those mistakes." People can look at history and be proud of who they are and be vocal. I think that is very relevant now that the President has come forward in support of gay marriage and many states now, one by one, are saying it’s legal to get married.  I think that this play is extremely timely and yes I agree, it was way ahead of its time and I bet you it will be one of those plays that is always modern and always feels contemporary and timely. Not to make a comparison to How to Succeed, but I think the same thing goes to that piece. I mean when I was on Broadway doing that last year, I felt that even though it was written so many years ago, we are still on the same corporate climbing, it’s about who you know, who can you schmooze, how can you ease your way up the corporate ladder and it kind of felt so timely as well. So I think sometimes when you have these plays and these pieces of theater that are so well written, they withstand time and always feel very present.

And some people still rely on their uncles for promotions!

(Laughing) Yes they do!

You’re going to be playing the role that was played by Jim Parsons on Broadway, Tommy Boatwright. Could you tell me about the character.

Tommy is based on a real person, his name was Rodger McFarlane. And he eventually came to be Executive Director of GMHC, which is the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the organization that Larry follows for the course of the play. And an interesting theater fact, Rodger came to become, I don’t know what his official title was, but he came to run Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, he had a high position for many many years and was very influential in the theater community. So that’s who I play. As he says in the play he’s "a hospital administrator and a southern bitch" - so that’s kind of who he is in a nutshell. He’s a caretaker, he’s in the trenches when the men are being diagnosed and they need help and care and compassion and a voice. He was the one who came up with the whole idea of ‘let’s get a telephone hotline, let’s get a bunch of phones where people could call in for information." At that time the city sadly was not giving out information. The Koch Administration, City Hall, the health organizations, they weren’t there to provide information. So my character came up with that idea to get volunteers, disseminate all information as much as we know. He’s a compasssonate guy and he also is funny and when things get tense, he provides a lot of comic relief to break down the tension which is a great device that Larry’s come up with. And it’s always fun to play a character that can be funny I have to say.

I read an interesting fact that I'm sure most people don't know about you. You had been accepted to medical school at one point but made the decision to turn it down?

Yes I was.

Was that a difficult decision?

Well, you know I always thought I wanted to be a doctor and then I studied abroad in London for a couple of semesters  and when I was there I saw as much theater as I could – musicals, classical, West End things, their version of Off-Broadway and I just thought ‘I could see myself doing this.' I even saw people in productions on the West End and I thought ‘That guy over there, I know I can do better than that!' 

So were you involved at all in theater at that point?

I was, it wasn’t my major but it was more extracurricular for me. And always was, growing up in the Church, I was always singing and involved and in college I was involved in theater but I never thought it was what I would do for my life. So when I was in London, I kind of got the chutzpah to come back to the States and try it myself and I’m glad I did cause it’s worked out for me.

And no regrets about not being 'Dr. Hanke'?

No I mean listen, I can always go back to that. Or maybe I’ll get to play a doctor on TV! I have no regrets. I would have loved being a doctor but God’s calling for me was the arts and I’m glad I found my path. 

Well I wish you the best of luck with The Normal Heart.

Thank you. Yeah, DC is a beautiful city and a great way to spend the summer. And having wrapped the Client List and getting this character introduced and being back in LA doing TV again and then coming back to DC to do this beautiful important play for the summer with one of the most eminent theater directors of our time – it’s just, oh God, I’m just floating on theatrical air – it’s awesome.

The Normal Heart opens tonight, June 8 and runs through July 29, 2012 at DC's Kreeger Theater. Lifetime's The Client List featuring Christopher J. Hanke will air this Sunday, June 10 at 10/9c.

Photo credit: Carol Rosegg

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