BWW Interviews: Debut of the Month - Hari Dhillon Talks Provocative Role in DISGRACED
Hari Dhillon makes his Broadway debut in Ayad Akhtar's Pulitzer Prize winning play Disgraced, the story of a successful Muslim-American lawyer and his wife -- an artist influenced by Islamic imagery -- enjoying their comfortable and successful life on New York's Upper East Side. When a co-worker and her husband come to dinner, what begins as polite table conversation explodes, leaving everyone's relationships and beliefs about race and identity in shards.
Today the talented actor speaks exclusively to BWW about making his Broadway debut in this provocative tale of aspirations, assimilation and human empathy.
I feel like I can speak for hours with you about this show. I saw it last night and we discussed it all the way home. If that was the aim of the playwright, he certainly succeeded!
[laughing] Yes, it's just one of those shows. I mean I had the same reaction as you when I read it the first time, never mind acting in it. And it's amazing that as a cast, we still find ourselves embracing new ideas. I think when you're watching it they are very obvious, but when you're inside it, you find they arise very slowly as you go through it. So yes, that is certainly the aim. I think it's one of those plays that is touching on issues at everyone's core and it's just below the skin surface of humanity, and what you experienced is very much the response that we are getting.
You played the role of Amir in the London production of Disgraced. Did you find that London audiences reacted any differently than the New York audiences?
I would say by and large the reaction has been exactly the same. There are small things, maybe not everyone got the Cubs reference or the sports references or things like that, but it very much had the same visceral impact. The day we opened in London there was a pretty aggressive attack. Two young Muslim men attacked a British soldier in the middle of the street and decapitated him, a very violent act of terror. And it really kind of shook everyone in a way that so many people see all too often these days. And the reaction from the audience in London was, in a certain way, almost identical in that people left the theater really talking about the play.
Yes, both cities have unfortunately experienced their fair share of terrorism, so it certainly makes sense.
Well, there's nothing like doing a microcosm play that is set in New York, that is about New York - there is kind of a different impact, it's like we're all sharing the same kind of cultural references. And some of that is certainly lost in London. But what you really get is the overall impact and the arc of this story landing on people in London in the very same way that it happens here.
It seems like it must require a great deal of emotional and mental energy to perform this role every night. How do you prepare for that?
Well this is actually one of my favorite things about the play. On some level, yes it does, but in a real way, what I find with the power and beauty of Amir is that the pressure builds, the pressure builds, the pressure builds and then there seems to be a cathartic release for the character and for me as the actor. So for me to be able to go through that and then shed it all at once, I find it invigorating.
As far as preparing for it, I do all the normal things that everyone else does, I get there a little early, have a little nap, make sure I eat, do my vocal warm ups, stretching, all that kind of stuff. And then I'm very aware of the fact that this play in some ways requires that I press 'play' and then kind of let go in some way and it is so incredibly constructed that one event just tips off to the next, tips off to the next, and more often than not, I find myself thinking, "Oh, we're here now?" [laughing] So in some ways, the preparatory work is really effortless, almost subconscious in a way.
On the other end, is it hard to decompress once the curtain goes down?
No, it's not. I know it must sound funny to hear me say that because it does seem so counterintuitive. I feel like the architecture in the way Ayad has written feels almost classically Greek, there's such a cathartic relief at the end of show, ideally a shared experience between performer and audience. So no, it doesn't feel like I'm decompressing, I don't necessarily feel like I'm hanging on to anything. As long as I can express everything that is coming out of me and not judge it. As the play goes on, Amir is really starting to exist on a very fine edge of humanity, so I do feel satisfied if I can let that all come out naturally. And that makes me feel excited to come back the next night or the next performance really.
Along those lines, your character, and really all the characters, take so many twists and turns in their beliefs and their personalities and their behaviors. I imagine that must be quite challenging as an actor.
For me that feels kind of truer in a way. I don't think a requirement of ourselves as human beings is to be consistent in every way. And what's always interesting about Ayad Akhtar's writing is that it comes from angles which, on the surface are not expected, but once you start to dig into it, you're like, 'yes, that kind of makes sense." The psychology of these characters are so richly conceived and thought out and executed. There have been times I've found certain things difficult, but I generally found that once I figured out what those twists and turns are, and once I started to release myself of the actor's habit of demanding some type of consistency, it was replaced with something much liver, which ultimately felt truer in some way. And that's when it becomes fun to play with the other four characters who you are on stage with.
The play offers the theory that even if you are not, for lack of a better way to say it, buying into your own religion anymore, it is sometimes so instilled in you that you may be unable to control your reactions to certain events.
Absolutely. I think that one of the things this play is saying is that even in this liberal, urbane, cultured world we live in, I like to think that everyone is equal in some way. And I think one of the points it drives home is that we can't really reach that point until we accept that there is some type of tribal identity, some basic form within each of us, whether Muslim or Jewish or Indian or black, or whatever it might be. We must learn to accept the fact that we all view the world through a particular prism and we believe that that view is the right one. But failing to do that, we are unable to deal with our own personal prejudices and we are unable to have empathy for others.
One of the more interesting comments I've heard often about my character Amir, which didn't make me feel great at first until I really thought about it, is that people have said, "Hey, I didn't really like the character, I'm not really sure I warmed to the character. He made me angry and then he'd do something that made me even angrier and I just kind of crossed him off my list in some way. But then at the end of the play, I found myself feeling real sympathy for him, feeling very sorry for him. I felt empathy." And that's what this play is about. It's about having an empathic response to the other, to someone who's other than you, someone who makes you angry or alienates you in some way. For me, this is what this play is really asking of us, as performers, as audience members, as human beings on the planet. And I get the sense that on some subconscious level, that's what people are really responding to.
And perhaps if there is ever going to be a solution to this mess the world is in right now, that's where it all begins.
Yes, that is really where it begins. Once you acknowledge something that is perhaps true and tribal and deep inside you, from that moment on we acknowledge our own failings and shortcomings, display some kindness towards others and then acknowledge that others are struggling with the same thing and have empathy toward them. That's the foundation of real human understanding.
And what is also interesting is how diverse the cast itself is.
Well oddly enough, we didn't even think about how diverse we all were until someone pointed it out to us one day saying, "wow you four are all so different." And we were like, "yes, I guess you are absolutely right!" It kind of revealed itself to us. I mean I know that there is an obvious cultural geography that I was aware of on some level, but it was like one day we all kind of looked at each other and were like, "Oh yeah, Josh is Jewish, Karen is black, Gretchen is literally a WASP from CT, and it's funny how, with the very richly diverse cosmopolitan lives we live, we can kind of forget that sometimes.
Can you describe what it has been like to make your Broadway debut in this play?
It feels like a gift. I never even had the nerve to ever dream that I would get to be on Broadway, it was just something just so other, so far away. And to be able to do it in a play like this which really hits me on an intensely personal core, to be the mouthpiece for this message, and for an audience to really appreciate it and respond to it is more than a dream. I wish my dreams were this creative, I wish I had that big of an imagination to have this kind of dream. It has been a gift, it has been a gift in every way and I just hope to serve it up.
DISGRACED is currently playing at Broadway's Lyceum Theatre, 149 West 45th Street, New York. For tickets and more information visit: http://www.disgracedonbroadway.com
About Hari Dhillon:
American-born Hari Dhillon starred in the London production of Disgraced as Amir and was called "blazing and dangerous" by the BBC and "riveting" by the Financial Times. While Disgraced will mark Hari's Broadway debut, he is no stranger to the stage with other notable theatre credits including the premiere of Charles L. Mee's A Perfect Wedding at the Mark Taper Forum and the original production of Stephen Belber's Drifting Elegant at San Francisco's Magic Theatre. In London he also was seen in the original production of Helen Edmunson's Mother Teresa Is Dead at the Royal Court.
The actor is well known to British television audiences for his role in the BBC medical drama series Holby City. Other US TV credits include The Mentalist, The Loop, Without A Trace and Charmed. Hari will also be seen in director Jim Gillespie's new upcoming film Take Down.aspiration and cultural assimilation dares to face the truth hiding just below the deception.
Photo credit: Joan Marcus