BWW Interviews: VERITAS' Sam Underwood

BWW_Interviews_Sam_Underwood_20010101

The last time Sam Underwood appeared on stage he was completely naked. He was playing Alan Strang in the much lauded production of Peter Schaffer's EQUUS at East Hampton (NY)'s John Drew Theatre. Those who are familiar with the play know that it culminates in a 20 minute nude scene for the actor playing the tormented young Strang. How then would the actor be recognized when he walked into a restaurant in New York City fully clothed?

Happily, his bright blue eyes and six foot stature made him easy to notice and his hair is still rather long in the style he wore in the play. Underwood is a serious actor but he enjoys a good laugh while having dinner. Speaking in his pleasantly clippEd English accent, the young Brit happily reflected on his experiences in EQUUS as well as his theater company and other upcoming projects. He's a far cry from the young man who had Alec Baldwin mystified every night on stage in East Hampton.

Underwood's background harks to the town of Woking, about a half hour's drive south of London. "My Mum put me in dance school when I was about four years old," recalls Underwood. "I had too much excess energy that needed to be burned off, I guess. My father was a singer/songwriter and we moved down to the Woking area because there's a lot of jam working around that territory. The music industry is thriving in that region. Eventually I started doing the musicals that the dance company was presenting; so I got to play Dodger in OLIVER! and things like that. I studied drama and went on to college. When I was auditioning for drama schools in London the director of the theatre company I was working with told me that they were doing a play that they were going to take on a little tour of America. He asked if I'd like to be part of it. I told him, ‘Absolutely!' and went to my school to ask them if I could have a year off so I could do this show. They agreed and that brought me to New York. My director suggested that I look at the training over here because he felt I'd really connect with things by using my theatre background. I looked at a couple of schools, auditioned and got in. I felt I had to take the opportunity when it presented itself. I knew I could always go back to London and this was the best decision ever!"

Underwood has been in the United States for almost four years now. "I came over in October of 2006 and graduated in February of 2008 and have been a working actor ever since!"

Despite his recent and memorable dramatic roles, the young Brit has a long list of musical comedy on his resume. "Absolutely!" he agrees. "I mean, Gene Kelly, Donald O'Connor, Fred Astaire, Bob Fosse, all those old M-G-M movie musicals were things I grew up on. They were always playing in my home so I grew up with that kind of stuff. However, I was lucky enough to get the acting training over here as well as London and I developed a love for the music in Shakespeare's language and the music found in classic texts. It became a real passion and I feel that there's no reason why I can't do both things. It's possible to do musical theatre and have a good musical ear for the language of Shakespeare. One of the key components of performing Shakespeare is being able to tap into the melodies of how he wrote. Even contemporary writers like Sir Peter Shaffer have the same sort of music found in their texts."

It was while Underwood was in Arizona playing Billy Crocker in ANYTHING GOES that he came across an on-line audition breakdown for a production of CANDIDA at the Irish Repertory Theatre in New York. "I e-mailed my agents and said ‘You have to get me an audition for this because I know Marchbanks is a role I can do!' It's George Bernard Shaw. It doesn't get much better than that text-wise," The actor recalls. "They knew the casting director and had no trouble submitting me. I was lucky enough to get an appointment and when I walked in the room for the audition, Tony Walton, the director, was in there. I really wasn't expecting that. Tony and I struck up a great relationship from the get-go. He gave me some really great modifications in the audition room and we spent a good amount of time together. I went away from that audition feeling very good about it and went to England for my Christmas break."

During his visit home, Underwood received what might be considered one of the finest Christmas gifts ever, albeit belatedly: a phone call from CANDIDA's casting director, Deborah Brown. "She left me message on New Year's Eve," he remembers. " She asked if I could come in for a call-back the day after tomorrow. I called her right back and told her I was still going to be in England. I was lucky enough to have her re-schedule and Tony wanted me to meet Melissa Errico, who was going to play Candida. I arrived three days later. Charlotte Moore and several members of the cast were there along with Walton. I was cast as Marchbanks and it was a perfect combination of timing, luck and a perfect fit with Tony, the cast, the material and myself. It was wonderful. "

Sam Underwood's involvement in CANDIDA proved to be fortuitous in another way. The actor was sharing a cab with Walton one day when the director mentioned he was heading to Lincoln Center, where he would be meeting with Alec Baldwin. He told the young man that he and Baldwin were planning to do a play that summer and he asked Underwood if there were any roles he had ever dreamed of doing. Underwood immediately said, "I've always wanted to do Alan Strang in EQUUS." He went on to say that there had been the recent revival with Daniel Radcliff and expressed concern that he was getting a little too old for the part. That was the extent of the conversation.

That very evening, Walton met with Baldwin and they learned that the play they had hoped to do in East Hampton wasn't available to them. The two men were in a quandary about what they would do. According to Underwood, Baldwin turned to Walton and said, "I've always wanted to do Martin Dysart in EQUUS." Walton shot him down by saying, "You have to have an absolutely brilliant young actor playing opposite you." The very next day Walton came into the CANDIDA rehearsal and pulled Underwood aside to ask if it would be okay for a playwright friend of his came in to watch. Underwood agreed, saying, "It's always lovely to meet new playwrights." As if on cue, the door opened and in walked Sir Peter Schaffer, the author of not only EQUUS, but AMADEUS as well. "That was a bit strange," Underwood recalls.

"We got through the run-thru of CANDIDA and as soon as it ended, Tony ushered me over and saidBWW Interviews: VERITAS' Sam Underwood that he was doing a production of EQUUS this summer and was interested in knowing if I'd like to play Alan. I collapsed. It was less than twenty four hours since Tony and I had had our conversation in the cab." Not only was Underwood cast in EQUUS, but he soon learned that Schaffer would be revising certain parts of the play. Alan was given new dialogue that clarified the confusion he had about horses, myth and religion. Mr. Strang, the boy's father, had an added speech that elaborated on his disdain for anything equestrian. It all made for an even more exciting project to be part of.

EQUUS opened in June to extremely positive reviews and time and again the adjective "brilliant" was applied to Underwood's performance. Indeed, he was mesmerizing in the role; capturing the innocence, confusion and ambiguity of the character and making him oddly sexy at the same time. It was an enormously popular attraction and audience members drove all the way out to East Hampton from Manhattan or took the ferry from Connecticut to see it. None of them left disappointed.

The East Hampton experience is one that Underwood will always cherish. He found it exceptionally rewarding to work with Alec Baldwin. "Alec is one of the most generous people I've ever known. On stage he's a perfectionist which is why we get along so well. Both of us demand nothing less than perfection of ourselves. His generosity off stage is also impressive. He's involved in numerous cultural affairs . While we were in EQUUS, he was speaking at Yankee Stadium to the graduating class of NYU and that very evening taped the season finale of "Saturday Night Live"
He's involved in many, many things. Alec the voice of the New York Philharmonic on WQXR-FM and recently narrated a musical piece for the Boston Pops up at Tanglewood. So for him to be able to take on a role like Martin Dysart and triumph like he did is incredible. Absolutely incredible."

Another thing that caused the two actors to bond the way they did was the fact that they were both playing their dream roles. "We connected from a work point-of-view because we weren't just doing a play; we were doing a play we had both dreamt about doing. We got along great," Underwood emphatically states.

As with all good theatre, this production of EQUUS was a constantly moving project. "An actor's work is never done," remarks Underwood. "The play was never done. We were constantly exploring and finding new things in the text right up until the last performance. We were sad that we only got to do the show for three and a half weeks. We're all looking forward to the possibility of doing it again. It's an absolute dream for all of us. I know Peter wants to do it, as do Alec and Tony. The whole cast would be thrilled to do it again. Very rarely do you get to work with such great material with a living playwright as well." Not only would the cast of this production benefit from an after-life for the show, but audiences would be enriched by re-visiting the brilliant writing and superb acting in what might arguable be Peter Schaffer's masterpiece.

In addition to his life as an actor, Sam Underwood wears another hat: he is the artistic director of The Fundamental Theatre Project. "I've always wanted to have my own theatre company. It's been a dream of mine," he says. "When I got out of school and into the real world, I was lucky enough to start working as an actor. I was going from job-to-job when I realized how dynamic and pro-active one has to be marketing oneself to get the desired jobs. Sometimes you have to make the opportunities happen. The only thing that's sad about being over here in America is that true reparatory theatre-like the National Theatre in London, where the government gives grants to subsidize it-isn't established here. From a selfish point of view, I wanted a platform for myself. I yearned to produce works that I always wanted to do I've been lucky enough to do CANDIDA and EQUUS, but up until that point, my musical theatre resume was the main thing. It was hard for me to get seen and be taken seriously for a straight play. So I decided to make the opportunity happen for myself. Then I met my current business partner, Nicola Murphy who became our producing director."

Underwood continues, "We were going to work on a piece of theatre before I luckily booked CANDIDA. We had mutual goals in mind, namely to have a transAtlantic Theatre Company. She's from Dublin and I'm from London and we want a company where the actors have a great opportunity to work on their craft. We wanted a ‘safe haven where we could work creatively. So we have our Fundamental Theatre Project with different tiers of performance; there are table readings, staged readings, main stage productions like our upcoming Off Broadway play TRANS EURO EXPRESS. We also have workshops of new pieces and our Fundamental Academy which offers classes, workshops and lectures by different industry professionals. It's important to hear from people who have been working for many years and passing the torch. That's very important. I'm only starting out in my career and I'm learning best from those who have been doing it much longer than I. In addition to Alec, Tony and Sir Peter, I worked with Brian Murray in CANDIDA. For goodness sake, it doesn't get much better than that!"

"I truly believe that the greatest company of artists produces the highest quality of work," the actor states. "It's not just about putting on a show. It's about doing the best work possible. We are then going to submit that to an international market. These maybe big goals but we're taking little steps to achieve them." On August 11th, the Fundamental Theatre presented SOMETHING IN THE NIGHT by Craig McNulty in New York City. On September 4th, there will be a presentation of a yet-to-be-announced play and that will be given in East Hampton, New York on September 4th. There will be the reading of a short play, followed by an introduction of the company, plenty of wine, hors d'oevres and great fellowship. Certainly, it promises to be something that will satisfy all who attend. (More information can be found at www.fundamentaltheaterproject.com)

Sam Underwood will also be featured in the Fringe Festival production of a new play called VERITAS, written by Stan Richardson. This play is based on real-life incidents that amounted to a gay witch hunt at Harvard University in 1920. The hunts resulted in deaths and harassment of male students who either were homosexual or were thought to be. Many students were expelled from Harvard because of this. "The subject matter is really fascinating," remarks Underwood. "I got a phone call from the casting director and was asked if I'd like to become involved with in the project. Here I was being given the opportunity to work with a playwright on his new play. I was pretty excited about it. It was in New York, too!"
Of course he accepted.

BWW Interviews: VERITAS' Sam Underwood"The play itself," continues Underwood," pays homage to a lot of different writing styles; particularly that of the Greek Tragedy. That fascinates me, it's a contemporary twist to an ancient art form." In the production, Underwood is portraying Joseph Lombard, someone who actually existed and was part of this heinous part of the Ivy League's supposedly unblemished history. "I love the fact that I'm playing someone real because I was able to do my research and as an actor it was goal-after-goal for me," reflects the young man. "It's a fascinating exploration of the issues. There were great young men with great minds who were expelled. It hits its theme without slapping your face about it," Underwood states.

VERITAS will be presented on Fri 8/20 @ 7pm; Sun 8/22 @ 8pm; Tue 8/24 @ 4:15pm; Fri 8/27 @ 5:15pm; and Sat 8/28 @ 8pm during the 14th New York International Fringe Festival. ( To buy tickets or learn more about VERITAS at the Fringe, call (866) 468-7619 or visit FringeNYC.)

Of course there is great curiosity about VERITAS and its all-male cast. However, one is left to ponder whether Sam Underwood will continue the tradition he began in EQUUS and reveal all or parts of his human anatomy to the audience. He laughs and adds, "I would only do a nude scene depending on how it is presented in the context of the piece - does it serve the dramatic plot? Does it move it forward? ANGELS IN AMERICA, yes. HAIR, yes. Nudity for the sake of nudity is crass. When it adds to the play without becoming a gimmick, then it works. The play has to earn it. You won't find me in HAMLET: STRIPPED!" Of course that's disappointing for a certain faction of the audience, but as Shakespeare said, "so quick bright things become confusion!"

Photos: 1. Sam Underwood; 2. Sam Underwood with Alec Baldwin in Eqqus; 3. Cast of VERITAS: Matt Steiner, Paul Downs Colaizzo, Sam Underwood, Doug Kreeger, Jesse Swenson, Morgan Karr, Justin Blanchard (bottom row seated): Joseph Yeargain, Mitch Dean, Eric Nelsen by Carlos Arias

 

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