BWW Interview: Actor Burt Grinstead Talks Richard the Lionheart in THE LION IN WINTER
Actor Burt Grinstead gained recognition in Los Angeles for his terrific performance in Deathtrap at LGBTQ and later in The Rope at Actors Co-op. He formed his own production company and produced and co-starred in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which he also adapted with his partner Anna Stromberg. They won top prize at the Hollywood Fringe Festival in 2018. Grinstead is currently preparing to open as Richard the Lionheart in The Lion in Winter at Laguna Playhouse this Sunday November 10. In our conversation he talks about the play in depth and lays bare his passion for the acting profession.
Tell us about playing Richard the Lionheart in The Lion in Winter. What a great role! You do realize that Anthony Hopkins played him on film with Katharine Hepburn in his early career. right? How much of a stretch is it playing him?
BG: It's an awesome role! James Goldman's script is a gift to actors. It pumps with life and death stakes yet is laced with wit and humor. I'm excited to portray the Lionheart. I remember seeing the movie with Anthony Hopkins, Katharine Hepburn, and Peter O'Toole and thinking 'these are masters at play.' You rarely see actors be so free in film. It seemed like they were having the time of their lives. Anthony Hopkins, of course, killed the part and sets a high bar for any mere mortal actor. The story takes place over a Christmas with all the Plantagenets gathered in a castle in France. It's the first gathering since the eldest son and heir to the throne died. Who is to be the next king of the English empire? Let the games begin.
Richard is a force of nature, defined by his fury. He is furious at everyone for different yet specific reasons: furious at his father, Henry II, played by the dynamic and strong Gregory Harrison; at his mother, Queen Eleanor, played by the fierce and elegant Frances Fisher; at his little brothers John and Geoffrey, brought to life by the talented and vivacious Spencer Curnutt and Ian Littleworth respectively; at the French king Phillip, portrayed beautifully by Taubert Nadalini.
My job as the actor is to look beneath the Lionheart's fury, to understand whether frustration, loss, love, or fear are driving each moment. Goldman writes these emotions in such a truthful and relatable way. As an actor, I'm able to take a psychological dive into the human experience with each new hat I put on. In Richard's hat (or should I say crown), I'm able to explore the extremes of the human condition. We are defined by how we are nurtured in our youth. Family can be our greatest strength and our deepest flaw at the same time. Mr. Goldman certainly understood that basic dynamic when he penned this classic. It's a holiday dinner with a dysfunctional family where murder is a very real option and the fate of an empire is at stake.
How are you preparing for the role? What elements of the character do you find in your own persona?
BG: It's all about the exploration. Fortunately, Laguna Playhouse and Sheldon Epps, our fearless director, give the actors time to play with different ideas and to work with each other to bring life to the story. The real drama lies in the relationships. The toughest part of telling a story like this is defining a lifelong relationship in a three-week rehearsal process. I've only just met these talented actors, and yet we have to be able to openly share some of the most intimate and vulnerable emotions we can muster. Knowing this, Sheldon sat us down for the first week and had us talk through the play with each other. We were able to get to know each other and share our thoughts and ideas. We were able to feel each other out and discuss our character histories and relationships. We were given time to find the depths of each of the bonds that inform the current predicament our characters find themselves in.
Richard was called "the Lionheart" for a reason. If you do any basic research on this man, you'll see that he was a great soldier and ruthless tactician. He was always fighting. In my mind, he found peace in conflict. When you get to know his family, you can see that conflict was what he knew as home. In my real life, I'm much more of a pacifist, avoiding conflict at all costs, sometimes to my own detriment. I envy how Richard was able to take charge and stand up to obstacles that lay in his path. I don't, however, envy the violence he left in his wake. It is fun to able to play someone with such ferocity though. It's a chance to explore an emotion I rarely allow myself to experience in real life.
As with all characters I get to portray, I'm able to relate and bring in elements of my own life that can help further deepen the story. As an actor, you are required to find compassion for your character. It's the classic actor line, "whether you play Jesus or Hitler, you have to believe you are in the right." After all, everybody is the protagonist of their own story. The easiest way to find compassion for your character is to put yourself in their shoes. You have to be able to relate, and I definitely can relate to Richard in many ways. I'd rather keep those ways to myself though. My hope is that by bringing myself into Richard, the audience will also be able to relate and walk in his shoes.
How are rehearsals going? Talk about Sheldon Epps as director of the play.
BG: With material like this, rehearsals are a playground. It's a chance to explore and imagine and play. It's a joy to come to the rehearsal room and to work with such talented artists in exploring this twisted, fantastical world.
Sheldon has theatre running in his blood. Every element in this play adds up to create a unified vision and a complete tale. He addresses every moment with us and gives us the material necessary to inform the next moment. It's a hard play to direct. It's an elaborate chess match, or rather a long game of poker. Every character is trying to win, but every character keeps their cards close to their chest. Sheldon is in charge of mapping out each of our journeys, each of our tactics, each of our manipulative techniques. Seeing him place us around the space is like watching a master chess player setting up his side of the board. I'm excited for audiences to follow the twists and turns. I can't wait to see how people react to the surprises that lie around every corner and behind every curtain.
Tell us in greater detail about working with Gregory Harrison and Frances Fisher. Also, talk a little about the other actors in the cast.
BG: The sheer talent in this rehearsal room is staggering. This cast is incredible. Sheldon, Ann Wareham, and Michael Donovan have somehow gathered such a rare group of proficient artists. This family feels real. Gregory and Frances are simply brilliant. Not just as actors, but as leaders. They are our parents in the play, and they have adopted that familial role in the rehearsal room. They lead by example. They are professional, hardworking, and unbelievably kind. Their years of experience shine through them in every part of this process. I love watching them work, and I love being able to work with them.
Ian Littleworth and Spencer Curnutt play my brothers. In a way, we've also adopted those roles in real life. We are able to support each other and laugh each other. We are able to respect each other, but still poke fun at each other. We know that each one of us is there to help the other be the best they can in this piece. Ian and Spencer are powerful actors. They bring life to everything they do. I'm so proud to call them my brothers in this play.
I don't want to leave out the other actors in this piece. Taubert Nadalini plays the French King Phillip. Taubert has a natural presence about him that easily steals the show when he walks the stage. There's also the intelligent and talented Chelsea Kurtz who plays the French princess, Alais. Chelsea brings an emotional depth to the stage that heightens the drama and tension of this story in such a beautiful way.
I can't wait for people to witness this cast.
What do you think is the message of The Lion in Winter. It's a comedy, but not always that funny for the protagonists.
BG: The Lion in Winter certainly has some funny moments and some witty lines, but yes, the overall story of this play is a dark and twisted tale about a severely dysfunctional family. I'm sure everyone is going to come away with their own thoughts about the overall message Goldman was trying to share with us, but I think it's simply about the importance of love. Love is as necessary to human existence as water. It's food for the soul. Without it, we are starved, we are dry, we are empty. The place we are supposed to be able to find love is within our family. However, that is not true all the time. In fact, most of us are still thirsty for it. In this play about a family coming together for a holiday dinner, we see the sheer lack of love being spread around. In my view, the opposite of love is selfishness. If we are selfish, we are incapable of love. Everyone in this story is looking out for themselves first. In the end, a simple "I love you" or a meaningful hug, could change the fate of this empire. As the Beatles said the year after this play was written, "All you need is love."
Switching gears, tell us a bit about the success you had in LA and New York with Jekyll and Hyde.
BG: Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde was a roller coaster. We started at the Hollywood Fringe in 2018, and little did we know, we were strapped in for a wild ride. We did eight shows at the Fringe, then we came back for a month at the Los Angeles LGBT Center. Then we came back for Halloween 2018 for a few shows before we headed to Wilmington, North Carolina to perform it there for a couple of weeks. After that, we put the set in a truck and brought it up to New York City where we performed for two weeks in the International Fringe Encore Series at the SoHo Playhouse. The SoHo Playhouse then picked us up, and we headed back there for a full six week Off-Broadway run in the Spring of 2019. Now, the play is in the process of being published and will soon be available for purchase.
Anna Stromberg, my wife, and I were and are completely overwhelmed and grateful for the success of our little show. We absolutely loved performing it, and we're so lucky to have been given the opportunity to perform it so often. Our producers and team along the way were always incredible, and we learned so much from each new adventure. You can find out more information on our outrageous comedic-thriller Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde on our production company's website: www.BlanketFortEntertainment.com.
Are you and your wife planning any new projects for the near future?
BG: Yes! Many! First up, we made a movie that opens/premieres in Los Angeles the first week of December, The Lost Footage of Leah Sullivan. It's a found-footage, mystery-thriller that will have you on the edge of your seat. We will also have screenings throughout December in Massachusetts, North Carolina, Pittsburgh, and New York City. You can see information on screenings of that film at www.TheLostFootageofLeahSullivan.com
We also hope to produce a new play this coming 2020, and we have several other projects including films and series in the works. We loved creating Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde and were extremely encouraged by the success of it. We can't wait for audiences to see what we have planned next. You can subscribe to our email list for our most up to date information at www.BlanketFortEntertainment.com.
Is there anything you wish to add about Laguna Playhouse and the play?
BG: The Laguna Playhouse is a magical place. Ann E. Wareham and her team have created an adventure zone. A place where you can escape from the trials and tribulations of the modern world and enter the fantastical world of the theatre. It's a place to come together as a community to laugh, to cry, to enjoy, and to be entertained. It's a place to learn and to love. You don't have many places like this these days. You have to come see this play and support such an artistic playground. Come and have fun with us! You won't regret it.
Opens: Sunday, November 10 at 5:30pm
Runs: Sunday, November 10 - Sunday, November 24, 2019
Performances will be Wednesdays through Fridays at 7:30pm; Saturdays at 2pm & 7:30pm; Sundays at 1:00pm & 5:30pm.
There will be added performances on Thursday, November 7 & Thursday, November 21 at 2pm & Tuesday, November 12 at 7:30pm.
There will be no performance on Sunday, November 10 at 1pm.
There will be Talk-Backs following the performances on Saturday, November 16 at 2pm and Thursday, November 21 at 7:30pm. LAGUNA PLAYHOUSE
606 Laguna Canyon Rd. in Laguna Beach, CA
Tickets: $50.00 - $75.00 For tickets - visit www.lagunaplayhouse.com
or call 949-497-2787
(play photo credit: Ed Krieger)