I trained as an actor at UCLA, which was very film and TV oriented as you can imagine, this being Los Angeles. I thought ‘Oh God, I better get some theatre training if I really want to do this. So I hooked up with Shakespeare & Company in Massachusetts and started as an apprentice there.
My first mainstage role was Silvius in As You Like It. It was a great experience. They dressed me in country clothes. I wore clogs. I was 6’ 5”, gangly and running around after Phoebe who was tiny … really little. Eventually she had a physical challenge and had a hard time moving in the space so we came up with a thing where I carried her everywhere. It was beautiful. We became very close. We had to. It was that or hate each other!
To me, Shakespeare is one of the best writers in the history of the planet. It takes some time to understand the depth of what is going on, and I like to take that time. There is just so much in there about the human condition.
I like having something that you have to keep working on. It’s like a score, the musicality of it. But mostly it’s the depth in the language that draws me to Shakespeare.
I’ve actually been in Julius Caesar two times before, I played Cinna the conspirator in a production in Los Angeles which was based in the 1960s in America at the time of the Civil Rights movement, so there were black conspirators and SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] conspirators. It was that look and feel. Calpurnia wore a pillbox hat like Jackie Kennedy.
In another production I played Octavius, Caesar’s nephew. I was quite young when I did those.
I did Brutus in a workshop production and it was one of the most profound experiences I’ve had as an actor. The depth of that character, his turmoil over what he’s going through … and that connection he has with Cassius – that could almost be perceived as romantic love – was really interesting.
I thought if I ever did Julius Caesar again I would play Brutus but lo and behold, I’m Julius Caesar. Ivan Donato plays Brutus. I saw him in A View From the Bridge. He did really good work. I’m really looking forward to mixing it up with him.
Julius Caesar, as a character, is a far cry from me. I’ll have to find my inner megalomaniac. I’m not someone who demands all the air. I’m just not that guy. But I have to become that. I have to be the one who is completely in control of everything. I will have to find something in myself that is untapped. I saw myself playing Brutus because he’s so much the Everyman. He’s like, ‘let’s all be in this, we all have to make it work’. I’ve never been the guy who goes ‘It’s about me and it will always be about me!’
It will be a challenge, but having said that, Julius Caesar is the shortest-staying title character in all Shakespeare. I’m done pretty early. Bye-bye!
The play is being revived around the world. It’s populism, right? And Donald Trump. You couldn’t be a more populist leader than Donald Trump. I’m grappling with that myself. How much do I make Julius a populist?
I think my being American is useful to the role. America is the last great empire and it is in its death throes, I would say. I know audiences will read something into me being African-American in this role. It will be our challenge to not encourage that. It’s a casting choice and not a redefining of the entire play.
Julius Caesar begins its national tour on July 14. It plays at Arts Centre Melbourne from July 18-28, Canberra Theatre Centre from October 12-20 and the Sydney Opera House from October 23-November 25.