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Questions for Robert Sean Leonard

The ‘House’ actor on Shaw, the high of theatre acting, and getting sloppy.

Celebrating the 100th anniversary of Shaw’s Pygmalion, Robert Sean Leonard will take on the role of Henry Higgins at the Old Globe in San Diego, Calif. (Jan. 12–Feb. 17). Leonard’s numerous Broadway appearances include The Invention of Love, Born Yesterday and Long Day’s Journey into Night. Following eight seasons of “House” on Fox, he will join season three of “Falling Skies” on TNT.

You began acting at New York’s Public Theater at age 14.
That was my first paid theatre job—and it was just a fluke. I understudied three roles in a play called Coming of Age in Soho by Albert Innaurato. I never went on, but I ran around backstage, hung out, knew all the lines.

There was a theatre camp in my hometown, Ridgewood, N.J. My mom painted signs for them, and I fell in love with the world of it. I loved being backstage. I helped the crew. Whenever they needed a kid, a Winthrop or whatever, they used me. I was surround by “Glee” kids who were strutting their stuff with Ben Vereen smiles. I was a bit like Brando, because I wasn’t grooving on it. I appeared naturalistic. Trying a little less can be the key.

Your theatrical résumé includes some linguistic heavy hitters: Stoppard, O’Neill, Shakespeare, Shaw…
I always love reading Shaw after I’ve read a new play. It’s like getting in a hot bath. I think he and Stoppard have a little bit in common. I laugh out loud because of how clever they are, and how much fun they’re having playing with words. I remember reading Arcadia for the first time, and I thought, “This is the closest I’ve come to a Shavian experience reading a new play.”

Shaw famously had a differing opinion from many of his actors on the relationship between Henry Higgins and Eliza. What’s your take?
It’s very puzzling. Obviously My Fair Lady pushed the romance. In Pygmalion they don’t end up together. Freddy is the guy for her—and when you read the play, it certainly seems that way. He really basks in the glow of this girl in a way that Henry doesn’t. I have to explore that. I mean, it’s sort of anti-climactic to go on the angle that there’s no chemistry.

The more I work on it, the more my take on Henry has become much more different than Leslie Howard’s or Rex Harrison’s. I think he’s quite petulant and sloppy and rude—the way he sits on pianos and throws his clothes around. My memory of the character is quite natty, quite proper. But that’s not what I’m getting from the text. He’s messy.

Will that messiness affect Higgins’s accent?
I hadn’t thought about it that way. I’m working with a fantastic dialect coach, Tim Monich, who told me that this is his favorite role to work on because they have the same passion. I do believe that Henry’s obsession with sound doesn’t necessarily translate to him speaking perfectly. He certainly swears a lot and uses slang. He’s too focused on others’ accents—I’m not sure he applies the same rules to himself.

You were part of a theatre company in the early ’90s—the Malaparte, founded with Ethan Hawke and others. Is there anything you miss about that?
Oh God, I miss everything about that experience! We were 22 and full of beans. We’d meet at White Horse Tavern at two in the morning because Ethan would call and say, “I figured something out about Romeo and Juliet. You have to come down here!” You think you’re the center of the world. That was my favorite time in my life.

What are you reading right now?
Right now I’m reading a Harlan Coben mystery. That’s sort of embarrassing. I read recently Devil in the White City, about the Chicago World’s Fair. I love finding a book that is honestly eerie and spooky. Stephen King is truly a master.

You’ve managed to move very fluidly among theatre, film and TV. Any tips for working in the different mediums?
I think of myself as a better actor onstage than in film. Perhaps I have an unearned confidence, but I do feel like I know what I’m doing onstage. I was doing Long Day’s Journey into Night in Boston when I was 24 or 25. It was the first time onstage that I felt powerful. I thought, “I can take as long as I want with this speech. I’ve got them.” That was a changing point for me. I never felt nervous after that. Of course, it’s a high. You get the butterflies. But I don’t feel anxious. How you get there, I don’t know. Just do it over and over again.

Who has taught you the most about theatre?
George Grizzard was one of my first real heroes. I grew up in New York with Cynthia Nixon and get great pleasure talking and working with her. I did Brighton Beach Memoirs with Dick Latessa when I was a kid.

It isn’t theatre if…
I could say something lofty like: if it doesn’t lift you off your seat. But I’ve seen a lot of theatre that doesn’t do that—it’s just bad theatre. Good theatre gives you that great feeling of transportation in the moment.

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