Shuler Hensley picked up Obie and Lucille Lortel Awards this year for his performance in Samuel D. Hunter’s The Whale at Playwrights Horizons in New York City. Hensley will be at California’s Berkeley Repertory Theatre Aug. 3–31, acting in Pinter’s No Man’s Land with Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan and Billy Crudup—after which the show moves to Broadway to play in rep with Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. He spoke with AT while in previews for Ferenc Molnár’s The Guardsman at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
This fall, you’ll be going from Briggs in No Man’s Land to Pozzo in Godot. How are you switching between those two mindsets?
I have no history with either Pinter or Beckett—I’ve never seen Godot or No Man’s Land. It’s exciting to me, like a new world! Pinter has his own adjective, for goodness sake—Pinteresque, or whatever. And when people ask me, “What is No Man’s Land about?” I immediately think of when Edward Albee was asked if he could sum up a play of his in two or three sentences, and he replied, “If a play could be described in two or three sentences, the play should probably be two or three sentences.”
Literally every time I read the Pinter, there’s something new or different. And I love the feeling of limbo in both these plays. They are the kind of plays that can change as we do them and still be fresh and fun.
Would you say that Briggs is one of Hirst’s lovers, or are you playing him as a bodyguard?
That’s interesting. There is a sort of lover quality to him, but obviously the bodyguard image is true. There is something behind it but I don’t know what it is yet. It’s so funny—it’s so much about what’s not said. When these characters speak, there’s so much weight underneath. And that’s what we’re going to find out. I definitely think the lover is in there somewhere.
You said in a recent interview that you tend to gravitate toward villains and outsiders. Is that intentional?
My mother was a ballet director, and my very first stage experience was at six years old, when I played Fritz in The Nutcracker, the kid who takes the nutcracker and breaks it on the floor. It started early [laughs]. I remember doing that onstage and the response from the audience was like, “Augh!” It was gratifying in a strange sort of way.
I’ve always been a big guy with a deep voice, and those kinds of characteristics tend to be stereotypically built toward villains. But I like that you can add qualities that we all possess to stereotypical villains, which make them all the more disturbing. If you can relate to a villain, it adds another depth to him.
What’s been your most memorable theatrical experience?
Coming out of The Whale—that was one of those realizations of the power of theatre. The last moment of that play, where Charlie takes air in and the audience takes air in and there’s this blackout: silence, utter silence, where they don’t know whether to applaud or to cry. That was pretty spectacular. Those are the kind of theatrical moments that connect you with the material, the audience and the art form.
If a year ago you told me I’ve be playing a morbidly obese, 600-pound, gay online tutor, I’d say, “Yeah, right.” That was a very special play.
And I would guess being in that fat suit was a feat as well.
Yeah, I lost about 23 pounds. It was the strangest weight-loss program ever.
If you weren’t an actor, what would you be?
Honestly, I could not tell you. I was raised on the stage. I was an athlete in college, so I’d probably be involved in some sort of sport. But in terms of another profession, I never thought of being anything else.
Are you a sports fan?
One of the big draws of working on Broadway is the Broadway Show League’s softball team. All the old glory-day athletes who have bad knees and shoulders, they go back to the field and think they’re back in college. I’m looking forward to our No Man’s Land and Godot softball team.
Between the four of you, who would win?
Oh, no question, I think Briggs would take it. Billy Crudup is great out there, though, I’ve played golf with him. But I don’t know; we all need to get to know each other better. They might have secrets that I don’t know about.
I got to meet Ian and Patrick at the [Broadway] opening of Breakfast at Tiffany’s—there’s a creative energy to those guys. For lack of a better term, they have such a twinkle in their eyes. You see it and it’s contagious.
It’s not theatre if…
…it isn’t in the moment. It is real theatre if you rehearse, you rehearse, you rehearse—and when it comes time to be in the show, it’s like you’re in it for the first time. And when that happens, man, watch out!