Driving down Mulholland Drive just hours before taking the stage, Harry Hamlin immediately reminds me that he is above all a student of the theatre; everything else is merely a hobby. To the general public, this may come off as somewhat of a surprise. After all, few people can forget Hamlin’s sizzling five seasons as irresistible attorney Michael Kuzak on the hit legal drama L.A. Law.
It’s also hard to forget his breakout role in the musical comedy Movie Movie (Golden Globe nomination for “Best Motion Picture Acting Debut”), his role in 1981’s fantasy film Clash of the Titans, or his controversial stint as a homosexual playboy in 1982’sMaking Love. These days, in between memorable appearances on high-profile shows such as Showtime’s Shameless and HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, Hamlin has had the luxury of returning to his first love, live theatre. A stage-actor in every sense of the word, Hamlin always sees room for growth and discovery, continuing to hone his craft in selective roles. His current endeavor is perhaps one of his most challenging, portraying three different characters all connected through the theme of coping with plane crash survival. Smack-dab in the middle of an 8-week run in Joshua Ravetch’s two-person playOne November Yankee, Press Pass LA caught up with Mr. Hamlin to discuss his incredible devotion to the live stage, his current role, and how it almost never happened.
PPLA: You’ve been performing Thursdays through Sundays. Can I assume you’re on tonight?
HH: Yes, on tonight, absolutely.
PPLA: Are you speaking to me from the NoHo Arts Center or is it a little premature for that?
HH: Right now? No I’m on Mulholland drive, driving west.
PPLA: How much time before the show do you usually arrive?
HH: About a half-hour. I mean It’s the standard half-hour for the show even though we’re staring at equity house. They abide by equity rules, which is a standard half-hour.
PPLA: You’re primarily known for your roles on television and in the movies. Although I know you’re not new to live theatre, what was it about One November Yankee that drew you to take on this character, or actually I should say characters, and performing live onstage again?
HH: Well, the stage has always been my first love. I consider myself first and foremost a stage actor, and then I do the other stuff on the side. That’s not what I’m known for, but that’s the way I perceive myself. And the other stuff, movies and television is more of a hobby, and the stage is my actual profession. I’m always looking for something interesting to do on stage, and I’m always looking for the time to be able to do it. It just so happens that I saw this play. Actually Robert Forrester did the original reading of this play a couple of years ago. Robert’s an old friend of mine, and he was going to do this, the first iteration of the play on its feet, but he got a movie role, apparently. And the director [Joshua Ravetch] asked him well, “who do you think ought to do it?” and he gave the director my name. Then the director tried to get a hold of me through my agent, and my agent was not that enthusiastic about me doing a play, particularly a play that pays no money. And so she [my agent] sent it to me, but she didn’t send me any of the particulars. She didn’t send me where it was being done or when it was being done or who was directing it. She just sent me the play. So I read the play and I was blown over by it. I thought it was a terrific piece of work. But I had no information on it and I tried to get that information. But it was a weekend and I couldn’t get a hold of my agent. But I said, I gotta talk to this guy [Joshua Ravetch]. Who is he? Where is he? So I went online and I just typed his name in and up came a bunch of references and one was that he had a LinkedIn account. So I went on and I typed in “are you the guy who wrote One November Yankee?” And just about an hour later it came back, yes he was. So that’s how we hooked up. We linked up through LinkedIn.
PPLA: At what point did you know that you were going to work with veteran stage actor Loretta Swit, and did that have anything to do with your decision to take on the role?
HH: No. I mean I called the director, and he told me that Loretta was doing it, that she had done the reading I guess. I thought that was great. I had known her work from M*A*S*H, I didn’t know her beyond that. But I told my wife, who was going off to work in New York for a month. And I was going to be home with the kids alone. I was also shooting Shamelessat the time for Showtime. So, I just didn’t have the time to do it. And I said “gosh, you know, I love this play, I just wanted to talk to you [Joshua Ravetch] to tell you how much I love the play and how much if life were different, if my wife wasn’t going off to New York and if I wasn’t shooting Shameless, and I didn’t have two kids that I had get to school everyday, I’d love to do your play. But I can’t do it.” But I just wanted to tell him what a great play I thought it was, and he said that was too bad. And then my wife left to go to New York, and I guess they started rehearsals on the play, and I kept thinking, you know, that’s really too bad I couldn’t do that because I love that play, and I wish life were different. I kept saying that everyday. I’d wake up saying that. And finally one day I woke up, I made the kids breakfast, and Lisa was in New York and I took them both to school. I came back. The dog was asleep, the fish were asleep, I sat down at the kitchen table and opened up my email and I didn’t have any email and I thought “oh, Jesus what am I going to do? Maybe I should have done that play.” And like three seconds later I got an email from the director saying “is there any possible way you’d reconsider doing this play?” So literally it happened within minutes.
PPLA: So you were this close from not even doing this play.
HH: Oh yea, I turned it down. I wasn’t doing it. But then I was thinking, “gosh, maybe I should have done the play.” And literally within minutes, you know, I got this email from the director saying “gosh, I know this is really harassing you, but is there any possible way that you could ever reconsider this and maybe find a way to do it. We’d work with you. We’d do whatever we could to make it work.” So I called him up and I told him “I would really love to try.” And I said, “why don’t I read it with you and see if it really appeals to me as I hear it coming out of my mouth.” So he arranged a reading that day with Loretta at his house. And I went over a couple hours later, sat down and we read through the play from start to finish. I loved the way it sounded, and I loved the way Loretta sounded reading it too. There was just something about it that seemed to resonate, even in the first reading. And we were just sitting around his dining room table reading it, just the three of us. And, I don’t know, I said I would go home and think about it. I called Lisa in New York and I said I really think I should do this and she said it’s a pretty big thing to do at this point because you’re shooting a show, you’ve got two kids, I’m not there, how are you doing to do this? And I said well, I’ll figure out a way. I’ll figure it out. So I called up Josh and we made a rehearsal schedule that just worked around everything I was doing, including having to go to Chicago to shootShameless. So we ended up having to delay the previews because I had to go to Chicago to finish shooting. But anyway, it worked out.
PPLA: I’m very familiar with the show Shameless. I’m actually talking to you from Chicago. I knew it took place here but I didn’t realize they actually filmed parts of it here.
HH: Yea they, or we, we go twice a season to Chicago to shoot exteriors: once at the beginning, once at the end.
PPLA: Focusing on the your current show, two-person plays can often be difficult, as you know. The writing and dialogue have to be engaging enough to keep the audience interested for two+ hours. Furthermore, most shows require an actor to attack one character, and you took on three. When onstage, can you elaborate at all on the process you went through in transforming from one character to another?
HH: Well when I first read it, the reading with Josh, I read it as though all three characters were really the same person. It’s a brother and sister play, and each set of characters are brothers and sisters, and they’re all the same age. And in the play they’re all Jewish. Though I’m not Jewish, I’m always cast in Jewish roles for some reason. I’m as Scottish as they come. So when I started the rehearsal process I was trying to find the emotional center of each character without actually defining the people as different characters, but just trying to find whatever the emotional through-line for all three characters was. And I didn’t really start delineating the characters and finding, you know their idiosyncrasies independent of the single through-line until about the second week of rehearsal. And then I started working on making these, you know, three different people different flesh and blood. It just kind of evolved naturally. I didn’t force the issue at all.
PPLA: Right. I’m assuming there were obvious tie-ins between all three characters.
HH: There are. There’s obvious tie-ins throughout the play, through each scene of the play, in fact. The way it’s written is multilayer and the layers keep repeating themselves throughout the play.
PPLA: I know you’ve worked on Broadway in shows such as Awake and Sing and Chicago, and now obviously you’re doing theatre out in California. Are there any noticeable differences, if any, between the live theatre scene in New York and that of Hollywood?
HH: Oh yea. I mean there really isn’t a theatre scene in Hollywood. It’s a little bit like trying to ram a square peg into a round hole here. It’s worth it to do it, but there’s a lot of little theatre going on. But when I say little theatre, I mean we have this equity waver program here in L.A. It’s a special dispensation that was given to Los Angeles by the union, by actor’s equity. And they created what’s called equity waver playhouses where members of the union could work for non-union wages, or in a non-union situation as long as the theatre didn’t have more than 99 seats. It’s called 99-seat theatre, or equity waver theatre. And the city of L.A. is populated with maybe a hundred or so of these theatres that are tiny, little, under-100 seat theatres. And that’s what this is, what I’m doing; this is equity waver. A lot of new plays start in equity waver. There’s no salary. The actors aren’t paid anything. Well, maybe they’re paid $10 a show or something. It’s basically free theatre, but it’s a way for us out here in between movies or, you know television shows or even during movies and television shows to keep working on the stage. It’s a way for plays to get produced without having to have huge budgets behind them, and often new plays become born. In New York, you’re going to have to go off-Broadway to do a new play and if you go off-Broadway you’re going to be…it’s very similar, the off-Broadway scene in New York to the equity waver scene in L.A. Though, the L.A. theatre-going audiences are not as exuberant as the ones in New York. You’re not going to find as many people who populate these theatres out here as you are in New York. It’s harder to get audiences here.
PPLA: I’m assuming it’s a good program for small time writers and directors to get their plays out there.
HH: Well a lot of the biggest authors that are out there today who have plays on Broadway, in Chicago, in Second City, whatever, a lot of them started in equity waver here in L.A. In the early ‘80s, I became a co-producer on a show that was being done equity waver here, in L.A., and gosh I don’t remember the name of the play. But we cast all unknown actors. We cast the lead with a young guy named Ed Harris that had never done anything before and his girlfriend in the play was a girl named Amy Madigan. They had never met before, and now they’re married and you look back and that was the thing that set Ed Harris’ career, doing equity waver theatre in L.A. And a lot of play-writes who have gone on to have huge careers started exactly the way this play is starting, in equity waver theatre here.
PPLA: That sounds like a terrific program. Looking forward, One November Yankee ends on January 5th. What’s next for Harry Hamlin? Are you doing more theatre? What are your plans following the culmination of the show?
HH: Well, I mean, I don’t have any specific plans at this point. I am doing other projects, but I can’t talk about them at the moment. I have an independent film that’s coming out next year in 2013 that I’m excited about called Immigrant. That’s another thing, I actually haven’t seen it yet. I’m going to see it next week, but there’s a lot of interest in that movie. I’ve got a lot on my plate right now, some of it I can talk about, some of it I can’t. But I have a lot of things that I do that doesn’t have anything to do with theatre or the motion picture business as well so I’m busy in lots of different ways.
PPLA: I was actually just about to tell you, switching gears for a moment; I’m a big Curb Your Enthusiasm fan. I couldn’t help but notice that your character “Dog” was a producer of shark movies. Now I know you’re an active environmentalist. Was there any connection between those two things, or was that a total coincidence.
HH: [laughs] Well, all you get when you do Curb Your Enthusiasm is you get a little strip of paper that’s about four inches long, and it says, “you are a producer, you work for ‘Big Dog Productions’ and you moved in next door to Larry David.” That’s all it says. So on the day that I went to shoot that, that’s all I knew. As I was standing there in the shot, extemporizing with Larry, it just came to me that I was shooting a shark show. That just came out of the ether as I was talking to him. And then I came up with a name for it called, I think, “Great White Wonderland,” or something like that, which all just came to me. This is all just making this up on the fly. So, that was just an inspiration that came as I was standing there with the camera rolling wondering what the f&*k to say [laughs]. So, it had no connection whatsoever to anything other than, “I gotta come up with something that I do. What do I produce? What kind of show am I doing? Hmm let’s see, I’m shooting sharks. Okay, what am I going to call it? Hmm, “Great White Wonderland.” It just came up like that. There’s no script on that show!
One November Yankee runs through January 5th. For tickets or more information, please visit Performing Arts Live