An Actor Prepares

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Richard Thomas talks about playing Juror No. 8, a man without a "back story," in the national tour of Twelve Angry Men.
Richard Thomas in the national tour of 12 Angry Men.
Richard Thomas in the national tour of 12 Angry Men. Photo by Joan Marcus

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Reginald Rose's Twelve Angry Men began life as a 1954 teleplay and was transformed into a memorable film starring Henry Fonda in 1957. In 1964, Rose wrote a stage version of the piece, which took 40 years to arrive on Broadway.

The Roundabout Theatre Company production, directed by Scott Ellis, received rave reviews and ran for 32 weeks. The national tour, with a cast headed by Richard Thomas as Juror No. 8 — the role played by Fonda — and George Wendt as the jury foreman, hit the road in September 2006 and stops this month in Chicago, Houston and Dallas.

In Twelve Angry Men, the jurors must decide the fate of a teenager accused of killing his father. One lone holdout thwarts an instant verdict of guilty. As the evidence is weighed and debated, what unfolds is not just a gripping courtroom drama, but a play that touches on issues making headlines today. Thomas's Juror No. 8 is the play's catalyst, and during the tour's stop in Boston he spoke about finding his way into a character with no name and no background.

"I think this is the only play I've ever done where we don't know anything about the characters," Thomas said. "People don't talk about themselves in this play the way they do in other plays. They talk about the case, and their characters get acted out as they talk about something else, which is a very interesting concept. In order for our passions to be rooted in something human and real, each one of us has had to create a lot of back story. And everyone has. This was particularly important for No. 8, who in some ways is the least characterized of the parts. But that's good, because his function is to bring the audience into the play, just as he brings the other characters into the case. He makes the play happen by raising his hand and voting not guilty. In order to not just be a crusader for ideas, which would really be boring, it was very important for me to give the guy a story whereby there would be triggers that would happen during the play that would really work on him, that would strike the flint. And I've done that in some detail. "I think you can tell from the performance that this guy is not gung-ho to have a fight with anybody. He has two characteristics which I really like: open-mindedness and civility. He doesn't go into the room to say the kid is innocent. He doesn't go in to defend the jurisprudence system. He just goes in to talk. But when it's decided that an immediate vote will be taken, he feels he has to vote not guilty, because if he doesn't, there's a chance the boy will get an immediate conviction. The last thing in the world he expects is to be the only person who would vote not guilty, because he thinks some of the others must have questions too. But they don't, so he finds himself, by default, being the only one to raise his hand in favor of not guilty. The most important thing for me is that he is a reluctant crusader.

"I am a great admirer of Fonda's performance — how can you not be? — but I wanted to impart something different. I wanted to be really worried that I was making a terrible mistake. Fonda's character is convinced that the boy's innocent; I don't think my character is convinced of anything, except the possibility that things may not have happened the way everybody thinks they did."

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