L.A. is calling, but New York's got him. At least, for the summer. In Central Park (through July 9), Ruben Santiago Hudson is portraying Henry VIII in the New York Shakespeare Festival's production outdoors in the Delacorte Theatre. [Free tickets are distributed day-of-performance at the Delacorte boxoffice. Enter at West 81st Street and Central Park West.]
Since last season's Seven Guitars when Santiago-Hudson won raves and a Featured Actor Tony Award for his portrayal of Canewell in August Wilson's play, he's been on the fast track.
Producers have approached him to star in a movie tailor-made for him. He's got two films opposite hot Hollywood stars in the can awaiting fall release. And Santiago-Hudson just got the go-ahead, based on the response to a TV pilot, for 12 more episodes of "Michael Hayes" for the new season. "But my heart's in New York and on the stage," said Santiago-Hudson. "I'm from upstate (NY) so this is really home. If it was big money I was looking for, I'd go West, but I chose to stay here. L.A.'s been calling me for years, offering me this, offering me that. I mean, huge, wonderful financial deals." Santiago-Hudson said he goes back and forth since there is more money to be made in Hollywood, "but I chose to come back home, feeling that the right stage role will come along."
For 13 years that's what he did and suddenly Canewell came along. It was the right stage roll. Critics noted an unusual rhythm in Santiago-Hudson's speech, but few know he's a classically trained. He received his Master's at the Hillberry Classical Repertory Theatre in Detroit, "the only graduate classical repertory company in the country."
Anyone who followed Santiago-Hudson's career heard that rhythm long ago, when he was a member of the Negro Ensemble Company, especially in their production of Ceremonies In Dark Old Men and as Lucio in the NYSF's Shakespeare Marathon production of Measure For Measure, NYSF artistic director George Wolfe is a big fan of Santiago-Hudson and, at a benefit that the actor was co-hosting, he casually asked him what he was up to. Santiago-Hudson told him he was running his usual three miles every day in Central Park and going to auditions while awaiting the go-ahead on the "Michael Hayes" series. Wolfe said, "I've got to keep you working." Wolfe wanted Santiago-Hudson to take over the role of Da Voice in Bring In the Noise, Bring In the Funk but, as Santiago-Hudson said, "I told him I wasn't interested. I couldn't see what I could bring to that part, and it wasn't going to do anything for me since the reviews were in." So Wolfe said, "Why not Shakespeare this summer?" And Santiago- Hudson nodded affirmatively and asked, "What you got?" And that's how we got him as a Henry VIII that's very much the real Santiago-Hudson. Once again critics noted that rhythm in his voice. "George knew what he was going to get," the actor said. "I've worked with him enough. It's what I know, what I learned at Hillberry. Rhythm (of speech) has been important in everything I've done -- from the classics to the contemporary. If you can't find the music or cadence in August Wilson's work, you're not going to make it. And that goes double for Shakespeare. You've got to have rhythm to tackle his language." Santiago-Hudson prides himself on always being at his peak onstage. "Producers know that when they get me, I always give my all. I set the pace and everyone's going to have to keep up with me. I'd like to think I bring something special -- let's call it acclaim -- to whatever I'm in. And now with my Tony, I can say that and everyone will know it's not being boastful."
With mock honesty, mixed with sincerity, Santiago-Hudson said, "The biggest struggle has been my ego. Well, if you want to know the truth, it hasn't been that much of a struggle! For years, people took it the wrong way when I kept saying I hadn't gotten the roles I should have gotten.
"In a business where everyone daily tells you 'No,' you must have enough confidence in yourself to tell yourself 'Yes.' It's one thing being arrogant and obnoxious, and it's another being confident. I've never been obnoxious. No way! Don't want to be that way. If I ever grew to be that way, I'd welcome people to please chastise me."
Winning the Tony Award was sweet justice, indeed, to an actor who never gave up his belief that he'd be rewarded for his years of struggling to make it on the stage. "At last year's Tonys, because of the way the 50th anniversary show was formatted, I got to enjoy the moment twice," Santiago-Hudson said. "Both times when they called out my name, I was so excited and never so nervous. To be recognized by your peers is truly a wonderful moment. I just wanted to bust out and cry. And during the actual telecast, when they called my name again, I just wanted to bust out and cry again!"
The recent death of his older brother from a cocaine overdose brought back memories to Santiago-Hudson of earlier days. "When I was in my 20s, I was trying to figure out who I was. I was married and had two kids, but I didn't know how to nurture another life when I didn't have mine together. I knew what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it, but I wasn't on track. Now I am. All my spare time is with my new family (he has 13-month old twins from his second marriage). The days of hanging out in bars and chasing girls are over. It's work and family now."
-- By Ellis Nassour