When you meet actor Corey Hawkins in person, his charisma percolates in the air. So it’s no surprise he is able to embody Six Degrees of Separation’s Paul, a young man whose magnetic presence allows him to con well-to-do strangers into inviting him into their homes and their lives.
The Straight Outta Compton star recently earned his first Tony nomination for the role in the Tony-nominated revival of John Guare’s play. While many recognize him as an action star from his portrayal of Sgt. Eric Carter on 24: Legacy, the young performer is actually a classically trained actor with a Bachelor of Fine Arts from The Juilliard School where he says he fell in love with traditional theatre and its malleability. Hawkins let Playbill peek inside his actor’s “toolbox” to learn how his classical training allows him the ability to become an action hero, zombie outbreak survivor, or cunning manipulator at a moment’s notice.
You graduated from Juilliard in 2011, and earned the prestigious John Houseman Prize for classical theatre in your third year. Now you’re practically an action star. How do you feel about that?
Corey Hawkins: Well, it’s great. [Laughs] I never wanted to go to Juilliard in the first place because people had told me it would turn me into this classically trained robot, but really what Juilliard gave me was that it just added to my toolbox. There was no losing of yourself, it was just rethinking the instrument and adding tools to that instrument. I fell in love with classical theatre because it’s a slate that you can…it doesn’t matter what race, creed, color, sex…you can paint onto classical Shakespeare and Chekhov anything you want because the writing and the language is so rich.
How does your classical training impact the work you do on screen?
Doing action on television, you have to learn to take language that isn’t as complex sometimes and doesn’t have these long, flowery speeches that ebb and flow…you have to learn how to lift that language and take it and create full characters from these little blurbs, these little bits. It moves so fast that you have to be as full as possible. I think the training helps you do that and, for me, that’s kind of what I’ve been relying on. I think having a classical background in theatre definitely compliments that because you have those tools ready to go. At Juilliard we didn’t put names to techniques. We knew what it was, but we didn’t say, “We’re going to use this technique and that technique.” They were tools and we looked at them as a roadmap. If you know where you’re going, then you don’t need a map, but for the 90 percent of the time that you’re not feeling inspired as an actor and not having that magic moment where it all comes together, then that’s when you have to pull the techniques.
So characters like Eric Carter and Dr. Dre still benefit from you having worked on Shakespeare and studying Meisner.
You may not be playing a verbose, Shakespearian character, but if you look at a character like Dr. Dre, he has a brilliant mind. He is a thinker. I do know of all of the characters that I’ve played that they’re all intellectuals and they’re all thinkers and that it’s all behind the eyes. These characters are chess players and I think that’s true of any character I’ve played—whether it’s Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet or it’s Heath on The Walking Dead in his sort of dilemma that he’s trying to decide life and death and is it worth taking someone’s life? Eric Carter on 24: Legacy, too, he’s a thinker.
What about bringing your experiences to Paul in Six Degrees?
Paul is probably one of the most intense characters I’ve ever played in terms of his mind and how elastic it is—he’s an athlete in that he goes as far as he needs to and he believes everything that comes out of his mouth. He walks in the door and he says [his name] and then he goes into this monologue about Salinger that he memorized, but the audience doesn’t know that. The audience thinks that he’s creating this as he goes and that’s the sort of thing that a classical training can benefit you—being able to navigate those kinds of characters and give them some complexity and lift them off the page. They’re already really well written characters—all of them. My life is just to bring life to that.
Corey Hawkins, Allison Janney, and John Benjamin Hickey Take the Stage in Six Degrees of Separation
What was the stage show that has most influenced you?
There have been quite a few, but I remember seeing Daniel Breaker do A Midsummer Night’s Dream and he played Puck in that production. It was at Shakespeare Theatre in D.C. and we went as a school trip to go see that production. I just remember getting to see professional theatre done in a really great way and just the magic of what it does when those lights go down and you’re transported into this world of classical theatre, but really being able to understand the story. Jumping ahead to Juilliard, Daniel Breaker is a Juilliard alum and it all came full circle. Another production that really hit me was seeing the [Juilliard] fourth year production of August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone and it was unreal. It was the first time August Wilson had ever been done on the main stage at Juilliard ever and it was my first year and I got to witness that so it was really special.
Is there a stage moment you witnessed (from the audience, from the wings, in rehearsal) that stays with you?
I did a performance of Hurt Village by Katori Hall at Signature Theatre. There’s a monologue in that play where the grandmother, played by Tonya Pinkins, has to beg someone at this government office to allow her to keep her house, but really to allow her to keep her dignity, her life. She gets down on her knees and every night, day, or rehearsal when I saw that, it gave me chills—just to see the formidable Tonya Pinkins be able to humble herself and step into that character and get down on her knees and beg and plead for her dignity or a few extra dollars a month just so that her family could have more…this was one of those moments in the theatre where life and the theatrical experience melded and I got to see a mirror reflection of reality that was really scary. It pulled back the lens, which Katori has the gift of doing with her writing—pulling back the covers and letting us see the dingy, the dirty, the grimy part of reality.
How has working in Six Degrees with fellow Broadway alums Allison Janney and John Benjamin Hickey been?
John and Allison were really great friends before I met them, and they bring that to life onstage every single night. You can tell that they have a history. For me, I was sort of coming into this family. Their characters, Ouisa and Flan, have to fall in love with Paul, but when we all met and over the course of rehearsal and going through this challenging play that John Guare has given us—this gift that he’s given us—we have all fallen in love with each other. I’ve been huge fans of Allison and John for the longest time. I think they are some of the best actors of our generation and to be onstage with them night after night is just a joy. I feel like they are my safety net. We’re only as good as everyone else on the stage and so we have to be there for each other. They’re also just fun people to be around and that’s important in the theatre community. I count myself really lucky to know them and to call them friends.
Six Degrees of Separation plays at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre through July 16, 2017.
Joe Gambino is a writer, designer, performer and Broadway lottery loser who lives in New York. Follow him on Twitter @_joegambino_.