From the start, Robert Sean Leonard hoped to prove he was more than just a pretty face. By New York standards, the best way to do that is to cut your teeth on live drama. He's tried and generally failed on the TV commercial route, and he's had some movie success, but for nearly a decade, the young actor has made his true mark on stage. Leonard has appeared on Broadway in, among others, The Iceman Cometh, Arcadia, Candida and Philadelphia, Here I Come!, Off-Broadway in Below the Belt and When She Danced, and at such regional venues as San Diego's Old Globe Theatre and Baltimore's Center Stage. Oh sure, he's done his share of films -- "Dead Poets Society," "The Last Days of Disco" and "The Age of Innocence" among them -- but even that resume includes Shakespeare ("Much Ado About Nothing") and a musical ("Swing Kids"). His next stage assignment, Jan. 21-Feb. 20 (opening Jan. 26), looks to be one of the few recent roles that takes place in modern-day America and doesn't have the dust of literary antiquity on it. In J.T. Rogers' White People, at Philadelphia Theatre Company, Leonard plays a liberal college professor whose pregnant wife is beaten up by two black men in the park for no reason. At the same time, he has two outstanding black students in his class, and he's trying to reconcile his feelings. An unsettling look at racism in subtle but unmistakable forms, White People promises to be a challenging assignment for the gifted young actor.
Playbill On-Line: You're 30 years old, fairly well known, you have a career in the theatre, a nice life in New York City. Do you suffer from "White Guilt?"
Robert Sean Leonard: Well, sure. I don't know if it's white guilt, or privileged guilt. It's hard to define. I do feel... I go back and forth. A lot of times I do feel that society is unjust in many ways, and that I happen to be on a pretty good end of it. I happen to be sitting pretty in the way society is run in this country. I'm certainly one of the lucky ones. As for the play, my character is conflicted. As a teacher, he's obsessed with past horrors: the devastation of the Indians, what slavery did for Southern culture and our adolescent country, the Dutch Reform Church cleansing of New York at the time -- these awful things nevertheless allow him to wear nice clothes, drink a cappucino and read the NY Times in peace. What has he gained from those things in the past? A lot of what I say in the play, I'm not sure I agree with. J.T. [Rogers, the playwright] is the one out on a limb with these ideas.
PBOL: The character is close to home in another way. Because if you hadn't made it as an actor, you'd be...?
RSL: I'd say a teacher. History, I think. Most of the people in my family are teachers. I like sharing ideas.
PBOL: All things considered, you've had a pretty charmed career. Any amusing horror stories to share?
RSL: I remember Kenneth Branagh once telling me about the time he was doing Look Back in Anger, and a woman stood up and yelled, "Awful! Worst performance I've ever seen," and she walked right out. That kind of happened to me. I had that enormous speech in Arcadia, explaining chaos theory to Blair Brown. At the end of it, someone in the audience said very loudly, "WHAT?" Much worse, though, was something that happened to my friend, Joel de la Fuente. He was playing Renfield in Dracula, and there was a scene that called for him to hide behind a chair when Dracula comes in. But the chair was small, and Dracula can clearly see him. Joel just didn't feel comfortable and asked the director about it, but the director said, "Joel, trust me. If you do it, they'll believe he can't see you." So they were doing -- one of our worst nightmares -- a student matinee. And as he's hiding behind the chair, this 12-year-old screams out, "You can't hide, Renfield!" The show stops, and Joel hears this flipping noise, and the kid is thumbing through the show's playbill. Then the kid shouts, "You're not even Renfield, you're Joel!" Joel was unable to perform for a year after that. It totally got to him, because it made him think, "This kid's right. What are we doing here? I'm not Renfield, I'm just some guy in a costume. We're all just pretending to be other people."
PBOL: So when did you get bitten by the theatre bug?
RSL: When I was about nine, I started hanging around a summer stock theatre in Ridgewood NJ, "New Players." My mother painted signs for them. I liked those people; they were more interesting than the kids I went to school with. I was there for three summers -- ten shows in ten weeks. Finian's Rainbow, Shenandoah. I was so small, they'd throw me in musicals all the time. It was very exciting. In New York, I think I saw Dracula with [Frank] Langella. I remember a portrait disappearing, using the scrim technique -- though at the time, I thought it was magic. I think I also saw Peter Pan with Cathy Rigby. But that didn't affect me too much. My father had a friend from college who was interested in show business and taught an acting class in New York. He saw me in summer stock when I was about 13, roughly 1984. I was playing the Artful Dodger in Oliver!. He knew a woman at an agency and introduced me. There were lots of kids in New York then, but most of them went into commercials and movies. Not many wanted to do theatre. But the group who did included Cynthia Nixon and Geoffrey Nauffts. I was 15 when I was doing Sally's Gone, She Left Her Name with Cynthia Nixon at the Perry Street Theatre. I did try to do commercials and sitcoms, by the way. I auditioned for about eight years and never got one. I still try to get voice overs and never get voice overs. I go in and give them this really deep voice, and they say, "No, just be yourself, we want you to come through." And I do, and they hire someone else. And I see the commercial on TV and I hear this deep, heavy voice. Maybe the guy's real voice is like that. PBOL: Well, you're still young, and you look young. Which may not always work in your favor, even in theatre. You do get a lot of dewy lovers and classical preppies.
RSL: I think I'll get more opportunities as I get older. When I was 20, I was a freak. Michael Cumpsty was in the same boat. It's hard to put us in suburbia. Not I'm getting older, and the writers are getting older. But a lot of new plays when I was growing up were about Generation X, and I never felt a part of that. Everyone around me had goatees and smoked and was inarticulate. I wanted to be like Mark Nelson or Campbell Scott or Sam Waterston. I felt more comfortable playing Marchbanks in Candida or Edgar in King Lear or Edmond in Long Day's Journey Into Night. When I was starting out, theatre got very into behavior; while I was always more excited by language...playing with words. I love Stoppard or Shaw. I remember, I was in Coming of Age in Soho at the Public, and at the same time, the first floor was doing Tracers, and above us was Salonika. When I saw Tracers I thought, "What is this?" I didn't get it, but I also thought, "This'll be trouble in my world." Then I saw Salonika, and there was this scene in which a man -- David Strathairn -- is buried in the sand. And he comes out of the sand, and his face and body were made up in such a way -- it really looked like a dead person coming out of the sand; incredible, visually. But those were the two worlds where theatre seemed to be going.
PBOL: Well, words have certainly served you well, since you've been in plays by Shaw, O'Neill, Friel, Neil Simon. Plus you've gotten to work with some seriously heavy-hitting actors. Any thoughts on what you've gained working with them? Kevin Spacey, for example.
RSL: You know, I was so busy trying to make that part work, I don't remember anything else about the play [Iceman]. It was the hardest thing I've ever done. Everyone else said, don't do it! Paul Giamatti called me the other day; we'd both been hibernating since the play closed. It's a hard part, extremely melodramatic. I have a problem with dead writers. You can't yell at them and run them into a corner. And I would have with this one. But Kevin's energy in that show was incredible. His enthusiasm for words and the romance of theatre. I loved being around him. He's one of those "crazy" people. He's very fortunate and extremely talented -- and he knows he's getting away with murder. There are dozens of actors in New York as talented as we are, but we got lucky. He can't believe he's playing on Broadway -- he's tremendously humble, but at the same time he knows he's the catalyst that got the play up in the first place.
PBOL: In Philadelphia, Here I Come! you played Milo O'Shea's son. Any thoughts on that experience?
RSL: That was the second hardest play I'd ever done. I didn't feel very good in that part. I felt kind of alone, because you never talk to anyone in the play. We sort of did our things, but there wasn't a direct connection. It was very tough.
PBOL: Judd Hirsch, in Richard Dresser's Below The Belt?
RSL: That was a really fun play for me. It's so beautifully written. And Judd knows how to work it. He's an incredible, professional actor, very strong on stage and fun to play with.
PBOL: Still, it doesn't sound like you've really had an acting mentor figure.
RSL: Oh yes. Believe it or not: Dick Latessa. I learned the most from Dick. He's one of the best actors in New York. I remember saying that at some conference, and all these young students had no idea who he was, but all the other actors on the panel were nodding and going, "Yeah." He taught me stop "acting." During Brighton Beach Memoirs he'd pull me into his dressing room and make me do the speeches again and again. He'd say, "I don't believe you," and make me do it again. I was 16 years old, and it was terrifying, but it was incredible. He's a good and smart actor, the real thing. He's like Austin Pendleton -- I can never see him do enough.
PBOL: One thing about Pendleton, not only has he become a playwright in mid-career, but he's also using Off-Off-Broadway to take on roles that might never have gone to him when he was younger and a certain "type." What roles do you hope to play someday?
RSL: I wish I had a "wish" list. Still I'd like to play Richard II very much. I want to do Konstantin in The Seagull, but time is ticking. In a few years, though, I can't wait to play Trigorin, or Dr. Dorn. I would like to do a lot of Chekhov as I get older. There are also a bunch of Shakespeare roles, but I'm just not old enough. I don't really want to play Romeo again, or more moonstruck Shakespearean youths. As you get older the roles get more interesting. I can't wait to play Polonius.