Tom Hewitt is just getting to the point where he feels it may be safe to bring in a few additional items to his dressing room at Circle in the Square. He stars there as Frank ‘n’ Furter in the revival of the Rocky Horror Show and, by all accounts, Hewitt is a dynamic stage presence — an intelligent new star who is strutting his stuff alongside rocker Joan Jett, celebrated wit Dick Cavett, and theatre’s ubiquitous songstress, Alice Ripley. Likable, direct, bold, funny and mesmerizing in performance, Hewitt spoke with Playbill On-Line backstage as he prepared for a show.
Playbill On-Line: In an earlier interview, Jordan Roth (producer Rocky Horror Show) commented on the national casting search and said that of all the Frank ‘n’ Furters and all their costuming choices, you were the one actor who portrayed true masculine menace together with feminine allure — how did you prepare for the role?
Tom Hewitt: Well, I think my choices were actually colored by the fact that when I auditioned, I didn’t think I would ever be cast in the show. I didn’t think it was a possibility. I’ve known Chris Ashley (director RHS) for a long time — he directed me in Jeffrey. I’ve known him since the early ‘80s and he lives near me, so I see him on the train platform once in a while. Last spring he told me he was directing Rocky Horror and by that time there were already rumors about the stars who were going to be in it. They were already tossing around Joan Jett and Dick Cavett.
PBOL: So how did you get in?
TH: Chris was on his way, as we spoke, to meet some famous rock star about the role and he said to me, “Would you come in and audition?” And I said, “Chris, you’re never gonna cast me!” Plus, I was in the Lion King (as “Scar”) and I didn’t think Disney would let me out of my contract because there were a couple of months overlap.
PBOL: Were you just contracted with Disney, or still performing the role?
TH: I was still performing, and they overlapped. I performed two weeks in Lion King and rehearsedRocky during the day. Disney was great though, and they eventually let me out.
PBOL: Getting back to how you came to the role, did you have any personal connection with the material as you were growing up?
TH: I never really considered the show as a “stage show” really. I mean, you only think of it in the context of the movie. And I wasn’t a big fan of the movie, I never particularly liked it. I remember lovin’ the music and listenin’ to the original Roxy cast recording, I think it’s an L.A. recording, made, perhaps, with the same production that was here in the ‘70s. Anyway, the music was great, and the arrangements were awesome and it rocked; and at an undergraduate school in Missoula, Montana in the mid 70s we played it all the time. It was like religious music—it was like funky and made fun of the genre of Sci-Fi and it was kind of sexy and naughty and we loved it. PBOL: There was a meaningful connection for you?
TH: Well, we were so excited when the movie came out and yet so disappointed in it because it was not a particularly good movie. Of course, Tim Curry was brilliant in it, and I’d catch it every once in a while on VH 1, but I never really thought about it as a role I’d like to do. But then the agents called and said, “Do you want to audition?” And I thought about it for a second and said, “Yes I do.”
PBOL: What prompted your interest?
TH: Well, I’m 42 and I thought: When else in my life am I going to have an opportunity to sing, “I’m just a sweet transvestite from transsexual Transylvania?” I just thought it would be fun to muster up the guts to go in and kinda show off for Chris Ashley. I wanted something—basically— to work on a little bit.
PBOL: It sounds like it was almost an exercise or a background statement..something you could look back on and say, “Remember the time I did that?”
TH: Exactly, and I needed some experience auditioning for musicals. I just don’t do it...in Lion King we do a lot of speaking. It’s kind of a Rex Harrison-y role you know, and I really didn’t consider myself a singer in that role. But I wanted to give it a shot and I wanted to show off and I almost felt guilty going into it because I thought I might be wasting Chris’ time. Then I started working on the music and became obsessed with it and I couldn’t not work on it. I knew something was going on. It wasn’t “work,” and I just couldn’t stop thinking about it. I was given three numbers and two scenes to audition with and by the time the audition came around I had really worked something up. I had really worked on it.
PBOL: The story goes that you arrived for the audition in character and fully dressed for the role.
TH: Against the advice of several of my friends I decided to show up wearing something. In the past, if I wore a tie to an audition, that was a big character choice for me. I’ve never done anything like that before and it took some guts. And I wanted to see if I had the guts to go through with it. So, I got mismatched fishnets — I put one fishnet on my arm and I got a lab coat from the puppet shop at the Lion King. My hair looked like this, I had it sort of bleached and it was grown out, so I think I actually got the role because I was blonde. I knew I had a lot of leg, so I knew that I could do some leg stuff. I got a pair of pumps from a hair guy at Lion King that I squeezed into. I could wear them for 15 minutes without bleeding. So, I squeezed into those and pranced around. But you know, I remember thinking in the audition, “Well, they’re gonna have to deal with me!” It sort of all came through and there was nothing at stake for me. There really wasn’t. I had all these assumptions: I had a great job at Lion King that I loved, I knew Chris, I knew Jerry Mitchell and I assumed they weren’t going to give me the job. At the same time, I wasn’t gonna understudy. I knew I wasn’t gonna leave Lion King to understudy. They were going to hire a star. So, I wasn’t scared, I just went in and showed off. I just had fun for that day and tried to let that audition be what it was: “There, I sang “Sweet Transvestite,” thank you very much for lettin’ me. Goodbye...you’ll never see me again.” But then, they cast me!
PBOL: You can speak to different people about Rocky Horror and if they have a connection to it they seem to be able to define it. It seems that you found your connection somewhere in the preparation for the audition.
TH: Well, I knew that it was going to be all or nothing. It’s one of those characters where you have to really, completely immerse yourself in it, you can’t sort of go halfway. You really have to surrender to it and part of that is wearing that stuff. However shocking it is to see myself in it outside of the context of the show, and however humiliating it is — whatever — it’s also very powerful to walk into a room (stands in dressing room and demonstrates a Frank ’n’ Furter strut) and think, “I’m wearing this, and you’re not.” It’s amazing — I was amazed at how powerful it was. And, in terms of auditioning in costume, there really wasn’t a choice as far as I was concerned. I thought Chris might not like it, but I couldn’t conceive of doing that material without making some attempt at bein’ a fabulous alien transvestite.
PBOL: It had to be done.
TH: It had to be done, it was just a question of whether I really had the courage to carry through. (laughs) But I was embarrassed. The first time I went in, I didn’t have the guts to change my clothes outside of the room, where everyone was congregating. Now, there were a lot of people there and nobody else was dressing up, it was just me. So, I had my sweatpants on and the lab coat and I took off the sweatpants really fast and tried to get dressed but that was kind of a mistake. But the next two times I auditioned I had the courage to prepare myself outside the room and sit proudly in my doctor’s coat and fishnet stockings and spiked heels.
PBOL: But by that time, you probably felt like you owned it a bit, no?
TH: I felt like I owned it and I knew they were interested in me. I told them I wasn’t interested in being an understudy and they said, “No, no, they want you for the role.” Then I started to think it was a good idea to cast me. I mean, they have enough stars, I wouldn’t give them any trouble, I’d be good.
PBOL: David Rockwell (set designer RHPS) said that what inspired him to do the show was director Chris Ashley’s description of his message, which was essentially—and I’m paraphrasing here— that people should be free to make any decision they choose to make. What about you?
TH: “Don’t dream it, be it.” If people are going to leave with a message from the show, it would be that. Now, if people get that, that’s fine, but it’s a nasty little rock ‘n’ roll show. That’s basically what it is, and it’s a whole lot of fun and an opportunity to be incredibly indulgent and combine a lot of different disciplines that I’ve come in contact with over the years. As for any sort of redeeming social message or epiphany that they want to leave the audience with, that’s not up to me. My job is in the moment to moment, song by song things, those smaller decisions that make up the bigger picture.
PBOL: Yet your character, Frank ‘n’ Furter is the play’s undisputed focal point.
TH: Well, I suppose. In a way I get to have absolute permission to behave outrageously—so I am not dreaming it, I’m being it. So I feel a little bit of a responsibility to “be it” for those 700 people out there every night who can’t—or won’t—completely let themselves go. To have fun, for their sake.
PBOL: Do you find Rocky audiences interact and did you know what to expect of them?
TH: You know, I had absolutely no idea what to expect. A few weeks before the show opened , lots of us from the cast went to E. 12 St. and saw the show. I’d never seen it in the context of participation before and it was enlightening. I’m glad I saw it because it [the audience call-backs during the show] can sound like heckling. When people yell at you, especially things like “asshole, slut,” things like that, these are not kind words they are yelling at you. It feels like heckling, but it’s noooooot, not, not heckling—it’s love. It’s a feeling of community. It was almost religious without the spirituality. I thought it was so charmingly human and American, just grasping on to any kind of culture or ritual that we can in our young society. It was funny and clever, yet I couldn’t watch the whole thing because I couldn’t watch Tim (Curry), I was trying to get Tim out of my mind.
PBOL: Is the show so familiar to audiences that it is formal and predictable?
TH: It varies from night to night. It varies when people yell, what they yell and if they yell. I have a little permission to stray from the script. I tend not to, because it’s hard. It’s more fun for me to respond with the script but to give it a little spin (mugs in character). A lot of us have two or three different ways to deliver a line depending on what — and if — people say something. We have like Plan A, Plan B and Plan C. It continues to evolve. People now yell things that are specific to our show instead of just the movie.
PBOL: Like what?
TH: Like when I sing, “So, I wanted to be dressed....” And they shout, “Like Eva Peron!?” And I sing, “Just the saaame.” Now, Tim Curry was not dressed anything like Eva Peron and I’ve got beautiful silk gloves and stuff...
PBOL: This may be one of the most bold and outrageous role of your career—do you feel you’ve gotten to a point where you are able to really play with it?
TH: I feel like I’m getting a little bit braver. One example is that sometimes people get carried away and they throw rolls of toilet paper at us — a lot of rolls of toilet paper on the stage — and we have Lea (de Laria) in a wheelchair and we have to do a show and we have to deal with that. So, I have to stop them and try not to discourage them from participating; I try not to be school-marmish and chastising but still make it very clear that it’s not okay to throw a bunch of shit at us while we’re trying to work out there.
PBOL: Let’s compare directors — Julie Taymor compared to Chris Ashley.
TH: Well, in Lion King, as a replacement, I really didn’t work with Julie. I did a small film with Julie called “Fool’s Fire.” Julie directs...well, Julie designs and directs, so her direction has a lot to do with fulfilling a big aesthetic picture. It has to do with costumes and usually a puppet or some extension of a human body that you’re wearing or manipulating. So her directions and her motivations have to do not only with you physically, but a prosthetic something or other that’s happening, too. Chris, of course deals in more bare bones. Even the film “Jeffrey,” was more minimalist, it was just a projection screen basically. This show is pretty bare bones, too. We’re kind of on a thrust stage, and though the set does some pretty amazing things, we’re really just people out there. Chris really gave me free reign. He liked what I did in the audition and he encouraged me to move along those lines, so this really felt like a collaboration between Chris and Jerry. They would ask my opinion and it was an awesome and really rewarding actor/director relationship.
PBOL: What’s it like to work with Dick Cavett?
TH: You know, these people like Dick and Joan (Jett), they’re like icons. I remember Dick, I watched him when I was a kid. It’s really great. And his part changes daily depending on what’s happening politically. He was completely clueless about the whole Rocky thing when he came in, but it’s really fun to see him develop his dynamic in the show.
PBOL: Was there ever anything on your resume that you took off the moment you had bigger and better things to replace it with?
TH: I am proudly an American regional theatre actor. I always have been and I always will be. I am enjoying my time on Broadway, but for the sake of space I have lumped all of my regional theatre credits into “Tom Hewitt has worked in regional theatres throughout the U.S.” For the first time, I’ve stopped listing things that I’ve done regionally.
PBOL: A final question — is there anyone you’d like to work with but haven’t had the chance to?
TH: Victor Garber. I have had the opportunity of working with him, but I haven’t spent any time on stage with him. I’ve understudied him twice and I’ve learned so much from him. I have this game where if I get stuck acting I like channel Victor Garber and ask, “What would Victor Garber do right now?” And it kinda helps. I really love him and admire him and I would love to share the stage with him sometime.