PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Shuler Hensley

News   PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Shuler Hensley
 
Tony Award winner Shuler Hensley returns to the New York stage in The Great American Trailer Park Musical, now playing Dodger Stages
Shuler Hensley
Shuler Hensley Photo by Aubrey Reuben

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Not only didn't he get the girl in Oklahoma!, but poor Jud died trying. Shuler Hensley — who played Jud in the most recent West End and Broadway revival of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic — did, however, snare the Tony, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle and London's prestigious Olivier Award for his haunting, powerful performance. And, in the new Off-Broadway production, The Great American Trailer Park Musical, Hensley has his choice of women: new-stripper-in-town Pippi (Orfeh) or his long-suffering, agoraphobic wife Jeannie (Kaitlin Hopkins).

It's an especially busy time for the father of two — Skyler, five, and Grayson, 15 months — who is set to begin rehearsals for the new musical Tarzan during the Trailer Park run. Hensley has been cast as the gorilla Kerchak in the Disney musical, which will begin previews at the Richard Rodgers Theatre March 24, 2006. The much-in-demand actor will also be seen in two upcoming films: "The Legend of Zorro," opposite Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones; and "Opa!," which co-stars Matthew Modine.

But, for now, Hensley is concentrating on Trailer Park, opening at Dodger Stages Sept. 27. The acclaimed actor recently spoke with Playbill.com about his newest role as a denizen of a trailer park in Starke, Florida, as well as his upcoming Tarzan adventure.

Playbill.com: How did you originally become involved with Trailer Park?
Shuler Hensley: Trailer Park came to me through my manager Jeff Berger and my agents at Paradigm. I was living back in Atlanta for the past two-and-a-half years [because] I've mostly done just film work. We have a house in Atlanta, sort of a farm down there, and you can pretty much live anywhere when you're doing film. So, we were down there, and they sent me this script of Trailer Park. Being from the South and having relatives from South Georgia, which is very close to Northern Florida, it was one of those things where I was like, "I know these people!" And, I thought it would be nice to do a comedy as opposed to the serious, psycho-killer [roles] that I usually end up doing. [Laughs.] It's just been fantastic. It's a small cast, and it's a real ensemble group. It's fun every night because [it's comedy that] everyone can relate to it. Playbill.com: Did the fact that the show was being produced Off-Broadway rather than on Broadway influence your decision whether to accept the role?
SH: No. Honestly, I've been fortunate enough that maybe I can be choosier, but I look at Off-Broadway as being like independent film — that area where you can take more risks and maybe do more inventive projects in terms of you don't know if they're going to work or not. It's just that much more satisfying as an actor to be able to do those kind of things.

Playbill.com: I know there have been changes made during the preview period. Can you talk a bit about some of the changes?
SH: They've just reworked songs and restaged them. We have a new choreographer — Sergio [Trujillo] — who came in. We're trying to keep the flow of the show. I'm not too familiar with comedies, but I've noticed that it's really important to try to keep pace and flow because a lot of times [shows] can suffer if they don't have them. It's also a very collective partnership. We come in and somebody will say a couple of one-liners one night, and they'll work really well, so we'll keep them in. It's sort of rewriting itself a lot of times.

Playbill.com: How difficult is it to learn new material while you're already performing what was written before?
SH: [Laughs.] It's a lot easier than you think it's going to be at the time. I guess because we've been doing it since day one we're used to it. I guess it's like filming a sitcom. You're given new pages, and we just go with it. I think it works with this project because we're such a small cast and we do get along. We know each other well enough now on the stage, so we know that somebody will cover for us if something comes out that's not quite right.

Playbill.com: Have you ever lived or traveled in a trailer?
SH: I have had many a friend from high school, who after high school, instead of college, decided to graduate to trailer parks. So I'm quite familiar with them. There's something to be said about the community. You don't feel lonely. It's sort of like this show — it's a tight-knit group — at times everybody knows everybody's business, but you're also there for each other when something goes wrong.

Playbill.com: You mentioned the cast a few times. Is there anyone you're particularly enjoying working with — someone that you hadn't worked with before?
SH: My direct relationships — the love triangle — Kaitlin and Orfeh are the two girls who are part of my triangle. It's just been lovely, but I get time onstage with everyone . . . . [Everyone has] been really supportive, and we're just having fun with it. That's what makes it easy to do.

Playbill.com: You've also been cast in Tarzan. What role will you be playing in that?
SH: As it stands, the role of Kerchak, the silver back gorilla/unwanting father of Tarzan.

Playbill.com: How did that role come about?
SH: It was just through a series of auditions while I was here [in New York]. I met with [director/designer] Bob Crowley. I had heard that they wanted to bring Tarzan to Broadway and just went in and worked with them on different movements. It's so new in terms of what they're going to do, and they haven't really announced anything other than [the opening dates] . . . I pretty much can guarantee it will be like nothing people have seen in the theatre in terms of what they want to accomplish with the show . . . It's a huge collaboration between people from all different forms of art and movement and sets.

Playbill.com: When does Tarzan begin rehearsals?
SH: I believe, as of now, it's supposed to start at the end of December.

Playbill.com: So, you'll go straight from Trailer Park to Tarzan?
SH: Ideally, I'm going to do Trailer Park for the run, which I believe is six months, and rehearse during the day when Tarzan starts up. I think the beginning of that's going to just be getting into shape for [having to] jump, run, swing. They're going to have all kinds of things going on! . . . My daughter's very excited that Daddy's going to be a gorilla.

Playbill.com: Tell me about the two movies you have coming out this year.
SH: Well, ["The Legend of Zorro"] comes out the end of October, the 28th. That's the sequel to the first "Zorro," 10 years later. Antonio [Banderas] and Catherine Zeta-Jones, their child has grown up and is now 10 years old. And I play sort of the Pinkerton Detective from the United States government, who along with another detective, try to blackmail them into helping the United States government. So, I get two good fight scenes with both of them, and of course they both kick my ass, but it was fun doing them. [Laughs.]

And there's a film that I just finished in Greece that actually premiered up in Toronto called "Opa," and that's with Matthew Modine. It's a light-hearted comedy/romance based on the Cup of John, the mythological chalice that people have been looking for. We filmed it on the island of Patmos, which was where the Book of Revelations was written. Just being over there for a few weeks on this island [was] beyond words.

Playbill.com: How do you find working on film versus working onstage?
SH: Because I was raised on the stage — my mom was a ballet director — I think that, to me, is the most satisfying because you have a relationship with a live audience and immediate feedback. But film is very interesting, and I enjoy it because it's a process you can be more methodical about and try different things, and if they don't work, they're on the cutting-room floor. It's much more to do with subtlety and trusting and knowing that a camera will pick up your intention, whereas onstage you have to play a lot of things to the back row just so they read.

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