In honor of the summer movie season, which now begins in the first few weeks of spring, I’ve decided to look at two major action movies with big budgets, lots of special effects and, it turns out, strong theatre connections. "The Punisher" is already in theatres (more on that below), but the main item of interest is "Van Helsing," a gargantuan monster movie featuring Hugh Jackman as the eponymous vampire/werewolf/demon slayer. The disparity between Jackman’s flirty, swishy Peter Allen in The Boy From Oz and his brooding, stubbly, ass-kicking Van Helsing is fairly shocking, but it’s nothing compared to what Shuler Hensley — who was Jud opposite Jackman’s Curly in the London Oklahoma! — went through to play Frankenstein’s Monster.
The former University of Georgia baseball player is fairly imposing in a gentle-giant sort of way in person, but Sommers and special effects wizard Greg Cannom (who turned Robin Williams into Mrs. Doubtfire) took Hensley’s appearance to a whole new level. In addition to wearing about 50 pounds of padding and prosthetic leg extensions that added ten inches to his usual six foot-three build, Hensley endured four-and-a-half hours of makeup every morning. "That was my preparation," he says of the marathon makeup sessions, which would begin up to seven hours before filming. "That’s why mask work is so liberating: I literally disappeared by the time the makeup was applied."
As you may remember, Hensley and Jackman both earned acclaim for the London Oklahoma!, but things got testy between director Trevor Nunn and Equity over how many cast members could come to Broadway. The pre "X-Men" Jackman wasn’t deemed a big enough name to justify an Equity exemption, but the American-born Hensley was allowed to repeat his role as Jud, which won him a Tony. Now Hensley gets to play a much-hated but (somewhat) unfairly maligned brute alongside Jackman once again, although Frankenstein’s Monster has a somewhat more harmonious relationship with the hero this time.
"I didn’t even know Hugh was involved in this when I auditioned," swears Hensley, who was still playing Jud on Broadway when "Van Helsing" director Stephen Sommers and producer Bob Ducsay came to see Oklahoma! ("I’d been playing a misunderstood monster for about a year before this, so it made sense.") He freely admits, however, that his third teaming with Jackman, in the 2001 romantic comedy "Someone Like You," stemmed directly from their friendship. He was visiting Jackman on the set, and Jackman suggested him for an as yet uncast cameo. Hensley, whose other musical credits involve a Broadway stint as Javert in Les Miserables, had plenty of opportunities to practice his vocals on the "Van Helsing" set. He passed the time during a scene where he rows a small raft by singing "Ol’ Man River" and routinely belted out Sweeney Todd songs while strapped to the slab. He also had a habit of singing Christina Aguilera’s "Beautiful" while in full makeup, a habit that Kate Beckinsale’s young daughter loved.
In fact, the three-month shoot in Prague became something of a family affair, with Hensley, Beckinsale and Jackman all bringing their spouses and young children with them. (The film then shot for an additional three months in Los Angeles.) "We were all dealing with being parents and doing this gi-normous movie at the same time," says Hensley, whose second child is due three days after the May 7 "Van Helsing" opening. He was nervous at first for his three-year-old daughter, Skyler, to see him in full Frankenstein regalia, but she quickly adapted and called him "Daddy Monster" for the rest of the shoot.
Hensley’s "Van Helsing" work is hardly complete; in the 48 hours before we spoke, he had recorded an audio track for the DVD, supplied his voice to the pending video game and seen the Frankenstein’s Monster action figure for the first time. And he’s also contracted for another "Van Helsing" movie. What next for the monster, who is last seen rowing off to an unknown location? "It would be nice if he rowed himself to Hawaii. Three months in Hawaii would be nice."
"Van Helsing" isn’t the only summer blockbuster with a acting duo of interest to theatre fans. To be fair, "The Punisher" opened a few weeks before the summer blitz and is more of a midsize action flick. But this revenge thriller, based on a particularly gritty comic-book character, features a familiar theatre face with an even more familiar on-screen dad. James Carpinello, best known for taking the role that made John Travolta a megastar in the Saturday Night Fever musical, stars as the son of . . . John Travolta.
Actually, Travolta’s sons. Carpinello plays both Bobby Saint, who dies in the first five minutes ("I get shot. Repeatedly."), and twin brother John, who sends the rest of the film trying to exact revenge on the title character. Although "The Punisher" isn’t exactly heavy on dialogue, Carpinello has a decent amount of screen time. "I’m kind of a quiet presence," he says. "Pretty much when [Travolta’s] there, I’m there."
The 28-year-old Carpinello wasn’t sure how to broach the Tony Manero connection. As it turns out, he didn’t have to. "It came up the first day we met," says Carpinello, who grew up watching Travolta’s movies. "John knew I had done it in New York, and he had a lot of questions about it. He was sorry he hadn’t seen it."
Carpinello almost followed up Saturday Night Fever with an even bigger stage musical: After three years of workshops, he was cast as Link in Hairspray. But he left the blockbuster-to-be three weeks into rehearsal to take a role in the World War II drama "The Great Raid," which he calls "probably the toughest decision of my career so far." ("The Punisher" was filmed after "The Great Raid" but released first.) "I’d always wanted to make a movie," says the Carnegie Mellon graduate, "but theatre’s where my passion lies. I’d go back at a moment’s notice."
Regarding the planned Miramax/Storyline musical of "Damn Yankees," which has apparently moved ahead of "Guys and Dolls" as the follow-up to "Chicago": Peter Tolan and Mike Martineau, who have been tapped to write the screenplay, have a great track record. The two collaborated on "The Job" and "The Larry Sanders Show," two of the most acclaimed TV shows in recent memory. (Tolan won an Emmy for his "Larry Sanders" work as well as for "Murphy Brown.") I realize that Miramax will want to go with Jim Carrey or some huge name as the devil, but may I suggest two of Tolan and Martineau’s TV co-stars? Denis Leary would be a blast, and Garry Shandling could be transcendent in the part. Just a thought.
Corrections Department: Last month’s column had a piece of incorrect information about the Sam Shepard documentary "This So-Called Disaster." In the process of doing my research, I stumbled onto a handful of Internet biographies of the playwright that alluded to his serving as playwright-in-residence at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre (where "Disaster" is set) before moving to New York. Turns out his Magic stint didn’t start until 1975, after he had already made a name with such works as La Turista and The Tooth of Crime. His affiliation with the Magic lasted until 1982. A handful of readers snagged this mistake; thanks to them for catching it. And "Disaster," which got great reviews in the New York papers, has announced a May 7 opening at San Francisco’s Roxie Theatre.
Lots to keep New Yorkers entertained during this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which runs May 1-9. For now, the Tribeca Theater Festival has been downgraded to a one-night assemblage of short plays on May 5 (although the Drama Dept. has promised more in October), but the film offerings should keep theatre buffs entertained. "Stage Beauty," the adaptation of Jeffrey Hatcher’s Compleat Stage Beauty, closes the festival on May 9, thanks to a cast that includes Billy Crudup, Rupert Everett and Claire Danes. Director Richard Eyre (Amy’s View, The Crucible) will also join Hatcher and Crudup in a panel discussion about the stage-to-screen process. (Which presumably is of interest to you, or else you wouldn’t be reading this column.)
If you can’t get into the closing-night film, there’s still a batch of other options. "Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding" finally makes an appearance, and "Elaine Stritch at Liberty" will air along with D.A. Pennebaker’s original look at Stritch’s performance style, the unforgettable "Original Cast Album: Company" from 1970. John Cameron Mitchell joins Sharon Stone and others on a "Sex & Cinema" panel. Look for a restored version of the 1964 Jean Anouilh adaptation "Becket," starring Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole, and a new documentary about Living Theatre co-founders Judith Malina and Julian Beck called "Resist." And "It" playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis appears in "Jailbait," written and directed by LAByrinth Theater cohort Brett C. Leonard. (Leonard and Hatcher both have plays running in New York right now — a Woyzeck update called Guinea Pig Solo at the Public and an Acting Company adaptation of various Edgar Allan Poe short stories at the new Theatre Row complex, respectively.) Anyway, there’s lots more information at www.tribecafilmfestival.org.
If "Van Helsing" and "The Punisher" aren’t enough in the way of summer blockbusters, listen for Antonio Banderas and Julie Andrews along with John Lithgow in "Shrek 2" (May 21). Ana Gasteyer joins a batch of "Saturday Night Live" women past and present in "Mean Girls." It opens April 30, the same day as the romantic comedy "Laws of Attraction," which features a rewrite by Steel Magnolias scribe Robert Harling. And Alfred Molina makes a curious appearance as himself in "Coffee and Cigarettes" (May 14), an 18-years-in-the-making compendium of Jim Jarmusch shorts.
Your Thoughts: Which are you more excited about, Curly and Jud in Prague or dueling Tony Maneros?
Eric Grode is associate editor of The Sondheim Review and a theatre critic for Back Stage. He can be reached at email@example.com.