STAGE TO SCREENS: Chats with Dulé Hill of Dutchman and Justin Kirk of "Weeds"

Stage to Screens   STAGE TO SCREENS: Chats with Dulé Hill of Dutchman and Justin Kirk of "Weeds"
 
This month we talk to "West Wing" and "Psych" star Dulé Hill, who returns to the New York stage in Dutchman, and Love! Valour! Compassion! vet Justin Kirk of Showtime's "Weeds."
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Dulé (Du-LAY) Hill, who appeared on Broadway in The Tap Dance Kid, Black and Blue, and Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk, makes his dramatic stage debut as Clay in the revival (Jan. 16-Feb. 10) of Dutchman, by Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), at Off-Broadway's Cherry Lane, the same theatre where the original premiered in 1964. (The first production featured Robert Hooks and Jennifer West; the 1967 film version co-starred Al Freeman, Jr. and Shirley Knight.)

"I've been aware of the play for about ten years," says Hill. "Last March, I was asked if I'd be interested in doing a piece of the play at the grand-reopening gala of the Cherry Lane. I said, 'Sure.' I did the monologue at the end. In September, they called and said they were going to put [the play] up, and I agreed to do it."

Set on a New York subway in the 1960s, the hour-long play details "the seduction of a young black man by a white woman [Lula, played by Jennifer Mudge]. Most of the play is two characters. Paul Benjamin plays a conductor, and another character comes on at the end of the play."

Is Clay a role that Hill was able to research? "You research the time period — what was going on back in the '60s, and being connected to where the dialogue is coming from. Being a black man then and [now] is very different." Best known as Charlie Young, aide to President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen) on the NBC-TV drama "West Wing" (1999-2006), Hill was nominated for a 2002 Emmy and shared two SAG Awards for Best Ensemble. He's recognized "a lot of times when I travel, but it's nothing fanatical."

Observes Hill, "It was a great learning experience. I was educated by great actors. I was grateful for [the income], but it was priceless just being able to wail with these cats for an extended period of time."

Come April, Hill will start shooting a second season as Burton "Gus" Guster on the USA cable series "Psych." He notes, "I have a good time. It's a comedy, a nice change of pace after seven years of drama." He plays "the best friend slash partner in crime-solving" of Shawn Spencer (James Roddy), "a fake-psychic detective. The fact that he's lying is only known to his father (Corbin Bernsen) and me."

Born in Orange, New Jersey, Karim Dulé Hill is the younger of two sons. "My aunt liked the name of [actor] Keir Dullea, and the family's always called me Dulé. My dad's in the financial market; mom's an educator." He started dancing at three, and made his Broadway debut as understudy to Savion Glover in The Tap Dance Kid, later playing the lead role on the national tour, "with Harold Nicholas, Hinton Battle, and Ben Harney, who was later replaced by Chuck Cooper."

Besides Nicholas, a "great influence" in Hill's life was the late Gregory Hines. "I met Greg when I was rehearsing for the tour of Tap Dance Kid. He came to the Minskoff rehearsal studios to see Hinton. Greg inspired me. I was 10; he passed away three years ago. For 20 years, we were close, close, close. He and Harold Nicholas were all-around talents, which are hard to find these days."

Next came Black and Blue, in which Hill was a replacement understudy. That was followed by Noise/Funk, "first at the Public, then on Broadway." He also appeared in Shenandoah at New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse and The Little Rascals at Connecticut's Goodspeed Opera House. Other credits include a Saturday morning TV show, "City Kids."

"Sugar Hill" (1994) marked Hill's movie debut, playing Wesley Snipes' character at 17. "I got to shoot a guy, and say, 'Good night, Sal.' Some people still remember that [scene]." Upcoming are two films: "Remarkable Power" ("a dark comedy about a talk-show host who tries to fake his own death") and "Whisper" ("a suspense thriller about a little boy kidnapped in New England").

While he was appearing in Noise/Funk in 1997, Hill met actress Nicole Lyn, also of Jamaican descent. "Our paths crossed again in L.A. a couple of years later, and we'll be married three years in July." Like her husband, the Ontario-born Lyn started acting as a youngster.

As for the future, Dulé Hill reveals an actor's strong sense of security: "We'll see what comes. Hopefully, I'll keep working." He adds, "I'd like to bring my tap dancing to a play; I've never been a big fan of musicals."

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Justin Kirk

Nominated for a Golden Globe and a SAG Ensemble Award for portraying Andy Botwin on "Weeds," Justin Kirk considers acting honors "certainly nice, but you can't think too much about those things. They're so separated from anything you have control over. Of course, everyone wants to be told how great they are." (The Golden Globes are on NBC-TV, Jan. 15 at 8 PM ET; the SAG Awards will be seen on TNT and TBS, Jan. 28 at 8 PM ET.) Does Kirk intend attending both ceremonies? "Definitely. It's my third time at the Golden Globes. It's quite a scene. You sit at tables and do some serious drinking. I plan to keep the tradition alive. [Laughs]"

How did his role in "Weeds" come about? "I had worked with Mary Louise [Parker, the series' star] on 'Angels in America.' I'd heard about the show, and that she was doing it. I got a call and they sent me some material. I was thrilled with the material — and that hasn't stopped. I had a meeting and the next day signed on for the whole deal [to play the brother of Parker's character's deceased husband]. I'm excited every week to see what's next. [The writers] do great things for me."

"Weeds" starts production again in April. "The first year, there were 10 episodes; I didn't come along until the fourth. Last year, we did 12, and this year, it's 15. It's a half-hour show. We shoot Monday through Friday for almost four months, with no breaks. It feels like we're doing a movie. It's very intense and then we're done. You can pay the rent and then try to do other stuff."

A native of Salem, OR, Kirk grew up in Union, WA, and knew at age three that he wanted to act. "I did my first play at seven. It was by Brecht at a college in Washington. I lived there until I was 12, at which point we moved to Minneapolis. I attended high school there — in a theatre. It was the changing point in my life. At 20, I moved to New York City to go to school at Circle in the Square.

"I worked there throughout my twenties. I was at school all day and went to work at night." One of his temporary jobs "was as a page at the Rainbow Room, working in the coat check, and wearing an outfit that looks like you're one of the monkeys in 'The Wizard of Oz.'" After graduation, "while trying to get my first acting job, I worked as a bellboy at the Royalton Hotel. It was my last day job. "My first show out of school was a Bill C. Davis play called Spine at the George Street Playhouse in New Jersey. I got my Equity card. My second job was on Broadway in Any Given Day with Sada Thompson, Peter Frechette, and Andrea Marcovicci. [The character] was in a wheel chair, and I thought that it was the best part I would ever have. My next job was Love! Valour! Compassion! [in which he played visually impaired Bobby Brahms]." He later appeared in the movie version "with the original cast, except for Jason Alexander [playing Nathan Lane's role]."

Other New York stage credits include June Moon, Old Wicked Songs, and Ten Unknowns. "I was really fortunate to pay my rent as a theatre actor. Then, I did a pilot that was picked up for a Warner Brothers series, 'Jack and Jill,' and I've been in Los Angeles ever since — although I've been back to New York to do a movie or a play at least once a year.

"We did 32 ["Jack and Jill"] episodes. It was an hour dramedy about three boys and three girls — sort of like 'Friends.' I was a med student and Jaime Pressly, who's now on 'My Name Is Earl,' played my love interest, a dancer. Doing the series was great. I was green [about TV], and I learned to be comfortable on a set, which is such a foreign atmosphere when you've grown up in theatre. Doing your job with all these technicians around, I learned so much. And I was working on the Warner Brothers lot every day."

An Emmy nominee for his portrayal of Prior Walter in the cable movie of "Angels in America," Kirk was asked by playwright Tony Kushner "to lose 20 pounds, but not to look too emaciated. I had a trainer, did a lot of running, and cigarettes helped."

He has high praise for Mike Nichols, who directed. "I had auditioned for him to play Robin Williams' son in 'Birdcage,' the role that Dan Futterman ended up playing. Actually, before that I'm a picture of a dead brother in a photo album in 'Wolf,' which he directed, with Jack Nicholson and Michelle Pfeiffer. [Costume designer] Ann Roth got me that gig. It was my first Mike Nichols film, but I don't think that Mike ever knew."

Kirk's most recent New York stage appearance occurred "during a hiatus in 'Angels.' I did The World Over at Playwrights Horizons. My most recent time onstage was home in Minneapolis. I was directed by my childhood mentor and worked with actors I had grown up worshipping — so that was a great experience. We did Joe Orton's play, Entertaining Mr. Sloane. They did it in New York a few months later. I like to think they were copying us. [Laughs]"

Justin Kirk would like to work in all media — "like Kevin Kline. You want to try to do all of it." He dislikes looking back. "Occasionally, I'll see something I did awhile ago, and I can't watch it. I keep trying to improve." Meanwhile, he's having "the greatest time of my like doing 'Weeds.'"

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