When Tony-winning actor and director Roger Rees was growing up in South London, he wanted to be an artist.
"I was at a pretty rough school, and the only thing I was good at was art," Rees said at the American Airlines Theatre, where he is starring in Terence Rattigan's The Winslow Boy. "I got out of this school and went to Camberwell College of Arts, a terribly prestigious thing to do. I was there to be a painter. And I sketched so well that a year later I was sent to Slade School of Fine Art, one of the great art schools."
When his father died, during Rees's third year at Slade, "I went and painted scenery to earn money to support my mother and brother. I was at Wimbledon Theatre when Arthur Lane, who ran it, wanted a boy to be in a play. And I suddenly was an actor. I played the lead. I don't remember being nervous. I learned to be nervous later."
His sojourn in Wimbledon is part of a career that includes 22 years with the Royal Shakespeare Company. He won both an Olivier Award and a Tony Award for the title role in the RSC's The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby in 1982. Rees was Tony-nominated in 1995 for Indiscretions and in 2012 for co-directing Peter and the Starcatcher, now at New World Stages.
From 2004 to 2007 he was artistic director of the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts. On television he portrayed Robin Colcord on "Cheers" and the British ambassador on "The West Wing." A native of Aberystwyth, Wales, Rees moved to London at age nine when his father got a job as a police officer. After more Wimbledon experience — " Agatha Christie plays, A Christmas Carol, the Christmas pantomime, the front half of a cow" — he auditioned for the RSC. "They said go away because your voice isn't very good."
He became a stage manager at a summer theatre in Scotland. "One of the boys became very ill, and I replaced him and was playing parts like Yasha [a manservant] in The Cherry Orchard."
Rees was soon accepted by the RSC, beginning in '67 with a small nonspeaking role, and slowly worked his way up. He didn't expect to get the Nicholas Nickleby role. "I thought I would play Mr. Mantalini, an eccentric comic character, because that's the sort of character I played — Graziano in Merchant of Venice, Roderigo in Othello, Aguecheek in Twelfth Night. I didn't think of myself as a heroic actor."
Speaking of heroism, in Rattigan's 1946 The Winslow Boy, set in early 20th-century England, Rees portrays Arthur Winslow, who defends his teenage son against charges of stealing an inexpensive postal order at the Royal Naval College. "It seems to be a story that's everlasting," Rees said. "It's about putting yourself on the line for someone else. Believing in someone." Believing "it's worth fighting for something, worth fighting to make things better." The Roundabout production also stars Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Michael Cumpsty; Lindsay Posner directs.
What's next for Rees? "In the spring I'm going to the La Jolla Playhouse. Rick Elice [ Jersey Boys, Peter and the Starcatcher — and Rees's spouse] and Michael Patrick Walker [ Altar Boys] have written a musical, Dog and Pony, which I'm going to direct." It's about "two people who work very closely together but refuse to fall in love."
And, "I keep saying to young playwrights, 'Come on, where’s your play for me?' I think it’s great to encourage the next generation."