PLAYBILL.COM'S CUE & A: Romeo and Juliet Star Conrad Kemp

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08 Oct 2013

Conrad Kemp
Conrad Kemp

South African stage and screen actor Conrad Kemp, currently making his Broadway debut as Benvolio in Romeo and Juliet, fills out Playbill.com's questionnaire of random facts, backstage trivia and pop-culture tidbits.

Kemp began his career on the stages of Ireland and made his West End debut in Marie Jones’ Stones in His Pockets.

Recent film work includes "Winnie Mandela" and "Zulu," which also features his Romeo castmate Orlando Bloom.

This is Kemp's first visit to the United States.





Full given name: Conrad Peter Kemp
Where you were born/where you were raised: Born in Cape Town and raised in Johannesburg. Both in South Africa.
Zodiac Sign:Leo
What your parents did/do for a living:My mom was a cook, who hated being called a chef. My dad was an attorney.
Siblings:One older brother, Marc. A really good guy.
Special skills:I am handy in the kitchen, and at accents too. And at accents in the kitchen. I write nicely. And I’m pretty good at the physical stuff. For now.
Something you're REALLY bad at:Ironing. Phones.
First show you ever saw: I’m sure it must have been some mustachioed magician at a toddler’s birthday party, but the first play I remember was my brother’s first grade showcase in Johannesburg. He played a prince. He had a sword! I was four.
If you could go back in time and catch any Broadway show, what would it be? The Abbey Theatre’s 1907 production of The Playboy of the Western World by JM Synge. As much for the emergence of genius as the social and political consequence.

Or the 1973 performance of The Island by John Kani, Winston Ntshona and Athol Fugard at The Space in Cape Town, performed under the title Die Hodoshe Span to avoid the censors and cops. I saw the original cast perform this many years later and it remains one of the most remarkable pieces of storytelling and truthtelling I have ever witnessed.

Did you have any particular mentors or inspirations as a young actor? My Latin master at high school, Hugh Wilson, was the man who lit the flame early on. At a sports mad school, he drove dramatic arts to prominence. He also taught serving the story above all the frilly bits.

And then I saw Kenneth Branagh do Henry V in the cinema. My dad had an ornamental sword. I borrowed it and unleashed St. Crispin’s Day on my mom’s flowers.

Current show other than your own you have been recommending to friends: It’s not up yet (as I write this), but Harold Pinter’s Betrayal at the Barrymore has got me all in a flutter. I am recommending it blindly.
Favorite showtune(s) of all time: "Don’t Cry For Me Argentina." Or "I Loves You, Porgy." Or "My Man’s Gone Now." Or anything else from Porgy and Bess...
Favorite musicals: I saw Starlight Express in London when I was ten. It blew my little mind. We bought the music cassette tape and my brother and I sang to it in our touring car until our parents threatened to leave us somewhere in Scotland amongst a herd of highland cows. I think I still have a small crush on Ashley.
Some favorite modern plays: Our Country’s Good by Timberlake Wertenbaker; Brian Friel’s Translations; Athol Fugard’s The Road to Mecca and The Island and Sizwe Bansi Is Dead with John Kani and Winston Ntshona; Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horsemen; Martin McDonagh’s The Lonesome West; Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Ask me again in an hour.
Some favorite modern playwrights: Martin McDonagh; Harold Pinter; Sarah Kane; Samuel Beckett; Peter Shaffer; some Lara Foot; Soyinka, definitely; Joe Orton; Sam Shepard. Ask me again in an hour.
Stage or screen stars of the past you would most have loved to perform with: Zakes Mokae (Tony Award winner in 1970), and, although he is not yet of the past, I would love to tread with Winston Ntshona (Tony Award and Drama Desk co-winner in 1975) some day. And Vivien Leigh.
The one performance – attended - that you will never forget: Conor Lovett performing Beckett’s First Love at the National Arts Festival, Grahamstown in 2009, and Lara Foot’s Tsepang at The Beckett Centre in Dublin in 2004.

Actually, it must be Handspring Puppet Company’s Faustus in Africa at the 1995 National Arts Festival, Grahamstown...

Just one? Seriously? Okay, then it’s The Island.

Music that makes you cry, any genre: Lyrics get me. And Sting knows lyrics. So does Bowie.
You personal acting idols: Conor Lovett; Antoinette Kellermann; Winston Ntshona... there are many... Anne-Marie Duff...
MAC or PC? This is being typed on a MAC. So.
Most-visited websites: Ummm... my home page is the BBC. So I’m claiming that marginally above Netflix.
Most played song on your iPod: Probably "All the Things That I’ve Done" by The Killers.
Last book you read: "Wolf Hall" by Hilary Mantel
Must-see TV show(s): "Bored to Death"
Last good movie you saw: "Argo"
Some films you consider classics: "Withnail and I"
"Let The Right One In"
"District 9"
"The Piano"
Performer you would drop everything to go see: Conor Lovett
Pop culture guilty pleasure: Genre fiction
Three favorite cities: Johannesburg, Paris, New York
First CD/Tape/LP you owned: Michael Jackson’s "Thriller." On tape.
First stage kiss: Aine NiLaoghaire in Leo Butler’s Devotion. What a play.
Moment you knew you wanted to perform for a living: Changing into costume for Hyde and Jekyll in an ornate Prague stairwell at the Prague Fringe, 2003. It was thrilling chaos and a wonderfully, imaginatively told story. Full of risk.
Favorite pre-/post- show meal: (note where) Anything Christian Camargo springs for...
Favorite liquid refreshment: Wine or water
Pre-show rituals or warm-ups: I like to not throw up or lock myself in a cupboard.
Worst flubbed line/missed cue/onstage mishap: I suffered an anterior subluxation (kind of like a dislocation) of my shoulder early on in a performance of Alone It Stands at The Olympia in Dublin. It’s a very physical play. I had a special gleam in my eyes for the remainder of the performance.
Worst costume ever: As a cowboy snowman in The Snowman, my first ever paying gig. Imagine a borrowed, furry space-suit that can never be washed, offers only a sliver of breathing space, and amplifies the sound of your own breathing. Now do a ten-show week to audiences seldom in excess of thirty...
Worst job you ever had: Alone, in a warehouse, in the docks of Dublin, in winter, offloading and stacking boxes of wine. No forklift. No gloves.
Any side or upcoming projects you can talk about? I have some pretty tight writing deadlines, and a personal project with the working title "Visa Extension"
Craziest audition story: When I arrived in Ireland to audition for a place at the Gaiety School of Acting, I was informed that I had missed my audition by ten days and that the course was full! This after packing-up and selling-off my banker’s life in South Africa.

I became a touch angry, insisting that the stuff-up was their administration’s fault. I wrote a very corporate letter to the school’s director. After consideration, they told me that I could audition but that the course was still full and that the best they could offer was the chance to be put on a waiting list. And that they would see me in an hour’s time.

I had to warm up and rehearse in blustery, rainy, fall weather in St. Stephen’s Green, under a tree, with ducks and drunks shouting support. It must have made me gritty and real, and the right kind of uncaring, because I succeeded to impress them enough to get myself onto the standby list. A week later I was rolling around in studio one.

What drew you to this project? Simply the opportunity. It would’ve taken steel to keep me away.
What has been the biggest challenge so far? Convincing myself that it’s really happening. I also think it’s quite a challenge to avoid the distraction of the commercial aspects of Broadway. A challenge I have enjoyed, however, has been portraying Benvolio as a more burdened and experienced character than the simpering stereotype for which he is often mistaken (in my opinion).
What do you find to be the most surprising or unexpected aspect of performing on Broadway? I must admit to being really impressed by the level of support (all manner of) and encouragement I have received here, almost across the board.
Most challenging role you have played onstage: I played Alan Strang in Peter Shaffer’s Equus at high school. I was sixteen and at a large, public, boys only school. Combine the complexity of the role, the emotional demands, the nudity and the potential for some serious mockery after the curtain comes down, and you’ve got a tough few weeks!

Although I must admit, my fellow pupils received the play with commendable maturity and serious engagement. Mostly.

Leading man role you've been dying to play: I’m just going to say it... Hamlet..
Leading lady role you'd like a shot at: I would love to play Blanche DuBois or Medea. Medea!
Something about you that surprises people: That I only started acting professionally at age 27.
Career you would want if not a performer: A game ranger?
Three things you can't live without: My wife. Oxygen. Open spaces.
"I'll never understand why…" … society doesn’t value storytellers at least as much as it seems to value merchant bankers.
Words of advice for aspiring performers: Know that you want to be an actor, not a celebrity, and then appreciate failure. Oh, and consciously try to put aside ego in favour of the story.