STAGE TO SCREENS: Chats with Hinton (“Idlewild,” “Dreamgirls”) Battle and Boyd (“Angela’s Eyes”) Gaines

This month we chat with two three-time Tony Award winners about their latest screen (ad)ventures: Hinton Battle, choreographer of the new film “Idlewild” (and soon to be seen in the movie version of “Dreamgirls”) and Boyd Gaines, cast as a young FBI agent’s father in the Lifetime series “Angela’s Eyes” (Sundays, 10 PM ET).

From Top: Hinton Battle; Boyd Gaines in Angela's Eyes.
From Top: Hinton Battle; Boyd Gaines in Angela's Eyes.

Please note that the column’s name has changed from Channeling Theatre.

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It’s a busy time for Hinton Battle, who thrice has won Tonys as Best Featured Actor in a Musical: Sophisticated Ladies (1981), The Tap Dance Kid (1984) and Miss Saigon (1991). He choreographed the Outkast movie “Idlewild,” which hip hops into theatres in late August; he’s choreographer and co-director (with Christopher Bond) for Evil Dead: The Musical, which starts performances Oct. 2 and opens Nov. 1 at New World Stages; he’s in the film version of “Dreamgirls,” which comes out at the end of the year; and he’s “starting a school for kids in Harlem, where they can study dance and vocals — at no cost.” But if you think all of that’ll rattle Battle, think again. The man loves what he does and does what he loves.

In fact, that’s the way in which he became involved with “Idlewild.” Explains Battle, “It happened while I was in the throes of doing Dracula [rehearsing for the role of Van Helsing in the 2004 Frank Wildhorn Broadway musical]. I love doing choreography, so I went ‘ Dracula . . . Movie?’ I chose my love. Des McAnuff [who directed Dracula] was really good about it. [ Stephen McKinley Henderson replaced Battle.] So, I choreographed the movie and worked with Bryan Barker, who created, wrote and directed it.”

“Idlewild” stars the hip-hop duo Outkast, which consists of Antwan “Big Boi” Patton and Andre “Andre 3000” Benjamin. Set during Prohibition in Idlewild, GA., the story involves a speakeasy and the people who run it. Rooster (Patton) manages the club and is also its lead performer; his partner Percival (Benjamin) doubles as the club’s piano player. While Rooster wards off gangsters, Percival struggles to please both his girlfriend (Paula Patton) and his father ( Ben Vereen). Among the cast are Cicely Tyson, Ving Rhames, Patti LaBelle, Terrence Howard and Macy Gray.

Says Battle, “The club is called Church, and all the dances happen there.” He describes the numbers as “a mix between hip hop and Busby Berkeley. I worked with over a hundred dancers. We shot it in Wilmington, North Carolina.” Does he have a favorite dance? “Bowtie, a six-minute, high-energy number. I put hip hop and swing together, and called it ‘swop.’ It was a learning experience for a lot of the dancers. They were asked to do things they were not accustomed to doing — and also to document it on film for the rest of their lives. [Laughs]

“I rehearsed [the dancers] as if we were doing a Broadway show. It was like boot camp. We shot ‘Bowtie’ at three o’clock in the morning — and they kicked booty.” Do retakes make movie choreography different from creating dances for the stage? “They do and they don’t. It’s always nice to do another take. But my background is in theatre, so every take has to be perfect, a hundred and twenty percent. You never know which take they’re going to use in editing.”

Battle, the dancer, succeeded Cleavant Derricks in Dreamgirls on Broadway, playing James “Thunder” Early, which remains his favorite role. “You can be wild, scream, yell, and then drop your pants and have a good time. [Laughs] It was cool. Michael Bennett [who directed and choreographed] and Michael Peters [co-choreographer] came in and sort of re-crafted the role for me because I was a dancer. I loved the show, and I said, ‘I want to be involved in the movie; I don’t care how.’ [He plays Wayne.] Instead of the young buck, I’m [portraying] an older man.”

Eddie Murphy plays Early in the film. Did he consult at all with Battle? “No, he has his own take on it. It’s really cast well. Beyonce [Knowles as Deena] is fantastic! Jamie Foxx [Curtis Taylor Jr.] is great! I loved working with him. I’m pretty much his right-hand guy in the movie. Danny Glover [as Marty Madison] is in it. It’s a great cast.”

In addition to Knowles, the other title roles are played by Jennifer Hudson (Effie), Sharon Leal (Michelle), and Caroline, or Change Tony winner Anika Noni Rose (Lorrell). The original Lorrell, Loretta Devine, has a role, and John Lithgow plays a character not in the original.

Bill Condon directed and co-wrote the screenplay with the musical’s book writer Tom Eyen, who also wrote the lyrics to Henry Krieger’s music. “Seeing Henry Krieger again was great,” notes Battle. “I hadn’t seen him since Tap Dance Kid,” the 1984 musical that began and ended Battle’s tap dancing career. “Shortly after we opened, they posted a closing notice. I called the creative staff and the principals, and asked everybody if they’d be willing to take a pay cut. We kept it running for awhile, and eventually it became a hit.”

Born in Neubraecke, Germany, where his career-soldier father was stationed, Battle accompanied his family to the U.S. when he was four. As a child, he used to watch old musicals on TV (“‘Singin’ in the Rain’ and a lot of others”), and was inspired by dancers like “Ann Miller, the Nicholas Brothers and Sammy Davis Jr.” As an adult, he got to meet “quite a few of them: Gene Kelly and Sammy Davis and the Nicholas Brothers. I worked with Harold Nicholas in Sophisticated Ladies in Los Angeles. That was nice. To stand in the wings and watch that man jump off a table and into a split was really something.”

His first professional job was “ Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C.” After his Broadway debut as the Scarecrow in The Wiz, Battle was added to the cast of Dancin’. “I’d done it on the road, and they put me in on Broadway.”

A Tony nomination for Sophisticated Ladies surprised him. “It was such a small role. When I won, I thought they’d made a mistake, but I wasn’t giving it back. [Laughs] It was also a surprise when I won for Miss Saigon because the role was mostly singing. To put yourself in another light is always scary. Winning that was really nice. It not only was saying the work was good, but also that I’d accepted a challenge.”

Following Saigon, Battle went to Los Angeles “to see what other talents I had. That were a lot of things I wanted to do that were easier to do out there. It opened a lot of opportunities for me. I did some choreography, some teaching, some acting. I went back to school and studied television at UCLA.”

Chicago, in which he took over the role of Billy Flynn in 1998, marks Battle’s most recent Broadway experience. “They added a few steps for me at the end of ‘Razzle Dazzle.’”

During 2001 Battle starred in three television ventures: He played Sweet in the musical episode (“Once More, with Feeling”) of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”; he was Pete in “Those Old Broads,” which featured Shirley MacLaine, Debbie Reynolds, Joan Collins and Elizabeth Taylor; and he portrayed Bill Robinson in “Child Star: The Shirley Temple Story” (which he also choreographed). A highlight of the picture was his dancing as “Bojangles” Robinson with the young Shirley (expertly played by Ashley Rose Orr).

He’s looking forward to working on Evil Dead: The Musical, based on the 1980’s Sam Raimi horror films, and is very excited about his projects for the Hinton Battle Theatre Lab. “I’m trying to give back to the community that’s been so supportive of me, and give opportunities to young talent. We have internships for new playwrights, and I’m working with Raven Kane and David Campbell on the kids’ school, which starts August 1.” And, concludes Hinton Battle, “It culminates with the kids coming to the benefit screening of ‘Idlewild.’”

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Boyd Gaines’ three Tonys are each in separate categories and were won in different decades: Best Featured Actor in a Play ( The Heidi Chronicles, 1989), Best Actor in a Musical ( She Loves Me, 1994) and Best Featured Actor in a Musical ( Contact, 2000). Reminded that there remains only the Best Actor in a Play category, the self-effacing actor (who’s not too interested in awards) replies, “Don’t hold your breath.”

What attracted Gaines to “Angela’s Eyes” and the role of Colin Anderson, an FBI agent’s father who has served 15 years in prison on charges of treason? “It’s an unusual situation. The man’s been in jail a long time, essentially in solitary confinement, and he’s trying to reconnect with his daughter [played by Abigail Spencer] whom he hasn’t seen in many years. I thought that it was an inherently dramatic situation.”

The July 14 New York Times review of the “Angela’s Eyes” premiere observed, “The estimable Boyd Gaines makes an appearance as [Angela’s] father.” As we speak, production, which takes place in Toronto, is midway through the tenth of 13 episodes, in half of which the actor appears. Thus far, claims Gaines, it’s been “a very enjoyable experience. The people are all very nice — terrific to work with. And I’ve done almost all my scenes with Abigail Spencer, whom I’m crazy about.”

Previously, his series work included (from 1981 to ’84) the role of Mark Royer, the dental student who marries Valerie Bertinelli’s character in “One Day at a Time,” and (in 1986) the recurring role of Jim Perkins, “the abusive, alcoholic husband of Michele Greene, on ‘L.A. Law’.” He also portrayed a preacher in six episodes of a Dolly Parton sitcom that never saw the light of day. “Thank God!” he exclaims. “Dolly was great to work with, but I can’t say for publication what kind of mess [the series, shot in 1994] was.”

How important is TV and/or film work in maintaining a stage career? “I’d say very important,” declares Gaines. “There are certain situations in the theatre that, if you don’t have a high television or film profile, it can hurt your opportunities. I’ve been excluded from several things because of that. Sometimes, theatre credits can prove the least important. [Producers for] a lot of Broadway shows just think box office, and it’s a reality that stars can sell tickets.”

Gaines does not enjoy seeing himself in TV and films. “I’m not a particularly big fan of my own work,” he tells me. Theatre, he continues, “is easy, because you don’t have to see it — although when you know you’re not very good in something, theatre can be the most painful. You have to do it eight times a week. There are certain parts where you’re just poorly cast. With the best intentions on everyone’s part, you can just be bad in something.

“When I open a show, for self-protection, I put a message on my answering machine: ‘If you’re calling about the reviews, I don’t read them, and I’d appreciate it if you don’t mention them.’ So many times people used to call and say, ‘Are you okay?,’ or, ‘I disagree. I think you’re wonderful.’ And it was with a certain amount of glee in their voices. There are people out there who want to put the digs in. Sometimes, they’re other actors, which is most shocking.

“‘Theatre Ethics’ was the name of a class that a producer taught when I was in school [Juilliard]. He reminded us of things we already knew: the ethics of being on time and being prepared. He also told us, ‘If you’re in a rehearsal room [with other actors], either watch or leave. Don’t talk to a buddy. The actor who’s working is going to think: Boy, I really stink. Don’t read the newspaper. The actor thinks: This is so boring. I’d be reading a newspaper, too.’

“And he spoke about backstage ethics: ‘Don’t go backstage if you’re not going to say something positive. Don’t go backstage with a long face. Say thank you, and that you had a great time — and leave.’

“At a party once, one of the guests, a psychologist or a psychiatrist, was saying, ‘Essentially, an actor’s training is about being sensitive, but the business teaches you to develop a certain thickness to the skin — to survive the disappointments. You’re constantly walking a tightrope.’

“Someone else said, ‘An actor has to develop a certain ego-strength. The narcissistic side of your personality has to be strong enough to want to go out and do it in the first place, but if there’s too much development, you’re not sensitive anymore.’ No one ever said it would be easy. No one puts a gun to your head. Any artist — writer, painter, performing artist, whatever — has a topsy-turvy life. “An actor faces constant rejection. For every working actor, there are 20 others who would like to have your job. To have any kind of career where you genuinely care about what you’re doing is difficult. If, at the end of the day, you’re able to not think about your work, that’s an easier life than being obsessed about it.”

Would he ever want to trade acting for a different career? “Oh, sometimes, I would. There are a lot of times that I wish I’d be happier doing something else.” Fortunately, he has a happy home life with his actress-wife Kathleen McNenny and their eight-year-old daughter Leslie, “a very dramatic young lady,” says her loving dad.

Genial, Georgia-born Gaines has two older sisters. He experienced “a gypsy childhood,” attending a dozen grammar schools, because his father was in sales and the family often moved due to his work. As a high-school senior in California, Gaines took drama as an elective. “I got some satisfaction from acting and decided to pursue it. In college it became sort of a whirlwind romance that has since turned into a long-term marriage.”

While in his junior year at Juilliard, he had one of the leads in a production of Spring Awakening. Recalls Gaines, “It received a rave from Mel Gussow in the Times, and Joe Papp asked us to do it at the Public,” thus marking his Off-Broadway debut while still a student.

His first job as an Equity member was in the Roundabout’s 1979 production of A Month in the Country, in a cast that included Philip Bosco, Tammy Grimes, Amanda Plummer, Farley Granger and Jerome Kilty. Following were three plays at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), one at the Manhattan Theatre Club and a season at the Guthrie. He received a 1980 Theatre World Award for Month and his BAM work. Then it was off to Los Angeles for movies and TV.

Over the years he’s appeared in several films, including “Fame” (his 1980 debut), “Porky’s,” “The Sure Thing,” “Heartbreak Ridge” and “I’m Not Rappaport,” but Gaines insists, “I think I’m a really lousy film actor.”

Written by his friend and Juilliard colleague Wendy Wasserstein, The Heidi Chronicles brought Gaines to Broadway and earned him his first Tony. Among those he thanked in his 1989 acceptance speech were Victor Garber (“for not taking this part”), the playwright, family, friends and Joan Allen (Heidi) who, he noted, “makes us all look wonderful.”

Aubrey Piper was the role he played in the Roundabout’s 1992 production of The Show Off. He has since appeared in four other Roundabout shows: She Loves Me, Company, Cabaret (with Gaines succeeding John Benjamin Hickey as Clifford Bradshaw, marking his first time as a replacement, “which is like catching a moving train”) and Twelve Angry Men. All but Cabaret were directed by Scott Ellis, who once told this writer, “I think Boyd can do anything.”

She Loves Me marked Gaines’ Broadway musical debut. As Georg Nowak, he received his second Tony Award. John Simon praised Gaines for his “genuine sparkle and judicious imitation of Jimmy Stewart” (who starred in the 1940 movie “The Shop Around the Corner,” upon which the musical is based). Observes Gaines, “The [show’s] book has several aspects, or traps, that are Jimmy Stewart-like, and I didn’t avoid them. I stammer a bit in real life, and people will say at times, ‘You remind me of Jimmy Stewart.’ I take it as a compliment.” (It would be wonderful if someone were to produce a revival of Harvey, starring Gaines as Elwood P. Dowd, the role that Stewart played twice on Broadway and in the 1950 movie version.)

In the Irish Rep’s 1997 production of Major Barbara, Gaines was cast as Adolphus, opposite Melissa Errico. His third Tony-winning role, Michael Wylie in Contact, required him to learn choreography. “The dancing frightened me; it was intimidating,” admits Gaines, who has high praise for Susan Stroman, and was pleased that the part did not require him to sing. “I’m not really a singer,” he notes.

Due to the illness of his father, Jim, Gaines left Contact early (in March 2002). “I wanted to spend as much time as I could with him.” His dad died in June 2002. Boyd’s mother, Ida, lives in California, “and is well.”

During the summer of 2004, at Williamstown, he starred as Lou Nuncle, opposite Marian Seldes, in Terrence McNally’s Dedication, or the Stuff of Dreams, directed by Scott Ellis. “I had a terrific time,” Gaines states.

“Scott withdrew, and they brought in a new director, who wanted to recast [some parts], and that was perfectly understandable.” (When the play opened Off-Broadway in August 2005, the lead was played by Nathan Lane.)

Only the happiest memories are connected to Twelve Angry Men, in which Gaines played Juror #8 (the Henry Fonda role in the 1957 film). The cast, including Philip Bosco, John Pankow, Peter Friedman and Tom Aldredge, got along really well. “We were an ensemble — onstage and off. It was a terrific experience, as good as it gets.”

Next came Off-Broadway’s Bach at Leipzig in which he played Johann Friedrich Fasch. “That was another wonderful group of actors. I loved the play; I think that the playwright [Itamar Moses] is incredibly talented.”

Which roles have given Gaines the most satisfaction?

The Double Bass [a one-man Off-Broadway play] and Hamlet [which he performed at Baltimore’s Center Stage]. The Heidi Chronicles, She Loves Me, Contact and Twelve Angry Men also hold a certain satisfaction for me, although I was never [completely] satisfied with my work in them.”

For theatre, he has “a bunch of irons in the fire,” including “one that I’ve been asked to do at the end of this coming season. They’ve announced the show — but not me with it, so at the moment. . . [Laughs]”

Meanwhile, Gaines may be seen in “Angela’s Eyes,” and he may be heard on books on tape, which he calls “my day job.” His latest assignment is Ernest Hemingway. “Simon and Schuster are doing all the Hemingway works. I did ‘Across the River and into the Trees,’ and next I’m doing ‘Death in the Afternoon.’” Not only is Boyd Gaines one for the books, but also he’s among our finest actors.

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Michael Buckley also writes for TheaterMania.