Rob McClure was always told that he resembled silent film star Charlie Chaplin. It wasn't until he put on the tight coat, baggy pants, bowler hat, oversized shoes and tiny mustache — the iconic Chaplin attire — that he noticed the uncanny similarities. Now, following an out-of-town tryout of Christopher Curtis and Thomas Meehan's Charlie Chaplin musical at California's La Jolla Playhouse — as well as a turn in the title role of Where's Charley? for City Center Encores! — McClure returns to Chaplin for Broadway. (It's a job where the Broadway marquee indicates something rare: "Introducing Rob McClure.") In between rehearsals and "Chaplin Boot Camp" — consisting of roller-skating lessons, violin lessons, tightrope-walking lessons and voice lessons — we caught a few minutes with the show's leading man before Broadway performances begin Aug. 21 at the Barrymore Theatre.
Charlie Chaplin is an icon. Where did you begin to create him?
Rob McClure: My initial introduction to him was — this is a funny story… My Aunt Marian, my entire life growing up, told me that I looked like Charlie Chaplin. That didn't really resonate with me when I was younger — I hadn't seen a lot of his films. I knew of him, but I certainly didn't know anything in detail. When this show came around and the auditions were happening — she had passed away about six months before the audition... And, on my way to the final callback, her daughter called me and said, "Hey, we're going through her storage unit. Did you know that she painted a six-foot portrait of Charlie Chaplin? She always said you looked like him. Do you want it?" And, I said, "I'm going to a final callback for a Broadway[-bound] show about Charlie Chaplin," and I booked it. She gave me the painting, and now it's hanging in my house, so it was a strange sort of fateful coming together of moments. [Laughs.] Those [moments] have strangely been happening more and more. When I was doing [the national tour of] Avenue Q, and I left the tour, a card that [my castmate] gave me two years ago was a Charlie Chaplin card, and written on the bottom of it was, "Thank you for being a part of the tour. We'll miss you. I got you this card because you need to play Chaplin on Broadway some day."... Completely random! And, I found it after I had gotten the part and was in rehearsals. It's been a strange, fate-driven road to get here.
But in terms of my process, it started with the movies. I just watched every movie I could get my hands on. What I was really surprised to learn… I expected to watch him and think, "Oh, God, how am I going to fall down like that?" or "How am I going to do that crazy stunt?" or "How am I going to get his walk down?" And, what I very quickly learned was that everyone back then was falling down. The teeny-tiny, romantic nuances really set him apart. The stunts were impressive, the comedy was amazing, but it was the tiny things that he was doing with his eyes or that mustache or the nuances that I quickly became afraid of. I [thought], "Oh! That's the thing that is so specific." So I dove into writing those down and finding what each moment meant. I remember when I was learning the walk — the iconic Tramp shuffle — I noticed that he had little explosions of energy. A shoulder would pop or a knee would kick out, and I thought, "Oh, that's interesting. I want to incorporate some of that into my performance." I [wanted] to find out when and why those little pops [would happen] or if they were random — at first I thought they were random. It wasn't until I watched a moment in the film "Circus," and he gets turned down by a woman that he's had his heart set on, and as he walks away, the shoulder pops and the knee kicks out. I thought, "Oh my God. You know what it is — it's him shaking it off." And, for the first time, I started to develop the physical vocabulary. And, I've read several books on the subject and talked to some clown — and specifically Chaplin — experts. Identifying each of those little ticks specifically was really important because nothing he did was accidental or a throwaway. I quickly learned that everything was a deliberate, amazingly-specific choice.
These ironic moments began to happen before you joined the production at La Jolla Playhouse?
RM: Yeah. I was doing a show at the American Repertory Theater in Boston, and I came [to New York] six Mondays in a row on my day off for another callback and another callback and another callback. [Laughs.] It was very funny, the final callback — I was in New York on a Monday at five o'clock, and I auditioned, and they said, "Okay, before you jump on your train tomorrow back to Boston, can you come in at 10 AM and have a two-minute Chaplin-y thing ready?" [Laughs.] I was like, "Oh my God, what does that mean?" So I panicked, and I went home, and I was in my bed at 2:30 in the morning, and my wife turned to me and said, "Well, why don't you at least bring music, so that you're not hung out to dry with the silence of the room?" And, I went, "Oh, that's good." So I started flipping through the classical music on my phone, and I had "Flight of the Bumblebee," and I thought, "Oh, okay. I'm going to play 'Flight of the Bumblebee.' I'm going to bring a fly swatter. I'm going to fight an invisible fly and lose." And, I fell asleep. And then I woke up in the morning, put my iPod in, got on the train, and people thought I was insane with a fly swatter and my iPod on, practicing [this idea] that I had come up with several hours before! [Laughs.] But the first time I did it full-out was in the room. I think it was in the right spirit of something that [Chaplin] would have come up with. And, I think that's important to the show — finding things that are specifically in his spirit. We don't want to just put his movies on stage because his movies are so special as films. [It's] finding the theatricality and finding the spirit of them, so that we can translate them into theatrical moments that are specifically Chaplin.
Chaplin was quoted as saying that once he put on the mustache and the clothes, the character of the Tramp took over. Do you feel the same?
RM: Yeah, it's very interesting. With all these people saying, "You look like Charlie Chaplin," I never really thought [that] until they started putting the stuff on me. I was in the room, and I had the coat — the coat is too tight, and I feel it stretch across my chest — and I put on the pants, and I've got these huge, baggy pants and these gigantic shoes that don't fit, and then I got the hat on, and I'm going, "Wow, that's really close," and they put the freakin' mustache on me, and it kind of took my breath away. I thought, "Wow." It's kind of startling. I would definitely agree with that — no matter how much physical work I do — when the costume goes on, suddenly everything makes sense. What I think Chaplin was going for were the opposites — the huge shoes, the tiny hat, the big pants, the tight vest. Playing with opposites begins to define how and why he moves the way he moves. And, I can't help but feel that. It sort of informs the movement.
Did you ever study mime?
RM: No, I didn't. I've always been physical. I loved sports growing up. I was never specifically a dancer or anything like that. I certainly enjoy doing pantomime-y things, but I didn't have any specific training in it. And, what's interesting is that the subtlety with which he used... So many times we think of mime, and we think of these extraordinary facial expressions and these blatant uses of face and body to tell the plot, and there was nothing blatant about what he was doing. It's amazing that he was able to tell the amount of story he was able to tell silently without playing charades in front of us. Sometimes, when you watch those old Mack Sennett "Keystone" movies, people's performances depended on the size of their eyebrows and the size of their mustaches and doing these ridiculous huge expressions, and [Chaplin] came along and changed the game. For me, it's almost trying to achieve the same simplicity of playing a scene with contemporary dialogue, but finding that silently.
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