Who: Chukwudi Iwuji
Stopped: Outside the Public Theater on Lafayette Street
What are you doing at the Public Theater this afternoon?
I’m in rehearsals for the mobile unit production of Hamlet. I’m playing Hamlet.
Wow! So many actors dream of playing that role. Was it something you’d always wanted to do?
Definitely. Hamlet has always been on the bucket list. Always. And it’s turned out to be a role that has blindsided me in its richness and challenges. Most roles, I know what I’m getting into. This is the first time where I’ve played something that—for all my imagination and all my excitement and the countless productions I’ve seen—has turned out to be entirely different from what I imagined it would be. It’s never happened before; I’ve never experienced that with a character in the past.
What drew you to this production?
Oskar Eustis! I had a sit-down with him ,and when people like that say ‘Come and do Hamlet’, you say yes.
How are you feeling about performing in correctional facilities and homeless shelters?
The mobile unit side of it is very new to me. I don’t know what to expect, but I’ve been told that it’s probably the most honest audience you can hope to have. We talk about art being important and changing lives and being current—we talk about that a lot from a comfortable seat in the theatre. It’s another thing to be in the heart of that—going to perform for people who might not have seen a play before. For me, that creates true communion. The theatre has always been conceptually about communion, but this is actually it.
Are you nervous at all?
I am. There’s pressure to make it a memorable and relevant two hours. I think art, when done best, should always be relevant. With that, comes a desire to be authentic—any performer knows how scary that is. The show isn’t going to be steeped in tradition of what Hamlet should or should not be—it’s about being relevant to these audiences where we’re performing.
What does it mean to you to have someone like Oskar Eustis supporting you?
I don’t think I could have ever pictured sitting in an office with Oskar and him saying ‘Come do Hamlet.’ Or someone like Patricia McGregor [the director] who is so bright, relentless and driven—for her to say she wants to work with me. It’s a balance between wanting to take off on the wings of hubris and staying grounded. It’s no exaggeration to say it was one of the proudest moments of my whole life. And at the same time, it was a very humbling moment. Something so flattering instilled a lot of humility in me, because now I want to give back what I have been offered.
I love your accent! Where are you from?
I’m originally from Nigeria: I lived there until I was ten, then my parents joined the United Nations, and we started traveling all over the world. We first lived in Ethopia, where I went to an American school, and then I went to a boarding school in England. My accent has always been alien.
How did so much traveling shape your concept of ‘home’?
My home is wherever I act. I know that sounds like a bit of a cliché, but I feel like that sort of life makes you comfortable with moving around. You see it as an advantage, and it makes you excited to start new chapters, rather than something to be frightened of. I don’t have a problem living out of a suitcase, but at the same time, I’m a homebody. My favorite place in New York is my couch.