Robert Sean Leonard’s Stage Presence
When Robert Sean Leonard steps onto the stage at The Old Globe as "Pygmalion"s Henry Higgins, he brings with him a wealth of acting experience from film, television and of course, the stage.
The classic George Bernard Shaw play, which was the basis for the 1964 musical "My Fair Lady" with Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn, chronicles speech professor Higgins' attempts to transform cockney-accented, flower-selling Eliza Doolittle into a lady of society.
For Leonard, his love of the craft began at age 10, although he was no stranger to the workings of the theatre world, as he told The Rage Monthly about the genesis of his acting career.
"As a kid, my mom painted sandwich board signs for a local non- union theatre company," Leonard explained. "I used to help out in the summer; I worked backstage and slowly I fell in love with it. Whenever they had a part for a kid, they would use me. When I was 14, I had my first official job in New York, I fell in
love with it and never looked back."
In 1989, Leonard made a big splash in the film "Dead Poet's Society" as Neil Perry, a young man who wanted nothing more than to act, much to the horror of his staunch father. His performance as the teenaged prep school student, who was schooled by Robin Williams, was filled with pathos that was definitely relatable to a gay audience-especially the relationship between his character and Ethan Hawke's Todd Anderson.
"I've always seen the validity in it [the gay subtext], but it's complicated subject matter," he said. "It's a bigger subject; it's a boy who falls in love with something impossible to attain. You can watch it and have it affect you, as we all have our struggles. I'm sure if Tom Schulman and Peter Weir wanted it to be a movie about homosexuality, they would have done a great job with it," Leonard stated. "To me it's all the same, it's just love."
He continued to carve out his celluloid career with a starring role in 1993's "Swing Kids," which was set during pre-World War II Germany and focused on a group of youths who escape into the American swing music phenomenon of the time. The movie amassed a cult following, which surprised Leonard, who was unaware of its status as such. He wished the project had featured a little more meat on the bone story-wise, "I like 'Swing Kids 'a lot, it had a remarkable script," Leonard reflected. "It was a true story of a huge youth movement to- wards swing music and dancing in the '30s. I thought it was interesting with them following their hearts. I wish the film was a little more complicated; I felt it was too black and white, oversimplified."
One project that definitely was better-received by the actor and critics came about with the 1997 TV movie "In the Gloaming," in which he gave a performance as an AIDS patient.
"I take from that film that you don't really see people in your life, until it's too late," he said. "I'm very proud of that film. I think that Christopher Reeve did a great job, and Glenn Close and David Strathairn were phenomenal."
Leonard receives raves for his role on the series "House" as Dr. James Wilson, who added a much-needed balance to Hugh Laurie's Dr. Gregory House. He finds the bromance between the two characters to be a "kick" and he "loves it." "I think the relationship between House and Wilson sets the show apart," he stated. "Our relationship was something new. I believe that while there were women on the show, Wilson is the love of his life; they were the loves of each other's lives, just not in a physical way. Such a spectrum, that word, love."
An aspect of performing live before an audience that also falls under the category of love is in the storytelling through his craft. "There are many things I like about that type of performance. I like telling a story, that's what it feels like," he recanted. "You know that it's your job to these people and to Shaw. George Bernard Shaw is a hero to me and I have a picture of him on my dressing room mirror."
When he brings Shaw's character of Henry Higgins alive on the stage, there is definitely the presence of other actors who have played the role before him. This has the actor experiencing a wee bit of pre- show jitters. "I'm anxious about it," he said. "But, that will change as the weeks go by; it will get better. It's a big role, an important role that everyone knows and you are behind the start line in that respect. It's easier to play a role no one has seen before."
Perhaps something that may not have been seen before by the audience, is the play itself. But Leonard feels it will still be a story that will ring true for patrons of The Old Globe.
"I think it will resonate very well," Leonard replied. "If a play's done well, it's a fun, great experience. Right now it's a very smart story about two people circling and trying to figure each other out; and I enjoy that."
"Pygmalion" plays at The Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park from Saturday, January 12 through Sunday, February 17. For tickets and more information call 619.234.5623 or go to oldglobe.org.