As Scar, the jealous brother of King Mufasa, The Lion King’s Gareth Saxe sings out a vicious warning to “Be Prepared.” After turns in such Shakespeare classics as Hamlet and Richard III and the Broadway revival of Harold Pinter’s dark Homecoming, Saxe himself is well prepared to take on the Bard-inspired Disney classic. Broadway.com caught up with the actor before a recent performance (in his pre-transformation street clothes) to hear his roarings on playing a villain, acting for child-heavy audiences and competing with Jude Law.
Is it fun to play the bad guy in The Lion King?
I was joking with my agent that [uses a sarcastic, aloof English accent] “It’s the most subtle piece of work I’ve done in my entire life.” And he laughed, but said a very astute thing: “It’s the guy!” Scar’s the archetypal villain who twists his moustache and says, “You must pay the rent.” I think sometimes we miss that fun in American theater because we have such tradition of “realism,” so to go back and just rob every villain has been great.
Any villains in particular you were inspired by?
I watched everything I could get my hands on from Alan Rickman. I think he’s so hilarious and dry. I watched Michael Gambon do a lot of things too. The way the role is written is very British. It’s slipping the knife in and being snide while you’re smiling at someone. I’ve been having fun thinking of it as this Richard III/Boogeyman/Claudius thing, while keeping the believability and danger intact. My dad studied elocution with some crazy teacher in the 50s, and he has this affected accent—so much so that when friends called my house, they’d say, “We didn’t know your dad was British.” My cousins came to see the show a few weeks ago and they’re like, “Oh, you’re doing your dad!”
A lot of young children come to see The Lion King. Do they understand you’re an actor, or are they truly terrified?
Generally when they’re past seven or eight years old, they get the fun of the bad guy and aren’t threatened, but some of the younger kids who come backstage won’t want to talk to me. So I have to convince them that I’m not actually Scar and I’m a nice person who won’t try to throw them off a cliff. I usually try to deflect right away and ask, “Hey, do you want to see Zazu?” When I was a kid, my favorite thing to do was go backstage and try to do the math of “Oh, you played that guy.”
Where did you go backstage as a kid?
My aunt is an actress in Minneapolis. When I was about six I met Lucille Ball, which was tremendous. I’d been watching I Love Lucy, but I didn’t connect that this harridan old woman was her [laughs]. Not that she was harridan, but she [speaks in smoky, raspy voice] had a voice like this. It’s like meeting Elaine Stritch. You’re just like, “Wow.”
Your last Broadway gig was The Homecoming, alongside Ian McShane, Michael McKean, Raul Esparza and Eve Best. What are you memories of that run?
I had a brilliant time with that company. My whole job was not to fall apart onstage because they would do things, within the context of the show, that were ridiculously funny. I still keep in touch with a lot of them. It’s quite possibly Pinter’s best work because of what it does to an audience. We got the same reactions, from what I’ve read, as when the show premiered 40 years ago. A lot of people would come up to us enraged. We did an Actors Fund performance where we stood out in the lobby at the end and collected money, and people would throw money in the bucket and berate us!
You also starred in Hamlet last year [at the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey] at the same time as the Broadway mounting with Jude Law.
The guys playing Bernardo and Polonius would come up to me backstage and unsheathe their blades and shout, “Jude Law sent me! Die!” So there was a running gag happening the whole way through it. Then at the end, they gave me a Playbill that was signed, “Meet me at a grave, Jude Law.” I thought it was a joke, but one of the interns had gone to see it [on Broadway] and got him to sign it for me. It was amazing to tackle that role.
The Lion King has elements of Hamlet, except now you’re on the other side of the story.
I see Claudius’ point much better now. You start to hate that insufferable little prince!