Tony-winner Ruben Santiago-Hudson is an actor, writer and director best known for his work in the plays of August Wilson. After a Broadway debut in Jelly’s Last Jam, he earned his Tony for Seven Guitars and went on to star in Gem of the Ocean. His biographical play Lackawanna Blues was commissioned by the Public Theater and became an HBO film, directed by George C. Wolfe and starring Emmy winner S. Epatha Merkerson, Mos Def and more. After three seasons on TV’s Castle, Santiago-Hudson is back on Broadway as the patriarch of the affleunt African-American LeVay family in Stick Fly, along with Tracie Thoms, Mekhi Phifer and more. Broadway.com recently chatted with Santiago-Hudson about being back at home on Broadway, his approach to show business and carrying on Wilson's legacy.
When did you get involved with Stick Fly?
About three weeks before we started rehearsal, I got a call from [director] Kenny [Leon] saying "I ain’t heard nothing from you about my offer!” And I’m like, "Offer for what?" I called my agent, who said he wasn’t going to bother me until it was official. So I read the script, I enjoy working with Kenny and it was an opportunity for me to land in a safe spot at home after coming off the Castle fiasco.
What do you mean, fiasco?
To get killed. To get called into the office and told, "We’re putting three bullets in you," when I’m like, "What did I do but come in and do my job?" Man! But anyway. I was really delighted to land at home in New York with a wonderful cast and artistic staff in a really wonderful play that would be kinda groundbreaking for Broadway.
What was your first impression of the play?
I’m a writer, director and actor, so that’s a lot of impressions. It’s a lot of different hats that I have on, so I had to keep eliminating hats ‘til I just got to the actor hat.
Is it hard to separate those elements when you work in so many different artistic capacities?
No. It’s hard to not be critical or see what I think should be done as a director or as a writer. But it’s not hard to take off those hats and dispose of them.
So as an actor, what appealed to you about the character of Joe LeVay?
It’s kind of strange, but what really appealed to me was that I thought the character had a lot of empty corners. My challenge was, can I fill them in emotionally? Can I fill those spaces in intellectually? Can I make this guy whole? Can I say things that aren’t on the page?
You’re working with an amazing ensemble of actors to bring this family to life. Was it an easy mix from day one?
Day one, yes. It was very nice, welcoming, interesting, dynamic group of people, and beautiful in a lot of ways, full of personality and style.
The level of stage experience is quite varied among the cast. As a stage vet and Tony winner, did you find yourself doling out advice?
No, I shut up. I try to lead by example, and that’s a good way of leading and teaching. It’s the way I go about my work, and [my co-stars] have been definitely attuned to that. But I’m a different kind of actor. If the source is there, I’ll get on your nerves saying, "Talk to me Raul Julia, talk to me James Earl Jones, talk to me Mary Alice, talk to me Adolph Caesar."
What is some of the best advice you’ve ever gotten from these people you’ve worked with?
I think the most amazing advice is the simplest: Listen. Always listen. One of the best things was said by [Seven Guitars director] Lloyd Richards. He pointed to the stage and said "What happens to those people up there, happens right there," and he was saying, don’t make what we do on stage for the people in the audience. It’s for us, and they get an opportunity to witness intimate moments in a very public arena. When I direct, I use a lot of Lloyd-isms. My source and my fountain of knowledge was Lloyd, or [director] George Wolfe. No matter what I’m working on, he gets a phone call from me and we discuss it.
Was working with these wonderful directors what inspired you to direct yourself?
August Wilson is the one who told me, "You need to be directing."
Yes, he noticed that I would watch each show from the wings, always watched tech, always watched everything. When he said, "You need to be directing these plays," I said, "Well, who do I need to talk to?" And he looked at me and said, "You’re talking to him." Four months later, I was directing Gem of the Ocean at the McCarter Theatre.
What do you love about Wilson’s work?
The thing that attracts me to him more than any other writer in the world is that we built that family. Kenny [Leon] and I weren’t in the original August Wilson group, but we became the extended family because a lot of that original group is gone. Joe Seneca, Theresa Merritt, Carl Gordon, big Paul Butler, a lot of those people are gone now. So we had to carry this legacy on to the next generation of what we call “Wilsonian Soldiers” to keep that work intact because it’s not so much history as it’s anthropology.
It’s preserving and protecting these depictions of a culture, of people dealing with the ramifications of the systems of this country, whether it was segregation or racism, which still exists in different guises. That’s more than history, it’s anthropology. The smells of my momma’s kitchen, the things in her cabinet, the feel of the fabrics she wore, the way her hat looked when she went to church. How we dress, how we love, how we laugh. It’s different.
Do you still watch every show from the wings?
Oh yes, I do. The show doesn’t start until I fist-pump Scott, the electrician who’s running the board backstage.
Are you the same way in the television world?
Yeah, I’m not a big trailer guy. When they tell me my scene is next it will probably be an hour until they’re ready for me, and in a half hour I go to the set. I’m there. It’s funny, but to be an artist in L.A.—an artist like a stage actor—they’ll laugh at you because it’s not built on that. New York thrives on art and embraces artists. They laugh at me all the time in L.A.
May I ask how you like it out there?
I enjoy L.A., but I put it in perspective. I know what I’m there for: I’m there to make money. I’m there to do my job. I can do it quicker than anybody out there and when we come to the table read, I know my lines, man, because I’m saying 10 lines in a week! And some people look at me like, "Damn, how do you know all this stuff already?"
You’ve done Castle on TV and 27 films, including American Gangster. What has been your best screen experience?
My best experience was definitely Lackawanna Blues, because every day work felt like a family reunion. I was so comfortable with George [Wolfe] directing, I was so comfortable with [S.] Epatha [Merkerson] in the role of Nanny, I was so comfortable with all the actors that had come together to make this a very special event. I was very comfortable with the way HBO handled me and my project about my mother’s life. It was the best experience I’ve ever had. I went to the mountaintop on that one. I cried a lot, laughed a lot, and it cannot be duplicated, I’m sure. If anything comes near it in my life, I’d be tremendously blessed.
See Ruben Santiago-Hudson in Stick Fly at the Cort Theatre.