After earning the nickname “Sexypants” as our seventh commander-in-chief in the outrageous rock musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Benjamin Walker delivered a heroic performance as yet another president onscreen in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. But luckily for Broadway audiences, this theater vet didn't stay away from the stage for long: Walker is co-starring with Tony winner Scarlett Johansson in the latest revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Tennessee Williams’ Southern-soaked American classic. Walker plays Brick Pollitt, the despondent, hard-drinking former golden boy grieving for his high school pal and fending off the advances of his sexy wife, Maggie. Broadway.com recently chatted with Walker about getting intimate with Johansson, being clad in only a towel night after night and what happened to “Ghost Skipper.”
How familiar were you with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof before you signed on to the production?
I studied it in [Juilliard] but I hadn’t read it in a few years, and I hadn’t seen the movie since I was a kid. I hadn’t seen a production of it other than people working on it at school, and I think it’s been very helpful that I came in with fresh eyes. It was nice to come with a blank slate.
What made you want to be a part of this revival?
Rob Ashford and Scarlett Johansson. With those two, the play could have been toilet paper and I would have been interested.
You and Scarlett have to establish such a complex and intimate connection early on in the play. What has it been like working with her?
We talk about that connection every day. Brick and Maggie have a very complicated relationship, but I think every love relationship has those layers. Luckily, we have the brilliant poetry of Tennessee Williams to shepherd us through it. Scarlett is fantastic. She’s highly intelligent, very funny and a wonderful scene partner. Maggie has this great line, “I've gone through this – hideous! – transformation, become – hard!” Scarlett is courageous enough to allow herself to drift from being attractive to find that place in herself that is desperate, and what’s ironic is that it just makes her more attractive. I think she’s fearless. The woman’s got a Tony, she could do movies in Hollywood until she’s blue in the face, but for some reason she’s back here trying to tackle one of the most difficult parts written for a woman her age. I have to hand it to her.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a play about sex, lies, greed and alcohol addiction. How do you relate to these characters?
Well, that’s what I think is great about Tennessee Williams. The play continues to hold up. These are issues that we all struggle with all the time.
The role of Brick, on paper, seems like a reactive part and challenging to pull off. Is it a thankless part?
That has not occurred to me. But, you know, the play is called Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, it’s not called Brick on a Hot Tin Roof [laughs]. That ought to tip you off right there, but I have Tennessee Williams’ text. There’s no stone unturned, and if you pay attention to what he wrote, in the dialogue and in his essays about it, it never occurred to me that Brick is a thankless part.
So much is required of you physically in this role. The play is almost three hours long, and you’re hopping around on crutches and drinking throughout. How do you do it each night?
It’s exhausting, particularly now that it’s so cold outside. I have to take care of myself and keep myself healthy. I have a wonderful group of actors around me that really helps me sustain it, particularly Ciaran Hinds [Big Daddy]. You can be as exhausted as any human being on the planet, and as soon as you lock eyes with him, it’s the 50s, your name is Brick and you’re in Mississippi whether you like it or not.
Are you sick yet of being asked about being shirtless and only wearing a towel?
[Laughs] No! People haven’t asked me about it as much as you’d think.
What about the New York Magazine review that was almost exclusively about the towel?
What? You’re kidding. It better be a good review! Being in shape is the least you have to do for the job.
Do you have a strong opinion about what the relationship between Brick and Skipper was?
What can you tell us about it?
Not really anything, and I’ll tell you why. Those private things, for me as an actor and for each individual audience member, need to stay private. That’s what’s great about the play. Everybody comes in, and they have to figure it out themselves. If I tell you and you print it, then that takes the fun out of it. You have an opinion of what you think happened, but if I tell you then you’re going to compare what you felt to what I thought and it’s all screwed up. Where’s the fun in that? If a magician tells you how he did his trick, it’s not magical any more.
Why do you think the 1958 movie smoothed over that relationship?
They made that movie for a specific time for a specific group of actors. You can’t judge someone else’s work, but you don’t have to agree with it every time.
Early previews of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof featured Jordan Dean portraying “Ghost Skipper,” but that role has since been eliminated. Has that changed the dynamic?
Well, of course, we all miss having Jordan Dean around. But it has changed it because, healthy or unhealthy, it was a nice safety net to have somebody there as Skipper. And now that he’s gone, it almost made it worse because we all really feel a literal absence, which we would have anyway, but it’s just an extra bit of sadness that enriches everyone’s work. From the beginning, Rob was open with this [being] an idea we’d like to try as an experiment in understanding the play better and in getting everyone on the same page with who Skipper might be. We had very thorough discussions.
You’re married to Mamie Gummer, the daughter of Meryl Streep. Do you feel like you’ve had to become a more private person by marrying into a such a famous family?
It is interesting: People ask about my mother-in-law but they don’t ask about my mom! I find that hugely offensive [laughs]. I get it. I have the luxury to be surrounded by wonderful, highly intelligent and talented women. You’re not going to hear me complain about the side effects of it.
What is coming up next for you?
I’d like to do more theater. Tell somebody to call me up and give me an offer. I wouldn’t mind doing a little more singing and dancing, but I’m happy with health insurance. Do you have any ideas? I’ll definitely be doing some stand-up. We’re going to kick Find The Funny into high gear at Joe’s Pub. We’ve taken a little hiatus so I could focus on this, but we’ll get back to that shortly.
See Benjamin Walker in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Richard Rodgers Theatre.