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Lucky Guy - Broadway

Tom Hanks makes his Broadway debut in Nora Ephron's drama.

Two-Time Tony Nominee Courtney B. Vance on the Roles of His Life, From Fences to Lucky Guy

Two-Time Tony Nominee Courtney B. Vance on the Roles of His Life, From Fences to Lucky Guy
Courtney B. Vance recalls two Tony-nominated roles, a stage matchup with wife Angela Bassett & more.

It’s great to have Courtney B. Vance back on Broadway in the starry ensemble of Nora Ephron’s Lucky Guy. Vance received Tony nominations for his first two Main Stem performances, but he’s been away from the New York stage for more than 20 years, working steadily in film and TV and raising young twins with his wife, actress Angela Bassett. During a recent Role Call conversation with, Vance spoke with fondness of his earliest roles and expressed satisfaction at his Broadway return as a tabloid newspaper editor in Lucky Guy opposite Tom Hanks, “a prince of a man.”

Role That Launched My Career
“When I got out of Yale Drama School, I was completely broke. I got my first film, Hamburger Hill [1987, as Spc. Abraham “Doc” Johnson], in July, just before the pre-Broadway tour of Fences. It was amazing to have my intro into the film world and the theater world already set. I played a medic who was very intense about the black power movement during the [Vietnam] war. It was a juicy role and a horrific shoot in the Philippines during Corazon Aquino’s transition to power. We shot in the countryside, and it was dangerous to drive around without a military guard. The production was bare bones, so when it rained, we sat in the mud. I couldn’t wait to get out of there, but I made lifelong friends: Don Cheadle, Steven Weber, Michael Boatman, Dylan McDermott—it was everyone’s first film.”

Role That Was My Big Break
“I was still in drama school when I was cast in Fences [1987, as Corey Maxson; Best Featured Actor Tony nomination] When I read it, I thought, ‘Great play. They’re going to get some big football guy to play the son,’ so when I saw my name on the callboard, I was in shock. The hardest thing was figuring out what to call [stage dad] James Earl Jones. Everybody called him ‘Jimmy,’ but I couldn’t, so I called him ‘Sir,’ which is what my character did. The play encapsulated a generation gap that was impossible to bridge. This young man didn’t know how great his father was, and they had to go through a break before he could come back home and hear the whole story from his mother. It wasn’t just August Wilson’s writing [that was special]: It was his writing in conjunction with [director] Lloyd Richards’ editing, and pointing him toward the dramatic, because August was a poet. The first six plays won the Tonys and the Pulitzers; they all started out at four or five hours, and Lloyd’s direction helped August pare them down to the essential elements. It’s tragic that their relationship fractured. I think August would have won more [awards] before he passed away if they hadn’t stopped working together.”

Role Was the Most Challenging
“Everybody auditioned for Six Degrees of Separation [1990, as con man Paul; Best Actor Tony nomination] and it came down to James McDaniel, Andre Braugher and myself. [Director] Jerry Zaks went with James, and they opened off-Broadway in this masterpiece. James stepped out to do a TV series, Jerry and I met [about the Broadway transfer] and he said, ‘Let’s do it.’ My character was someone who just wanted a family, which was so heartbreaking. I saw him as improvising everything he said, so I was always on edge. I would tell the stories, and sometimes the lines would go; I would remember the rhythm but I was just speaking gibberish. The cast always thought it was funny, but it was frightening to me. It took me eight months to feel comfortable in the role. Stockard [Channing] was luminous in the play, and the two of us became very close. By the end of the run, a lot of traumatic things had happened, including losing my dad, and that’s when I moved to L.A. and started doing film.”

Role That Was the Biggest Surprise
Lucky Guy is my Broadway comeback. I play Hap Hairston, the editor of Mike McAlary, played by Tom Hanks. We have a contentious relationship because my character made everything McAlary wrote better, but as an editor, he was completely in the background; as McAlary got bigger and bigger, he thought he was doing everything himself. Tom Hanks is a prince of a man, and this show has been the biggest surprise. I didn’t know I would be challenged this much, I didn’t know I would discover what a visionary director George C. Wolfe is, or what an amazing script Nora Ephron wrote. This is a highly technical show, and George ran the rehearsal perfectly and got 14 of us on the same page. None of the actors could have imagined how visually stunning this piece is.”

Role That First Paired Me With My Wife
“My wife [Angela Bassett] and I never worked together until we did John Guare’s adaptation of His Girl Friday [2005, as Walter Burns] at the Guthrie Theatre. He put the movie script and the play The Front Page together, and at the beginning of rehearsals it was 200 pages. Over the course of three weeks, he cut eight pages a day until we were down to 165 pages. I played the Cary Grant role, and she played the Rosalind Russell role [Hildy Johnson]. They’re reporters who used to be lovers, but she’s quitting the business to get married and move to the suburbs and he’s plotting to sabotage the engagement. It’s a slapstick comedy in which they’re talking a mile a minute, and we did it on a thrust stage with complicated blocking. Initially it was the most harrowing nightmare—I barely knew the lines at the first preview—but the audience adored it and we ended up having an absolute blast.”

Role That Was the Most Intense
“I’ve done a lot of movies, but my favorite was Blind Faith [1998, as John Williams]. I played a lawyer, and the middle of three brothers in the 1950s. My older brother, played by Charles Dutton, is in line to become the first black police captain. Suddenly his son gets picked up for murder, and we’re shocked because he was an ideal child, a police cadet. It turns out that the son is gay, and he killed the person in self-defense during a hate crime. Charles Dutton is trying to cover up the fact that his son is gay, and I’m saying, ‘You’ve got to let me defend him.’ It was just a great story, with a great cast, and it should have had a theatrical release, but Showtime wouldn’t release it. Of all the things people have seen me do on film, they always say that this was the most amazing.”

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