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Robert Sean Leonard on Wrestling the Ghost of Gregory Peck in a London Stage Version of To Kill a Mockingbird

Robert Sean Leonard on Wrestling the Ghost of Gregory Peck in a London Stage Version of To Kill a Mockingbird
Robert Sean Leonard in 'To Kill a Mockingbird'
'Every father in the world wants his son to grow up to be Atticus Finch.'

It’s been 22 years since Robert Sean Leonard last appeared on stage in London as George Gibbs in Our Town. Half a lifetime later, the 44-year-old star of TV’s House is back in town prepping to play Alabama lawyer Atticus Finch in Christopher Sergel’s stage version of To Kill a Mockingbird. Timothy Sheader’s production of the play, based on the Harper Lee classic, is set to run from May 16 through June 15 in the alfresco environs of the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park. caught up with Tony winner Leonard to talk about acting outdoors, the specter of Gregory Peck and the role he would love to play on Broadway next season.

It’s hard to believe more than 20 years have passed since you did Our Town, here—and now you’re back in an equally iconic American title.
What’s interesting is that I got the feeling Our Town wasn’t especially well known in England, whereas everyone here seems to know To Kill a Mockingbird, from construction workers to photographers! It’s a beloved book and film in the States but not a beloved stage production, while I get the feeling that [Mockingbird] is almost like the Our Town of England: Everybody seems to know it.

That’s surely due in part to the enduring popularity here of the Gregory Peck film.
Tell me about it! Everyone’s been asking whether I’m worried about the British weather, but if the prospect of wrestling the ghost of Gregory Peck in front of 1,200 people doesn’t scare you more than the rain, then you’re just confused! [Laughs.] I’m not counting on a great number of people being unaware of Gregory Peck’s performance.

So, how do you deal with those memories of Peck as Atticus Finch?
I’m the first to say that it’s towering. “Perfect” is an overused word, but it is a pretty flawless performance. If someone says when they see the ad, “Why would anyone try to remake that role?” I would be the first to agree. The only thing I can say is that stage is different from film, so I think this is worth exploring. It could be a worthwhile and moving theatrical piece.

I assume you’re one of the few Americans in the production. Does that feel odd, given the material?
I am the only American! [Laughs.] If this were another play, it might feel strange, but I think with this play it’s okay, especially since Atticus Finch is such an almost deliberately removed character. That might actually work for the piece. When I first talked to Tim [Sheader, the director], I said, “I hope you’re not looking to explore Atticus very much,” by which I meant that I don’t think we need to seek out the dark underbelly of the character. In my view, he should be what Harper Lee presents him as: a single father with this steadfast, morally upright perspective on life who would have presented that face to the world. It’s not like playing Hamlet!

Have you done any particular preparation for the role?
I was able to go to the costume warehouse at 20th-Century Fox in L.A. to pull a suit from 1935 because I thought, “I just can’t just walk into the rehearsal room wearing jeans and a T-shirt.” I don’t mean to be all Daniel Day-Lewis about it, but we have three sets of children for Equity reasons, and I thought it was important that from the moment they saw me, I was wearing a three-piece suit with a watch chain. I wear it every day to work with three different shirts and ties and I think it helps the kids. I also went to the Bronx and got them all Yankees caps, which is essential to where I come from [laughs].

You’ve got two daughters of your own. Do you think either of them might one day make a good Scout [the feisty daughter of Atticus]?
My wife would love to hear you say that! The truth is, it’s hard to tell at the moment since one is a baby and the other is four. But the older one does know two things about England: that there is a queen who lives in a castle and that it’s an island surrounded by very cold water. As far as her playing Scout someday, that reminds me of when I said to my father recently, “Do you really want to see this?” And he replied, “Every father in the world wants his son to grow up to be Atticus Finch.”

So, are you prepared to perform the play outdoors, given London's unpredictable weather?
Oh yeah! I looked at the statistics for last year and 94% of the shows were completed. And, as you know, the heat and the humidity and the stillness of the Alabama summer are so much a part of this story that it will be interesting to see what of that remains in a London downpour. They managed Crazy For You, so I’m sure they can deal with us.

You were exactly half the age you are now when you did Our Town here. Does this experience feel very different?
It’s funny: Ethan [Hawke, Leonard's close friend] tells me that I used to call him twice a week saying I wanted to come home. So clearly I was homesick at some point and called Ethan Hawke! [Laughs.] My recollection of that time was of taking the bus to work and of how much I loved the play and working with Alan [Alda, as the Stage Manager], who is probably the nicest person I have ever met, and Jemma [Redgrave, as Emily], who was incredible.

You’re certainly embracing theater at the moment. You go directly from London to playing Henry Higgins in Pygmalion at Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts.
It is quite a summer: playing an Alabama lawyer in London and then a London speech coach in America. It’s like I’m living the dream! At least I've played Higgins already, at the Old Globe in San Diego, so it’s not like I’m doing that one from scratch.

And you can polish your English accent while you are here.
That’s true, though I’m so scared of doing an Alabama accent that my focus is on that at the moment; I’ll wrestle the angel—or demon, I should say—of the appropriate accent for Henry Higgins when we get there. It’s not as if I’m trying to tune the Englishman out, but I’ve got this other accent to get right first.

Talk of English accents brings to mind your superb Broadway collaborations with Tom Stoppard on Arcadia and The Invention of Love, for which you won a Tony. Any chance of seeing you next season in Roundabout’s revival of The Real Thing?
I would love to do that and have told [casting director] Jim Carnahan as much. Henry in The Real Thing is something I have wanted to do always, but these days you’ve got to go through the famous people—or, at least, through the famous people first. In that sense, I’m not something special. I ain’t no Katie Holmes!

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