Shuler Hensley really knows how to stick out in a crowd—he stands six feet, three inches tall, and his booming voice and hearty laugh overpower a room. But despite being an amiable guy in real life, these larger-than-life attributes often get him cast as the bad guy: a Tony-winning turn as Jud Fry in Oklahoma! and Javert in Les Miserables on Broadway, and Jigger Craigin in the New York Philharmonic’s Carousel concert, just to name three. In No Man’s Land and Waiting For Godot, playing in repertory at the Cort Theatre, Hensley takes on two very different types of bad guys—in Godot, a pompous fat-cat, and in No Man’s Land, a mysterious bodyguard. Below, Hensley chats about getting a “shot of stage” with Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart, his acclaimed performance as an obese tutor in The Whale, being the namesake of the Shuler Hensley Awards and more.
You’re immersed in Waiting for Godot and No Man’s Land—what is it like to alternate between the two plays?
It’s challenging. At first, I was like, how is this gonna work? It starts with having trust in your fellow actors; they help immerse you in the play at hand. Like a song, once you get into that rhythm, everything starts coming back. It’s overwhelming to think about logically: "I’m gonna do these two giant pieces of theater in one day," but it’s also wonderful. Ian calls it “the shot of stage,” when you get a B-12 shot or something—you feel overwhelmed until you get in front of the footlights, and then it’s quite exciting.
Does it feel like twice the work?
It really doesn’t. When we started this, I had no history with Beckett or Pinter—I’d never read any of them. That served me well, because people I talk to say, “Oh, Waiting for Godot, I remember reading that in college, I had no idea what was going on.” But I had no preconceived notion. And what’s great about these two plays is half of what you’re given is stuff that happens between the lines, in the pauses and non-verbal moments.
What was it like to rehearse with Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen?
When you’re dealing with Sir Ian and Sir Pat, and you’re like, “Oh my god…” But once you get to know them, you see that what makes them so great is the fact that their energy and enthusiasm for theater has never waned. It’s like it’s the first play they’ve ever done!
Are the Sirs as silly in real life as they are on Twitter?
Oh yes, that’s exactly the way they come across in real life. Most of the comments I’ve had at the stage door are that they’re overwhelmed by Godot because they never realized how funny it was. Ian and Pat have such a humanity. They’ve worked together for 40 years; they’ve grown up together in this business. There’s a real love between them and you can feel it!
How did you manage to make Godot’s wealthy, egomaniac Pozzo such a funny (and even sometimes sympathetic) character?
From day one, Sean was very specific about us wanting to experiment with accents, because there is no setting for this play. It’s just an abandoned road in the middle of nowhere. So you have the freedom to explore and use your characters in a way that’s very personal. I was born and raised in Georgia, and having this giant circus type character with a Southern accent really struck me. Beckett flows nicely with a Southern accent. It allowed me to connect with this character deeper than trying to mimic some other production of it.
You play a more mysterious bad guy in No Man’s Land—are people at the stage door surprised to see how jovial you really are?
Yes, they always are—I think it’s my size and my voice. I find it interesting to play characters that are preconceived as the villain and try to find parts of them that everyone can relate to. There’s nothing more unsettling than to come to the theater and say, “Oh god, here comes this big bad guy,” and then come out thinking, “I feel for him.” You realize that those people are in all of us.
We’re excited to see you in The Most Happy Fella at Encores! this spring. Is this a role you’ve always wanted to play?
It is! My first summer job at a music festival up in Bay View, Michigan, was The Most Happy Fella—I played one of the chefs. It’s a beautifully written show, but it’s dealing with some pretty heavy issues for 1956. It's a wonderful classic musical, just one hit after another, and a lot of times you don’t get the chance to hear the lushness of the music with the full orchestra.
Are you more at home belting out an 11:00 number or doing a drama?
Over the years, I’ve learned that singing is just an extension of acting, and well-crafted musicals understand that. It can become a really magical experience. To have an orchestra and all the people working together to create these scenes and these moments—there’s nothing like it. That’s why you have Hugh Jackman and these guys who have had a taste of musical theater coming back to it. There’s just no substitute.
When you were in Oklahoma! with Hugh Jackman in London, did you have any idea he would go on to be one of the world’s biggest stars?
The first time I saw him, he came into the rehearsal studio with no shoes on. I was like, who is this guy? He’s been a friend of mine since that first day, and he’s still the same guy. I went with him for his first audition for X-Men, for moral support. Talk about the randomness of becoming a star: He didn’t get the role! The guy who was originally supposed to do Wolverine was doing Mission Impossible II in Australia and they had a monsoon or something that delayed filming. Then they came back to Hugh. So, you just never know.
Tell me about the Shuler Hensley Awards in Georgia—how cool is that to have an award named after you?
Six years ago, the guys who created the awards said, “We want to start a Georgia version of the Gene Kelly Awards in Pennsylvania and the Tommy Tune Awards in Texas.” I agreed to help in any way I could. That’s when they said, “We’d like to call it the Shuler Awards.” But I wasn’t thinking, “Finally, I have an award named after me!” To me, it’s kind of crazy, but if it helps, it’s fine with me. I remember so vividly the magic of high school theater. That’s when I got hooked. To come back and see kids having these moments, it completely reenergizes you as a performer.
You had one of the most acclaimed performances of 2012 in The Whale. Looking back on it, what was that experience like?
I love characters who are outsiders, and initially my agent said, “They want you to do a reading of this play, and it’s a guy who’s a 650-pound morbidly obese gay online tutor," and I said, "I am doing it." [Laughs.] As a character actor, you can’t ask for a more challenging, juicy role.
Care to weigh in on the GOD-oh versus God-OH debate?
I try my hardest to say GOD-oh, because that’s what they want. I find it fascinating, because it’s a typical example of what the play is about. What is the answer? What is the meaning? What’s the pronunciation? What’s going on? Just the fact that the title of the show is debatable makes me giggle. But I will say GOD-oh until the Brits leave and then if I do another production with Americans and they want God-OH, I’ll do God-OH. Guh-Dot, whatever you want. God-O.T. Go-daht!
See Shuler Hensley in Waiting For Godot and No Man’s Land at the Cort Theatre.