Speak to any journalist and they’ll tell you that before an interview there is always an inescapable feeling of excitement mixed with nerves. Prior to my chat with Robert Sean Leonard, this was no exception, the feeling potentially heightened in this case by the fact that, like many of Generation Y with an English degree, at some point in the mid to late 90s, I undoubtedly fancied Dead Poets Society’s romantically tortured Neil, played by a 19-year-old Leonard.
But even with three Tony Awards under his belt – not literally, although it was a phone interview so I can’t guarantee that – an eight year stint in one of the US’s most popular television dramas and casual mentions of close friends Ethan Hawke and Noah Wyle, it’s impossible to be nervous with Leonard; this man is so refreshingly laid back it’s infectious. So laid back, in fact, he claims never to have planned anything in his career – “I don’t think I ever had any [ambitions] aside from wanting to do plays and have Kevin Kline think I was cool” – renounces the benefits of working in a profession where you can continually learn new things in favour of “being home and reading and doing nothing much more than walking my dogs and feeding my daughters” and makes transcribing the interview a doddle with his lazy New Jersey drawl awash with causal erms and hmms.
Perhaps his likable self-deprecating humour and dry declaration that “I don’t embrace change, so you can imagine my life as human on this planet is pretty much hell” are veiling a driven careerist, but I highly doubt it. However, his return to the London stage after more than 22 years to play Atticus Finch in the Regent’s Park Open Air theatre’s production of To Kill A Mockingbird does mark a change for the actor and, while the opportunity to play a literary legend might seem like a no-brainer, it wasn’t the case for Leonard.
“I was highly sceptical when I first spoke to Tim [Sheader, the director],” Leonard frankly explains. “In many ways Gregory Peck [who received an Oscar for his performance in the same role in the 1962 film] was the problem. When I heard they were redoing the Psycho movie, my first thought was ‘why?’ Psycho’s a brilliant movie, why would you dare rethink it? I think To Kill A Mockingbird is a wonderful book, but so is Moby Dick. There’s a reason why The Iceman Cometh is a play, there’s a reason why Moby Dick is a book. I didn’t see the point of putting a book on stage.”
Of course, it’s not just any book. It’s a book commonly revered as one of the great modern classics and, as a staple on both the British and US curriculum along with Peck’s defining performance, there will be plenty of people who come to the Open Air theatre with a fully formed vision of Finch in their heads. “The role was the least appealing thing [to the project],” Leonard tells me, joking: “When I heard Matilda was coming to New York and I didn’t know if Bertie Carvel was going with it or not, it was like ‘Well if I could play Miss Trunchbull that would be great… the Tony Award should be in your dressing room the first day you get there’. This role did not feel that way. I’m going to do the best that I can, but wrestling with the ghost of Gregory Peck in front of 1,200 people is not something I look forward to doing.”
All of this begs the question why Leonard left the bright lights – not to mention sun – of Hollywood to play what he describes as a “problem” role on a stage open to the UK’s less than desirable elements. Other than the obvious attractive qualities of Sheader’s award-winning, much-loved venue, “It was the beauty of the story and Tim’s vision of it,” Leonard affectionately explains. “It’s unlike anything I’ve ever rehearsed before… there’s something magical about it.”
While the actor is no stranger to modern classics, with his theatre CV jam-packed with roles in iconic works by everyone from Eugene O’Neill to Brian Friel, Sheader’s work brings new challenges. “It’s all very beautiful and very flowing,” Leonard explains, hinting the production will be embrace elements of physical theatre, before breaking into tongue-in-cheek disbelief to tell me, “We’ll have movement for two hours! 10 to 12 is movement with Naomi [Said], and I think ‘Movement with Naomi? What is that?!’ When I venture to say that it’s amazing to work in an industry for more than 20 years and still have opportunities to learn new skills and work in new ways, he ‘hmms’ not quite convinced and says: “Well, sure, if that’s the kind of person you are. My friend Ethan Hawke has always embraced that side of being an actor – ‘sure, I’m going to do this movie, I’ve got to learn to sky dive!’ – [but] I’m not really that guy.”
The kind of guy he is, however, is one who is devoted to theatre, even running a theatre company with Hawke for a short time and citing the actors who played New York’s legendary Public Theater as he was growing up his heroes, telling me, “I grew up wanting to play Hamlet in Central Park. That was my dream. I didn’t want to be Bruce Willis, I wanted to be Sam Waterston.” Making his acting debut at just nine-years-old, it’s a passion currently heightened by the presence of the “heartbreakingly good” young cast members in Mockingbird – including Matilda The Musical’s Olivier Award-winning actress Eleanor Worthington-Cox, who he refers to as “the Paris Hilton of our group. She’s the star, although she doesn’t act like it at all” – with the actor compelled to tell them on the first day of rehearsals that, as lucky as they felt, the adults felt luckier to have them there. “They nodded like they won the lottery,” he tells me, “that’s how Dead Poets felt to me.”
It’s the first of many, always fond, mentions of the cult film from Leonard during our interview, which, more than 20 years later, holds enormous reverence for the actor, with Leonard fittingly slipping into romanticisms when he talks about it. “It was the most exciting professional experience of my life and always will be probably,” he explains. “I almost get teary when I think about it. You know those things you think about when you were 16 – your first girlfriend or boyfriend, the drag you used to drive your car up and down with you friends – it’s almost too painful to think about because I was so young and it was so meaningful and rich with feeling… Dead Poet’s Society was beyond magical,” adding, before I can ask, “I can’t watch it, it’s too painful. It’s like watching yourself try to ask a girl out for the first time at 16.”
This emotional attachment to the film is a point of contradiction with Leonard, given his honesty at finding film work “a bit dull”. “Maybe that shows in my work…” he deadpans, before searching for the most diplomatic way to sum it up, settling on: “If theatre paid more that’s all I’d do, let’s put it that way.” But of course, following Dead Poets Society and subsequent numerous films, it was his biggest – and longest – screen role to date as Hugh Laurie’s sidekick Dr James Wilson in the award-winning medical drama House that made him a household name.
An apathetic view of film work aside, Leonard is undoubtedly proud of the show and, unsurprisingly for someone who hates change, admits he was “nervous” about the show ending after its eight year run. But the frequent passion apparent in his voice is clearly reserved for discussing theatre. “House was a lot of things, but it was a great financial windfall mainly,” the actor tells me with brutal honesty sure to upset a few die-hard fans. “I don’t enjoy working 15 hours a day… TV shows are incredibly wonderful financial gifts, but boy do you pay for it in the time you spend.
“It’s funny whenever I talk to someone like Noah Wyle or Hugh, people who love film work, the word ‘puzzle’ always seems to come up,” he muses. “That they like film because it’s one little puzzle after another, but I never really got that. I feel more like an actor for hire and that sounds more like direction to me. I have great respect for it and I’m very proud of House, it’s just, to me, it’s not what I do best.”
What he believes he does best, and I’m sure the Tony’s would be happy to testify in his favour, happens on stage, and, facing a first in his career, this time it’ll be on a stage open to the elements. “I’m not without trepidation,” he admits. “On a balmy night with no wind, I can see it would be great, I’m just a little bit worried about the other nights.” You get the feeling, whatever the night, it would take more than bad weather to keep him from wanting to perform. “I feel more rewarding, wonderful moments in an hour rehearsing this play than I felt in a year doing a TV show,” Leonard says as our conversation draws to a close, the dry wit and self-deprecation disappearing for a moment as he leaves me with a moment of wonder worthy of Dead Poet Society’s Neil, “It just happens in theatre.”