Robert Sean Leonard has tackled some of the theater's most intimidating dramas by some of the most intimidating playwrights. His résumé includes works by Eugene O'Neill (The Iceman Cometh and Long Day's Journey Into Night), Tom Stoppard (Arcadia and The Invention of Love, for which he won a Tony), and Stephen Sondheim (Sunday in the Park With George). And that's just on Broadway.
But Leonard, known to screen audiences for his nine-season run as Dr. James Wilson on the television show House and still beloved for his performance as Neil in the movie Dead Poets Society, is now tackling his most personally nerve-wracking project yet. He plays Peter in director Lila Neugebauer's new production of two related Edward Albee one-acts collectively titled At Home at the Zoo
Leonard shares the stage of this Signature Theatre production with Paul Sparks, who plays Jerry, a Central Park dweller with a dog obsession, in the groundbreaking play The Zoo Story. Two-time Tony winner Katie Finneran completes the company as Ann, Peter's mysteriously troubled wife, in Homelife.
While Leonard didn't know if he had it in him to take on an Albee play at this point in his career, he did discover he couldn't say no.
This is your first time doing an Albee play. What has the experience been like?
I jumped in, but definitely with some anxiety. I really had no idea what to do. Every play that I've worked on in 35 years has been sort of…I don't know if I'd say "realistic," but O'Neill and Shaw and Tennessee Williams. Albee's different. I knew Zoo Story but I didn't know Homelife, so I read it while I was doing Richard II at the Old Globe, and I really loved it. But I didn't know if what I had in my wheelhouse would serve it.
Is that a challenge you look for?
Not at 48. I wouldn't say I'm that ambitious for challenges. I did Sunday in the Park With George last year in New York, and that was a really fun job, but I hadn't launched a big old play in a while. So I was excited for that. But I didn't know how to begin. When we first read the play, all I could think of was "What the hell is this?" Parakeets and birds and circumcision? It seemed a little, do I make this as real and in the moment as I can, or is there a style to it that I don't know?
What was your way in?
The first thing we figured out was that Homelife is kind of a surreal little dream of Albee's, of this couple who adore each other and are trying to figure out what's bothering her. It seemed like a long argument, like we were in a bad Hallmark movie, with a lot of recriminations and defense. It comes to its culmination with Ann saying, "It's what I can't imagine — but I imagine imagining." We realized it's a couple that's bravely looking at that in its face, saying, "I know you love me in the way you understand, but not enough." But at the end of they day, they can live with it.
Knowing the history of The Zoo Story, do you feel a pressure on you as you're performing it?
No. That's much more present when you're doing something like Long Day's Journey or Hamlet. But I've always felt, for my entire life in this job, that it's an honor to give a play to people.
When I was younger, I used to always keep a picture of the playwright in my dressing room. I feel a really nice pleasure in the responsibility of, there are 247 people who have never seen The Zoo Story and might never see it again, and I am Albee's only shot to give this play life. That is a really nice feeling. When you feel like you're succeeding, anyway.
How do you select a project at this point in your career? Does the syndication of House give you the security to be particular about what you take on?
Absolutely. It's more blunt than that. The paychecks of House give me the freedom to do that. It's lovely. I drove a Jetta for the entire nine years that I was doing that show, and we put everything in the bank. It's really nice to tackle things like Richard II and also to answer a call from James Lapine about Sunday and say "OK, sure," and not really worry what the weekly salary is. That's a great luxury for an actor.
Some of my favorite jobs have been complete surprises. I recently did To Kill a Mockingbird in London, as Atticus Finch, a role which I never thought I'd play or was right for, but there I was in the linen suit. I don't have a system by which I select things. I really just enjoy going day by day in this career, as I always have.
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