I recently had a great opportunity to interview Hale Appleman, who plays Eliot Waugh on the hit Syfy show The Magicians on Friday afternoon, and it was an absolute joy to talk with him. We talked about the theatre, Eliot and all things magical that we shared a mutual love for. I hope you enjoy reading this post as much as I enjoyed every bit of the interview.
TIBS: You’ve been on stage and screen, in what ways are they different?
Hale: On stage, you work through the same story every night, every day at rehearsal, for however long you’re rehearsing, usually three or four weeks maybe more if you’re lucky. Then when you perform, you take the story from beginning to end every night, and every night you refine that story. You deepen that work that you set up for yourself, with the director and with your fellow actors. You all work together to create this reality on stage, the same story every night.
On camera, you show up on the day, sometimes you’ve never been to this place before where you’re shooting, and you may not have even met the actor that you’re working with. You prepare as much as you can, but then I think the gain of film a lot of times is to capture the spontaneity of the moment, and of not really knowing, so in a way their opposite You discover in the moment, on stage and on-screen both, but on stage there’s sort of setting up a really elaborate structure for yourself within to play, and on camera you’re doing a little bit of that, but you’re also leaving the moment up for grabs if that makes sense.
TIBS: Yes, to improvise and ad-lib?
Hale: Yes, maybe an ad-lib.
TIBS: Do you have a preference?
Hale: I honestly, well I grew up doing theatre, and so theatre is sort of my home base, it’s where I came from, but I would say that both mediums inform the other one for me in this weird way. I think that when I’m on stage I try to create as many layers, and subtlety as I can that I might be able to find on camera, and when I’m on camera, I want to push the envelope and see if there is a way for me to be theatrical.
It’s kind of about understanding size sometimes, but I like to think that really good acting, sort of defies medium. I like to experiment with how I can kind of play around with those ideas in either medium. I really like both of them, I truly think that I learn from one to the other, and I have lessons that I can take back to the stage, or back to the screen.
TIBS: I saw a little bit about Passion Play online and that sounded particularly interesting to me, with you playing Jesus in three different eras.
Hale: Wow, Oh my gosh! Oh yeah, that play has such an incredibly dear place in my heart. Oh man, I mean such an incredible experience, with an ensemble cast to die for, and Sarah Ruhl, the playwright is an absolute genius. I think she is one of the living greats in terms of living writers, living playwrights, living dramatic writers. I think that she is as poetic as she is profound, and the way that she turns a phrase is unlike anyone that has ever existed.
I feel so honored to have gotten the chance to work with her, and Mark Wing-Davey, our director is a legendary theatre director and his way with actors is so light and playful. Every day we played games (laughing), we played little games, he plays a game called Cush ball where you stand in a circle, and you literally throwing a ball to your ensemble mates, every day for maybe even just two minutes and it’s just a way of breaking into the space together, and being together as an ensemble, and creating just kind of a common feeling. Everyone comes in, and leaves their day outside the door, and then we all start together.
It’s a really beautiful way of uniting the group. The other actors were just incredible, Polly Noonan, Dominic Fumusa, T. Ryder Smith, Nicole Wiesner, and Kate Turnbull, these actors are amazing. I was so lucky to work with them. The scope of the play really covered so much ground, because we told the story of the Passion Play in three different times in history, within these communities of people putting on the play. I played Jesus in three different acts, once in Elizabethan England, where I played a simple yet spiritually connected fisherman.
Then in Nazi Germany, where I played a sort of terrified Jewish boy who inherits the role of Jesus because his father is on his death-bed, and so he has to play the part. Then, he falls in love with a Nazi. Then in Regan, South Dakota I play a soap star who has come back to play the role in his community, and he has an affair with his brother’s wife.
There is so much going on in every story, and the way that Sarah writes is just extraordinary to me so I still feel really blessed to have been a part of that show. It’s a kind of thing, it’s a weird little, there’s a little small town New York mythology about that play, because we ran for a little while, and as soon as the word was out that it was something that was really so special, that everyone should go check out, we had to close based on the availability of the space we were at. There was a kind of mythos about that production.
TIBS: The play just sounded so interesting to me when I read about it because I did not want to come into this without knowing anything, and I thought to myself through three different eras, you played 3 different characters, and to me it was phenomenal to memorize all that.
Hale: Oh man, it was three and a half hours, and it was really an immersive experience. It was a community, it was the New York premiere of this play that had been done regionally in many different theaters, and they finally got a chance to come to New York. Sarah was very clear about wanting it to be in a kind of theatrical church space of some kind, and so we performed in this amazing space called the Irondale Center in Fort Green, in Brooklyn.
The walls in the back were sort of crumbling, and there were Fresco’s painted in different parts of the space, which kind of lent itself to a feeling of timelessness, and the audience sat pretty close. There were a couple different levels of the audience, but it felt very intimate. It was just a complete, immersive experience about community and theatricality how you can tell a story with just your imagination, and it just really changed my life.
TIBS: When I was researching the play, I was trying to find a YouTube video so that maybe I could see a bit of it.
Hale: You know what’s funny? There actually is a little, you might be able to find something. I think it was the first performance, the first preview that we had with an invited audience, and the fire alarm went off at this very crucial moment. Everyone had to evacuate the building, and in the spirit of the show, and in the community of us building this theatrical environment wherever you are for your audience, we took the play outside, and continued on the steps on the theatre.
There was the crucifixion moment that happened, and the actors hoisted me up on their shoulders, and they crucified me against the wall (laughing). It was this incredible, live theatre moment, and the kind of thing that only happens on stage. It only happens in theatre, and it’s just a moment that I’ll never forget. We just continued the play, and I think Sarah Ruhl talks about it in the newer versions of the play, and she tells that little anecdote. You might be able to find a YouTube video of it online if you search for it. Well, look what I found, it was like magic!
TIBS: I’m a big fan of The Magicians and congrats on the renewal by the way.
Hale: Oh thank you so much. I’m so excited.
TIBS: The show kind of brings to life every fantasy you had as a kid.
Hale: It really does. I dreamed as a kid that someday I would get to swashbuckle, or be a Prince, a King, or a Knight at the Round Table.
TIBS: Princess Bride vibe?
Hale: Yes, a Princess Bride vibe, Inigo Montoya situation, and it’s my favorite movie, perhaps. (Hale gave a really good impersonation of the classic line “You killed my father, prepare to die” spoken by Mandy Patinkin in the movie, sound clip below ) Yeah, I wanted to you know, Lost Boys, and all of it. I loved fantasy, and I love the imagination of the stories that were read to me growing up, and it sort of was on my dream list as an actor to get to someday be in a kind of epic fantasy adventure. The Magicians really satisfies that on some level.
It also it throws in a very real world component, where these characters are actually firmly rooted in coming from the real world, and having real world experiences, and then maturing into adults. They have to face the world in very real terms, despite the fact that their fantasy lives have also been revealed to them as well.
TIBS: It’s like the best of both worlds
Hale: It really is, and I remember thinking to myself “God If I could just do one more”. I didn’t feel as if I had topped out of my, you know coming of age potential in terms of me, and how I get to tell the story of these characters sort of going through their 20’s, and having to face the challenges of adult life.
I feel like that really satisfies that itch that I had. I’m really excited, and I cannot wait to see where we get to go with the show, and how the characters develop, and how the layers of Eliot continue to unfold, and people get to know him a little bit more, with all of his darkness, and all of his humor.
TIBSTIBS: Well, that’s a nice segue into my next question.
Hale: Okay, hey teamwork!
TIBS: I think we’re having good teamwork here, yeah.
Hale: I think so too.
TIBS: I see Eliot as having multiple layers, like an onion if you will, when you peel all the layers back, what’s at the core of Eliot? What are his best and worst qualities?
Hale: His best and worst qualities? I would say his best qualities is that of a sort of loyal and nurturing nature, though he has a funny way of showing it, but I think at the core he is loyal and nurturing. He is fiercely protective over those that he truly cares about. He doesn’t know how to talk about any of that, but at the core that’s what he is.
I think he’s very essentially good, he’s just got a lot of mischief thrown into the mix as well, and he’s contending with a lot of darkness from his past that he hasn’t worked through, and so there are a lot of vices. He sees the world through his own kind of warped lens, and also a lens of his own creation, which is the persona of Eliot that he’s constructed, the one that he’s playing for all of you. The dark part at the core of Eliot is very essentially of an abandoned, broken-hearted child who has been completely rejected, and completely left alone. He has to contend with a very real world, and some very dark experiences.
TIBS: I haven’t read the books yet, but I know that you have. I really need to get on that.
Hale: The books are great and I highly, highly recommend them. Lev Grossman is a genius, and I can’t believe that he knows my name.
Hale: I’m so starstruck by him, yeah. Someone asked me when was the last time I was starstruck, and it was when I met Lev Grossman. I don’t know what to do with my hands, you know? (Laughs)
TIBS: When I write my posts for Three if By Space or whether I’m just writing period, I sometimes have music on, and I have a bottle of pop, water, and snacks nearby. Do you have a routine when learning your lines?
Hale: Yeah, that’s a good question. I definitely, I guess in terms of learning the lines themselves, for me it’s just about repetition and me understanding the thought underneath the line, and the impulses behind the characters motivations, behind the lines and stuff like that. That helps me piece together, and figure out the procedure of the literal words I’m saying. I don’t know if I have any specific thing other than to just go over it a million times. I think that is sort of my way to really learn it. I mean music definitely plays a factor in terms of sort of; sometimes a song can unearth a certain feeling for me, in regards to a character, for a specific scene or an ideology about a character. Music is such a huge part of my life so that is definitely a tool that I do use in terms of my own work sometimes.
TIBS: Music does put you in a mood.
Hale: I don’t listen to music when I’m learning my lines because I would probably just start spewing off lyrics on set, which really wouldn’t be helpful. I might get my wires crossed (laughs). Music has a different function for me in terms of acting and how to approach roles and characters, and specific stories.
Stay tuned for PART II of my exclusive interview with Hale Appleman, where we talk a little bit more about music, Eliot, and The Magicians.
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