Robert Sean Leonard swaps House for his true passion – playing theatre
- Credit: Archant
Star of hit US medical drama series tells Bridget Galton why he is in his element when on stage and how he is haunted by his latest role
To paraphrase the Queen: he’s given a lot of pleasure to a lot of people, but House star Robert Sean Leonard is having none of it.
His eight years as relentlessly nice oncologist Dr James Wilson in the ratings topping medical drama were not his finest acting hours, indeed he’s not much of a screen actor, he insists.
Now he’s back on stage, at the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park, the US-based actor is in his element.
“House was interesting, we dealt with interesting themes, but me leaning into a door and saying, ‘Hey I saw you looking at Cuddy’s ass,’ is not the same (as theatre).
“TV is a great job because I have two daughters and money is important in this world. After 22 years of theatre, believe me, you don’t have much of it. But I did miss what I feel I do best. I am not a great film or TV actor, I do feel I am unique on stage, I’m not always on target but when I hit that’s where I hit best.”
With his dry humour and scorching honesty Leonard can sound rather downbeat about a performance that showcased his skills, especially as a comic actor – wasn’t working with co-star Hugh Laurie fun?
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“Hugh Laurie is a great, talented guy,” he sighs, possibly weary of Laurie-related questions.
“Working by his side I had laughs but I lived an hour and a half away from the set, woke up at 3.30 in the morning to get to work by six and worked 15-hour days when you don’t see your kids go to bed – it’s not hard it’s just long and dull.
“We shot 24 episodes a year – 10 days to make each one – which gave us a month off and left no time to do theatre.
“To me that’s why you get the big money, because you agree to eight years of something that you feel pretty good about but not great.”
While he’s glad to be on stage, he’s gloomy about tackling the paragon of integrity and moral rectitude that is Atticus Finch – the unbending centre of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning To Kill A Mockingbird.
Nervous that Atticus is a potent character whom many feel a personal connection to, he’s been avoiding the 1962 movie with its Oscar-winning performance by Gregory Peck “like the plague”.
“It’s not a part I feel I am right for, I am not looking forward to this. Resurrecting the ghost of Gregory Peck in front of 1,200 people a night is not my idea of a good time but I have played Henry Higgins recently and dealt with the ghost of Rex Harrison so there is always that to contend with.
“I am doing the best I can, but I feel the ghost of Gregory Peck quite keenly.”
Set in depression-era Alabama, the story involves a widowed lawyer who takes on the unwinnable case of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman.
Narrated through the eyes of Finch’s eight-year-old daughter, Scout, it deals with childhood loss of innocence, the bitter racism of America’s deep south and Scout’s relationship with reclusive neighbour Boo Radley.
Leonard, whose CV includes the doomed pupil Neil in Dead Poet’s Society and acclaimed Broadway performances in work by Tom Stoppard and Eugene O’Neill, insists Finch is “in many ways a peripheral character”.
“In some plays the character’s moral journey is the story, but Atticus doesn’t have much of a journey, he’s not a man who shows the cracks in the marble. He fears for his children, takes a few wrong turns in the case, but he never doubts that he has to represent this man or that it is his moral obligation to do so.
“In another play he might be a boring character but in this one he is interesting.
It’s not really his story, it’s Scout’s and Tom Robinson’s and Boo Radleys’.”
It’s a tale that has left the father-of-two in tears in the rehearsal room.
“On the last page of this novel, out of nowhere the book lifts into the air and switches into the third person, into poetry – I just started openly weeping about Boo Radley saving these two children. That’s the difference between theatre and TV.
“It’s the difference between what’s OK and what’s brilliant.”
Leonard is understandably phlegmatic about playing outdoors in England’s famously changeable weather.
“It’s a crapshoot, I hope it will not rain too often but it’s a beautiful story that’s quite informed by the weather although I don’t know how the humid still-as-a-funeral-train summer afternoons of Alabama are going to work when the rain pours down but there are fairy lights and it’s a gorgeous setting.”
He’s staying close by, on Baker Street where his wife Gabby and daughters will join him once the run starts. And since House was a twist on Sherlock Holmes with Holmes translated to a medical detective called House, and sidekick Dr John Watson into Dr James Wilson, does he feel his temporary home was fated?
“In a bookmark karma kind of way?” he laughs. “I just feel sorry for the poor f***ing actor dressed like a bobby outside the Sherlock Holmes Museum every day. The poor guy was probably playing Hamlet last year.”
Something of a stay-at-home type, (“I don’t leave my house,” he says seriously), he can’t wait to see his nine-month-old baby and four-year-old, who in turn is dying to visit ‘The Queen in her castle’.
“I miss them but we are right in the middle of new baby sleep deprivation and I hear such contempt in my wife’s voice that I am sleeping more than two hours in a row and living the bachelor life.”
And although the 44-year-old won’t rule out more TV work, he’s that rarest of things, a contented actor, who doesn’t feel the urge to rush around chasing work.
“Every job I take I ask, ‘How does this affect the kids?’ I am not ambitious, I am pretty on the ball when I am in something and it excites me but I am very happy to just live.
“I’m perfectly content to let six months go by doing nothing but reading by the fire, making dinner and looking after the kids.”
To Kill A Mockingbird runs from May 16 until June 15 followed by a season that includes Pride and Prejudice, Winter’s Tale reimagined for ages six and up, and The Sound of Music. Bookings on www.openairtheatre.com.