Interview with Douglas Sills
On May 30th, Douglas Sills will give his last performance as Percy Blakeney, the title character in The Scarlet Pimpernel, after roughly 550 performances. Those of you who have seen his performance know that he has the talent to become one of the truly great ones. Those of you who have spoken with him, know that the man behind the performer is even more amazing.
I interviewed Douglas last December and we talked about his past and the transition between the two versions of the show. This month, we did a follow-up to give him a chance to share his thoughts before he closed out this remarkable chapter in his life.
NR: You told me in December that you stayed for the new version because of a dare. You wanted to see if you could re-create the character with a new director. First of all, do you think you did that?
DS: Yeah, I do.
NR: Are you glad you did it?
DS: Yeah, very.
DS: I had fun. It was a great challenge. It was a tremendous challenge given that the parameters were almost reversed about freedom and liberties and what the nature of that new director's aesthetic is. So, it was a great challenge. That was really fun to try and do it repeatedly with that boundary, so I'm glad I stayed.
NR: Have you grown as a performer in the past year and a half?
DS: Oh God, yes. Sure.
DS: I don't know. You'd have to ask people I worked with or people I lived with. That's going to come out over the long term. How have I grown as a performer? I suspect I understand my limitations a lot better and I'm comfortable being bounded by them. I understand how narrow the scope is of the actor's job and how much you can attribute to other people in terms of making yourself a victim and not being able to do the job you want to do. I suspect I'm more aware, more courageous as a performer to do less on stage. I hope I'm more loving and caring as a person and giving as a performer, more tolerant of other people's foibles, vicissitudes that they encounter in their lives and how it affects their journey as artists.
NR: You kind of touched on this. I was going to ask how you've grown personally.
DS: Well, they're kind of linked. When you're a performer, that's all sort of one I think. I think I've grown more devoted in my family life. I know what's important, what's secondary and tertiary, and how much work it takes to keep relationships afloat, give them the nourishment that they're due. Those are some of the ways I guess.
NR: If you were going to talk to someone who wanted to become an actor, what would you tell them now that you probably wouldn't have thought to tell them two years ago?
DS: How important acting training is. I probably would have told them but I wouldn't have stressed it. I don't mean to be contentious, but it would depend on what the person's goals were. If the person's goals are to be in a Broadway chorus for as long as they can, then my advice to them would be very different than if they wanted to do the classics, if they wanted to play the entire Shakespearean canon and it didn't matter where they wanted to do it. My advice would be completely different, so it really depends on what they wanted to do. Can you be more specific about what you were saying?
NR: I was thinking that two years ago, you probably thought you knew what this experience was going to be like. I have a feeling that it was probably different in many ways.
DS: That the biggest contribution ultimately that you make, if what you want to do is play a large role in a Broadway show, is what you bring to the part. So, live a very full life coming here. You'd better explore who you are so that the performance is grounded. You need to be as grounded as you can as an actor... I think. Again though, it depends on your aesthetic. Let's go for the sake of discussion that what you're talking about is a person who's devoted to the same aesthetic as I am, and that's a huge leap of faith, but let's assume that that's what we're talking about. Then, yeah, what I would say is you have to have a great awareness of yourself. You really better know who you are. That's the biggest favor you can do for yourself. Now, that has many tentacles to it. You should travel, there should be a lot of self-exploration without self-absorption, there should be intense study of your craft, continuous study. You never know enough. You're always changing. Since the instrument's always changing, then how you play it is going to be changing. It's a mountainous thing, not in ways you would suspect. The task itself is not insurmountable. It's the ancillary tasks that become insurmountable - leading the cast, keeping the cast together and unified in their spirit, doing all the publicity engagements and still having energy for your role, handling the demands put on you by the fan base, keeping your family intact. Things that you would be less suspect of as the challenge are actually the challenge.
NR: You originated this role on Broadway which gives you a unique perspective. Is there anything you could offer someone who's going to play it a couple of years from now?
DS: No. Oh God, no. Just the opposite. Don't look at a tape. Don't watch the old movies. Read the book and that's all. Do your research and go out and make the play your own. No, just the opposite. Bring yourself to it, rather than try to meet whatever you thought it was or who it was. No, I think there are a thousand Percys out there yet to be played. I don't mean actors, I mean versions of the role. I think it's multi-dimensional enough where it can be a thousand people. That doesn't mean to say that you don't need your craft to do that. So, I would say absolutely the opposite. Don't listen to anybody except your director.
NR: Now that you've been so closely linked to this part, how do you feel about that?
DS: Fine! I'm proud of it. I'm very proud of it.
NR: Are you worried about being typecast?
DS: No, not particularly. If I find that that's the case in the course of the next half decade, like if they won't see me for other roles, then obviously I'll start to get worried, but that hasn't been my experience to date. I think I tend to project myself more as Douglas and Percy's my work. I don't know. I'm not on the outside perceiving, so I don't know. But, I'm not worried yet. It hasn't occurred to me.
NR: Really? Even after this long?
DS: As a passing thought I suppose, but I haven't really been out there job hunting so it wouldn't have occurred to me yet.
Interview conducted and photographs by Nancy Rosati.
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