The lauded star of the original Broadway musical about the life and work of Charlie Chaplin, Rob McClure’s been widely heralded for his uncanny and heartfelt portrayal of one of the greatest icons in all of cinematic history.
The show closed before its time but it remains one of our favourites of the year because of its affable and brilliant star, an Avenue Q vet and My Theatre Award Best Actor in a Musical nominee who took the time out of his day to answer every Chaplin, Broadway and general Rob-related question we could come up with.
What was the audition process like for Chaplin?
It was crazy. I had 6 callbacks over the course of about 2 months. At first it was just reading scenes and singing songs from the show and then the last callback they asked me come back the following day at 10am to have a 2 minute “Chaplin-y thing” prepared for them. I panicked not knowing what exactly that meant and went home struggling to figure out a 2 minute silent Chaplin bit for them. And my wife at about 2:30 in the morning said “why don’t you bring music so you aren’t completely hung out to dry with the silence of the room?” I thought it was a good idea. I started looking through the classical music on my iphone and I have “The Flight of the Bumblebees”; it goes [hums]. So I decided I am going to bring that and a fly swatter and I will fight an invisible fly and loose. I woke up the night morning and I got on the Amtrak train to New York- I live in Philadelphia- and I had headphones on, and a fly swatter. I am sure everyone on the train thought I was crazy sitting there planning this bit in my head. The first time I did it on my feet was in the room and I guess it went well. It was crazy. It was one of those things that it was either going to go really bad or really well but safe was not going to get me the job.
On stage you embodied both the person Charlie Chaplin and the “Little Tramp” with incredible accuracy. How did you manage to create your character without turning him into a caricature of the real person?
Well Chaplin as a man I feel like a lot of people don’t know a lot about him. There is his autobiography and certainly a lot of people have written books about him but there is not a whole lot of footage of him just being him. So I felt like there was much more freedom for me to bring parts of myself to Chaplin the man. But the idea that anyone buying a ticket to a show called Chaplin is going to want to see the “Little Tramp” and is going to want to see it right sort of terrified me. So I just started with the movies. I watched every piece of footage I could get my hands on. I watched all of his movies dozens of times. The thing that came about for me was that, as I started- take the walk for instance, honestly I started looking at the “tramp shuffle” as we called it and I started to do an imitation of what I was seeing and it was terrible and not specific. I had to start something. But once you start watching the heart of that character the physical behaviors follow suit. His body was the language he was speaking. Because there were no words and all of the communication was silent, every tip of the hat, every flick of the mustache was for communicative purposes. Nothing was just for comedy’s sake. So when I started to think about the costume- the baggy pants, the big shoes, the tight jacket, and the small hat- one of my first epiphanies was that I had always thought of that costume as something funny and an interesting silhouette but, as I think about it, they don’t fit because they are not his clothes. He is homeless, he is picking them out of trashcans. That’s why they don’t fit. And then I start to think, well, why does he tip his hat at people as they walk by? What is that all about? So I start to watch the movies. It was always a situation where he was trying desperately to be taking seriously. And looking as he does, and being who he is, he fooling no one but himself, but that tip of the hat was a desperate attempt at being taken seriously or fooling someone that he is a diplomat. It all came from this very melancholy, sweet place. And once I started to [think about] not only the ‘what’ he was doing but the ‘why’ he was doing it, then I felt like the physical behavior started to come and become more specific.
You clearly spent a lot of time researching this man.
Yeah. It got more and more specific. I was watching this one movie and, as he was waddling away from the camera, his shoulder popped, sort of like a little tick of his shoulder, and his knee kicked out to the side as he started to waddle away. And I thought well that is a good variation so that I am not always doing the same little waddle, let me try and incorporate that. So I started to try and incorporate it randomly and it felt terrible. So I thought why does this feel wrong? And it was because I didn’t know the ‘why’. I knew the ‘what’ but I didn’t know the ‘why’. I started watching anytime that those little ticks happened and usually it was when he had been disappointed by a woman or by an opportunity and as he turns and walks away the shoulder ticks and the knee pops out, and I realized that he is shaking it off. It’s him brushing off what just happened and trying to start new. As I started to build that physical vocabulary and give it specificity, that is when I felt like I could really incorporate it into the show in a way that anyone familiar with Chaplin would recognize and hopefully recognize it as being true to the spirit of that.
What do think the most challenging aspect of the production was? And what was the most fun?
The preproduction was crazy but so much fun. I got to take tightrope lessons at a circus school in Brooklyn and I had to brush up on my roller-skating. But I would say the most difficult was learning to play the violin. The violin is astoundingly difficult. I am a musical person. I play the ukulele and piano and I love music, but that instrument is really, really difficult. It is so exposed. There is nowhere to hide on it. If you’re nervous, they hear every little tremor. I mean you are dealing with horsehair on string. I remember the first couple of previews shaking people’s hands after the show and saying, “Thank you so much for coming. I am sorry about the violin.” It was tough. It was tough getting over my nerves. I will always remember my violin teacher saying at our first lesson, 3 weeks before we started rehearsal, “So I started when I was three, and you have three and a half weeks, so let’s see how this goes.” So it was a bit of a pressure cooker, but I loved it. Now I am continuing to study it because I love it. But it was by far the hardest task in terms of a stunt.
But I would also say that wrapping my head around the arc of an evening was also pretty difficult. It is really rare that you get to play a man from 17 to death so wrapping my head around this complicated guy was tough. And a lot of it came from his childhood. In the second act, it is tough for me as an actor and as a person to not judge those decisions and to realize that it is not my responsibility to judge. It is not my responsibility to figure out why he did that. It is my job to justify it. I am that guy, so I have to think it is the right decision at that moment. So realizing that this was a kid that was homeless from age 9-12 on the streets of South London, he’s going to make different decisions than me. And that’s going to break him in a way that I am not broken. And it really allows me to dive into the complexity of his brains, which is thrilling but difficult. And the same things that were difficult were the same things that were fun just in a different way.
Their dressing room can be one of the most important areas in a performer’s pre-show routine. What did you do to make your space your own?
It was a bit of a Chaplin museum. My mirror was covered in all of the Chaplin images that sort of speak to me. And above the mirror I had a huge- like 3 foot by 5 foot- print of a shot of Charlie Chaplin in the movie Limelight where he is older and sitting in the mirror taking off his makeup and he looks heartbroken. It was one of my favorite images of him. And then I was very lucky that fans and family and friends started coming to the show with Chaplin stuff- Chaplin statues, Chaplin puppets, Chaplin pins, Chaplin mugs- so by the end it looked like a shrine. It was a great place to get ready. Unfortunately I didn’t get to spend a lot of time in there during the show because I didn’t really have any moments off the stage, but before the show it was great. And then it was also a great place to host. The cast had something called “TNOB”- Thursday Night on Broadway- and [each week] a different person would host a little get together after the show. So it was a fun place to host TNOB, sort of because of the Chaplin shrine-ness of it. 13 of us, on the final TNOB before we closed, sat in my dressing room and a tattoo artist came in and we got little hats and mustaches tattooed on our wrists. It was an awesome place to be.
I saw photos online of you with an Avenue Q-style Chaplin puppet.
It was amazing. Avenue Q was a huge part of my life for a number of years. So that puppet is a culmination of almost the last decade of my life.
What was your first experience with theater?
In 8th grade I auditioned for Bye, Bye Birdie and I got in but I didn’t take it because I had gotten into a golf tournament and I thought I was going to be a professional golfer. I had no clue what I was doing. The following year I did Anything Goes in high school and I remember not thinking I was any better or worse than anybody but just that it was fun. And then I very distinctly remember going to see a little community theater down the street from my house in New Jersey, The Bergen County Players in an old firehouse. They are 80 years old and a really, really great organization. My friend in high school told me that they were doing a show about killing people and cooking them into meat pies and my 14-year-old mind exploded and thought it was the coolest thing I had ever heard. So I rode my bike and spent $12 dollars of my money- I was working at a bagel store making bagels at 3:30 in the morning- on an opening night ticket. Now Sweeney Todd has a huge surprise ending and I remember that coming and I felt so manipulated that I was actually in awe that these real people right in front of me- not TV, not movies- that these real people in front of me had so manipulated me to the point of tears and I remember thinking that tomorrow there will be a whole new audience here that won’t know that is coming and I have to be there when they find out. The show was every Friday, Saturday, Sunday for 3 months and I saw every performance. The cast got me a cast jacket at the final performance because I was a little groupie. But by the end I wasn’t even watching the show. I was watching the audience watching the show and it was that relationship that I had so fallen in love with. I remember sitting behind an elderly couple and the husband figuring out the surprise ending 30 seconds before the wife and me sitting there begging him in my mind not nudge her and tell her. I remember thinking “Oh my god she doesn’t know yet! Please don’t tell her!” And I was so rooting for the storytelling and that was it. I knew in one way or another the rest of my life was going to be trying to do what they did to me to others. I was smitten for sure.
What is your favorite musical, movie, book and play?
Musical: Sweeney. Hands down. I think it is perfect. I think any show that can have me rooting for a serial killer and at the end have me turning on my brain and thinking “what is wrong with you?!?” is clearly moving.
Play: I really love Of Mice and Men. I really love the novel and I love the play. I think it is a beautiful slice of Americana and a tragic, sweet story. I don’t know why. I also think there is something about the camaraderie of men in that book that I’ve always really responded to. It’s a very homey, rustic outlook of friendship. I [also] really like this new play called The Drawer Boy that I was really was floored by
Movie: That’s a tough one because it depends on what kind of mood I am in. I would say that I’ve got a special spot in my testosterone heart for Braveheart. I think that can get me going. And then Waiting for Guffman I think is close to a perfect comedy. Now, it’s funny but Groundhog Day is one of my favorite movies; I would say top 2. Because, you know what it is for me, a plot can be extraordinary as long as the people in it respond to it as though it is extraordinary. Nothing bothers me more than aliens landing on earth and people getting over it too quickly. Like watching a movie where a spaceship lands and then thinking what if they want to conquer us? Where is the guy going, “Holy shit! There aliens!” ? Where is the guy going, “This is crazy! This is impossible!” ? What I think I love so much about movies like Groundhog Day is that Bill Murray’s character is the first person going “This can’t be happening. This is crazy!” because that is how I would respond. So movies like Groundhog Day and Jurassic Park is a great example of these types of movies.
TV: LOST is my favorite form of entertainment of all time. I was obsessed with LOST to the point where my wife and I went to an auction in Santa Monica and had the submarine door from the set turned into a coffee table for our house. We went to Hawaii for our honeymoon so we could take an 8-hour hummer LOST tour of the island. We’re obsessed. But it is because of that very same thing. That plot can get as crazy as they wanted because the performances were those of real people responding to that crazy. Looking at things and going “This is freaking insane!” Because had they not acknowledged the fact that a smoke monster is the craziest thing they could think of, then I would never buy it. But because they look at it and go “What the hell is that?” in a way that I would have, had I seen a smoke monster, I respond to it. When people are unimpressed by the extraordinary is when I begin to cry foul.
What else do you enjoy offstage?
I’m a bit of a nerd. I love video games. My wife and I both. When we got together we realized that between the both of us we had every game system from 1978 on. So we have a bit of a video game shrine in our house. My wife and I love food. We are “foodies.” We love saving money and going to do tasting menus. We love graphic novels, The Walking Dead, going to comic-cons. And we also love renovation. We bought a house in Philadelphia about 5 years ago and we’ve been renovating it ourselves. Painting sheet rock and crown molding and restoring this 100-year-old house has been a fun adventure. We both love hands-on stuff like that. The pace of that renovation has suffered when we are both working a lot but it keeps us busy in our in-between times when I come home and think “I need to put crown molding in the guest room.”
What is something that most people don’t know about you that you now want to reveal to the world?
Hmmm…. That’s a tough one. Normally that would be the video game, comic-con nerd side of me, but you got that already so I have to think of something else. Let’s see… I’m trying to think of something juicy for you. That I proposed to my wife with her 1980’s E.T. doll? [Laughs]. My wife was obsessed with E.T. as a child to the point that her parents said that if they had a million dollars they would have paid Steven Spielberg to come to their house with the real puppet for her. She used to sit in their backyard in their shed tossing a softball hoping that E.T. would throw it back, leaving Reese’s Pieces all over the house hoping that E.T would be her friend. And I knew this because she told me all about it. And she has this little E.T. from her childhood that does not have an original stitch on it- she used to take swimming when she was little and it is gross and falling apart because of that. But we were doing Avenue Q together, playing the Forrest Theater in Philly. And because we were both sort of playing our hometown, we had 85 friends and family there and they all went to an engagement party that Maggie did not know about after the show. After the show Maggie went down to her dressing room, and as she was getting dressed, I left a Reese’s Pieces trail from her dressing room to the stage where her little E.T. doll was waiting with a box. When she got to the stage, our sound designer hit the crazy John Williams music from the movie and she started crying like an idiot and I started crying like an idiot and I proposed.
The run of Chaplin was cut much too short, especially for those who never got the opportunity to see this wonderful show. What is next for the Little Tramp? Is there a tour planned?
I know that they are planning both a national and international tour but none of us have been approached about it because I think they are planning it for the fall of 2014. So it is far enough away that none of us know who is going to be involved in it, but I know the producers are already at work scheduling it. The Tramp will be performing, but I have no idea who it will be. It could be me but it’s so far away none us of have committed to anything yet.
What’s definitely next for you then?
[After closing Chaplin [on January 6th], I was] horizontal in some form, letting my body recoup. I will say it was the most thrilling show I have been a part of but also the most taxing. I am not one to complain, and I’m still not complaining- if you’re doing a Broadway show about the most physical comedian of all time, that should be hard. If it is not hard then you are doing it wrong. So I was happy that it kicked my butt, it should. Over the course of the 2 ½ years that I was playing Chaplin- between La Jolla and New York- I lost 41 pounds. It was a crazy marathon. I will definitely say [I took] a bit of a vacation on my sofa. And then we’ll see. There are a couple of things on the fire but nothing set in stone yet. I hope the next thing that comes along means as much as Chaplin does to me. The big Chaplin shoes are going to be hard to fill in my heart.
Do you have any advice for aspiring actors and actresses out there?
Yeah. I would say, for me, I didn’t start working professionally until I stopped imitating artists that I admired. Like, I was obsessed with Anthony Warlow (the Australian musical theater star) when I was little. I got my hands on that Jekyll and Hyde concept album and thought ‘who the hell is this guy?’. And then I got all of his albums and started watching videos of all that he has done. I just thought he was the type of performer that I wanted to be. So I was going to auditions at 15 singing “This Is The Moment”, which could not have been a more terrible idea. I auditioned for years and wasn’t getting anything. And I slowly started to realize if they want Anthony Warlow, they’ll get Anthony Warlow. He exists. I am teaching a lot now and I have these 18-19 year olds who are screaming “Defying Gravity” with their best Idina Menzel impressions, and I just keep thinking… you know Idina Menzel exists, right? If they want her, they’ll call her. What are you going to bring to the room that Idina Menzel doesn’t have? Because that is what is going to get you hired. So, abandoning the embodiment of the performers that you admire and really starting to realize what you have to offer [that is] specific to you. Once I figured that out, that is when I started to get callbacks. That was the moment I started to go “If I’m truly me in there, no one else is going to give that performance in the room because I’m the only me”. It’s when you start to try and be what you think you’re supposed to be that you’re actually loosing what makes you you. So that was a tough, complicated lesson for me to learn but it really did a lot- the key to getting a callback.
I remember my audition for Avenue Q. I was auditioning for Princeton, who sings the song “Purpose”, so I had planned to sing a semi kind of riff pop song [because] I thought that is what Princeton does in the show. I was sitting in the waiting room at open call- there were 700 other people there that day- and listening to each person go in and out-belt and out-riff each other. And I was thinking ‘they are all better singers than me’. Each one of them is going in there and out-wailing the next. I didn’t know what to do, but I thought it wasn’t going to go well. And about 5 people before I went in, the casting director Cindy Tolan came out of the room and said “To the remaining 500 of you: I don’t know if you have seen Avenue Q, but it is a comedy.” And she closed the door. So everyone starts panicking and starts looking through books for something funny. And in the back of my book I had “De-Lovely” from Anything Goes, which I did my freshman year of High School, and I decided last minute to sing “De-Lovely” as a duet between Ernie and Cookie Monster because I could do those voices. So I thought it was either going to be really bad or really good but safe is not going to get me the job so, go for it. I did it and I ended up booking Trekkie Monster on Broadway. But had I decided to go with what I thought I was supposed to do, I guarantee I would not have gotten called back, [let alone] gotten the job. Embracing what I had to offer was the key to that moment.
Thanks so much for taking the time out of the day to talk with us.
Thank you guys for the nomination. It was very sweet of you.