Director Chris Abraham’s stylish Othello was one of the biggest critical hits of the 2013 Stratford season. One of our favourite things about the standout production was Brad Hodder’s charming and conflicted Cassio.
Amidst preparations for his upcoming role of Edmund in Stratford’s 2014 King Lear, Brad phoned in to the Nominee Interview Series to offer his insights into Othello, the non-chair-moving role that earned him his Best Supporting Actor nomination and which fellow nominee he wants to lose to.
My first question is always can you remember your first experience with theater?
Huh. First experience with theater. I was in junior high and I was in grade 9, there was no drama club there, so we had a teacher show up who up and started a drama club and I got cast as one of the ugly step sisters in a production of Cinderella.
That was probably my first– if you don’t count Santa Claus in the grade 3 Christmas show, which I think I left off my resume. But I’m pretty sure I have the memory of playing Santa Claus in grade 3 as well, so maybe that. Either that or an ugly stepsister. A dude in a dress or a dude in a beard, one or the other.
Can you describe your first day of rehearsal at The Stratford Festival?
I’d done the conservatory there so I was a little familiar with the building and everything but I remember what struck me was walking in that first day and there’s like seventy people around to watch the read- the cast and the design team, there’s probably like thirty, forty, fifty people sitting around a table. It would have been for Cymbeline a couple years ago. I’d never been involved with something nearly that big and never been to a first read that had a quarter of the people that were there. I was very intimidated. Luckily, I just moved a lot of chairs in that show; I didn’t really have a lot to say. So I got to ease my way in.
What have been some of your favorite roles you’ve ever played?
I did Hedwig in Hedwig and the Angry Inch back in Newfoundland a couple times, and that’s certainly up there. Any time I can play some version of a rock star I’m pretty happy. I did Richie Valens in a production of The Buddy Holly Story at one point. That was a lot of fun. I was a very tall, tall Richie Valens. The Cassio part in Othello is up there, for sure. It was just one of those parts that I just kind of got it, for lack of a better term, and it was fun to play. I had friends in the cast, the show did well, everything was there to make it a good experience from beginning to end and it was really satisfying. There’s definitely lots of shows over the years that I have fond memories of.
Your My Theatre Award nomination this year is for the role of Cassio. What do you think was the most important thing about your version of the character?
Sometimes you read a part and it just makes sense to you. I knew, early on before I was even cast in the part, that it was the one part this season- I asked if there was any way to be seen for that part. I didn’t even know the play that well but as I read it, it’s not even about identifying with the part, I just read it and something in my gut just dropped. I actually felt like I could relax in it. It wasn’t too far of a reach for me, it kind of made sense to me in the things like his concern of how he’s perceived by other people and his place in the hierarchy in that world and everything. I was able to bring a lot of myself. The best acting is always when you’re not seeing the acting and I was just myself in that part.
And I’m buddies with Graham [Abbey] who played Iago and Mike [Shara] who played Rodrigo and in rehearsal and we could just we kind of beat it around together as a few guys as it was in that world, in a way. So it wasn’t a big stretch for who I am, for better or for worse.
So you asked to read for it?
Yeah, yeah, I did. I remember contacting the casting department. I didn’t have an agent at the time or anything like that, it was all new. I’d only been out there for a year or so. And so when the season was announced I hear all kinds of people saying ‘I want to read this I want to for read for that’. And I honestly kind of never really thought about it. What I said to Beth [Russell, the casting director] was I had no idea where I am in the big scheme of things at that place or where I fit or anything. I’m thinking I’m way outside the ballpark here, but if there was a chance at all for me to get a look into Cassio, I’d love to have a crack at it. And actually, Chris [Abraham] was doing a reading. He wanted to hear it out loud and he had some initial primary casting done and I just happened to be in Stratford because I was doing the conservatory so I got in for a day and I read Cassio just as a table read, it wasn’t even really an audition, it was just a table read. I remember Dion [Johnstone, who played Othello] was there and Bethany [Jillard, Desdemona] and Graham, and we just read, we didn’t even get through the whole play, we only had a couple hours. We just read it because he wanted to hear it and then a couple weeks later, I found out I got offered the part. I think I was really lucky like that because I don’t audition well, I don’t think. You know, it was a perfect kind of set up for me to sit around with people that I know and just kind of hang out and read the play and talk about it a bit. It took the pressure off.
Throughout the rehearsal process, what would you say was the most important conversation you had with Chris about the part?
I remember the initial takes on it were pretty generic sort of ‘okay, he gets drunk and then he gets in a fight and he loses his rank’ but Chris has always been keen on a guy who didn’t quite fit in with everybody. The drunk thing isn’t so much alcoholism as much as ‘what if there were other things going on?’ It wasn’t about a guy who’s got a drinking problem. But if that drinking problem was more of a symptom of a bigger part of the character. It’s not just about the guy can’t handle his booze but is actually about something a lot more personal, or a lot bigger, that’s just one part of it.
And so Chris would always, as we worked through it, pull me aside and sit and kind of just talk about filling in what is what. How drunk is he? How out of control is he? What’s actually going on there? And Chris is really good at asking that question. One of the questions that would come up in rehearsal a lot is ‘do I believe that?’ or ‘what is it about this scene or this beat or this character that I don’t believe?’. It always seemed like it was too easy to make it about a guy gets drunk and gets out of hand one night then he loses his reputation he loses everything in that moment and it was sort of a lot more interesting if it’s not as black and white as that. And the idea that- Cassio does have a relationship with a courtesan- his relationship with women is a lot more complicated than maybe just ‘he loves Desdemona and he sleeps with a prostitute’. Maybe there’s a lot more going on there, so rather than just making him this upstanding noble guy who has a couple flaws, what if actually he’s not all that? Like any great character, there’s a lot more to him than just the black and the white. Chris is always challenging me to make him more complicated, keep digging. Any good director is going to want you to keep digging at stuff but I think that he never wanted it to settle, he always wanted it to just never be one thing or another. You get to do the same show every night of course, but at the same time he really was interested in the nuance of how things could change. He seemed to encourage that a lot. A lot of scenes I was in he seemed to want to keep the variables in there so night to night the drunken brawl, the fight choreography was always the same but how we got into it or how we came out of it always was a little different, was always fuelled by something a little different, something going on with Graham, something going on with me, and Chris seemed to encourage that, and wanted that.
Going off the idea that Cassio has maybe some more complicated feelings about Desdemona, how did you and Bethany Jillard strike that balance of having an innocent relationship, but also enough to provoke Othello’s jealousy in your few brief scenes together?
I think we made a decision pretty early on that there was absolutely nothing going on, that they had probably known each other from an early age, grown up in the same circles, had probably spent time around the house. Obviously, her dad knew me, so they had a history together and maybe there was a time he thought of her as an option, a possibility, maybe that there was some notion of that, but that it didn’t really exist there now. A little bit initially, there might have been a few beats, a few moments where we play Cassio sort of longing for her, or looking at her as they walk, you know, the obvious stupid little things you do in rehearsal that the more you work the more you realize it’s kind of not there and our story, this version of that play, seemed to be served better by letting the audience put it on. So, Beth and I, we really didn’t play anything. It really became Othello seeing things and being told he was seeing things that weren’t [there]. There were intimate moments between Desdemona and Cassio but they weren’t intimate moments of lovers, they were intimate moments of people who had known each other for a long time and loved each other but as friends, almost as family. It was much more of sort of a brother-sister relationship. I thought that she was perfect and wonderful and beautiful and all of that stuff but I didn’t lust after her in any way and I wasn’t jealous of Othello in any way at least – we made a choice. We made an active choice not to go down that road and instead to let Iago plant the seeds. The audience put some of that on it and I think we actively played against that.
Do you try to see every play in a season? What were some of your favorites of 2013?
I do try and see as much stuff as I can. I really liked Taking Shakespeare; I really liked seeing Martha [Henry] in that intimate space of the studio. She’s so weird and wonderful right? [Laughs]. It’s great because she runs the Birmingham Conservatory so it was amazing to actually see her put into practice everything that she taught us. If you see her make these things work… sometimes you sort of think, ‘that’s old school, I don’t know if that’s actually useful’, and then you watch her, and it’s like, ‘oh man, that works’. So I really liked that. I thought The Merchant of Venice was great. I always have different feelings towards that play when I see it. It stirs up all the obvious stuff, but it always sits funny with me, I’ve never quite been able to wrap my head around it, but that production was great. I thought Mary Stuart was great. I know I was in Mary Stuart- for all of about five seconds- I have a little bit of a bias, but watching those guys work and watching them, over the course of that run, keep working… That was a tough, tough show through rehearsal and in performance, that was a tough show to keep the ball up in the air. Not only that but to keep it exciting and keep it, it was just a testament to that company. Watching those guys work, watching it from the inside and watching what they brought to work every day to keep it fresh, I mean it’s our job and it’s what we do, so I know that that’s celebrating the obvious but you couldn’t phone that one in. You couldn’t have an off day in that one because the pressure around it and the talent around it and what everyone was bringing just demanded that you brought it all the time and were present all the time and it’s those things we take for granted, getting to watch those guys bring it every day. That was pretty impressive.
You’re coming back this season to play Edmund in King Lear. That’s a killer role, forgive the pun. Have you started preparing yet?
I’ve never worked on Lear. Like a lot of people, I don’t really know [the plays] until I work on them. So I know Lear, I’ve seen Lear but I certainly didn’t know it well and so I’m hoping it’s to my advantage in a way that I’m coming in really green to that actual story and this part. With something like Lear, you could read it for years and years and years. I’ve been doing a lot of reading and a lot of research on the performance history of it, and saying the words out loud and trying to find where they sit for me. I love working with Antoni [Cimolino]. I’m excited to have a chance to work on something with him because, obviously I’ve worked on shows in the past couple years- you know, small bits- so being in the room with him, I know what he expects, I know what he demands and I want to rise to meet that for sure. And I think Edmund’s a great part, it’s going to keep me hungry. I’m certainly not going to get bored, and when I look at the other people I’m on deck with- Scott Wentworth playing Gloucester, watching his work as Shylock and Tevye this year… there are so many people here that are great actors, to know that I get to play those scenes with him in this show, I can’t wait. But it’s putting the pressure on [Laughs]. I’ve got to have all my parts down because they’re going to bring it, so I gotta make sure I can meet them.
What other roles are you doing this season?
I’m playing Robin Starveling in Dream. Which is great. I’ve directed that show and I’ve played Lysander in it. I remember when I said, ‘I’d like play a mechanical in that show’ and I get to be a mechanical with Stephen Ouimette as Bottom, I mean come on! You get to rehearse with him and the rest of those guys, and to work with Chris [Abraham] again. I’d follow that guy anywhere. I gotta say I feel like I’ve done two seasons going into my third season and I’ve been so lucky to end up on the track that I’ve been in and so much of it is sheer dumb luck, because we all work hard and stuff but I’ve ended up in good shows, working with good people, particularly with Antoni and with Chris. Now going on my third year, each year I’ve worked with both those guys as directors, among others. But both those guys just make good theater and they build good ensembles, they just create rooms that create really, really good work. Good place for actors to work, they really incorporate the whole team, the design team really well. It’s a really good room to create in and they inspire really wonderful creation. That’s been my experience so far. I’m really proud of the shows, the plays I’ve done with them, and I’m really excited to work with them again this year.
What have you been up to in the off-season?
I’ve been hanging out with my kids; I have two daughters and I’ve been getting some much needed time with them, and dealing with house renovations.
Do you have any dream projects?
You know what? For some reason, maybe it’s because I’ve got kids, but I have a thing about wanting to do Peter and the Wolf .[Laughs]. I want to do a whole new version of Peter and the Wolf. I have a memory of seeing it as a little kid, seeing it on stage, and I don’t remember really anything about it other than going to see it and being really excited. I’d love to play Richard II for whatever reason, I love that play. I’ve always loved that play. I went over and saw- the RSC did a history cycle back in 2008 and they did Richard II to Richard III and I saw eight plays in five days over there. I saw the company follow it through and watch the characters develop over the course of those plays and saw this actor Jonathan Slinger play Richard II and he played Richard III as well at the end. But watching his Richard II I- it was the best theater I ever saw. That changed what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it, watching him work and their production of Richard II in particular. It was one of those times where we watch a lot of the plays that we know, like the Shakespeare plays, and you don’t actually get caught up in the story of the play but you get impressed by performances or design elements or something. You know, we sit outside of it a little bit. We watch these great performances and talk about great performances but did we really get caught up in the play or did we just appreciate a really great performance? And more often than not I think we’re really appreciating great performances, and that’s amazing, but when you can go see one of these plays, especially plays you know, and you actually get caught up in the play and get concerned for the characters, you kind of forget you’re watching performances. I remember watching that Richard II and it just took me somewhere else. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it was magic. It was everything the theater can be at its best. They had been rehearsing these shows for a year and a half, two years and they were finally putting them all together because they had done them all kind of separately and they were putting them together so it was special for them and the audience was all there for one week, all of the same audience. It was as close to perfection as I’ve experienced. Just something about that Richard II stayed with me and still stays with me. At some point in my life, I’d love to have a crack at that. I think it’s a little bit of an under-appreciated play in a lot of ways; I could get lost in that one for a while.
And do you have anything else you’d like to add?
I fully expect and hope dearly that I lose to Randy Hughson. I had only seen Godot once before and everyone’s talking about McKellen and Patrick Stewart and their Godot in New York and how good it is, and I bet you it is. But watching [Tom] Rooney and [Stephen] Ouimette in that… What Randy did with Lucky, I didn’t know that was there, that it was possible. Man, he knocked my socks off. I’d seen Lucky and thought I knew what Lucky was, but what Randy did with that was unbelievable, It’s gotta be up there- that history cycle of Shakespeare was sort of like the big theater event of my life, Randy Hughson’s Lucky would be in the top three. I mean, that performance was, you saw it, right?
Oh yeah, agreed.
Right? That was incredible. And Randy is so humble, he put so much into that part, even just thinking about it now just breaks my heart. We did Measure for Measure together and we were next to each other in the dressing room. One of the great things about working there so far, for me, has been the people I get to be around in the rehearsal rooms, and I don’t take that for granted one minute. The cast is great and it’s going to be fun and stuff, but when I was moving chairs- I mean obviously it’s so much more fun saying words than moving chairs, I mean that’s obvious- just being around these people, being around people like Randy and Ger[aint Wyn Davies] and Scott [Wentworth], all of these guys, and Seana [McKenna] and Lucy [Peacock]- I’ve been fortunate now for a couple of seasons and ended up on these same people’s tracks and, obviously you learn lots and all that, but you just… I’m lucky. I’m really, really, really lucky. I’m watching and I remind myself of that all the time. Randy’s Lucky- it’s one of those things where, I know that guy and I’m hugging him after that thing; it broke my heart. So yeah, I fully expect to lose to Randy Hughson and that performance in Godot, that was a pretty special play. That was a pretty special one.