In the western canon’s most legendary role, the incredibly versatile Scott Walker delivered a true Outstanding Actor turn in Hamlet marked by clarity of purpose and grounded character psychology.
We talked to the Unit 102 standout about taking a year to learn his lines and dealing with a gold-digging Claudius young enough to be his brother.
Can you remember the first theatre production you ever saw?
It was probably some pantomime, something like Puss in Boots. The first thing I can actually remember for sure is The Mousetrap. Whatever it was, it was clearly very high art.
How did you develop as an actor?
Mostly, I tried to avoid doing it by doing everything else under the sun. Then I realized that no matter what, I was always going to end up back at the old acting thing because my life falls apart when I don’t do it. At that point I studied some Meisner technique then went to New York to learn from the folks at David Mamet’s school because he was my hero. They taught me what it means to be an actor.
What’s your favourite role you’ve ever played?
Do you have a dream part you’d like to play one day?
Tell us about the formation of Unit 102. What are the company’s goals?
We’re always asking ourselves the same question. It’s really been an organic process. We started this thing because we wanted to put on plays and we didn’t want to wait for the phone to ring. Somehow, years later, we’re still doing it and we’ll probably keep doing it until someone makes us stop. It has evolved though, and I think we’ve become a bit of a home for theatre people who might not otherwise have one. We’re also constantly trying to tear down the walls that keep people away from the theatre. We do that by telling stories. That’s our focus, no matter what we’re doing, the story comes first because that’s our way of reaching out to our particular audience. We also believe that good theatre can be made even if you seemingly have nothing to do it with. Even if we have absolutely no money for a project, we hold ourselves to high standards and try to deliver the best experience we can. Amidst all the fooling around we take it pretty seriously.
Did you choose to produce Hamlet knowing you wanted to take on the title role? What drew you to the play?
I had been talking about doing Hamlet for a long time, but always rather quietly. I mean, it’s such a daunting task and you’re kind of throwing your hat in the ring with the giants. Part of doing it is knowing that and thinking about that. But it just felt like it was time. There are all kinds of things I could point to that drew me to the play, but in the end I did it because I followed my intuition. Hamlet’s struggle with his father and dealing with his death was very close to me as was Hamlet’s melancholy. Those are specific themes that I can point to, but by the time we were performing the play, those concerns had very much receded into the background and the appeal had become something different. Really, I just love the way Hamlet thinks about the world, and how universal he feels. Also, it’s a revenge story where everyone dies at the end in a big, bloody mess. Which I love.
So you’re handed a mammoth role like Hamlet- where do you start?
You learn the lines. I gave myself a year. I went a little nuts, to be honest. I spent a lot of time locked in a room like some bizarre monk, pulling the play apart, sometimes word by word. It’s really all there for you in the words so if you start there by the time you get to actually doing it, you just sort of jump off the cliff and speak.
What was it like working with director Jesse Ryder Hughes? How did his ideas about the role mesh with your own?
We worked pretty closely right from the beginning. We cut the play together and started talking about some of the monologues long before we started rehearsals. Throughout the process we were pretty much on the same page. We have very similar approaches and ideas about how Shakespeare should be done. We both wanted to make it accessible and find the excitement in the play, while still always rooting it in how the language works. The language is key, it gives you everything you need. Jesse also really wanted to bring the comedy out in the play, which was something I became a big fan of. I think we often forget the humour in this play. There’s a lot of humour there and it’s a great lesson in how to approach life, I think. How else do you deal with the absurdity of all this? There were a lot of times when Jesse had to push me to find what was funny, but it’s there for a reason, and by the end of the run, I think the thing I missed most was how funny I think this guy Hamlet is.
Hamlet has been called everything from a scholarly prince to an emo coward, a tragic hero to a whiny brat- what were the traits you zeroed in on for your performance?
I had to think of it in terms of physical traits. I saw him as swift and wily and somewhat like a dancer or a fencer. So I took dance classes and fencing classes. The thing about Hamlet is that the character is so deep that he can hold whatever you pour into the role. And what comes out the other end will be different based on who plays him. It’s one of the reasons why the play is still done, because there isn’t one right interpretation. So physically I made some decisions but the rest just sort of had to be discovered as we went along. It was a bizarre experience playing this guy where I felt like I actually became him in a lot of ways, while also feeling like he’s a fully formed human being who you were getting to know. It’s hard to explain, but I think it’s something inherent in the play. I would guess most actors playing Hamlet have a similar experience.
Claudius in the Unit 102 production (Jeff Irving) was much younger than most actors who play that role. How did that dynamic affect the relationship between your Hamlet and his uncle?
We talked a fair amount about it. Jeff’s take was that Claudius was a little bit of a gold digger and he played it with such relish that I just wanted to skewer him right off the top of the play. Which is great, because Jeff’s actually the nicest guy in the world, so the fact that, age-wise, he could have been my brother and now he was sleeping with my mother just gave it that extra bit of sordid to make me hate the guy. So, yeah, playing with Jeff was lots of fun.
You’re nominated alongside Lauren Horejda who played a gender-bent Rosencratz.What can you tell us about working with her within the new relationship context created by the unorthodox casting?
It’s funny, but now I can’t really imagine Rosencrantz and Guildernstern as anything other than women. There was a whole layer of sex that just seemed to be waiting there for someone to come and collect. It actually became really interesting because so much of the play is about how Hamlet relates to the women in his life and how disturbing that relationship often is. I remember the first rehearsal with the two of them, and they came out just oozing so much sexuality and I wasn’t really expecting it. It completely threw me. So, as Hamlet, it became something that had to be dealt with all the time.
Hamlet’s soliloquies are some of the most famous speeches in the Western canon. Which one did you find the most challenging, or which forced you to delve deepest?
The first one was always the hardest. Like a lot of Shakespeare it requires a lot of negotiation between intellect and emotion, and it’s first. The play is so well written that when you’re acting it, one thing leads to another at such speed that you don’t have time to think, you just keep going. And the soliloquies start to make sense in the context of the whole in ways that they can’t when taken in isolation. So by the time you get to “To be or not to be..” you have a reason to say those words and you’re fuelled by what just happened. Which is a relief because you don’t have to think about the fact that you’re saying those famous words, and, how the hell do you say those words? Except the first speech, because it’s the beginning. Once you begin the rest just plays itself.
Did you have a favourite moment in the production?
That’s a hard one. There were so many. One moment that was fantastic was one night I was doing one of the soliloquies and someone dropped something in the first row. And the object hit the floor with a fair amount of volume. Somehow the next line was “I have heard that guilty creatures sitting at a play…” which of course you absolutely have to deliver to the poor audience member. You could feel a palpable shift. From that moment, the whole audience was on Hamlet’s side. Moments like that are the Goddess of Acting smiling on you. And she has a sense of humour.
You’re also nominated as part of the Outstanding Ensemble of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. Tell us about your experiences playing multiple roles in that production.
Stephen Adly Guirgis is such a brilliant writer that, again, you just have to get out of the way and say the words. There’s a certain amount of technical work you have to do to differentiate the characters but his plays almost run themselves. The man’s an absolute gem. That cast was also wonderful to be a part of as everybody seemed to be firing at such a high level. I think that group of people really saw what was great about the play and went with it. It helps that the writing there is actually about something so you feel like it’s important.
Unit 102’s third nominated production this year is Lakeboat, which you directed. What were some of the greatest challenges and rewards of taking on a Mamet text?
The plan this time was to really slow down the process and take the time to figure out what the characters were thinking and how they were relating to each other. I think that one of the traps with Mamet’s stuff is that there is a perceived way of speaking it, which has to be taken into account. It needs to be delivered at a certain speed and with a certain rhythm, but I really wanted to leave that until the end of the process so that we didn’t flatten out the characters and turn them into Mamet robots. It required a lot of faith in the process but we had a salty bunch of actors who were up for the challenge. And the payoff if you can get there is big, mostly because it’s so much fun to act the thing at that point.
Tell us about working with Mark Paci to develop his Outstanding Supporting Actor-nominated performance in Lakeboat.
Well, Mark’s a powerhouse of an actor and he works so damn hard. The trick with the character of Fred was to find a way to make him relatable and to tell this guy’s story without judging him. So much of what he says is downright crass but we worked hard to make him a real person with a certain view of the world. Mark brings a combination of toughness and a childlike innocence to everything so ultimately, if he could just find a way to relate to what Fred wanted in every scene then he was off to the races. Somehow, after all our discussions it all came down to how many cigarettes this guy was smoking and where the scraper was so Mark could scrape the rust off the boat.
Unit 102’s designer Adam Belanger is competing against himself in the set design category for his work on Last Days of Judas Iscariot and Lakeboat. Give us the pitch for why Lakeboat should win of the two.
We built a ship in a black box at Queen and Dufferin. What you got, Judas?
What are you up to now/next?
I’m trying hard to take some time to finish up a play I’ve been writing, and putting a lot of effort into the running of the theatre. I’m really enjoying our Operation 24 events and the various one-offs we’re doing. In June I’m teaming up with Anne Van Leeuwen to do Much Ado About Nothing as a Unit 102/Leroy Street Theatre co-production. I’m excited to sample a little lighter fare and we’re doing it outside which I think will be a little summertime magic.
Do you have anything you’d like to add?
Thanks for having me. Much fun.