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Live Wire: An Interview with The Comedy of Errors Star Hamish Linklater

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Live Wire: An Interview with <em>The Comedy of Errors</em> Star Hamish Linklater

What kind of Hamish Linklater fan you are likely depends on what kind of entertainment you take in the most. If you’re a TV buff, odds are you know him from The New Adventures of Old Christine, or maybe Gideon’s Crossing. If you mainly watch films, you’ve surely seen his standout work in a range of projects, from Miranda July’s The Future and the old cult flick Groove to Greta Gerwig’s vehicle Lola Versus and this year’s 42. Theater junkies know Linklater from his extensive work on stage, which dates all the way back to his childhood, when his mother, Kristin Linklater, a vocal technique teacher and current chair of the Acting Division at Columbia University, made him aware of the Bard almost immediately. Throughout his theater career, the 36-year-old has starred with the likes of the late Jill Clayburgh in Off Broadway productions, made his Broadway debut in 2011’s Seminar with Alan Rickman and Jerry O’Connell, and made repeated returns to the Public’s Shakespeare in the Park, appearing in 2009’s Twelfth Night and 2010’s The Merchant of Venice. This season, the actor returns to the outdoor venue in The Comedy of Errors, which reunites him with director Daniel Sullivan and his frequent co-star Jesse Tyler Ferguson.

One of the lightest and breeziest of Shakespeare’s comedies, The Comedy of Errors concerns a classic—or, rather, exceptional—case of mistaken identities, following two sets of twins, both bearing the names Antipholus and Dromio, as they begin to cross paths after being separated at birth. The two Antipholuses and two Dromios are both played by Linklater and Ferguson, respectively, giving actors and director a remarkable challenge. The result is something uncommonly joy-inducing, and after I caught the show (which began previews at Central Park’s Delacorte Theater on May 28, and officially runs from June 18 through June 30), I chatted with Linklater about his diverse acting resumé. Unmistakably earthbound and laugh-out-loud irreverent, the supremely gifted guy had great stuff to offer, like watching Pacino “build an edifice,” getting to know his real-life 42 counterpart (the last Brooklyn Dodger alive from that day), and the priceless virtues of a great prosthetic ass.

I read that you began doing Shakespeare at the age of eight, under the tutelage of your mother when she founded the Shakespeare & Company drama troupe. Do you think it was inevitable that you’d eventually be performing Shakespeare for larger crowds at bigger venues?

I was incredibly lucky that I got to work in the family business, and that the family business was an awesome one. It would have been awesome if we were butchers, too, I’m sure, but it was great. My mom started that company when I was two, so I was just hanging out there for a while, and then when I became useful, when they needed kids to fill the scenes, they started putting me in.

When did it all start to feel like something that could be your own life’s work?

I was always doing plays over the summer at [the Shakespeare & Company drama troupe] or other places, and I went to college to be an English major. I lasted about a year doing that before dropping out and moving to New York, and that was basically because my girlfriend was a senior, and she was moving there, and I was following her. But I also knew that I really just wanted to get started with acting, since that was the most fun.

You’re no stranger to Shakespeare in the Park or Daniel Sullivan, who also directed you in Twelfth Night and The Merchant of Venice. What, for you, makes The Comedy of Errors stand out? Its tone and content are certainly similar to those of Twelfth Night.

Yeah, maybe it’s like a sort of early draft or something. It’s got that wonderful reconciliation at the end when the twins get revealed. It’s a play they did at Shakespeare & Company a lot when I was a kid—it was really a popular show. I was really surprised that they hadn’t done it at the Delacorte Theater for however long [21 years], because it’s actually a really beautifully structured piece and it’s super accessible. The language is really simple for Shakespeare. But it’s also just super fun, and the thing about Dan is that, he directs all these dramas or whatever, but he’s super funny. And with this much physical humor and stuff like that, his impeccable taste was really important. So I think both Jesse [Tyler Ferguson] and I felt really safe going into it, knowing that he would be our sort of shtick barometer, telling us what was okay and was a step too far.

The choreography of some of the slapstick elements is really involved. Was there something especially challenging about it? Because with some of the scenes, there’s so much happening on stage, your eyes just can’t stop moving.

Yeah, it’s a big sprint. I’m like, super sore. My back is super sore. And a lot of it is from running around on the concrete beneath the stage to make the quick changes and stuff like that. My hips, my back—I’m walking around like an old man. And we’ve all been through that at full speed for like a week. So, it’s a monster, but it’s super fun, and you know, you’ll break your back for a laugh, I think, if you’re worth your weight in ha-has. So as long as it gets a laugh, then we’re up for it.

The Comedy of Errors

The production is rare in that it sees you and Jesse Tyler Ferguson each playing both versions of Antipholus and Dromio, as opposed to casting four actors, which has historically been more common. How did you envision, or enliven, your two characters? Because they’re quite different.

Well, I mean, a lot of it is just what Shakespeare gives you: One guy is sort of this innocent, and the one set of twins are, like, the country twins, who are inexperienced and terrified of sin. And the other ones are the sort of city mice. That Antipholus beats his Dromio all the time, and is in the whorehouse, and drinking a lot. So it’s right there. And once Dan set it in this kind of gangster, thirties world, it helped all of that. And what’s also in the text is how the city one uses much shorter words, whereas the country one is much more limpid and his language is a lot dreamier. So you go to Shakespeare’s text for clues, and that’s really fun.

What’s harder: Your incredible, breathless monologue in the final act, or keeping your composure opposite Jesse Tyler Ferguson?

[Laughs] Keeping my composure opposite Jesse Tyler Ferguson, or keeping one’s composure opposite Jesse Tyler Ferguson, is a Herculean effort. I’m surprised that anyone can manage it. But then they do—I mean, look at Eric Stonestreet. They give you Emmys for putting up with Jesse. [Laughs] No, but I’ve known him for a while, and I love him, and it’s really, really awesome getting to do this with him And the last monologue is just a sort of survival thing, because you’re so sweaty and so hot. So it’s been like, “Just get to the end—just get to the end without fainting.”

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