Behind the Mask

It's been a typical fractured rehearsal day for John Vickery, who plays Scar, the villain of The Lion King, directed by Julie Taymor. He settled somewhat wearily into a seat at the Pantages Theatre, now being painstakingly restored by Disney for its stage production of the most successful movie in the company's history.

"A wig fitting, a rehearsal of the sky walk when Simba and I are on top of the rock—I fall off," he enumerated wryly, "then one of my scenes. There's always something to do if you're not onstage. You can see how many department heads we have." He gestured toward the people clustered around a huge computer bank stretching halfway across the center row: "Lighting department, sound department, puppet department, mike fitters, wig fitters, makeup artists, costume department."

Though Vickery originated the role of Scar in 1997, first in Minneapolis before opening on Broadway, he left the production in 1998. Asked to do it in Los Angeles, where the actor has lived for 15 years, he felt it was "a boon." "Two freeway stops away," he said chortling.

"In some ways, this is a return to my roots. I studied theatre in graduate school at the University of California Davis in the early 1970s, when it was very experimental." The only member of an Oakland, Calif., medical family to go into theatre, Vickery originally majored in mathematics at the University of California Berkeley.

He is an extremely versatile actor in a rare, understated way. A handsome man who has never relied on his looks, he has lent equal conviction to the erotic intellectual Henry in Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing; the epicene hotel manager in Big Business, the Lily Tomlin/Bette Midler comedy; the raffish philosopher Bernard in Arcadia; the baffled stoic clown Estragon in Waiting For Godot; the scathingly sarcastic Scar.

Royal Lineage

Vickery's early stints included the Berkeley Shakespeare Festival, a slim fiery young actor playing the title role in Pericles, Prince of Tyre. He also made a hip introspective Hamlet wearing a black leather jacket in a Berkeley independent production. His big professional break came in 1978 when he did writer/director Des McAnuff's musical The Death of Von Richtofen as Witnessed From Earth at the San Francisco Playwrights Festival and, subsequently, the Public Theater in New York.

"It was supposed to be done in Central Park," Vickery remembered, "but by the time they got all the plans together to build it, it was too late, so we stuffed it into a theatre that had no fly space above. The whole thing was about flying, so it had to be rigged from the side. There was a cast of 25 and twice as many crew members. My hair had to be dyed blond. They had to do it twice, mine is so dark. It felt like ants crawling. I didn't want to come back, so I just endured it." McAnuff also directed Vickery in Henry IV at the Public; the cast included Mandy Patinkin, Kenneth McMillan, John Goodman, Kevin Spacey, and Val Kilmer.

Vickery subsequently replaced Jeremy Irons in The Real Thing. "Four of us new cast members went in at the same time so, un-like most Broadway replacements where you rehearse with the stage manager, we worked with Mike Nichols and Tom Stoppard for a month. Nicol Williamson succeeded me. Then I succeed- ed him in the Chicago production of I Hate Hamlet, playing John Barrymore's ghost. I actually played him twice that year; I did The Royal Family, Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman's play based on the Barrymores."

His last two years have been well spent on screen and in the theatre, including roles in Judging Amy, the television series produced by Joe Stern, who also has a reputation for the consistently high caliber of the stage productions at his Matrix Theatre, where Vickery recently played Estragon in Waiting For Godot. "For some time, Joe wanted to get me into something or other at the Matrix, which I just hadn't been able to do. But when Andy Robinson, the director, told me who the cast was in Godot, I couldn't not work with those people, and I had a great time doing it," said Vickery.

Feline Psychology

Back in The Lion King after a two-year hiatus, Vickery faces new technical and character challenges. "My mask is electronic," the actor reported, "driven by motors and batteries I wear on my thighs. Wires go through the mask, a wire comes down the hand for finger control. I'm not just a guy with a mask on my head. The mask moves according to how I control it with my finger." The only other character in The Lion King with an electronic mask is Mufasa, Simba's father. He uses it once and has only one control. Vickery has two controls and wears it for the whole show.

"It's a little anti-intuitive for an actor to move the mask and drive the thing with finger control, and it's a coordination exercise to get it all going at the same time. Often the mask doesn't move as fast as you want to speak, so you automatically kind of legato"—he drawled the word—"what you're trying to say, because in the time it takes for the mask to come back to my head I'm going to have to stretch this word out. That's where sort of a Cyril Ritchard quality comes in."

"Vickery was the guinea pig, being the first person to try the mask," added director Taymor. "It's like learning to drive. First you master the technical, then feel your own natural instincts flowing into that extension."

"Julie is trying to work more towards reality," Vickery said of the Los Angeles production. "And I have to find reasons for it to be exciting again. Of course, there are all new people. I'm doing it in a slightly different way in this huge special-effects show, taking a slightly more realistic approach to the performance.

"I don't know how real a man with a lion head on top of his head is. You can't really go Actors Studio in terms of style," he said wryly. "But the same things apply to any role. What Stanislavski talked about, that style, has to do with the strength of your effort pattern rather than believability, more to do with size. The same things apply—motivation, justification, how and why you do what you do. I see no difference between this and Godot in terms of what motivates a character. It's just that I fly through the air in this one."

Scar's Trek

Taymor, who made her name as an avant-garde theatre director, was Disney's choice to direct the stage version of their leonine pet, which won 25 major awards, including two Tonys for Taymor—for best director of a musical and best costume design.

Taymor hasn't changed anything fundamentally from the New York production except to find solutions that fit the new company better and this theatre better. The Pantages has 1,000 more seats than the New Amsterdam Theatre in New York. Its stage is not as deep, but it's wider. "So some things are smaller, some are bigger," said Vickery.

An Oberlin graduate who won a fellowship to Indonesia, where she developed an international mask/dance company, Taymor came back with an artistic devotion to multiculturalism and a unique visual daring. For many years she perfected her art in small theatres and operas.

Disney's corporate nostrils twitched at the sweet smell of Taymor's successful children's work The Green Bird, staged at New York's Lincoln Center and the La Jolla Playhouse, and Juan Darien: A Carnival Mass, the musical theatre piece she co-wrote with her longtime partner and collaborator, the composer Elliot Goldenthal.

Taymor had not seen the movie of The Lion King, but after Disney sent her a video and the sound track, she signed on. Taymor is now discussing another musical with Disney, based on the story of Pinocchio.

Speaking of her casting choices, Taymor said: "Scar is always cast with an actor who has done a lot of straight theatre, someone with a commanding presence and voice, who hopefully will not just veer towards camp or villain but find the three-dimensionality of the character, a man who has been wronged and therefore has a deep scar in his psyche." Taymor has said she's very attached to the dryness of Scar's character. "He's very sarcastic, ironic, cutting, in almost anything he says. He's the most sardonic! You can't understand why people don't like him!" Vickery hooted with laughter.

When Taymor auditions, she looks for actors who are going to enjoy the process. "She must have some talent in that area," mused Vickery. "There are 47 people in the cast. I loved all 47 in New York. I like all 47 here. That's unusual. You can have a cast of four, and half of them are assholes."

After this production, Vickery could be his own attraction at Disneyland.

"I just want a free pass for my daughter," he said. Ten-year-old Alexandria talks about being an actress, and Dad isn't sure how much he likes that talk. "But do I enjoy the process? I do," said Vickery, and the resonance that touched Taymor in that casting session echoed in his voice. "I really do!" BSW