How This ‘Ferryman’ Actor Wrangles Live Animals + a Broadway Performance at the Same Time

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Photo Source: Joan Marcus

Despite its more than three-hour running time, every single moment of Jez Butterworth’s “The Ferryman” is epic and pulsating, and that is due in large part to its cast. A London import, the Northern Ireland–set drama arrived on Broadway this past fall with an ensemble of more than 30 actors of all ages—including a real-life infant, as well as live rabbits and geese. A new group of actors recently inhabited nearly all the roles, one of which being Tom Kettle, the pitiable dolt, and the show’s chief animal-handler, now played by Shuler Hensley.

Weeks into his run, Hensley spoke with Backstage about how live animals keep him in the moment as an actor, as well as his advice for replacing on Broadway.

What was your first introduction to the play?
My initial introduction was my agent and manager calling to say, “There’s a play and they’re recasting” and wanting to see if I would be interested in the role of Tom Kettle. I didn’t know anything about it. When it was in the West End I was over in London, too, doing “Young Frankenstein” so I never got a chance to see it. But I knew Jez’s writing and knew he just doesn’t rush anything. He lets things settle and you can feel that and see it as an audience member, but you really see it as an actor, too, because absolutely everything is in the play. It’s in the script, so my first introduction to the play was that I read it, and that was enough for me to know that this is just extraordinary. And then to add [director] Sam Mendes and the way that they have chosen to stage it is remarkable. But I didn’t see it until we actually had already started rehearsals.

What has the rehearsal process been like?
They have really allowed us to just find these things that are in the script, so it’s not like you’re going to find something revolutionary that the other cast doesn’t find. It’s so clearly and beautifully written that you can trust you’re going to find a journey that you can grab hold of. And the fact that our cast was going in together, it really felt like a rehearsal process for a new piece. We had the advantage of having it mapped out technically, the lighting, sets, stage. But in terms of our relationships onstage and finding out truths about your character, it all felt like a new piece because we were all coming in from the same boat.

Speaking of those onstage relationships, what has it been like to form those bonds?
I know the phrase gets thrown around a lot, but it really is an ensemble show. There is not really a “lead.” It’s really just a family of actors that are going through this three-hour-and-15-minute journey every time we do it. So once again I go back to Jez’s writing. He’s aware of the actor’s mentality, and “I want a good monologue,” and I think we all as actors crave those downstage center moments just because that’s the nature of the beast. This play has that for every single actor onstage. You have those big ensemble scenes, and we spend so much time on those scenes because it’s so important to really try to create those bonds of a family, not just make them symbolic of a family, but really have that. And as a cast, we feel like a family. We do things on and off stage together, and it’s just built a real sense of an ensemble.

Your character at different times handles a live goose and a live rabbit—what has that been like?
My go-to joy in life as an actor is when things, not necessarily go wrong, but when something onstage forces you as an actor or you as an ensemble to be quite literally in the moment. I’ve found that animals and babies are those elements that you just absolutely never know what to expect because they’re unaware of what we’re doing. They are, by nature, in the moment, and there’s the energy that creates, not only with the actors, but with the audience as well because they become aware that that’s an actual goose! That’s an actual rabbit that he’s actually brought out of his pocket, that’s not a stuffed animal! Those things keep me grounded because I know that I can’t get too self-involved because I have a living being on my person that’s going to be doing what it does at any moment, and I have to respond to that. I love it.

How is replacing in a show different from originating a role in a production?
I don’t approach them any different. I’m assuming people have said, “Well I try to respect what has been brought before it,” and to that degree I agree, but as an actor, it’s not really our job to try and recreate a role or performance. It also just goes back to the script. If it wasn’t such a well-written play, I think you would need more help from those that came before to fill in the pieces. But everything you need is really on the page. I think I saw the play twice [before I joined the production], and the only reason I went was to see the logistics of how people were onstage. It wasn’t to try to recreate something, because I really think as an actor I have to find who Tom Kettle is in me, and know that that’s going to be a different person than it was for [the actor before me]. And I think that’s just the approach I have, and I would hope most actors have for anything they do, to try and find what those truths are that they can bring and relate to.

What is your advice for future replacement actors to avoid imitating the performance before theirs?
We are mimics as actors and there’s a phrase that someone said once that’s, “There’s nothing new under the sun.” You are influenced but ultimately for you to connect to the character and for then your audience to connect to you, there have to be moments of honesty and reality, and those are the moments that, as your character, you can personally relate to. It’s like seeing any kind of event in life. If you and I were in the park and we saw a snatching of a purse from someone, even though we saw the same event, our recollections would be different just because of where we were standing and maybe our own history. That’s really true with theater: You respect what’s come before, but also realize that you do have the freedom to make those experiences live for you as an actor.  

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