From ‘Manhattan’ to Manhattan’s Boards: Three Stars Talk Juggling TV, Stage Work

Manhattan Project Actors on Stage
Courtesy of Joan Marcus and Jeremy Daniels

John Benjamin Hickey, Christopher Denham and Mamie Gummer have gone from “Manhattan” to Manhattan. The trio of actors from the WGN America period drama are on stage in New York this fall in high-profile legit projects just as the much-praised series’ second season is unfolding on WGNA.

Hickey is starring as a gay man grappling with fatherhood in Lincoln Center Theater’s “Dada Woof Papa Hot,” which opens tonight and runs through Jan. 3. Denham is starring opposite Al Pacino in David Mamet’s latest two-hander “China Doll,” which runs Nov. 19 through Jan. 31 at Gerald Schoenfeld Theater. Gummer is playing a Afghanistan war veteran and burn victim in Roundabout Theater Co.’s “Ugly Lies the Bone,” which bowed Oct. 13 and runs through Dec. 6.

In between rehearsals and previews, Hickey, Denham and Gummer took a break at the theater district watering hole Joe Allen last month for an oh-so-actorly conversation about flexing different muscles on stage and screen, why they couldn’t say no to plays during their downtime and the joyous feeling that comes when the work is just right.

Why did you all dive into plays after “Manhattan” wrapped in the summer?

Christopher Denham: When you read a good play it’s hard to resist. There’s almost an anger of ‘Oh f— how can I say no? This has to be the next chunk of my life.’ We can’t stop ourselves. There are easier things to do…

John Benjamin Hickey: There sure are.

Mamie Gummer: But once something feels vital to you, it’s really hard to turn away.

Hickey: You’re so occupied when you’re in theater. (“Manhattan”) is on now and people are watching it, but when you’re in a play you’re so occupied you don’t have a lot of idle time to sit around and second-guess what your future is. Your future is right there in front of you.

Gummer: Sarah Silverman said living in the past is depression and living in the future is anxiety, so all you can do is be in the present. That’s what theater affords you, on good nights. I’ve never felt more alive, in my life, than in this play with a room full of people.

Christopher Denham, John Benjamin Hickey and Mamie Gummer in “Manhattan.”

Hickey: There’s no better feeling than that. In television and film the hardest part is that drive home at night and you know you’re never going to get to do that thing you did today again, and so you hopefully left it all there. You have good days and bad days. Some days you feel like you hit the nail on the head and some days you feel, ‘Why didn’t I do it that way.’ That happens in theater all the time too …

Gummer: But you get to go back and do it again.

Hickey: Right, and slowly the clouds of whatever f— ups you were dealing with on Tuesday night recede because you’re back there. You get that out of your system. You can’t really live in the past because the present is always present.

Denham: You’re still always chasing the beast of it. Mr. Pacino was telling me recently that he did (David Mamet’s) “American Buffalo” for four years, right after (1971’s) “The Godfather.” He toured the world and in this country. In the last few months he discovered he could stand absolutely still for the opening monologue. But it took him four years to find that stillness.

Gummer: And even when you think you’ve found it …

Denham: …there’s no right answer.

Is that same process possible in series television, given the pace?

Hickey: There’s that ineffable thing in television. There’s still so much of you that’s in it. So much of who you are is the work. On a certain level you have to trust your instinct. There hasn’t been a lot of rehearsal.

Gummer: You get the script the day before.

Hickey: It’s hard to trust that you’ve gotten to the essence. But you have to quiet all those questions and go do it.

Gummer: All shows should run the way (“Manhattan” exec producers) Sam Shaw and Tommy Schlamme work. They’re so committed and so devoted to the work and to these people. They’re able to juggle all these things and you can trust that they’re going to keep the ship running.

Hickey: As a actor you love to have somebody very big in charge. Tommy is like P.T. Barnum. He’s got a very big voice, a very big presence and he’s very commanding. I take great comfort in working with somebody who is that passionate, that inexhaustible. It’s 4:30 in the morning and the crew is falling asleep on top of the camera and Tommy has more energy than a 6-year-old. You want to please him.

Denham: You need a guy like that when you’re out in the desert and there’s a dust storm. There’s a granular reality to our show. You can feel the dust in your teeth.

Do you like to know well ahead of time what’s coming for your characters in a season or do you prefer to be surprised week by week?

Hickey: The production gets so ahead of us that there’s literally no time. You’ll be handed a script and rush to the table read and you go ‘Oh my god this is what’s happening.’

Denham: This whole season it becomes like suddenly we’re in a Hitchcock movie. It’s a very different tone.

Gummer: I can’t really talk about my character. But I will say the female characters are on this show are written with such strength. They have equal intelligence as the men. It’s rare.

Had you lined up your legit jobs before you began filming season two of “Manhattan” last spring?

Gummer: I auditioned for it. I knew it was happening before I went to New Mexico.

Denham: Mine didn’t come on to my radar until we were at the TCA in California (in late July).

Hickey: I did a reading of mine two years ago at Lincoln Center with (artistic director Andre Bishop). They asked if this fall would be a good time to do it.

Gummer: Tony Award winners get shows planned around them. [Hickey won a Tony in 2011 for “The Normal Heart”.]

Hickey: (to Denham) Had you known Pacino before?

Denham: No, I just auditioned for it. We had the luxury of doing a few workshops in L.A. before we began the rehearsal process. It’s a new play. It was great to have that time without the clock ticking and just really hammer it out.

What do you find more strenuous— an all-night location shoot or the nightly commitment to a play?

Hickey: This is the first play I’ve ever done sans intermission. It’s phenomenal and also for me an exercise in did I get enough protein that day. I get to the last 20 minutes of the play and then I’m starving. There’s blood sugar issues.

Denham: There’s an athleticism to doing a play.

Gummer: Ours is 70 minutes long. That’s my big plug. I can get anyone anywhere for 70 minutes.

Hickey: With no intermission it’s like a cannon — you just get shot out and you land at the end. I kinda like it.

Gummer: I like anything where I’m on stage the entire time. The grooves just get worn out. You can kind of ride it. You don’t have the opportunity to go off stage and fret about all that you did wrong.

Is there a culture shock for you in working in New Mexico for “Manhattan” and then returning to New York?

Hickey: (Nods.) Most of (“Manhattan”) is shot outside. It’s a very rare television experience. Most TV shows are shot on an airless soundstage somewhere in Williamsburg …

Gummer: If you’re lucky.

Hickey: Right, and whatever atmosphere you have as a photographic image placed outside the window of the skyline of Chicago or something. This is the opposite of that. You’ve got atmosphere coming out your ears. It makes for a very intrepid experience as actors.

Denham: One of the great things about this show is reconnecting with people from my previous lives. In my former life I wrote a play and Mr. Hickey was in it.

Hickey: And Mamie and I did a play together. It is one of the great joys of the show. So many people you’ve known and worked with. There’s an esprit de corps with this show. Everybody pitches in 100%.

Denham: We have the best guest stars — people who could anchor a show. Griffin Dunne, Peter Stormare. It’s a very New York show, which is interesting because they cast it out of L.A.

How does that theater background come into play in doing TV?

Hickey: We’re always surprised that they’re surprised that we’ve shown up and done our homework. Just the basic things of people like us who get to the set early and run lines. By the time we get there we want to know what we’re doing.

Denham: Coming from the theater you have to have a reverence for the text. That’s just what you do. To Tommy Schlamme’s credit he crafted it as a play. (Before the first season) we got to New Mexico to work for two weeks in the space. We were trying to break this thing apart because (Schlamme) knows the more you do in advance the better off you’ll be.

Gummer: A wardrobe supervisor on a movie once told me that she can always tell the theater actors — they’re the ones that hang up their clothes at the end of the night in their trailers.

Do your TV characters live with you after the season is over? Or do you put him or her on a shelf until it’s time to go back?

Hickey: I’m a pretty good compartmentalizer but it stays with me in ways unconsciously. When I’m troubled about doing something they tend to be the same echoes of what the character is troubled about as well. It’s not like I’m a Method actor but I think your unconscious finds ways to behave like that person’s behaving.

Gummer: I think about Nancy Crozier in “The Good Wife.” I can’t believe I’ve been playing her for the last seven seasons. It’s been like one or maybe two episodes per season but the last time I did the show I realized I was 24 when I first created that character. To see how she’s evolved and grown up with me — that’s a fascinating exercise.

Do you watch your work on TV when the shows finally air?

Denham: No.

Gummer: I never watch anything.

Hickey: Neither do I. I’m very, very proud of (“Manhattan”) … But doesn’t it take any actor four times to watch anything before you stop watching yourself? It’s not vanity it’s just — Why did I do that with my hand?

Having started your careers on stage, do you have a preference for theater?

Hickey: Every now and then something happens and you say ‘This is why I chose this play.’

Gummer: This is why I chose this life.

Hickey: Being alive to the possibility of the moment — that’s why the theater is so exciting. It’s not in somebody else’s hands. It’s in your hands. You’re in charge of the narrative.

Denham: Theater is such a nice antithetical counterpart to the world where they can spend so many months premeditating a scene and then the acting is something to be rushed through to get to the next scene. We control this thing (on stage). We find the tempo.

Gummer: Someone once said you are abducted by eternity and you are a captive of time. It feels like when you can hold that present on stage, you feel free to those restraints. You feel like the chains are off.

(Pictured above top: John Benjamin Hickey in “Dada Woof Papa Hot”, Christopher Denham in “China Doll”; Mamie Gummer in “Ugly Lies the Bone”)

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