Actors, start your epiphany

Big bang or tiny tweak, thesps get into their stage roles

For Simon Russell Beale, it was the sweater. “I need a cardigan,” the actor said during rehearsals of “Jumpers.” “This man would wear a cardigan.”

Donna Murphy had a similar costume moment in “Wonderful Town.” “I was in the dressing room, and I had my makeup, my wig, my hat on, my bra. Then I put on the underwear with the lace for the first time. It’s like a long-line girdle, and I said, ‘Holy crap, that is Ruth!’ ”

Denis O’Hare got word that he should wear a hat to play presidential killer Charles Guiteau in “Assassins.” He resisted. “Oh, hats and canes are very dangerous onstage,” he opined. But director Joe Mantello persisted. “In the end, when the executioner takes my hat off,” says O’Hare, “it terrifies me.”

Most portrayals emerge slowly after long, arduous rehearsals. But sometimes there is a moment, an epiphany in which everything comes together. It can be the costume or a bit of research. Occasionally, someone says something that makes it all click.

In “Frozen,” Swoosie Kurtz plays the mother of a child who is murdered by a serial killer. From the beginning, director Doug Hughes eschewed a noble, heroic approach. “Doug told me the mother has her limitations,” says the actress. “She is myopic, she has blinders on. That made it so clear.”

During Off Broadway previews of “Caroline, or Change,” George C. Wolfe took his star Tonya Pinkins aside. “Uh-oh, what did I do wrong?” she recalls. “Until now, we had always talked about how ‘Caroline’ was an ensemble piece.” But Wolfe reversed himself, telling her, “You are the event.” Pinkins finally got it: “Caroline is every woman. She is every angry woman.”

Margo Martindale’s Big Momma in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” was less of a stretch for the actress. “I feel this character has been in me all my life,” she says. Director Anthony Page obviously agreed. “Just jazz it,” he told her. According to Martindale, Tennessee Williams said he wanted a 170-pound sumo wrestler to play Big Momma. “I don’t think anyone has ever taken that view before. But hey, I’m from East Texas.”

For Phylicia Rashad, the moment in “A Raisin in the Sun” arrived the first time she rehearsed act two, scene two. “It’s the scene about the money, and I had no idea what would happen,” says Rashad. “We didn’t have any discussion about it, and I felt this heat in the center of my spine rise up, and then I couldn’t see, and the scene was going on, and then it was over. It was this burst of energy inside, and it was hot and it was in my spine. Yes, that was an epiphany.”

Raul Esparza spent a week with his “Taboo” character in London. The real-life Phillip Salon introduced himself by wearing a dozen garbage bags and a Vivienne Westwood turban. “We stayed out until 4:30 a.m. going to the clubs. But Phillip wasn’t frivolous. If there were any homeless in Piccadilly Circus, he made sure they were taken care of.” Kindness mixed with eccentricity, “I knew that’s what I had to capture,” says Esparza.

Frank Langella’s flamboyant dance instructor in “Match” is also based on a real person, Archie Poulin. “It’s the first time I’ve played someone who is living,” says Langella. So what did he learn from his conversations with the real thing? Langella demurs, “He told me things that I can’t possibly repeat in the press.”

(Zachary Pincus-Roth and Marilyn Stasio contributed to this report.)