Into the Maelstrom: An Interview with Hamlet Actor John Douglas Thompson

By Simon Hodgson

Ever since graduating from drama school, John Douglas Thompson has been thinking about playing Hamlet. When he came to A.C.T. in 2015 to prepare for Satchmo at the Waldorf, Thompson talked at length with Artistic Director Carey Perloff about playing the role. This fall, two years after those conversations and two decades after his original yearning, Thompson will step out onto the Geary stage as the prince of Denmark. As A.C.T. prepares for Hamlet, opening September 20 at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater, we met with the Tony Award–nominated actor to talk about this iconic role and the feeling of returning to The Geary. 

Show artwork for A.C.T.'s 2017 production of Hamlet
Photo by Nigel Parry/CPi Syndication.
What is it about Hamlet that draws you toward it?

It’s everything. It’s not just the play but the part itself, because the part is so iconic and synonymous with the journey that the character goes through. It’s been written about more than any other work of literature apart from the Bible, in terms of what people have written about the role, the play, its meaning, and what we can learn from it. There’s something about wanting to be a part of something so massive and universal. To want to throw yourself into that maelstrom. How is Hamlet going to manifest through me? I don’t know, but because Hamlet is such a large thing, I want to see what I will be like in that storm.

This is a part traditionally associated with a younger actor. How do you feel about taking on the role in your fifties?

When I came out of drama school at 29, Hamlet was always in my purview. It was just a question of when. After I did five Othellos, I thought it was too late—I can’t go back and do Hamlet. I must go forward and do Richard III and Macbeth and think about Lear down the road. While I was always looking for the opportunity, I also knew that I was maybe too long in the tooth and that opportunity had passed me by. But Shakespeare’s works are so dynamic and universal that sometimes age doesn’t really matter.

Having starred in Satchmo at the Waldorf at The Geary, what did you take from your first experience at American Conservatory Theater?

It’s not only the theater but it’s also the director. I wanted a theater-maker to do this play. Carey Perloff’s had 25 years creating theater at A.C.T. as well as her years in New York, not only directing, but running a company, writing plays, writing non-fiction. For a play like Hamlet which is so all-encompassing, I wanted a mind that is almost Renaissance-driven, that can see the big picture and notice the intimate details, that has a little of everything and can put it all together. From the small to the large, Carey’s approach fits the nature and size of The Geary. The Geary is the kind of theater that a classical actor dreams of performing in because it really provides the actor with a relationship to the whole. It’s like you’re speaking to the world.

runs September 20–October 15 at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. Want to read more of our interview with John Douglas Thompson? Pick up a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series, at the theater.

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