Like Climbing a Mountain: An Interview with Hamlet Actor John Douglas Thompson

By A.C.T. Publications Staff

Reviewers have lauded John Douglas Thompson’s performance in A.C.T.’s production of Hamlet. Charles McNulty of the Los Angeles Times says Thompson “shatteringly portrays the melancholy Dane” in a way that “heightens the plight of a character forced by treacherous circumstances to relinquish his youthful ideals.” The San Francisco Chronicle’s Lily Janiak says “Thompson’s crisp and loving enunciation of every consonant” is a “testament to the power of classical training if there ever was one.” We sat down with the Tony Award–nominated actor to gain insight into his process as an artist and how he approached creating this demanding role.

John Douglas Thompson in A.C.T.'s Hamlet. Photo by Kevin Berne.
The character of Hamlet has almost 1,500 lines. How much of a challenge was this to take on?

When I did Tamburlaine the Great, people would ask me, “Why are you doing it?” Here’s a play in which I had 1,700 lines, more lines than Hamlet, a larger role than anything in Western literature. Part of the attraction was that it was this huge mountain which was in front of me—I wanted to see if I could climb it and see what was at the top. It was arduous, physical, and intellectually rigorous work, but I did it. Had I tried to climb the Tamburlaine mountain and failed, I probably would have had second thoughts about trying to do Hamlet.

Where do you get inspiration for creating characters?

What makes acting wonderful is that we’re constantly doing research on the streets of our lives. I walk around the street. I look at people. In my mind, I’m thinking, “This person moves like a Hamlet or they’re dressed like a Hamlet or they’re posed like a Hamlet, or they’re talking to someone like Hamlet would be in a state of anger or joy or anxiety.” I’m always on the lookout for little things that I can bring into the patchwork of the character. It can be an item of clothing, a gesture, or a piece of music that speaks to me.

What part of the production process has been the most fulfilling?

Finding Hamlet’s journey for myself. There’s something about finding the parameters of performance and testing those boundaries. The joy of this is finding my way. It’s a painful, arduous, joyful, anxiety-ridden process.

Oftentimes I look at characters like Hamlet or Tamburlaine and say to myself, “You’re not going to be able to climb this mountain. You’re in over your head. You’re going to be discovered as a phoney.” That’s in the artist’s mind—I’m not going to succumb to it but that’s the built-in fear. When I start a project it can feel like I don’t understand what it means. I’ve been reading this play, I’ve been talking about it for years, and now I’m doing it and I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. That’s a good place to start. Then you hope to get to that moment in rehearsal when you see something in your mind’s eye and it can be manifested through your physical and emotional life in the play. And that’s a great moment, because the work paid off.

A.C.T.’s TBA–recommended production of Hamlet runs through October 15 at The Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. To read more of our interview with John Douglas Thompson, order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

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