Tackling Hamlet

Actor Gabriel Vaughan talks about theater's most terrifying role.

click to enlarge Gabriel Vaughan - Tony Gale
Tony Gale
Gabriel Vaughan

It's the part actors dream of, probably the best-known character in the entirety of Western drama. It's Hamlet, and next weekend, when Shakespeare's play opens at American Stage, Gabriel Vaughan will be "the observed of all observers." A Sarah Lawrence College grad and London-trained actor, Vaughan, 29, has lived in NYC since 2000; a "survival job" with a casting studio keeps him solvent between gigs. He sat down with me recently in the American Stage lobby to talk about the role.

CL: What's it like to play the most celebrated role in all of world theater?

Vaughan: Oh, it's at once a blessing and a terrifying, thrilling experience. It's a lot, all at once.

What's terrifying about it?

Well, I've had to ... really distance myself from all the prior 400 years of weight that just comes with a part like this. ... A very good friend of mine who's played the role before, he said, "I'm going to give you one good piece of advice, and it's 'Don't look at how anyone else has done the role.' There are a lot of books about how actors have worked on it, and just come to it yourself." And that's what I've been really looking at, and I think I'm on the right course with that approach.

Of course, the greatest mystery about Hamlet is why he doesn't kill [King] Claudius after being told by the Ghost to do so. Why doesn't he?

He's a person who has the intelligence and the know-how to act, but has these restrictions, this coil of humanity that for him holds him back. And I've really tried to focus on that, to connect with that part in myself where there are things I know I want to do but I'm afraid I might mess them up.

Is Hamlet a coward?

I think he's very cowardly, yeah, I do. It's not for lack of trying, though. And there's something courageous in the trying, even if you don't get it done. So are you a coward in the end? I don't know.

How are you playing the relationship between Hamlet and his mother? Sometimes that's performed as if there's a sexual element there. He tells her very directly to stop sleeping with his uncle.

There's a jealousy, but it's connected to a care for her. And how far that goes — it certainly gets into some uncomfortable kind of situations. I mean, we touch on that, 'cause it's right there in the text. There are a lot of very potent sexual words in that scene. And so you can't ignore them.

Does Hamlet love Ophelia?

Absolutely.

He treats her very badly for someone who's in love.

I think that when we have love taken away from us, when we find out that the person we do love has conspired with others against us, that they are shunning our love, many of us will respond very strongly to that loss and to that hurt.

So Hamlet's anger is coming out of hurt.

I think so.

What would you say to a young actor reading our interview who wants to move to New York?

I would say, absolutely go. ... Give it a month or so to see if you're going to like it, because you'll know pretty quickly if it's the kind of energy that you can manage. And the key for me was finding a ... nice place to go back to at the end of the day. I live in Brooklyn now and have a wonderful place. There's a little garden there, and it's very quiet and it's set apart from that go-go-go energy that's in Manhattan where I am all day. ... Some people can get by having a postage-stamp little room in Manhattan, and all they do is temp and audition. But I'm in this for the long run, I mean, this is what I just know I'll be doing forever.

Have you been out and around in St. Petersburg since coming here?

Very little. On our last day off, [some actors and I] drove over to Fort DeSoto Park and went to the beach there, which was really wonderful. I'm absolutely loving the weather. I left New York City and it was 11 degrees, and I showed up here and it was 75. So I'm enjoying that.

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