by Thomas Prosser
Our fine character actor, Jon Mullich is playing Richard III in our stage production of the same name this summer at the Eclectic Company Theatre. Jon brings a broad body of work and experience in modern and classical plays. I chatted with him recently about his take on one of Shakespeare’s most maligned and charismatic characters.
Tell us a bit about yourself Jon.
I’m a Valley Boy through-and-through. I was born in Northridge Hospital and have spent most of my life puttering around the San Fernando Valley. I presently live in a condo in Van Nuys that I share with an overstuffed pug with the soul of an angel named Winston.Virtually all of my time is currently devoted to preparing Richard III but whatever moments I have free from that I try to commit to the Pro99 campaign to save intimate theatre in Los Angeles. Actors Equity Association, the professional stage actors’ union of which I am a member, recently revamped their rules under which their members may perform in intimate theatre in L.A., making what was always a financially dicey proposition impossible. We’re doing our best to convince them their new plan doesn’t benefit its members. As for me, 99-seat theatre has provided me with many of my most cherished artistic experiences. I played the title role in Shakespeare’s Hamlet at Theatre Exchange, the very first production done under the 99-Seat Theatre Plan that replaced Los Angeles’ Equity Waiver. I created the lead role of Truffaldino in an adaptation I wrote of Servant of Two Masters set in Prohibition-era Chicago. I have acted in plays by Molière, Ben Jonson, Henry Fielding, Georges Feydeau and even Agatha Christie thanks to the 99-Seat Theatre Plan. I think it is vital to keep it alive; not so much for me, but for the artistic generations that will follow me.
What drove you to become an actor?I don’t view myself as exclusively an actor by any means. I’m an illustrator, web designer, and writer (I wrote and directed U.S.S. Pinafore, a wonderfully popular mash-up of Gilbert and Sullivan and Star Trek that was nominated for a Saturn Award, and I was thrilled when Nichelle Nichols - Lieutenant Uhura of the original series - came to a performance). But I love doing theatre as an artistic collective. I’m extremely fortunate to be playing the monumental role of Richard III now, but I also take great satisfaction by performing more mundane tasks like hanging lights or painting sets. I’m sympathetic to actors who are only interested in acting but I feel my own theatrical experience has been greatly enhanced by a fully rounded exposure to all aspects of mounting a production.
But acting came first and I caught the bug in junior high school. I became addicted to that very dangerous tightrope walk of playing a role for a live audience. There are moments in the theatrical experience when an actor and an audience are so in sync that by some kind of divine providence they merge into a single collective consciousness. I’m not a religious man by any means but on those rare occasions when I’ve experienced that awareness, I’ve felt like I was staring into the face of God. I know of no other creative endeavor that has provided me with that kind of spiritual high. It’s like a drug that I can’t kick.
You’ve done a lot of the Bard’s plays. Favorites plays and roles?
I began my fascination with Shakespeare in high school and embarrassed myself by doing a reading of one of Oberon’s speeches from A Midsummer Night’s Dream without understanding a word of what I was saying. I vowed that I would never do that again and began studying Shakespeare in earnest. I performed as much Shakespearean material as I could (I first did the opening monologue from Richard III when I was 16) and won a trophy at the Drama Teacher’s Association of Southern California Shakespeare Festival for a speech I performed as Caliban in The Tempest. My first full-length Shakespearean role was Claudio in Measure for Measure when I was (I think) 20, and his plays have been my focus, off and on, ever since. The history of Shakespearean performance has become an obsession of mine and there is a section in my website madbeast.com which is devoted to my compilation of the 100 greatest Shakespearean performances of all time, which I’m proud to say is accessed by people all over the world.
If I had to choose a favorite Shakespearean play, I’d go with King Lear. That has so much to say about the essential human condition that I think of it as the greatest work of art ever offered up by a human being. I’ve had the great pleasure of seeing it onstage a number of times, most memorably with Ian McKellen in the title role at the RSC’s Courtyard Theatre in Stratford on Avon. McKellen is the actor I admire the most (his Richard III is the greatest single piece of acting that I have ever witnessed), and it was impeccably staged by Trevor Nunn and featured a stellar cast that included a definitive performance as The Fool by former Doctor Who Sylvester McCoy. I have only performed in one production of Lear so far, a highly stylized production staged by the extraordinary performance artist and director Reza Abdoh, in which I played the Earl of Gloucester. Reza passed away during the AIDS crisis not long after and the world lost a major talent.As for individual Shakespearean roles, I adored playing Malvolio in Twelfth Night. I would come into every rehearsal with a glowing smile on my face and when another actor asked me why, I told him that I honestly couldn’t imagine anything else that I would rather be doing. One performance stands out in my mind in particular. I was playing the scene where Malvolio finds the letter that is supposed to make him believe that Olivia has fallen in love with him. Two little girls rushed to the foot of the stage and fell down laughing at my every move. I wound up playing the scene just for them, to the great delight of the rest of the audience. I shall always treasure that memory.
One of my fondest Shakespearean memories didn’t come from any play. The first time I visited Shakespeare’s birthplace of Stratford on Avon, I took a tour of his childhood home that has been painstakingly preserved by the Shakespeare Memorial Trust. When we were led into the upstairs bedroom, the guide told us that “this was the room that Shakespeare was probably born in.” I has never experienced such an unexpected rush of emotion when I heard that. I felt like someone had slapped me in the face.
How do you see Richard III?
The great English actress Eva La Galliene said that her approach to acting was “to take the ‘me’ out of the role.” Mine is the opposite: to find the “me” in the role. As despicable a character as Richard is, I can’t help but have enormous sympathy for him. When I put on his skin and find myself alive in those glorious scenes, my entrails process a lot of what Richard goes through that rings true for young Jonny M. as well. There’s a wonderful line in the film Capote where Truman Capote is talking about the mass murderer Perry King and says “it’s as if Perry and I grew up in the same house and one day he stood up and went out the back door while I went out the front.” That’s kind of how I feel about Richard III. He is a monumental larger-than-life Shakespearean character to be sure, but there is a fundamental humanity to him that moves me on a very personal level.
What can you say about Richard III historically that is not generally known?
The historical Richard doesn’t interest me that much as an actor playing the role. It’s clear to me that Shakespeare wasn’t trying to produce an historical chronicle so much as present an emotionally manipulative character assassination of an ancient adversary of the present monarchy to please the current rulers. I approach the play as a work of fiction. But it’s irresistible not to do some research on the historical Richard, and I’ve had a number of interesting conversations on the subject with my friend Jesse Merlin, who brilliantly plays the Duke of Buckingham in our production.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Richard was that he was a popular and progressive monarch for the age. He established the Council of York, which is thought to have greatly improved conditions for northern England. He instituted the Court of Requests, where poor people who could not afford legal representation could apply for their grievances to be heard. He endowed King’s College and Queens’ College at Cambridge University. He planned the establishment of a large chantry chapel in York Minster. Not bad for a guy who only reigned for about three years.
Talk a bit about your preparation for the role. You’ have been working on it for some time now, right?
The director Natasha Troop cast me in her production at the tale-end of December last year. The staging was not conceived in any way with me in mind; Natasha had some highly original and exciting ideas for the play and the role and was looking for an actor who could manifest them. I had been a member of the company since September when I played Thomas Jefferson in Three Really Offensive About the Founding Fathers, which Natasha had stage managed. I had expressed interest in the role when she announced the production at the company meeting so we met at a Starbuck’s and talked about the play and the character for a couple of hours, and found ourselves to be wonderfully in sync about how he should be interpreted. I then auditioned with the famous scene where Richard seduces Lady Anne over the corpse of her husband’s father, and a few days later she told me the role was mine.
I had seen a number of Richards on stage: the fore-mentioned McKellen at UCLA’s Royce Hall; an unhappily cast Rene Auberjonois at the Mark Taper Forum; my old friend Kevin Carr in a wonderful performance at the cherished Globe Playhouse in West Hollywood. To prepare to play the part myself, I watched the Olivier film (which I respect, although I dislike his cutting and rearranging of the text which includes sections of adaptations by Colley Cibber and David Garrick as well as dialogue from Shakespeare’s “prequel” play Henry VI, Part III), the brilliant Ian McKellen film (which is inspired although it cuts the text of the play to the bone) and the 1983 BBC-TV production starring Ron Cook. That last one was especially instructive because it presents the uncut text of the play. I was also bowled over by it because prior to seeing it, I had always thought of Richard III more as a showcase for the leading actor than as a complete play, but the performer who most affected me was an actor named Anthony Brown in the comparatively minor role of Ratcliffe. Ron Cook was terrific and Julia Foster was memorable as Margaret of Anjou, but my eyes were glued to the screen when Anthony Brown appeared. It taught me something about how much rounder the play was than I had originally thought.The rest of my preparation was studying the text of the play, or rather “texts” because I think it’s helpful to read multiple editions to draw from. For instance, when I played Hamlet I was accustomed to saying “Oh that this too, too solid flesh would melt.” But I came across one edition of the play that laid out the line as “Oh that this too, too sullied flesh would melt.” A subtle difference, but one I felt that far better communicated the ideas that Shakespeare was expounding on at that point in the play. I began by reading Shakespeare’s precursor to Richard III, Henry VI, Part III, in which the young Richard Plantagenet is introduced. I spent 3-5 hours every day reading the text of Richard III, memorizing the text, reciting the text. My poor little dog would get quite upset by constantly being shouted at by the hunchbacked king of England.
What has been the biggest challenge for you in the role of Richard III?
Monty Python does a wonderful sketch called “The Royal Hospital for Over-Acting,” the most serious of whose patients are placed in the Richard III Ward. It’s a funny scene but it really is a good example of the traps that the character presents if an actor playing the part over-indulges himself. Richard has the stigma of being a “great” role that requires a “great” actor, and the initial impulse is to want to give a “great” performance. That can lead to a lot of meaningless histrionics which have nothing to do with the journey of the character. I found that out early on at ECT’s monthly Shakespeare Salon when I tried out Richard’s famous speech after he awakes from a dream in which the ghosts whom he had murdered cursed him. I did a lot of scenery chewing and gnashing of teeth and I realized as soon as I had finished that I had been showy and false. That taught me a lot about how I wanted to approach the character, especially in a small theatre like the Eclectic where the audience is so close to you that they’re going to notice every false move. Richard is a role that a lot of actors have had historic successes at but just as many - Master Betty, José Ferrer, Richard Briers - have suffered embarrassing failures. I think Al Pacino is a superb actor but the scenes he performs from the play in his documentary Looking for Richard contain some of the worst acting that I’ve ever seen, because he is working so hard at acting that he never seems to be being. My challenge has been to explore the truth of the role and avoid showing off.
What drives Richard to act as ruthless as he does?
Richard begins the play with some impossible aspirations and there is no way to achieve them without being ruthless. Edward IV is the sitting king and his two children as well as his brother George, the Duke of Clarence are in front of Richard in the line of succession. There is no way for him to achieve his goal without murdering his entire family. His problem is that after he’s won everything he wanted, he thinks that he has to continue his murder spree to, in his words, “stop all hope whose growth might damage me.” I view Richard as a paranoid schizophrenic in the second half of the play. That is especially apparent in the scene where he accuses Lord Stanley of going to join the opposition. I call that “The Richard Nixon Scene.”
Is he an underdog? Can he be played that way?
I wouldn’t characterize Richard as an underdog because there is no point in the play where it seems that he has little chance of winning. The fascination is watching this intelligent, charismatic, ruthless creature grab power without any regard to human consequence. The most comparable contemporary character to Richard for me is Michael Corleone, but he is aware of what he has had to sacrifice on his coldblooded journey to the top. For Richard, all there is is power until after he has his dream. But while that scene is memorable and affecting, it is momentary and Richard is back to normal the following day. A famous line from the Colley Cibber adaptation that was the most popular version of the play for 150 years (and used in Olivier’s film) comes after Richard has his dream and is preparing for battle the next day. He looks at the audience with cold amusement and announces “Richard is himself again.”
How do you think his hump and physical infirmities affect him and his actions?Richard’s physical deformities were introduced to the public consciousness by Thomas More (the subject of the play A Man for All Seasons) in a book titled The History of Richard the thirde (sic), which Shakespeare used as a source. Since Richard’s remains were discovered in 2012, we now know that he wasn’t a hunchback at all but suffered from scoliosis which resulted in a twisted spine. Micah Watterson, who plays Richmond in our production, was telling me about a documentary he had seen where the Battle of Bosworth Field was reenacted with a man who has a case of scoliosis similar to what Richard had, using armor and saddles modeled after those of the period. Micah told me that the man said he found riding in that saddle far more comfortable than modern saddles, because it adjusted for his center of gravity.
But I don’t think that Richard’s physical infirmities are as much about affecting him as they are about affecting how the other characters view him and how the audience responds to him. Richard never expresses any angst or self doubt as a result of his physical limitations, although his speech at the beginning of the play could be interpreted as his being bitter about them. But my opinion is that Shakespeare’s intention was to represent the physical twisting of his body as a sign of his twisted character. I do take issue with actors who make Richard so disabled that it seems unlikely that he would be able to take part in hand-to-hand contact. Natasha and I gave a lot of thought to that and I think the way his handicaps are depicted in our staging are quite effective.
But that is not to say that Richard is completely unaffected by his physical limitations. Early in the rehearsals, I was inspired by the great scene in The King’s Speech where Colin Firth’s character is insensitively mocked by his brother for his stutter. It occurred to me that Richard would have had to confront that kind of insensitivity a lot when he was growing up, and that shaped his later actions. Anyone familiar with the play will find a different approach to many of the characters than is typically presented, and I think the effect will be very interesting indeed.
Anything else you wish to add?
There is a tendency to place all the credit for a production of Richard III on the humped back of the actor playing the titular role. But this is Natasha Troop’s vision of the play and I have been honored to depict that vision. And my performance has been shaped by my wonderful colleagues, many of whom are old friends of mine; Jesse Merlin, Glenn Simon, Tim Polzin and Melody Doyle, to name just a few. As we work towards opening night, my pride grows at what we are achieving together.
You’re opening July 24th and will run thru the month of August. I look forward to seeing you opening night and wish you the best of luck.