Zachary Appelman has audiences and critics hailing his royal performance as Henry V at Folger Theatre. He tells us how he prepared for the role and how working with Director Robert Richmond helped shape his powerful performance.
Joel: Why did you want to play the role of Henry in this production at Folger Theatre?
Zachary: A role like Henry V doesn’t come around often, so I jumped at the opportunity to play it. I would have been thrilled to play it anywhere, but that fact that is was going to be at Folger Theatre made it a truly special prospect. The theatre is an amazing place for an actor to work. It is a very intimate space, which allows you to really connect with the audience, while at the same time having the epic feel of an Elizabethan stage. It’s really the perfect venue in which to perform Shakespeare.
Have you performed at The Folger before and/or played this role before?
This is my first time performing at the Folger, and my first time working on Henry V.
What did you perform at your audition and how long after did you receive the call that they wanted to hire you for the role of Henry?
I did a number of Henry V speeches at the audition in NYC last spring. I believe I did the famous “tennis balls” speech, “One more unto the breach…”, and the slightly less well know “Upon the king…: soliloquy. After the initial audition for Robert Richmond, I had a callback a few days later where I did the same speeches again, with Robert giving me some adjustments and directions. Then, before being offered the role, Robert had me meet him for coffee so we could chat a bit and get to know each other. I really appreciated that. It can be quite an intimate collaboration for a director and actor working on a play such as Henry V. Being that we had never worked together before, it was good for us to have a chance to touch base and get a sense of one another before committing to the project. Fortunately, we hit it off and seemed to be on the same page with our thoughts about the role, and about a week later I received the offer.
How did you prepare for the role, and what have been the biggest challenges for you in preparing to play Henry V?
Great interpretations of Henry V have been immortalized on film by Olivier and Branagh, and one of the major challenges is to avoid the giant shadows of those two legendary performances. It can be very crippling to an actor when another person’s interpretation of a role is stuck in your head. With any role I play, the initial starting point is always the text, rather than any one else’s performance in the role. I read and re-read the play numerous times, trying my best to banish any preconceived notions of the role, and simply take as much objective information for the text as possible. I also did a great deal of historical research and read numerous biographies about Henry V. Then, using the text and research as my foundation, I can get in the rehearsal room, start playing with the other actors, and begin to make my own discoveries about the role in the moment.
How do you relate to Henry V and is there anything about him that is Zach-like? What personal experiences did you bring to your performance?
Any time you approach a large Shakespeare role, you are faced with a huge mountain to climb. Inevitably, at times, you feel inadequate, you question whether or not you are up to the task and wonder if you are capable of meeting the demands of the role. Henry is in a similar position. He is a young man, faced with the daunting task of becoming King and leading his nation. He also questions his own abilities, and wonders if he has what it takes. It’s a fortunate situation when the actor’s challenge and the character’s challenge align in such a way. In a way, I can use my own fears and insecurities as a performer to bring some truth to the Henry’s inner life. It’s a bit of a relief actually!
What do you admire about Henry, and what don’t you admire about him? Does he remind you of a current leader and how are they similar?
He’s an extraordinary shape shifter, or performer in a way. He can rise to the occasion and be incredibly powerful, intimidating, and “kingly” when needed, but he can also shed that and be very human and accessible when that is required. He is able to leave behind the decorative, poetic language of the court, and speak in simple, powerful language that his soldiers can connect to. His oratorical skills actually remind me a bit of Bill Clinton’s. His speeches are clear, direct, and accessible, without condescending or playing down to his audience. He uses rhetoric to amazing effect.
You have performed other Shakespearean roles. What other characters that you have played are similar to Henry V?
Henry is very unique. I don’t think I’ve ever played another character quite like him. He is certainly the most demanding role I’ve done so far. On a purely technical level, the amount of text he has is enormous, so it is quite exhausting both physically and vocally. He is also more of an enigma than some of the other Shakespeare characters I’ve played. Although Shakespeare’s characters are always complex, Henry keeps his true intentions quite hidden, more so than a lot of his other Kings, so as an actor, it takes a good deal of detective work to explore what his true feelings are in any given scene. He can be a bit of a mystery, which is very exciting…it leaves open so many surprising possibilities.
What advice and/or suggestions did Director Robert Richmond give you that has helped you shape and mold your performance? How would you describe Robert’s style of directing?
From early on, both Robert and I were eager to explore the complexities of Henry V. He is often thought of as purely heroic, almost superhuman figure, but Robert encouraged me to really explore his humanity, his vulnerability, and some of the more disturbing aspects of his personality. Henry can be quite wild, ambitious, violent, and unpredictable, which is a side of him that is often not played up. Robert gave me permission to explore all of that.
Robert is a wonderfully collaborative director, allowing the actors to bring any and all ideas into the room. He strikes a fantastic balance of leading the company with an intelligent, sharp, creative eye, while empowering the actors to make their own bold choices. It’s one of the most collaborative rehearsals I’ve ever experienced.
What is it about the performances of your fellow cast members that has surprised you and what do you admire most about their performances and working with them?
Henry V is truly an ensemble production. We have a small cast of 13 actors, so you will get to see them all transform and play numerous different roles. I am constantly in awe of my cast mates virtuosity, and the fantastic passion and energy they bring to this show. Without sounding too cliché, it does indeed feel like a “band of brothers.” They are all extremely gifted performers, and I think people will be surprised by how much humor and heart arise as a result of their work.
You appeared in the Broadway production of War Horse. What fond memories do you have about that experience and what did you learn about yourself as an actor while performing in that production?
War Horse was a fantastic lesson in the power of a great ensemble. There were 35 actors, none of whom were big names or stars…just dedicated, hardworking performers. There was a willingness on everyone’s part to do whatever it took to make the show happen. No one was concerned with glamour…when you weren’t playing one of your speaking roles, you might be onstage holding a giant pole to represent a fence, or lying as still as possible on the ground as a dead body. There was no ego…just a wonderful sense of teamwork and pride in what we were creating as a group. I honestly believe I was working with the most selfless, generous performers in the world.
What role or roles that you have not performed yet would you like to perform?
The list is long…There are so many fantastic roles in Shakespeare’s cannon, and I hope throughout my career I could play as many as possible. I would certainly like to go back and play Henry V’s younger self, Prince Hal, in Henry IV, which is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays. I would also love to play Richard II, another one of Shakespeare’s kings, who is a stark contrast to Henry V. Where Henry is a very down to earth, effective leader and a man of the people, Richard II is the opposite, a King so obsessed with his own idea of kingship, but incapable of actually managing his kingdom. Where Henry’s language is simple and direct, Richard’s is extremely poetic and ornate. Henry shies away for the ceremony of kingship, and Richard is obsessed with it. It would be a fascinating contrast to explore.
What advice would you give to a student who is preparing to play Henry V in his university production?
The text is your best friend. Really take the time to study the language. When you get to those famous lines, look at them with a fresh eye. Ask yourself “what do these words really mean? What is he trying to do with these words?” Henry isn’t trying to say famous words…he’s trying to say something that will affect his men. “One more unto the breach, dear friends, once more…” is not a piece of famous poetry…it’s the words of a frightened leader pleading with his exhausted men to give it one more try!
You have done a lot of work at Chautauqua Theater Company. Tell us about that company and the work you have done there. (I am from Buffalo and have been there before).
CTC is a beautiful place to work. I was lucky enough to spend two summer seasons there while I was in graduate school. My first season there, I was invited to play Biff in Death of a Salesman, which was my first large role in a professional company. I was still in the early stages of my training, and was a bit terrified about taking on such a challenging role. Fortunately, Ethan McSweeny was directing. Ethan is not only a fantastic director, but also has the instincts of a great teacher. He really helped me find my way and gain confidence that summer, and helped me make the difficult transition form the classroom to the professional environment. I was invited back the following summer to play Septimus in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. Those two summers were some of the most important in my growth as an actor.
What do you want audiences to take with them after watching you play Henry V?
I hope that audiences will leave the show with an increased appreciation for Shakespeare. Many audience members (especially young ones) come to a Shakespeare play with a certain level of apprehension…Will I be able to understand the language? Will I follow the story? Will I “get it”? If we as performers do our jobs well, the answer to all those questions is “YES!” I get so much joy out of hearing Shakespeare’s words, and I hope to share that with the audience, especially those who don’t think it’s for them.
Henry V plays through March 10, 2013 at Folger Theatre – 201 East Capitol Street, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 544-7077, or purchase them online.
An interview with Director Robert Richmond.
Read Mark Dewey’s review of Henry V on DCMTA.