By Paul Horsley
For actor Nathan Darrow, Hamlet is not some dreamy philosopher pondering the meaning of life. The title character of Shakespeare’s essential play is asking some very specific questions: What the heck is going on here, in this nation that I’m supposed to be ruling one day? Does my mother love me? Does she know who killed Dad? Are my friends really my friends?
“Hamlet is a person who is not interested in just the answers that make him comfortable,” said Nathan, a KC native who stars in the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival’s 25th anniversary production of Hamlet running through July 2nd. “He wants the real thing. … He is completely rocked by events that have occurred before the first words are spoken.”
This prince is as sharp as nails, Nathan said, but he feels the world crumbling beneath his feet, and he spends the entire play trying to figure out what is to be done. The Kansas-born actor likes that groundedness. “He doesn’t go around wondering about the meaning of life. He investigates very, very closely these specific, essential questions. … ‘What is my job right now?’ Because as the person who always figured he would be in charge … the lives of the people in this country are important to him.”
Known to many as Kevin Spacey’s taciturn bodyguard Edward Meechum in HBO’s House of Cards, Nathan has also appeared as Mr. Freeze on Fox’s “Gotham” and Mark Danzig on Showtime’s “Billions.” Most recently he starred with Robert De Niro in the HBO film Wizard of Lies about the Madoff scandal, which garnered accolades across the board.
But the Shawnee Mission North grad, who attended New York University, began his stage career locally: not just at HASF (Romeo and Juliet, Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing) but also at KC Rep, KC Actors Theatre, the Unicorn and the New Theatre.
It was on a whirlwind international tour of Richard III that Nathan befriended Spacey (who as one can imagine was a force of nature in the title role), and the next thing he knew he’d been cast in one of the most talked-about shows in TV history. But when Festival Executive Artistic Director Sidonie Garrett invited Nathan to play Shakespeare’s plum role, he was as excited as ever. “Nothing career-wise is going to keep me from doing Hamlet,” he said of the play he’s been pondering since his youth.
“This play came to me at a very, very fertile time in my life, as a person and as an actor. I think I was 15 when I first read it, and it sort of imprinted itself. It’s one of those plays that you just think about a lot.” He’s of course seen plenty of productions of it, but he has also listened to what others have to say about Hamlet. “It’s everyone’s story, you know? We all have something in it.”
Is he daunted by all the greats who have appeared in the role through the centuries, and does he research those? Yes and no. “These plays are colossal. They’re more than one person. And it’s a beautiful thing that they get to be worked on again and again and again. Because it becomes like a group effort: Everybody is turning the crystal a bit and a different bit of light is coming off of every one.”
For Sidonie, who has worked with Nathan many times through the years and directs this Hamlet, he was a natural choice. “I’ve seen the different colors he’s able to bring to life,” she said. “And seeing him on the screen in my living room just sort of reinforced that memory of him as an actor.”
Plus, Sidonie added, the cast of local superstars could help propel this production to one of the Festival’s finest moments. “It’s great to have a group of collaborators that are working well together, that appreciate each other and have respect across the board. I feel really confident in the storytellers we have to bring it all together.”
As for the multiple demands of jumping from stage to screen and back again, Nathan said he welcomes the range. “It’s all acting,” he said, adding that the late, great Romanian film director Liviu Ciulei, told him years ago that “The truth has no size.”
Actors are challenged to find the core of a story regardless of the scope of the medium, Nathan said, and that includes both TV shows (in which you film fragments that are later put together in a fashion over which you have little control) and outdoor performances with no “back wall” and plenty of ambient nature-sounds. “Performers try to train their instruments to be expressive, and that instrument is naturally going to adapt to whatever it is they’re performing in. … The search is to find yourself in the story, to find the real truth of it. That is work enough.”
Without doubt, the future looks bright for Nathan, but he said becoming a sort of household name has not blown up his ambitions to be a headliner. Mafia kingpin? Romantic lead? Walter White? Which would it be?
“I have no idea,” he said with a laugh. “I guess the terrible answer is, I kind of want to play it all. I’m interested in all the parts.” More than that, though: “I’m interested in what really talented people who do this for a living think that I would be good in. It’s not always just what I think. If the story is good and the writing is good and it’s ‘lighting me up’ and I’m working with talented people, I’m going to be very, very satisfied.”
The production also stars John Rensenhouse (Ghost), Bruce Roach (Claudius), Jan Rogge (Gertrude), Hillary Clemens (Ophelia), Matthew Schwader (Laertes), Mark Robbins (Player King), Robert Gibby Brand (Polonius), Jake Walker (Horatio), Darren Kennedy (Rosencranz), Matt Rapport (Gravedigger), Collin Vorbeck (Guildenstern), Kendra Keller (Player Queen/Court Lady) and others.
Hamlet runs through July 2nd at Southmoreland Park just west of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. For more information go to kccshakes.org. Lawn seating is free. For reserved seating call (816) 531-7728.
Photo at top, of HASF’s 2013 As You Like It, is by Zachary Andrews.