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Broadway Q&A: Shuler Hensley of ‘The Ferryman’

Category Broadway

|by Jeryl Brunner |

The Tony winner talks animal co-stars, his Broadway debut and more

Shuler Hensley plays Tom Kettle in The Ferryman. The play won three Olivier Awards, including Best Play on London's West End, and has also been nominated for the 2019 Tony Award for Best Play. And it continues to be a giant hit on Broadway. The Ferryman is set during 1981 on the Carney family's farm in Northern Ireland. They are doing all they can to hold on to joy as they are surrounded by political unrest in their beloved country. Hensley stars as the Carney family's beloved English neighbor, Tom Kettle. The cast not only contains 30 actors, but also includes a rabbit and goose. Written by Jez Butterworth and directed by Sam Mendes, The Ferryman stars Brian d’Arcy James, Holley Fain, Emily Bergl, Fred Applegate, Ralph Brown, Charles Dale, Jack DiFalco, Collin Kelly-Sordelet and Glenn Speers. Hensley won a Tony Award playing Jud Fry in the 2002 Broadway revival of Oklahoma! He has also appeared in No Man’s Land with Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart, Sweet Charity with Sutton Foster and Young Frankenstein with Foster, Andrea Martin and Megan Mullally.

Shuler Hensley as Tom Kettle in the Tony-nominated play ‘The Ferryman’ (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Shuler Hensley as Tom Kettle in the Tony-nominated play ‘The Ferryman’ (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Why do you love performing in The Ferryman?
Shuler Hensley
: It took Jez Butterworth about 15 years to fully write the play. And because of that, every character in it is so deeply evolved. Just on the page. I was raised on a farm in Georgia. Some of the most wonderful people there were people who worked the land. And that is so beautifully represented in Tom Kettle. In the play, I love how Uncle Pat describes him: “He's not slow. He's just unhurried.”

From what I understand, Tom Kettle is based on an actual person from Jez’s childhood. I think he worked in a rose garden, was a massive man. If the tractor fell over, he could pick it up by himself. He was a super strong individual, but also a very gentle person. 

Did you grow up performing? 
: My mother was a ballet director and had her own ballet company, The Georgia Ballet. So I sort of grew up on the stage. As soon I was able to walk around, she would put me in her productions. That is how I was introduced to theater as a young kid. I was never really a ballet dancer. I like to say I was an actor who danced. I enjoyed movement, being able to partner the girls and be characters on stage. One of my first shows was The Nutcracker. I remember I was the bad brother who broke the nutcracker. As a young child, I knew how fun it was to be the bad guy. 

Can you talk about making your Broadway debut? 
: I had just done Oklahoma! on the West End with Hugh Jackman. It was scheduled to transfer to Broadway. But there was a delay. In the meantime, Cameron Mackintosh, who produced both Les Misérables and Oklahoma!, said, “How would you like to make you your broadway debut as Javert in Les Mis?” I don't even think I even had to audition, because they knew my work. It was extraordinary.

I remember our first performance after 9/11. Broadway shows had shut down for a few days. The first day back, there were only 200 or 300 people in the audience of the Imperial Theatre. Everyone was so traumatized. But every person in the audience was at the stage door saying “Thank you for giving us some place to go.” I was struggling with what it means to be an actor when this kind of thing happens. And the answer is it gives people, especially those who are struggling, a place to go. Even for a couple of hours. 

What is it like working with babies, children and animals in The Ferryman?
: As actors, we say the best acting is to live in the moment. Well, you can't help but be in the moment with babies and animals, because you never know what is going to happen. Not only do the actors not know what is going to happen, the audience also gets it. Wait a minute, that's a baby up there! There's real baby and a real goose and a rabbit! It has no idea it is in a play. The fact that the reality has been put on stage heightens the realness of the play. 

What was one of the first Broadway shows you ever saw? 
: My mom brought my brother and I to New York from Georgia for a few days, because she wanted us to experience Broadway. We saw the original Broadway cast of Les Misérables. There were no tickets to be had, but you could wait and stand in the standby line. We got up early, and it was already a massive crowd. But I stood in line the entire day. My mom and brother went off to sightsee, so I was feeling very angry. And right at the five minute call for the top of the show, the woman asked how many tickets I needed? And I said, "I need three." She smiled and replied, “I have three.” We sat in the fifth row center. 

To see Terrance Mann, Colm Wilkinson and that entire original cast was amazing, especially since that was one of my first musical experiences. There's the story where the composers said during rehearsal, “We knew when we wrote this that we were inspired by God. We just didn't know that we had God to sing it.” When Colm Wilkinson sang that song, there was silence in the theater. It was like we were not breathing at the same time. 

What do you love to do in New York? 
: I walk everywhere, even in bad weather. I love the act of walking, taking in the city and the different people. What I love about New York is that you are surrounded by people. But you can also find some wonderful, quiet alone time. 

I adore walking north from Columbus Circle. I go up through Central Park and come out by Strawberry Fields and make that loop. I treat myself at the top of that loop. Because at the top is Levain Bakery. Their chocolate chip walnut cookie is like a drug. 

For more of the best of Broadway, check out our list of the Top Shows in New York in May 2019.

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