Theater

Tony Nominee John Benjamin Hickey: My Interview

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A longtime Broadway fave from revivals like Cabaret and Mary Stuart, John Benjamin Hickey is giving a powerful performance in the acclaimed revival of The Normal Heart, in which he plays the Times writer who becomes involved with the Larry Kramer character (Joe Mantello), with bittersweet results.

Yesterday, I congratulated Hickey on his well-deserved Tony nomination for that performance, and we proceeded to gab:

Me: Hi, John. This is your first nomination?

Hickey: Yes. I’ve been in five Broadway plays and they’ve all been successful, with slews of nominations, but I’ve never been that particular bride — always a bridesmaid. It’s a very good feeling.

Me: How did you find out?

Hickey: I’m shooting the second season of The Big C. I had gotten a text from my friend Matthew Broderick saying, “You should turn on the news.” Then Laura Linney gathered everyone around on the set and said, “John Benjamin Hickey has been nominated for a Tony.” The crew scratched their heads and said, “What? You have another job?”

Me: And what a job! In The Normal Heart, you seem to disintegrate before our eyes. How do you achieve that?

Hickey: A lot of my homework was staring at my ceiling in bed and thinking about the loved ones I’ve lost and, with as little time and physicality as possible, how do you tell the story of this man? There was something liberating about the fact that there was no set, there was no hospital bed. That helped do it subtly, with a little bit of suggestion. And the clothes get bigger in the second act. The coat I wear, I’m swimming in. Also, I talked to friends in the medical profession about how a person with neuropathy walks.

Me: By the end of the play, are you overcome when you hear the audience’s sobs?

Hickey: It’s an overwhelming experience. I’m so lucky to be a part of it. Someone much smarter than me said, “Theater is a conspiracy between an actor and the audience.” To hear them being audibly such a part of the play — especially after the great laughs of the first act — it’s like a drug. It’s a really good feeling.

Me: By the way, what do you play in The Big C?

Hickey: Laura’s homeless-by-choice, manic-depressive, pretty crazy brother. He’s kind of mentally ill, but he also makes a lot of sense.

Me: Will you become known as the go-to guy for disease shows?

Hickey: I certainly hope not. [Laughs.]