10 Questions With Shuler Hensley
By Julie Coleman. Originally published by Frontdoors Media.
1. You play the title character in Arizona Theatre Company’s new adaptation of “Scrooge! The Musical.” How is this holiday show different from the classic story?
It’s interesting how this particular production came to be. Arizona Theatre Company’s artistic director, Matt August, was working with Leslie Bricusse, the composer for the 1970 Albert Finney film “Scrooge!” Leslie wrote an entire catalog of songs he wanted to use for a stage production of the film. This one is different in that you have all the songs that everyone recognizes as well as new songs never heard before that were written before he passed several years ago. This show is the first mounting of this new adaptation.
2. This is your second leading role in a holiday classic as you played the Grinch in “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas” at Madison Square Garden in New York City. What appeals to you about these roles in particular?
Scrooge and Grinch are curmudgeons and sour characters, and some of the most fun to play as an actor because you get to go to that mean side of your personality. What I love about their stories is they start as a Scrooge or Grinch but are transformed through kindness and the power of the season to become these wonderful, outstanding beings. It’s a fun, wonderful thing to play as an actor because you get to go through your whole range of emotions and psyche and come out at the end of the show feeling like you’ve just gone through a wonderful adventure.
3. We will most likely encounter an Ebenezer Scrooge in our lifetimes. What advice do you have for how to best interact with such “complex” characters?
I know it sounds simplistic and a bit corny, but I always go back to my mother. When I was a kid, she would say in her Southern drawl, “Now, Shuler, I don’t care what they do to you or how they act. I want you to always answer and treat people with kindness.”
Ebenezer Scrooge can’t comprehend when people are nice to him, and I think that’s a valuable lesson to flood people with kindness because there is no negative response when you’re genuinely being kind to somebody. This is a great message for this time of year and, in general, for people to remember. You may not agree with someone or think they are not behaving, but you have the power to be kind and show compassion to them.
4. What is one of your favorite childhood holiday memories?
My mother was a ballet director, and my dad was an all-American football player, so I grew up in a house with sports and arts. “The Nutcracker” was the biggest production of the year for my mom’s ballet company in Marietta, Georgia. People came to the show in droves because it’s a traditional Christmas production. This became a huge part of my holiday.
5. When did your involvement in the performing arts begin?
My first experience on stage was playing yet another Christmas villain in “The Nutcracker.” I played the role of Fritz, the brother who breaks the nutcracker by throwing it on the floor. Even as a 6-year-old, I liked playing the bad guy on the stage. This was my first taste of the power of live theater.
As a performer on stage, I remember feeling like I was in some sort of magical world where you could see the spotlights in your face and you’re looking out at all this light, yet there’s also darkness. You can’t see the audience but can sense them. You have the feeling of being in a space where there are all these living beings you don’t see, but we’re experiencing something together.
6. You have an award named after you. Will you tell readers about this honor?
I am the namesake of the Georgia High School Musical Theatre Award. The Shuler Award is the regional recognition for The National High School Musical Theatre Awards (the Jimmy Awards). This is our 16th year, and I go back no matter what I’m doing to host the show. Kids from all over come to this world-class venue. When they step on stage for the first time, they have a little twinkle in their eye — like the Tennessee Williams “click” — and you know you’ve got theater lovers for life. It’s a moment they’ll never forget, whether or not they end up becoming a performer. There’s not a lot in society that gives you a chance to come together, no matter your background or what you’re feeling that day, sit together in a space, and go on a journey.
7. It’s clear you love the arts and demonstrate this by leveraging your talents with two arts organizations — as the City Springs Theatre Company’s artistic director and founding advisory board member at The Manhattan School of Music for its new musical theater program. Why do you think art is important to a community?
Theatre is unique because you can come from any part of society into a theater, be part of a live audience that goes on a journey together for two hours and come out with a connection and something to talk about that is not combative. There’s something gratifying about coming out and locking eyes with someone you don’t know and discussing, even if it’s for a couple of minutes, what you just saw. These moments are rare because of the speed at which we live, but so important for us as human beings to stay connected.
8. This is a great time of year to be in Arizona. Do you have any special plans, other than performing, while you are in town?
I’m a big outdoors guy and would love to see everything I can in terms of geography. The desert is not something that’s part of the Georgia environment. I came to the Grand Canyon when I was a kid and saw that part of the state and am so excited about being here and experiencing the Valley!
9. You’ve had many impressive roles alongside well-known actors such as Hugh Jackman, Kate Beckinsale and Patrick Stewart. Are there upcoming roles you are excited about?
To be the kind of actor I want to be, my favorite role is the one I’m doing. Scrooge is such a wonderful opportunity as an actor to explore different sides of yourself. You may think, “I’m not a Scrooge.” But there are elements to Scrooge that everyone can relate to. It’s important for us to know that we’re not as far away as we think from the people we sometimes fear.
It’s hard to line up work too far in the future as an actor, but as an artistic director, I’ve got the ability to help develop shows for a theater’s entire season. I look forward to being on that side of the table. I’ve started directing more, which is another element I enjoy.
10. Your career has taken you throughout the country and across the globe. What location ranks at the top of your list?
There are two places at the top of my list. I lived in Prague for three months filming “Van Helsing.” It was extraordinarily beautiful, especially the buildings that were hundreds of years old and fortunately not impacted during World War II. There’s something to be said about being in a place and walking the same streets as many generations that came before me.
I also spent three months working in Japan. I brought my family, and we were able to experience the culture and community of people who were so welcoming and gracious. The respect for theater by the Japanese community was phenomenal! It was such an eye-opening experience to know what theater meant to a society on the other side of the world.