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Robert Sean Leonard: 'I carry the ghost of Gregory Peck on my shoulders'

Actor Robert Sean Leonard is currently playing Atticus Finch in Timothy Sheader's production of To Kill A Mockingbird at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre, which opened last night (22 May 2013).

Well known for his roles in Dead Poets Society and House, Leonard is back in London for the first time in 22 years since appearing in Our Town. To Kill A Mockingbird continues until 15 June 2013.

What drew you to role of Atticus?
I was quite wary of taking it on. I'd had a long talk with Timothy Sheader, the director, about it and I loved his ideas for the production. I wasn't sure it would work - a friend said when I was leaving: "You're going to play Atticus Finch? Are you going to play the Statue of Liberty as well?"

You carry the ghost of Gregory Peck on your shoulders, or certainly wrestle with it a bit every night. Everyone, including me, knows that performance and loves it. So it's a tricky role to take on, and I'm the last person to judge whether I succeed in doing it in any way successfully.

So did Peck's iconic version make it daunting?
More than anything else. I said to Tim: "I'm in no hurry to find any other way into this role." I think Peck got it right - there's a reason his presence is what it is. The story is from an eight-year old's point of view and I don't think there's any desire to see the cracks in this man. He may have had moments where he went in the back room and did three shots of bourbon and wept or had a gambling problem but I don't think so, and I don't think that's what the evening's about.

There is something about a widower in that time, raising two children of his own, that's just different to men that exist today, with their baseball caps and their trainers. He wears a three piece suit and he wears lace-up shoes and he doesn't show his children his doubts. He should appear to be the Rock of Gibraltar to them and that's what's in the book because the book is written from an eight-year old's point of view. My job is to present this man as he presented himself to his daughter 80 years ago. And that's what Peck did.

Robert Sean Leonard & Eleanor Worthington-Cox. Photo:Francis Loney

Do you see any of yourself in Atticus?
Yes - I have two girls, and so every time I hold one of them, it's a familiar feeling to me. I don't know if I could have played this role before I had kids - that feeling when you're hugging one of them and you can't sort of get enough, you can't quite squeeze them hard enough. I don't think it's something conscious, and I don't believe I have the moral stamina and fortitude and confidence that he has, but I certainly identify with him as a father.

The actors also narrate the show as Scout. What does that bring to the story?
First of all it brings elements that could not be there any other way. To Kill A Mockingbird is inherently a literary experience, which Tim will agree with, so the only way to tell the audience precisely what happened is to read it. I think there are 150 examples of that throughout the night. It's a way of honouring the beauty of the book and its inherent literary quality, and I think it works beautifully.

Tim is incredibly creative. I don't know how to describe it but it's magical and it's evocative and it's so right for this book and so right for something told from the point of view of an eight year-old. I have yet to have anyone see the play and not say that they were mesmerised by what they saw and sucked in and completely kind of entranced by it.

The novel is on the curriculum. Do you think the stage version brings something new to the story for children studying it?
It's different, though I don't think it's necessarily better – sitting in your room and having your own personal experience as you read it is an amazing thing. However, I do believe it's as powerful. I think it does illuminate things. Kids today are quite visual and I think they will get things from seeing it that they wouldn't get just from reading it.

Also there's something about this production, something homespun and unique about the way that Tim presents it. It's its own thing, not just a linear telling of the story. An old lady doesn't come out and say "when I was a girl, my name was Scout". He makes it its own confection, and that's why I think it's worth seeing.

This is your first show in London for 22 years. What drew you back?
Tim, the story, the play. I can't say I've been flooded with offers to come to London! It just came my way – I still don't quite know how Tim pulled my name out of the hat, I guess he thought I was right for it. He called and said what do you think and I said "it makes me nervous" and my wife, who's a genius, said "if it makes you nervous and you're scared about taking it on then clearly it's something you should do" - so I listened to her and not my own fear and came over and did it.

What do you like about the Open Air Theatre?
Something happens as the sun goes down and the darkness starts to come. You're not even really aware of the lights so much at the beginning of the show, and slowly as the darkness envelopes the space you realise that the lighting that Olly (our brilliant lighting designer) has created starts to present itself more and more and focus the audience.

It's so gradual, like a little kid falling asleep at night; suddenly you're in darkness and the only thing you can see is this warm lit story in front of you. There's something comforting and childlike about it. The focus you feel from the audience, you don't feel that indoors – you feel a bit like you could drop a pin and you'd hear it, and I don't think that happens in an indoor theatre.

You've got experience of film, TV and theatre. Do you have a preference?
I've done theatre mostly. I started when I was nine, and I feel it's what I do best. I enjoy the hours, because I have a family that I love and I'm not the most ambitious guy in the world. When filming House I had to get there at 6am, so I had to get up at 3.30am. When the sun would go down you'd still be there, so you'd have a 14/15 hour day of work. I like getting up late and seeing my daughter, and going to work at 7 o'clock at night, that's a good deal for me. I also love the process, sitting in a room with smart people and discussing Eugene O'Neill plays or Shaw's plays, it's just something I like to do. I wish theatre paid more but I do enjoy it.

What's next?
I did a production of Pygmalion last Spring, and they're remounting that in a theatre in Williamstown, Massachusetts in July, so I'm going to do that for just a month. After that, I don't know. I did a season of a show called Falling Skies with Noah Wyle, a science-fiction alien show, and I might go and do that again, mostly because I love Noah. We've known each other for 20 years and have a lot of fun. I might do a few of those if the offer comes my way, or maybe just me and Noah sitting in the woods talking about early ‘80s movies!

Robert Sean Leonard was talking to Rosie Bannister. To Kill A Mockingbird runs at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre until 15 June 2013.


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