Need a Sensitive Leading Man? Robert Sean Leonard is Your Guy.
by Michael Kaplan
Robert Sean Leonard spent the winter of 1991 in Prague. Hype has it that the city recalls Paris in the Twenties-artists, art and smoky cafes everywhere-but Leonard makes the place sound more like Stalin-era Siberia. Gloomy skies and freezing temperatures only added to the difficult atmosphere on the set of Swing Kids, a musical that later bombed. Even so, there was a bright spot in the unlikely form of a man wearing an SS uniform.
The presence of British actor-director Kenneth Branagh (he played a Nazi) provided Leonard with an opportunity most young thesps would kill for. "I knew he was going to shoot Much Ado About Nothing, so I brought my copy of the play, read it eight or nine times and began a shameless campaign to get cast in the movie," recalls the actor. "The nice thing was that I didn't think of it as being judged. We just sat there, had coffee and made each other laugh. You know, half of an audition is who you are as a person rather than as an actor. It becomes a question of whether or not a director wants to spend three months working with you."
"We were sitting in a taxi in the middle of the night, freezing to death, laughing, when I realized that he would work out," says Branagh, who gave Leonard the part of Claudio, Much Ado's romantic lead. Only twenty-four, Leonard is already an old hand at Hollywood politics.
"Robert has a unique combination of gifts when it comes to these classical parts," Branagh continues. "Often you get an actor who can be romantic and lyrical, but he's limp; or you get somebody who's pretty butch, but he can't handle the poetry. Robert combines being a very male kind of creature with being lyrical and sensitive."
Hollywood would seem to concur: In addition to his Much Ado role, Leonard is an earnest newlywed in the current Married to It, and he's currently playing the love interest of an older woman in the Broadway production of George Bernard Shaw's Candida.
Taking a break from that play's rehearsal, he sits in a vacant backstage office, gamely trying to scarf down a turkey sandwich and talk at the same time. Leonard's voice, soft to begin with, keeps getting drowned out by the thunderous rehearsal next door where the Who's rock opera Tommy is being readied for Broadway. "Oh, no," he groans as a guitar solo begins, "it sounds like Pete Townshend's just flown in." Dressed in a ratty, brown corduroy blazer and jeans, he possesses the air of an intellectual, but the face of a matinee idol.
Leonard probably feels more at home here than at some star-flecked Hollywood eatery-he has been all but living in theaters more than half his short life. He was only ten when he went to work for a summer-stock company in his hometown of Ridgewood, New Jersey. By seventeen, he had moved to Manhattan (where he still lives) and begun making a meager living on the stage. "Film auditions were a big joke," he remembers. "Everybody I knew went to them, but nobody ever got anything beyond the occasional bit part. Then [director] Peter Weir came around, looking for a group of unknown actors to play the kids in Dead Poets Society." Leonard's performance as the film's tragic protagonist earned him nice notices and nicer job offers.
Despite his success onscreen, Leonard is full of actorish angst about whether to plunge all-out into film or stick to the relative security of the stage. "The permanence of film is terrifying," he explains. "It gives me much more stage fright than a live audience does."
But wit the possibility of Much Ado and next fall's Age of Innocence (directed by Martin Scorsese) increasing his Hollywood profile, Leonard knows he may have to choose between art and commerce. "I've got some decisions to make,' he says, rocking back and forth in his chair. "Do you wait for a phantom film that may come? Or do you go back onstage and do what you know? That is, take the risk that maybe you'll be terrible, maybe you'll be great every night."
It's a dilemma worthy of some of his more romantic characters, but a tad serious for a young actor who's on a steady incline. "I don't have anything to lose-I'm just starting," he says suddenly. "I'm twenty-four and look what I've been through already. What more can I ask for?" He stretches his legs and clasps his hands behind his head, content with the comforting routine of waiting for the curtain to rise.