Robert's Rules: Sticking to Theater and Indie Films, Robert Sean Leonard Keeps His Fame Low-Key
by Merle Ginsberg
As his long fingers slide gently over the smooth fabric of a white silk jacket, Robert Sean Leonard is practically cooing.
"Oooooh, feel this," he says, gesturing with a sleeve of the made- to-order outfit, which also includes a pair of tailored slacks with a white-on-white tuxedo stripe running down the side. "This is the most beautiful suit I have ever, ever, seen."
Lucky for him, since Leonard has been wearing it practically every night since mid-August for his role as Harold Hill in the Broadway I revival of The Music Man. It's his first foray into song-and-dance territory, and while the actor is best known for his ability to make heavy drama seem almost light, his lanky frame seems particularly well suited for gliding across a stage; his theatrical voice custom-designed for romancing a girl with a tune.
Seeming every bit the country gentleman--despite having grown up in Woodstock, New Jersey--the 32-year-old actor offers a guest the most comfortable chair in his dressing room and remarks on the breathless pace at which he'll be called upon to perform later that evening. "It's so fast and pattery and so hot I feel like I'm going to faint," he says. "So I actually eat candy, cookies, Twinkies and coffee cake all night to give me energy."
No doubt Leonard chose to do The Music Man as an antitode to all the serious-minded fare he's become known for: He was a bitter nihilist in The Iceman Cometh, a man dying of AIDS in In the Gloaming, the young A.E. Housman in The Invention of Love, for which he won the Tony this year, and so on. But the choice did surprise many of his actor friends.
"The first 20 minutes were like watching your best friend at high school--like, yikes, hope he doesn't fall off the high wire," says Kevin Spacey. "But he's singing, hitting the notes, dancing up a storm. I thought, not only does the theater have a new musical star, but I've never seen Robert so happy."
Indeed, Leonard says that even with the grueling pace, he doesn't consider The Music Man work at all. "I've never felt that doing anything onstage is work," he notes. "It's sweat, and I have a lot of stuff to do onstage, but I can't tell you how much fun it is to come here every day."
By comparison, Leonard's home life is, he insists, "fairly boring." He lives alone--his girlfriend of five years is a professor of Latin at Columbia--and rarely goes out on the town. "I ride my bike home from the theater, watch Leno and on the weekends go grocery shopping," he says. "I mean, I spend Sunday cutting up fruit salad for the week. The wildest thing I ever do is read until 2 am. I don't like flying, traveling or hotels. I'm pretty much all about the written word."
If it weren't for Leonard's striking good looks, he might have turned into the nerdy egghead he feels like inside. He's also come to rely on his friend Ethan Hawke for an occasional tug back down to earth. "Yeah, he was my chief employer last year," Leonard admits, noting that Hawke directed him in Chelsea Walls, due out in the spring, and helped get him cast in Tape, the Richard Linklater chamber piece about two old friends fighting over an ex-high-school girlfriend (played by Hawke's wife, Uma Thurman), who may or may not have been raped by Leonard's character years before.
Leonard and Hawke met while making Dead Poets Society and formed an enduring friendship. "Ethan and I were kids when we did Dead Poets, and it was magic," Leonard recalls. "We'd go out at night and write scenes under the stars and talk about very, very important things. We felt boundlessly creative and passionate. I don't know of anyone who had a cushier entrance into show business than we did."
That bond explains why Leonard signed up for the low-budget Chelsea Walls, in which he plays a Minnesota musician who journeys to New York to bask in the Chelsea Hotel's faded glamour. The role, Leonard admits, was a bit of a stretch. "I've never even stayed there," he says. "It always seemed a little seedy to me. But I absolutely love the movie.
Tape, which is now in theaters, pits the old friends against one another in an intense psychological showdown. Set entirely in a hotel room, it was shot on digital video in just a week. Even though the characters in the film despise one another, it was an exercise in fellowship on the set. "You can see it in the movie," Leonard says, smiling. "A shining example of what happens when three people who know each other really well work together.
"Uma trusts us both in a way that I don't think she trusts a lot of actors," he continues. "Very few people come alive in front of a camera the way she does. Meryl Streep does. Chris Walken. Donald Sutherland. Julie Christie. I will never believe what I do on film measures up to that."
But surely he's overlooking a formidable resume. What about Mr. & Mrs. Bridge? one wonders. Or Much Ado About Nothing? Or The Age of Innocence? Leonard laughs. "Some of my best work is in that Stallone film, Driven," he says seriously. "No one saw it. Including me."
Onstage, though, it's a whole different story. "I do believe what I do in theater is very special," he says. "I do believe that. And I wouldn't want to change it."