A conversation with Christopher McLinden

Prince William in Seattle Rep's 'King Charles III'

It’s not often that multiple theatres collaborate on a production. That’s what makes the Seattle Repertory Theatre’s “King Charles III,” produced in conjunction with the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco and the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington D.C. so unique.

Mike Bartlett’s play, which chronicles Prince Charles’ ascent to the British throne after the death of Queen Elizabeth, stars Robert Joy as Charles, and Christopher McLinden as William.

We sat down with McLinden, who is making his Rep debut and has a long list of credits from New York stages, along with a stint as Robert Elwood St. John in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, to discuss the production and what it’s like to play a member of the royal family.

What are the challenges of portraying a real-life figure?

McLinden: It’s interesting. From the start, I looked at a lot of video and read some biographies and things like that, and I did all that before we got into rehearsal, and then talking with David Muse, the director, once we started rehearsal, we talked a lot about that issue because many of us are playing real people. There’s always a sort of responsibility that you feel like you have when you’re portraying a real person. But also, with this play, because it’s written in verse, because it’s sort of imagined circumstance, we needed to have some room with that as well, so we needed to be able to sort of make a nod to these people, and to address something that’s real in their lives, but that we also had to have a kind of poetic license, because that’s what Mike Bartlett, the writer, sort of demands of the actors in this play, I think. It was a lot about trying to find a balance between those two things, and obviously there’s a resemblance thing that happens, so we have that going for us, and then beyond that I think I chose a couple of the things from watching William and listening to William and reading about William that I thought would be helpful, and then I sort of left the rest alone and picked up the air and sort of crafted what I felt like Mike, the writer, and David the director were sort of looking for from a cast.


What captured your interest about this play and this role?

McLinden: Well, it’s funny. When I was in college, people told me that I looked like him, so it was always in the back of my mind that this was something that like, if somebody wrote a play about the royals, that I might have a shot at playing Will. And then I got the audition from my manager, and I was like, ‘Oh my god, well, I have to go in for this, and I have to do well for this,’ and then I think, when I got cast and as I was reading the play and getting further into it, Mike Bartlett’s writing was the thing that struck me, that it was really, really good, that in the hands of a lesser writer I think that this sort of writing of a contemporary play and blank verse about the royals with all these references to Shakespeare would sort of fall flat or become gimmicky. In this case, Mike does such a superb job of really making it resonate for a contemporary audience, and making it all sort of come together, which is kind of amazing, so I think that after reading the play, that was the thing that really spurred my interest, was the quality of the writing. Then it became really exciting to sort of work on what is essentially a contemporary Shakespeare play. With all of the challenges you find in Shakespeare, but with the modern language, and sort of contemporary viewpoint. I think that was what really drew my interest from then on.


Besides the resemblance factor, are there any roles that you look back on that you think help you in this case?

McLinden: I think that anybody in the cast would say that all of the work that we’ve done in Shakespeare in the past as actors helps with this, because structurally it’s so much like a Shakespeare play. I haven’t done a ton of Shakespeare, but I have done some, and most of us sort of trained at some point, and we work on Shakespeare at that point, so I would say the Shakespeare plays that I’ve done probably inform my work here more than anything else, I would say.

This is your first engagement at the Rep. What’s that experience been like?

McLinden: It’s fantastic. So this is a co-production between ACT in San Francisco, Seattle Rep, and the Shakespeare Theatre in D.C., and one of the things that drew me to role as well was the fact that it’s these three powerhouse regional theatres that are really places I’ve always wanted to work, and I think are in great places in the country, and it’s exciting to go from one coast all the way to the other. Specifically, the Rep, I’m loving Seattle. It’s just a great town to be in for this amount of time, and I think, you know, when you go out of town as an actor and work someplace else, it’s important to feel like you can be at home, and I would say so far Seattle and San Francisco have felt just great and both theaters so far have been so welcoming to us, because it’s a huge undertaking for these theatres too. This 15-person show that sort of goes away. They built the set here, and that goes away, and then we rehearsed in San Francisco, and Braden [Abraham], the artistic director here, had a chance to come down and see it, but really it’s sort of an unknown when this cast of 15 descends, with a show that’s pretty much already made, and we have to sort of cater that to a new space, but it’s also really exciting to do that. To get to do it, and then go away from it, and come back to it in each different city is I think an exciting challenge.


How does that balance work? Where you have these three theatres converging on one production?

McLinden: That’s sort of behind the scenes stuff, but for us as the actors it’s been pretty seamless. I know that the casting process was huge, and sort of far reaching, because what they’ve managed to do was find actors in every city, and then some of us came from New York, but there were some local actors from San Francisco, there’s some local actors in Seattle, and there’s some local actors to D.C. So that’s really exciting for us as a cast, as well, to sort of, each place we go, we might be out of town, but we’re with some people in our cast who call this their home, so we definitely get to get some more insight into the artistic community of the city that we’re in. I know that for the theaters themselves, this was a long process and a very big undertaking, but for us as actors, so far, it’s seemed completely seamless.


What are the challenges of “contemporary” Shakespeare?

McLinden: Well, yeah, I guess, sort of not actually contemporary Shakespeare but speaking verse in contemporary language, I think I find it easier, because part of the challenge with Shakespeare in the first place is understanding everything you’re saying, which requires a lot of investigation into the words themselves, and there’s a lot of archaic phrases that sometimes get caught and sometimes don’t, so there’s a lot of research on that end when you’re doing a Shakespeare play, and I think working with Bartlett, working with Mike Bartlett’s words, he’s pretty brilliant at using contemporary colloquial speech and raising it to this poetic level, so it’s this funny mix where you really understand what you’re saying, and then you have to somehow find a way to lift it, because the verse demands that, so there’s an energy that has to be behind it, and there’s a kind of thoughtfulness that’s behind it, and I actually find it easier in some ways than just contemporary speech, because we talked about this in the rehearsal room as well, and David Muse was very insistent that whatever you bring to this, it can take it. That the verse itself has kind of a muscularity that we don’t usually see in contemporary writing, so it enables you to sort of pack these huge ideas and huge emotions into pretty small frame, and that’s exciting for actors, I think, because it really is like, you can’t take it too far. The more you push it, the better it’s going to be, the further you go, the deeper you go with your work, the language will hold it.


Every role you take on, there’s something different or unique about it. So what about this role is different from every other role you’ve done before?

McLinden: I haven’t played too many real people. That, combined with the verse and I think those two things are pretty new for me. A combination of the play itself, contemporary verse, and then also, I think the project itself, going to these three different theatres and having the opportunity to work in these different places on the same play I think, is pretty new for most of us, that, going in and working on something then going away from it for a stretch of time, and then coming back to it, you do find new things every time you come back to it, I think. At least, that’s our experience so far, and I think it’ll be the same at the Shakespeare theatre. I think it’s those things.


Is that something you thought coming in, that this would stretch your abilities in ways you hadn’t tried before?

McLinden: I think it does. I think Mike Bartlett’s writing, because it’s so well-crafted, I think it does stretch me as an actor. I think it stretches all of us in the same way that I think, you know, Shakespeare or any great writer will stretch your talent, or force you to make use of more of your talent. I think there are some unique challenges in this play for Will. … I don’t want to spoil anything so I’ll leave it at that. I think there’s some unique challenges for Will. It’s a very emotionally charged play. It’s a very political play to begin with, and I think it becomes a very emotional and personal play, and I like that sort of trajectory, within the play, and I think navigating that has been a challenge.


In 30 seconds, what’s your elevator pitch to people to come out and see this play while it’s here?

McLinden: First of all, it’s a beautiful production. I think the design team has done an incredible job of making it look just superb. I think there’s fantastic performances on stage, I myself am wowed by being on stage with the people I’m with every single night. I think it’s, in a way, it’s a topical play. I think that it touches on a lot of issues that were thinking about right now in this country, it touches on a lot of issues of tradition, family, political power, so I think all of that is there, and cap that off with hopefully beautifully spoken verse and a really impactful, emotional finish.