Tony Award-winning actor John Benjamin Hickey (FCLC ’85) returned to his alma mater on Dec. 13 for a discussion with 20 Fordham theatre students.
The evening master class brought Hickey—who was lauded in June for his performance inThe Normal Heart, a drama about the early days of the HIV/AIDS crisis—to the Lincoln Center campus.
A lot has changed since Hickey arrived in New York in the early 1980s to study at Fordham, he said. But what has not changed are the endless opportunities that the city affords acting students. Like most people in attendance, Hickey came to New York from far away—in his case, Plano, Texas.
Actress Julie White, a fellow Texan, inspired him to make the 1,500-mile journey to study in New York, Hickey said. White’s drive to make her mark in New York theatre circles likewise served as a characteristic for him to emulate.
Having performed a play in room SL5 in the Lowenstein Center, White put down on her resume that it was a “Slow Five Production.”
“Julie was so much more brilliant and smarter about how to get yourself out there than I was,” Hickey said.
Rocking back and forth on a chair set in the middle of Franny’s Space, Hickey peppered students with questions about everything from their classes to the productions they’ve enjoyed recently. He mused about the craft and the business aspects of acting.
“If you want to be an actor, and if you are meant to be an actor, you will be one,” he said. “Because if there is any reason why you shouldn’t be—or can’t be—it will reveal itself to you, because this business is so brutal.”
There is no easy way to describe successful acting, he noted. All someone can do is take to heart “being alive to the possibility of the moment.”
“It’s all of the training, all of the work that you do on your accent or your walk or your character. That’s all external,” he explained.
“Then there’s the internal stuff, like asking, ‘Who is this person I’m playing? What do they want? Who do they love, who do they hate? Why are they here? What were they doing just before they walked into the room?’” he said.
“Then there’s leaving all of that alone and being on stage, and really making it about what happens between me and you, and not being afraid to let it shift. If you’re not having a great show, to not beat yourself up, because you have studied and that through form, there is freedom.”
Hickey admitted that playing Laura Linney’s homeless, eccentric brother on The Big C and the fashion editor of The New York Times in The Normal Heart—sometimes on the same day—took some effort.
“I would finish work at like 4:30 or 5 p.m. in Stamford, Conn., and then get in a van or jump on a train. Sometimes I would get on the 6:30 train out of Stamford, get to Grand Central at 7:34, take the shuttle across town, and I’d be at the stage door at eight,” he said.
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“I did the best work I’ve ever done because I didn’t have any time to make my day go the way it ‘needed to go’ in order for me to have my best show. I still believe in discipline, but I think there was a lot for me to learn—to let go of sleep and dive into that madness,” he said.
Having the utmost confidence in yourself is an absolute necessity when it comes to acting in film, because you often only get one take to film a scene.
“We’re doing the scene and the camera’s on you, and then the camera’s on me, and just as you’re learning what the scene is about, it’s over. You spend that whole night thinking, ‘Oh God, I could have done it like this because now I know what the scene’s about,’” he said.
“Whereas in theatre, if you mess up on Wednesday, you get to do it again on Thursday. In theatre, the writer’s gone, and it’s just you and the audience, and there is no greater power as an actor than that.”