|Jennifer Christopher and Matthew Arkin in The Whale.|
.Matthew Arkin is an actor, educator and student of the human condition. In Samuel D. Hunter’s The Whale, he takes on one of the most challenging roles of his career in his portrayal of Charlie, an online writing teacher confined to his small north-central Idaho apartment, who weighs 600 pounds. We talked with Arkin about acting in general and Charlie in particular.
What attracted you to the character of Charlie and to The Whale?
The challenge. I don't think that any role, if you're approaching it correctly, is easy. They all require work and preparation; that's just the nature of the beast. That said, there are many roles that I have played where, when I looked at the script, I said, "Oh, yeah. I know this guy, and I know why they approached me with this role. It's in my wheelhouse." Charlie is a different story. I don't think he's in anyone's standard repertoire. Here's a chance for me to really stretch myself and grow, to exercise skills that aren't always called upon. Certainly not to the extent that they are here. And that's part of why I became an actor, to have the chance to constantly try new things and learn new things.
I was attracted to the play on a very profound level. It's about connection and redemption, between and for the characters, certainly. But I think it goes deeper than that. We have a play that will begin with the audience looking at characters who are so very different from each other, and from the audience members themselves that they will first have a sense of "otherness," of a great distance between themselves and these people. But if we do our job well, that distance will be bridged during the course of the evening. As the characters connect with each other, the audience will connect, will experience empathy and understanding. I believe that experience, those feelings, then go out of the theatre and into the world. A healing process continues.
There's a wonderful Hebrew phrase for it: “Tikkun olam,” or “repairing the world.” That's the most important role of theatre, of art, as far as I'm concerned.
How do you transform—physically, psychologically and emotionally—into Charlie?
I've never worked so hard to prepare for a role as I have for this one. Usually, I start work on a role the first day of rehearsal. With this, however, there was a ton of reading to do: Moby Dick, "Song of Myself,” information on the Mormon world, the biblical books of Jonah and Job, to name just a bit.
Physically, I started trying to eat really well and get myself in a little better shape, so that my stamina would be up to it. I have to confess that I'm usually much more ready to address the emotional and intellectual challenges of a piece. I have never struggled with my weight and health the way Charlie does. But, one thing that I have been able to use was an experience I had a couple of years ago where I got Swine flu, then severe pneumonia, had coughing fits so bad that I cracked a rib and ended up with pleurisy on top of it all. I was confined pretty much to a reclining chair for about five weeks. That experience has informed this process quite a bit.
Emotionally and psychologically, the process has been a bit daunting. I had to look at the places in my own life where I felt the most trapped and the loneliest. I've actually been going through a bit of a time like that personally. And it has been a little scary, knowing that I have to just rest in that place, let it be, and let it reveal itself through the character, rather than fight it. With this role, I'm at a place in my life where I'm getting pretty used to a lot of solitude, which has it's good aspects. But, I also am across the country from my children, and that feeling of missing so much of their growth and day-to-day experiences is very much with me all the time. If I expand on that, it fuels much of what Charlie is going through in the play.
How has fellow actor Ramsey Moore been part of your process?
He has grappled with his own weight issues, which at one time were nearly as severe as Charlie's. I was nervous at first about contacting him to ask for his help. I wasn't sure how it would be received by him, to ask him to share the intensely personal struggles he had, both physically and emotionally. But, he was thrilled to be a part of the preparation, and was incredibly generous with his time and sharing his experience. The insights he gave me into the world of those who face obesity have been invaluable, and I hope that this will allow me to bring a level of understanding and compassion to this character, which is a necessary element of any portrayal.
What's been the most surprising part of this play’s process for you?
I'm shocked every time I see myself when the transformation is complete. One thing that’s been great has been the opportunity to work with this incredible design team that has created my body and my facial prosthetics. That visual stimulus, and the restriction in my movement and breathing imposed by the costume and the prosthetics, informs so much of what Charlie's struggle is throughout the play.
How do you use an opportunity like this to teach the actor's art/craft to your students?
I have been blogging like crazy to chronicle this journey! You don't often have the chance to play a character as rich as this one, who presents emotional, intellectual, and physical challenges, and where all of these different aspects have to be addressed and explored. I hope that my students are following my posts and I’m also speaking with them about the role, being as honest as I can about my own fears and challenges in tackling this. Acting is about going to frightening, difficult places in your own heart, so that maybe you can shine a light for other people on their own experiences, and help lead them to a new place. It's not always "fun" to do, but it is rewarding.
How do you know that the connection with the audience has been made?
I'm not sure that I try to read an audience, so much as have an awareness that they are there. They are our witness, the recipients of the gift that we are trying to give. But I don't allow myself to think of them as an entity whose approval I need. Concert pianist Frank Glazer said something once that struck a chord, and I carry it with me. He was talking about the night that he made his Carnegie Hall debut, and he was a bit nervous. But as he walked out on the stage, he told himself, "Now, you don't ask them. You tell them." That's what we, as artists, have to do. We carry the message, whatever it might be.
How can playgoers get the most out of The Whale?
The most important thing—other than turning off your cell phone, unwrapping any candy or cough drops before the lights dim, and not texting during the performance, of course! —is to come with an open mind, and let the play take you where it takes you. Lean in to the characters, listen carefully, and take this as an opportunity to travel to a new land and meet people you would not otherwise meet. No matter how strange they might at first seem, if you look carefully, you're likely to see yourself peeking out from behind the people you're watching on stage. And you might learn something about yourself that you never knew.
Follow Arkin’s journey on his blog: http://techniqueandscenestudy.blogspot.com/