Hamish Linklater was absorbing the Bard’s language at an age when his peers were still wrapping their heads around the Hardy Boys. The son of Kristin Linklater, an acclaimed vocal teacher and co-founder of the Shakespeare & Company drama troupe in the Berkshires, he grew up in Massachusetts in a kind of Elizabethan fantasia of actors and theater, performing in his first play, Much Ado About Nothing, at 8 years old.
Hardly surprising, then, that the 39 year-old has become one of the most acclaimed young Shakespearean actors on American shores, lending the famously tricky verbiage a modern, natural (and often humorous) touch. Since appearing in the Public Theater’s 2009 Shakespeare in the Park production of Twelfth Night, he has been a regular on the Delacorte Theater stage in Central Park. He returns this summer in Cymbeline, opening August 10th, playing both the misguided Posthumus and Cloten, who vie for the attentions of the virtuous Imogen (Lily Rabe, who is dating Linklater off-stage). Here, the actor chats about his double work load, iambic pentameter abs and theatrical aging.
Cymbeline is one of the more disliked Shakespearean works. What piqued your interest in tackling such a generally despised play?
Surely Troilus and Coriolanus and Pericles are much more difficult ones. This one has such a lovely warmth. I was in a production of it when I was 17 when I played Caius Lucius, the 50 year-old Roman general. Because the play was written near the end of Shakespeare’s life, it’s got such a huge heart to it: he’s done with the tragedies and he’s into dads and daughters making up in the end. He’s like, “If I’m gonna go out, I’m not going to go out on freakin’ King Lear and Titus Andronicus. I want things to turn out right.”
How does visiting it now at 39 compare to when you were in it at 17?
It was still this sort of magical play. And Imogen is such a great character. Posthumus is such a tough character, it was tough then and he’s tough now.
What makes Posthumus so tough for you?
Because he should be the guy we root for and then he gives this big speech about how awful women are, tries to kill his wife, gets duped by this really obvious villain and then he comes back and I’ve gotta put my hero hat on really quickly. It’s not a lot of time to get the audience back over to your side. So it’s a challenge.
And what about Cloten? Do you find that character easier or more natural to play?
Well, yeah, because he’s an evil idiot so that is much more natural, it’s much more typecast. He’s really one of the most beautifully written idiots in Shakespeare’s canon, definitely.
You played a pair of twins in Comedy of Errors two summers ago and now you’re doubling, again. How do you handle making those quick switches over the course of three hours?
You try to come up with enough specific characteristics for each person so when the night is going on it doesn’t feel like one long performance. I go off stage as one guy and that guy gets left there and gets to take a breather and then you come on as the next guy and then he spends a little bit of energy. I’m tricking myself into thinking that way. Cloten gets to take a breather and hit the Gatorade while Posthumus is onstage screaming and pointing at the audience and then he gets to come back with his voice refreshed and ready to fight a battle at the end of the play. It’s brainwashing.
So you develop a personality disorder for the purposes of the show.
You go for schizophrenia—it’s such a healthy, healthy exercise in schizophrenia.
I know this isn’t your first time on the Delacorte stage, but it’s been pretty brutally hot, and between your two costumes, you have to wear a crazy red wig and lots of leather. How is that going?
You can eat whatever you want all spring long if you know that you’re going to work in the park during the summer. Because then you go on the Delacorte diet — the sweat and the sprinting and all of the exercise knocks off 15 lbs. And also verse speaking makes rock hard abs. It’s the iambic pentameter. You get five abs, an ab for each beat.
Your mother founded the Shakespeare & Company drama troupe in the Berkshires and you grew up surrounded by the Bard. Were you basically speaking in iambic pentameter as a toddler?
Because my mom was cheap about baby sitters, I would just sit on the lawn and watch the plays. And because there’s such a rhythm to it, like that nursery rhyme thing, it would get into my head. I would go up to actors when they had missed a word or missed a line. They loved getting notes from a 6 year-old.
You and Lily Rabe have performed opposite each other three times at the Delacorte and once on Broadway in Seminar in 2011. How would you say your onstage chemistry has deepened over time?
It’s funny because in this play we have three scenes together in the whole thing. And it’s almost like we bring so much baggage to each of them, so we have to get out of our own way and not make it a Chekhov encounter when actually it’s just two young lovers saying see you later.
Is there another classic stage couple you’d want to play? Say, in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
I feel like we’re always rehearsing for our George and Martha. What’s so nice about this one is we really get to be young lovers. If anything we were too young to do Benedick and Beatrice [in Much Ado About Nothing], because that’s so often an autumn romance. You find out so much about your relationship—your professional relationship, your personal relationship—getting stretched into these different parts.