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When Sparks Fly!

Four-time Drama Desk nominee Paul Sparks takes on Broadway and Mary-Louise Parker in Hedda Gabler.

By New York City
Mary-Louise Parker and Paul Sparks
in Hedda Gabler
(© Nigel Parry)
Mary-Louise Parker and Paul Sparks
in Hedda Gabler
(© Nigel Parry)
"I'm used to working in 75-seat houses," muses Paul Sparks, who is currently playing to audiences roughly 10 times that size at the Roundabout's American Airlines Theatre as the troubled, intense Ejlert Lovborg in Ian Rickson's much-anticipated revival of Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler. But it's more than the change of venue that's atypical about the assignment. In recent years, the actor has become known for originating roles in new works like Orange Flower Water and Essential Self-Defense -- earning four Drama Desk Award nominations (but no wins) in the process. "I've been so fortunate to cultivate relationships with people like Adam Rapp and Craig Wright," he says. "I love being part of roles that haven't ever been done before and have never been figured out. The kind of risk involved in that is one of the things I enjoy most about being an actor."

Nonetheless, there was plenty of investigation and risk-taking in creating Lovborg, partly because the actor had never seen a production of the play. "I'd read it in college and knew the story, but I'd never actually seen the play done, which was one of the reasons that I wanted to do it," he says. "I always thought of it as a stuffy drawing room drama that had some funny stuff in it, but after working on it, I don't think it is that at all." Some of Sparks' opinion of the work may also have to do with the new adaptation, written by 33-year-old playwright Christopher Shinn. "I love Chris; he's a very intelligent guy," says Sparks. "He was very involved in the process and was there almost all the time. He wrote a very economic, muscular version that demands that we be bold about what we're doing. It's ballsy, without curse words. There's also an emotional life to it that's extremely intense."

After doing what he terms "a fair amount" of research -- something he admits he doesn't always do for a role -- Sparks opted to base his Lovborg partly on the famed 19th-century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. "I knew that Ibsen was somewhat influenced by Kierkegaard, who was a pretty depressed guy and who had a very intense relationship with a young woman," he says. "A lot of the ideas that are hinted about Lovborg's manuscript are ideas that were familiar to me from Kierkegaard when I was a Philosophy student at NYU."

Having grown up in a small agriculturally-based Oklahoma town where "there wasn't a lot of reading," one might be surprised that Sparks gravitated toward NYU's Philosophy classes when he arrived in New York. But he loved the fact that they were so reading-intensive, and he found the problem-solving aspect of the classes "almost therapeutic." Today, he uses what he learned in college in his acting. "You're given all the information that the play gives you and you have to draw a line, an unbroken line from beginning to end," he says. "It is a puzzle, whether you're in a new play or an old play, because you have to look at the text and say 'this is correct, this is what they said' and you figure out how to make it work."

And how does Sparks think Lovborg views Hedda? "He sees her as someone like himself. He's an outsider in the world and a person who doesn't ultimately fit in. And I think he recognizes a soul mate of sorts who kind of understands him. I think he also sees the prison cell that she's built herself in to and he recognizes her fear of social scandal and it pains him. But he believes in her in many ways. I think it's one of the reasons why it's so disappointing for him, the relationship that they have, because neither one of them can kind of get it together to get together. They love each other, and it's sort of undeniable, but these two almost kill each other."

Luckily, Sparks has far less troubled feelings for his leading lady, Mary-Louise Parker. "Things like trying to have a romance on stage, for me it's one of the most difficult things. I've done a lot of stuff where there wasn't chemistry and manufacturing that night after night is a very difficult thing to do," he says. "But I love Mary-Louise to death. I don't know if she'd say the same thing, but I think she likes me. We were able to be in a really safe place to explore that chemistry that people just have sometimes between each other. Also, she's pretty easy to have strong feelings about. She's a very giving actress, she's right there with you, and she's very inspiring to work with. So I am seduced by her talent and her willingness to engage in the play."

Despite going on "a bunch of times" while understudying a number of roles in the Broadway production of Richard Greenberg's Take Me Out, Sparks nonetheless considers Hedda to be his Broadway debut. "Being an understudy is a different mindset altogether and a different way of rehearsing. I listened to the play and to its cadence and learned it that way. I was doing my version of what the part already was so that the other actors on stage didn't feel uncomfortable with someone coming out there and doing stuff they weren't used to," he says. "With "Hedda, there's obviously a lot more ownership."


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