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Interview: Richard Thomas Steps Into Atticus's Shoes in To Kill a Mockingbird

Thomas leads the national tour of Aaron Sorkin's play based on the Harper Lee classic.

Aaron Sorkin's stage version of Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird has hit the road, with Richard Thomas taking on the cream-colored linen suit of Atticus Finch. During the show's first stop in Buffalo — ahead of 24 additional cities over the course of the year — we spoke to Thomas about getting to play the iconic role.

Richard Thomas in the national tour of To Kill a Mockingbird
(© Julieta Cervantes)

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What is it like to be on a 25-city tour, knowing that each city will likely respond differently?
One of the fascinating things about touring is that you're playing an away game. They're not like tourists In New York, coming to see a show. You're coming into their homes. It's going to be particularly interesting since it's such familiar source material. Most people, I think, have some idea or memory of having read the book or have seen the movie. But the regional context is really important. And I'm very excited about that. The difference between the north and the south. The difference between the west and the east.

What it it like to build your own Atticus Finch, stepping into the shoes of actors like Gregory Peck on screen and Jeff Daniels onstage?
It's an interesting thing, doing the tour, because you're basically inhabiting someone else's world. These people have been working on this play for a very long time and have already solved a lot of the problems and figured out a lot of how it works and where it works. I want that information. I don't have this proprietary feeling about roles, that we have to start from scratch and I have to make all the choices. No. That's just baloney. That's what repertoire is. You're holding hands with the people who have done the part before. Why would you want to mess something which is already so good?

If the role is sufficiently complex and open, it will wrap itself around you, whoever you are and wherever you are in your life. And in that respect, everyone can play this part. You obviously have to have technical chops to do it, but that's to be expected. But in terms of interpretive stuff, a great role can be played in an incredibly different number of ways. And that's what's exciting. That's what'll be exciting about the next Atticus. I feel very close to him. But when that alchemy finally takes place and you've plugged in all the connectors that you do have with the part…It's an affinity. There are emotional affinities between the actor and certain roles. And I feel an affinity. I felt an affinity from the beginning.

I think the people who are familiar with this story are likely to be shocked by certain moments. Like when Jem asks Atticus which side he'd be on if the Civil War were now.
The beauty of what Aaron has done to that relationship is that he's built, from the very first scene, a growing conflict between the boy and his father. It's a classic trope of the son having to declare independence and the father resisting, continuing to treat him like a boy when he's actually growing into a man. Aaron has tracked it beautifully throughout the whole piece to come to a head with the verbal confrontation where Atticus finally has to say, "We'll, you're a man now, aren't you?" I have two sons. I understand it. When he asks that specific question about hiding under the bed, I think that Atticus is trying to be light about something that he has just learned about himself which is the distance between his aspirational goodness and the realities of the world. The play is not only about the loss of innocence in the children. But it's also really, in Aaron's version, the loss of innocence of Atticus as well. When he says, "Smaller armies have changed the world," it's a reconfiguration of one's sense of community.

Aaron Sorkin's language is very particular. What is it like to learn?
First of all, his ear for the Southern dialect is delicious and makes it so easy to play — inflection and cadence and rhythm and all that. He knows exactly how to build short lines with long lines together within the context of one speech. His punctuation is very specific. You have his monosyllabic lines followed by long, long lines that are delicious to play on one breath. Everything he writes is moving forward so that as an actor you always want to say the next thing. Just like Shakespeare's verse is easier to learn than his prose; the prose is intended to be more of a thicket of words and is more difficult to speak.

Can you give me an example?
When he goes to Tom's cell for the first time and meets him, he has a line where he says, "Tom, the very last thing I want in the world is to be your lawyer right now." End of sentence. "A negro man, white teenage girl. I wouldn't be going in with a winning hand." Full sentence. "But I'm compelled to defend you as an officer of the court. And in that capacity, I have taken a solemn oath to give you my best counsel, which is that you must not plead guilty and go to jail for a crime you did not and could not commit." That's one line.

You see the set up: I don't want to be your lawyer. Here's the second setup: why I don't want to be your lawyer. "This is what I don't want. Here's why. But here's what I have to do." In the "here's what I have to do," that's all woven together in one line that moves absolutely forward to the end. And the cherry on top is after he does that long, long, long, long line, he has a five-word sentence, "I believe in the law."

So you see the music of that. Fantastic, right? Just fantastic. And it's fun to play. See that's the other thing, there's relish in it. There's relish in the argument. All you really have to do is give yourself over to the writing. And that's what every actor prays for. Because we have enough to do!

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