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Sam Underwood Shares the Naked Truth About Equus

The rising young star talks about landing his "dream role" opposite Alec Baldwin in Tony Walton's production of Peter Shaffer's shocking play.

Sam Underwood
Sam Underwood is quickly becoming one of the most sought-out young stage actors. The 22-year-old performer recently made a splash as Marchbanks in the Irish Repertory Theatre's critically acclaimed revival of Candida and now he is starring as Alan Strang in Peter Shaffer's award-winning drama Equus opposite Alec Baldwin at Guild Hall in East Hampton. TheaterMania recently talked with Underwood about getting and playing this seminal part.

THEATERMANIA: Why do you consider Alan Strang your "dream role"?
SAM UNDERWOOD: When I was around 13, I saw a friend play Alan in a local production in my hometown. I thought "Oh wow, what a great fun play to do!" And then, after some acting training and having re-read it, I wanted the chance to work on such magnificently written material. The balance of classic and contemporary language is gorgeous. And then there is the journey that Alan takes in the play -- where else but on stage would I get to live out as passionately as this? Alan is such a challenge to nail, so to speak.

TM: How did you get the part?
SU: It was the strangest series of events. After rehearsing Candida one day, I shared a cab with our director Tony Walton, who said he was on his way to meet with Alec Baldwin to discuss doing a play in the summer. I think he mentioned a Noel Coward. As we're talking about plays and roles, I said that I always wanted to play Alan in Equus but was worried I was getting too old for it. Anyway, he met with Mr. Baldwin, and the play they had wanted to do together didn't work out. So then Alec said to Tony: "Do you know what role I want to do? The psychiatrist in that horse play." And Tony said "You mean Equus? We can't do that without some brilliant young actor to play Alan." The very next day at rehearsal, Tony has a playwright friend sit in to watch -- and it turns out to be Peter Shaffer. After the rehearsal, Tony comes up to me and says, "We're thinking of doing Equus in the Hamptons. Would you like to play Alan?" I think I collapsed.

TM: How does it feel to have Tony Walton calling you "brilliant"?
SU: Humbling. Tony is a true British gentleman of the theater, one of the few we have left. One of his strengths as a director is his genius for visual storytelling, since he's also an award-winning designer.

Sam Underwood (right) and the company of Equus
(© Gary Marmay)
TM: When you're working on the character, do you actively think about playing a 17-year-old boy?
SU: The thing is that he's not a typical 17-year-old boy. He's very special. What has been fascinating for me to explore is having to know everything about Alan, but then playing it as if I don't know everything. It's the difference between knowing and being.

TM: What do you think is the most important aspect of the relationship between Alan and his psychiatrist Martin Dysart, played by Alec Baldwin?
SU: These are two people who have this incredible passion. Dysart has this passion for the ancient gods and then comes this boy into his life who has found this ritualistic passion in the contemporary world. The dynamic is that both are fiery -- one can't live his passion because he's stuck working on other people's heads and the other has found a way to live it but it takes him to the extreme. I know that's why Alan allows himself to trust the doctor; Dysart is not just another adult father figure.

TM: What has it been like working with Alec Baldwin on this project?
SU: It's fascinating to work on this with Mr. Baldwin. There's a questioning between the characters, like Dysart wants to know what it's like to feel what Alan feels. That dynamic has to be there. The play is about how much trust one gives and takes. Working with Mr. Baldwin, not just in rehearsal but also having conversations, has definitely deepened that dynamic between our characters.

TM: Did you have concerns about the total nudity required for the role?
SU: I've never had the opportunity to do full nudity on stage before. My attitude has always been that if I felt as an actor that the material demanded it, furthered the story and added something that otherwise would have stunted the story if it wasn't there, then I wouldn't have a problem with it. In Equus, Angels in America, or Hair, nudity is essential in these pieces. It isn't about shock value or getting butts in seats. So it didn't shake me at all.

TM: Does being away in the Hamptons feel like being in summer camp?
SU: Honestly, it's the perfect blend of relaxation and working. The material is intense, not only intellectually and vocally but also physically. It's a real drain. So it's great to be away from the city landscape and to be on the beach and to lie in a hammock after work. Every single person in the cast has bonded really well together and we have barbecues on the beach. The only unfortunate thing is that the run is only a few weeks. I would love to keep exploring this role and suspect I will be finding new things in it right up until the last performance.