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Courtney B. Vance on the "Fascinating and Frightening" Process of Starring in Broadway's Lucky Guy

Two decades after he last appeared on Broadway, the actor returns to the New York stage as a character with a real-life counterpart. But little information about that person existed.

Courtney B. Vance hasn't appeared on Broadway since 1990, when he starred in a new play by John Guare called Six Degrees of Separation. He received a Tony Award nomination for his performance as Paul, a skilled con artist claiming to be the son of legendary actor Sydney Poitier. It was Vance's second nomination; he received his first, as well as a Theatre World Award, for his work as Corey in the original production of August Wilson's Fences.

After a two-decade break, during which he got married (to Angela Bassett), had children (Slater and Bronwyn), and took on a variety of film and television roles, Vance is back on Broadway and once again Tony-nominated, taking on the role of newspaper editor Hap Hairston in Nora Ephron's Lucky Guy at the Broadhurst Theatre. The show proved difficult, owing to Ephron's untimely death before the production began and, despite the fact that Hairston was a real person, very little information existed about him.

Following a Wednesday matinee, we spoke with Vance about working on a new play without the playwright, the "brutal" rehearsal process, and how "consummate director" George C. Wolfe is truly the "boss."

Courtney B. Vance in Lucky Guy
(© Joan Marcus)

How did you get involved with Lucky Guy?
My manager told me about it a year and a half ago for a reading, and he got me involved. We rehearsed with [playwright] Nora [Ephron] and [director] George [C. Wolfe]. Peter [Gerety] and Tom [Hanks] and I were the only ones from this current cast [involved with the reading]. We did a tremendous job with the presentation, and everyone seemed happy. I got a note from Nora about a week or so later thanking me, and I didn't think anything of it until a year later when I ran into Richard Kind, who said the play was going to be done. I ended up having to go back to New York to meet with the producers and George.

Did you know Nora?
Oh no, I just knew of her.

What is it like to work on the play without her there to help guide you?
It was brutal. Most new plays, [the playwrights] are [there]. George is very, very good at setting up the world to guide it. But we didn't know where we were and what we were about because the playwright wasn't there. George, and Kamilah Forbes, his associate director, had as much research and information as possible. Unfortunately for me, Hap Hairston…There's not any information on him. He was like a ghost. So I'm very excited that this process, doing this play, will bring more information about him to the surface. There was literally nothing about him. I couldn't rely on any kind of research material; I had to rely on George and his consummate direction.

Since there was no information available on Hap Hairston, what did you base your work on?
I had to base it on what was given to me in the script and George's direction. The only thing I could have done was sit down with Hap's widow, but the production asked us not to talk to the living folks early on in the rehearsal process for legal reasons. By the time they released us from that, I didn't have the time to talk to her.

Is that scary?
It's fascinating and frightening. In this process, you just have to go with what you got. I couldn't sit back and go "Oh, woe is me." I had to make a decision and go for it.

With such a well-known actor like Tom Hanks at the center, Lucky Guy could easily have been a star vehicle, but this production is so ensemble-driven. That's a testament to both George and Tom. It's very easy for someone to sabotage the journey. It's a huge trust exercise. If you go along the path, sometimes people say [to the director], "I don't trust you, so I'm going to take control of it and not listen to you." Most productions are like that; someone is a bad apple spoiling the whole thing. But in our production, George was very careful of the casting. He is the star. Tom, rightly so, called him "boss."

George C. Wolfe, Courtney B. Vance, and Tom Hanks share a laugh at the 2013 Tony Awards press event.
(© David Gordon)
Where were you on Tony nominations morning? Did you watch the announcement?
I was sleeping. In my mind, I always know that the Tonys are announced the first week of May, so I thought "No, it's probably next week." So I was sleeping when my mom and my sister called and were screaming, and I was like "What are you doing? What happened?" From when I started, with nothing, the idea of a Tony nomination is very, very far from my mind. I only thought we'd be nominated for ensemble work. So for me to be singled out is a shock.

It's such a shame there isn't a "Best Ensemble" Tony Award.
There needs to be.

How has it been to do the show, along with all of the press for the Tonys?
It's very difficult. It's about energy conservation. This is my third time through, so there are certain things you learn. I just finished the show, I'm talking to you, and I have to go on vocal silence for the rest of my dinner break. You have to be smart. I wasn't smart the first time, and the second time through I kind of got it, but I've got it now.

Do you have any dream roles you'd like to play?
I wouldn't say "dream roles." I've done a lot of Shakespeare as a young man; I was involved with Shakespeare and Company. My time as Hamlet has passed. I have children…Just to be able to come back to Broadway…Now that I'm back and people realize that I used to do a lot of theater, I'll stay more in touch, and the other roles will come. I just want to play. I'm not trying to do a full season in rep. at a regional house. If something comes up that's wonderful, I'd love to be able to do it.