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INTERVIEW: John Benjamin Hickey Conquers The Big C

The Tony Award-winning actor discusses his role as Sean on Showtime's hit series. logo
John Benjamin Hickey
(© Tristan Fuge)
John Benjamin Hickey has starred in some of the most beloved plays of the last 15 years, beginning with Terrence McNally's Love! Valour! Compassion! through the Broadway revivals of Cabaret, The Crucible, and The Normal Heart, where his heartbreaking performance as Felix Turner earned him the 2011 Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Play.

Now, Hickey has gained a new following as Laura Linney's unconventional, bi-polar brother, Sean, on Showtime's hit series The Big C, which recently started airing its third season. TheaterMania talked to Hickey about what makes The Big C the show to see and his possible return to Broadway.

THEATERMANIA: Is it true that you almost turned the character down?
JOHN BENJAMIN HICKEY: He was written as a much younger person. A man who is living off the grid in his 20s is very different than a man who's in his mid-40s. Then, Laura told me "I really feel like Sean is my big brother. I've always been able to cry on his shoulder and I would like more than anything in the world to be able to cry on his shoulder again.' When Laura described the character to me in those terms I really saw it. And then when I came on board, the writers saw an opportunity to explore this character in middle age.

TM: How has Sean changed over the three seasons of the series?
JBH: In the first season he was wildly eccentric and a bit of an idea. And in the second season they really went to great pains to explain why Sean is the way he is. So much of it is based on his manic depression and his real struggles of not wanting to be on meds because he thought it would take his essence away. This season he's found a really good med program that's not inhibiting or prohibiting to his thinking outside the box. Still, some of the stuff he does this season are as nuts as ever.

TM: Can you give us a hint of just how nuts things are going to get for Sean?
JBH: His sister gets him a landline and he intercepts a gay phone sex business. But of course, Sean, who is completely heterosexual, has no problem whatsoever with having sex with guys on the phone and making a lot of money doing it. It's so utterly insane and wonderful. So much of male heterosexual comedy can be steeped in a gay panic. A lot of juvenile comedy is predicated on that. I wanted this to be a guy who completely identifies as straight but has no hang-ups about gay sex. I think we found a really wonderful comic universe in which to explore that.

TM: Why do you think Cathy and the other characters on the show respond so strongly to Sean's influence?
JBH: As unhinged as Sean is from so many different mores, customs and tenets of how you're supposed to live your life, there's something deeply centered about him. I think a lot of the characters on the show feel their most comfortable around him because they know he doesn't judge them.

TM:Is the cast aware of how dedicated the show's fans are?
JBH: We feel like we fly a little under the radar even though we have an incredibly devoted but not huge following. So many people are enthusiastic about the very thing that makes the show a controversial show -- it's irreverent, outrageous nature. And those are two things you wouldn't expect from a show about terminal cancer that stars Laura Linney. I think that's one of the things that is so special about our show; it's so unexpected.

Joe Mantello and John Benjamin Hickey
in The Normal Heart
(© Joan Marcus)
TM: Last year you were on Broadway doing The Normal Heart while you were filming The Big C. How did that work out?
JBH: Last season was a crazy embarrassment of riches. I would work in Stanford, Connecticut, where we film The Big C until four in the afternoon and get to the stage door by 7:30 so I could go on stage and do The Normal Heart at 8. I'd play a bi-polar homeless guy who doesn't bathe or shave during the day, and then the style editor of The New York Times. It was a crazy transition that would require a very quick shower or my cast mates would protest every night. And then to go on to win the Tony Award was more than anyone could dream of.

TM: You've already wrapped this season of The Big C. Do you have any plans to return to Broadway?
JBH: It's a gypsy's life. I just look for the next gig and hope it's something half as exciting as the work I get to do on The Big C. I'm old enough to be palpably aware that this is a character unlike anything I've gotten to do or I will ever get to do again. So I try to stay in the moment and relish every second of it.

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