Bill Heck recently boarded a fast-moving train without a stitch of clothes on.
That is to say: he joined the baseball locker-room lineup of the New York Empires in the 2022 Tony-winning revival of the Tony-winning play of 2002: Take Me Out. All eight of his teammates had previously put in 11 weeks of performing (occasionally, au natural) Richard Greenberg's drama at the Hayes Theater last spring, and, when it returned for another round, to the Schoenfeld Theatre, last month, its star player (Patrick J. Adams) couldn't make it, so Heck stepped up to the plate to take his place.
"You're challenging yourself," Heck admits. "If you're not sufficiently terrified, then you're doing something wrong." What's even more amazing is that he did it all under three weeks.
"I had four days with the understudies in a rehearsal room, just to get some of the staging down," the actor said. "Then, Jesse Williams and Michael Oberholtzer came in for about two days. That was extremely helpful because most of my scenes are with them, then the whole cast came in for another four days—and, suddenly, we were in tech. Including the technical rehearsals, I had a little less than three weeks before our first audience. While it has been wildly challenging, it's also been about as easy as it could be under the circumstances because everyone has been so supportive."
His previous experience with on-stage nudity was fleeting and off-Broadway in the 2010 Signature theatre revival of Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize-winning Angels in America. "It's a curious endeavor, to be sure. There certainly are conversations you have to have with yourself about it. You have to examine the material and see if it's warranted and worth it. There was a scene in Angels where I saw very quickly the dramatic necessity for that gesture. The character I played, Joe Pitt, is a Mormon, and undergarments are very important. To shed those is a powerful gesture to show his love for Louis, so it makes sense."
"I remember I saw a production of Angels in America that came to Broadway eight years after mine. Lee Pace played Joe Pitt, and I remember when Lee took off his undergarments for that scene, he found in that gesture a kind of joy and freedom. When I did it, it never occurred to me as a choice. I thought that was really beautiful—how, as a performer, to embrace the act in a committed way that wasn't fraught. For Take Me Out, I've referenced my experience of seeing Lee do that."
The shower-room scenes are more boisterous than beautiful. "The play's nudity is about perceived masculinity and what it means to be in touch with your manhood in a way that is either restricted and restrained or free and expressive. It does get a fair share of oohs and aahs from the audience."
Which doesn't faze Heck at all. "It's just silly at this point. Either you embrace it or you go home. I've done my best to see the silliness of it. Quite frankly, it reveals to me a bit of the prudishness we have. Were this play to happen in Europe, it wouldn't be nearly the event that it is here."
It's Heck's first time on Broadway since his 2014 Broadway debut in Cabaret. He also appeared off-Broadway in Horton Foote's epic opus, The Orphans' Home Cycle. Not only did it win him the Clarence Derwent Award from Actors' Equity, it won him a wife, Maggie Lacey, his leading lady. "We spent ten months with our characters, meeting, courting, marrying and having a family, then we did it for real." They married 11 years ago and have two sons—Henry, nine, and Freddy, seven.
To date, Heck has logged up 39 film and television credits. His favorite is the eccentric, six-part Coen Brothers western, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, in which he played rugged trail boss, Billy Knapp. To prepare for the part, he read The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey by Rinker Buck.
His latest endeavor is a seven-episode TV series, The Old Man, which premiered on FX on June 16. He plays the younger version of Jeff Bridges, a CIA operative who has been living off-the-grid for 30 years and suddenly finds himself on the run from spies. "I filmed my first scene in February of 2020, just before the pandemic descended upon the states, and my last scene in February of 2022."
Also delaying the production was the star's illness. "After a week of Jeff Bridges shooting his storyline, he got his lymphoma diagnosis, so his half of the series came to a halt. They ended up finishing the flashback storyline—my scenes—first. Jeff took about a year and a half to recover."
His hair in the series is closer to Bridges' and not the thatch-roof cut he sports in Take Me Out. "I had long hair and beard when I was cast in the series. Once the pandemic hit, I didn't get a haircut and stopped shaving, so, by the time we came back to shoot, I had long hair and a beard, which I had to trim back a bit to bring it closer to Jeff's beard. Then, for Take Me Out, the day before I started rehearsals, I shaved my face for the first time in four or more years. That was actually a major transition. I was suddenly walking through the world with a whole different feeling."
Happily, Take Me Out is a place where Bill Heck can grin and bare it.