Henry Woronicz is currently in rehearsals in Cambridge for the role of Leontes in American Repertory Theatre’s upcoming production of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. He spent 11 seasons at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival as a resident actor and director, and as the artistic director from 1991 to 1995. As an actor he got his start at The Boston Shakespeare Company, and has performed around the country at the Delaware Theatre Company, American Conservatory Theatre, Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Arden Theatre Company, The Shakespeare Theatre, Center Stage, Meadow Brook Theatre, New Jersey Shakespeare Festival, and Utah Shakespeare Festival. His film credits include Primary Colors, Living Out Loud, and Little Pieces, and on television he has appeared on Seinfeld, Ally McBeal, Fraser, Moesha, Third Rock from the Sun, and Law & Order.
You’ve been so connected to Shakespeare in your career. How did you make the leap to sitcoms?
I fell into it in an odd way. After I left the Oregon Shakespeare Festival I spent two years in LA. [Acting in sitcoms] felt very funny to me because my background was classical. But it actually was like being in a small theater company, like being in little plays. I was interested in what working in TV was about. I ended up doing research, watching a lot of TV, which I usually hate. I wanted to study acting styles and try to bring that into the audition process. Of course 90 percent of casting is what you look like when you walk through the door. As an actor I would say, “Damn, I can do that,” and then I would watch the show and see a 6’5″ black actor in the part. [When I was cast] I watched the show to see how I was doing, which you can’t do in the theater. I’d go “Who is that person? I didn’t know I was so shlumpy,” or, “My God, I have a double chin!” It’s really about learning different styles. It’s analogous to working in a 1,200-seat theater, and then doing a play in a 40-seat black box.
How did you initially get involved with the Bard?
I went to Bridgewater State College as an undergraduate, where I got involved in children’s theatre. After working in elementary schools for two years at about $25 a week, I auditioned for the Boston Shakespeare Company. They had five actors on a salary of $90 a week. I was playing Horatio to Will Lebow’s [A.R.T. company member] Hamlet. When a paid actor quit, I was offered a place in the company. I did five to seven of Shakespeare’s plays in repertory each year for five years. I learned a lot from Bill Cain, the company’s founder. It was my grad school. I didn’t plan on doing Shakespeare; it’s been a great education for life, so many hard things to wrestle with, so rich. Sometimes it sticks like pasta to a wall.
How many times have you been in The Winter’s Tale?
This my fourth time. I’ve played Leontes twice before. I was cast in the role [20 years ago] and I came in as an understudy [ten years ago] and took over for an actor who was ill. Now I have a whole other take on why this guy is so jealous. I also played Autolycus, a lovable rogue. He’s sort of the comic relief, but he ends up helping to reunite the family without really meaning to.
You’ve certainly lived in and plied your trade in many places. Where are you based now?
I live just outside Wilmington, Delaware, with my partner Fontaine Syer, the artistic director of the Delaware Theatre Company. I did Moon for the Misbegotten there last year. This season I’ll be doing some directing, and I’ll also be playing Macbeth.
What’s the best advice you ever got about acting?
I believe the best advice is what you find yourself. You have to be your own teacher to find the yin and yang of existence. For me, the advice comes from Shakespeare and what I find in his plays. It has to do with embracing ambiguity in life and art when things can go either way. It also has to do with the light and the dark in his writing. Shakespeare never gives one without the other; there’s always a juxtaposition of positive and negative. If you lose the light, it’s just another low paying job.
What advice would you give aspiring actors?
I would advise young people interested in theater to get a very, very good liberal arts education, not as a theater major. It would be better I think to major in religion or anthropology or art history or sociology. Then there are two possible routes: go to a city where there’s much theater, immerse yourself and learn by doing, or go to grad school and keep honing your skills.
What was one of your favorite moments on stage?
One that jumps out at me, one very powerful moment that reflects theater as a source of energy, happened during almost every performance when I was playing Peer Gynt at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. There’s a moment where he’s sitting on a rock and he sees a bunch of monkeys. At one point he’s making fun of the monkeys and they throw monkey shit at him. He takes a bite of the monkey shit. Now this is all done in mime–no monkeys or monkey shit–yet the audience would go “ugghhh” when I took a bite. It was always amazing to me. It was a simple act of “let’s pretend” and [the response] spoke of the power of imagination.
Which quotes from the Bard do you favor?
“There’s nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so,” from Hamlet; “Our life is but a mingled yarn good and ill together,” from All’s Well; and from Lear, “When we are born we cry that we have come to this great stage of fools.”
What’s your pet peeve?
People who don’t pay attention.
What makes you laugh?
People who don’t pay attention. For the past ten years I’ve been into Eastern thought. Buddhism is something I practice, and it teaches you to be attentive. I am amazed at how many people walk through the world without seeing.
What makes you cry?
Injustice. And often beautiful things–a piece by Bach or Beethoven, or a painting by Vermeer.
Bobbie Steinbach, TheaterMania’s New England regional editor, is an actress in the Boston area. Her writing credits include three musical theater revues: A Woman Alone Onstage with a Piano, a Stool, a Lamp…; her one-woman show New Punims (with Lori Glazer, Wayne Barker, Bill Castellino); and Holidaze: a Christian, a Jew and a Ho-Ho-Homo Too! (with Kathy St. George , Robert Saoud, Jonathan Goldberg).