John Benjamin Hickey is a people person. He’s interested in lives both onstage and off, interviewing creatives on his radio show My Favorite Song by day and bringing Flan Kittredge to life by night in Six Degrees of Separation. The depth Hickey brings—and has always brought—to his characters shows a true and unpretentious investment in the human experience. This innate interest to connect is just one of the reasons watching Hickey as Flan is such a thrill. In this interview, Hickey shares how the Six Degrees ensemble comes together, how his training has informed his craft, and how the experience of acting on Broadway and acting in a small student production may be closer than you think.
MC: When did you catch the acting bug?
JBH: I sort of always had a version of it in high school and college. I did it extracurricularly because I was too scared that what I could feel was a passion growing inside of me. I thought, “Well that’s no way to make a living.” I was from a small town in Texas. I didn’t know the bright lights of Broadway. I wouldn’t let myself admit that I wanted to be an actor. Then I came to New York City and finished an English degree at Fordham University. I guess the moment when it really all turned into something real for me was when I got accepted into the Juilliard School. For a young actor in New York City it was a little bit like winning a golden ticket—no, it was exactly like winning a golden ticket. Over a thousand people auditioned at that time and they only accepted 15 of us. When I was accepted there I was like, “Oh I guess I’m going to do this. I guess I’m going to try to do this with my life.”
Did anyone or anything inspire you to pursue a career as an actor?
There were always actors who I admired. My father, who’s been gone many years, was a huge movie lover—old movie lover. He collected books about old movies and read movie star biographies. I was always incredibly enamored by actors and the larger-than-life actors of my childhood: your Humphrey Bogarts, your Ingrid Bergmans, your Clark Gables. When I got to New York in 1983, it was at a time when actors like Meryl Streep and William Hurt and Kevin Kline and Robin Williams were all coming into their own as young actors working in the business. They were just starting to star in movies; they were doing plays on Broadway. I would see these movies and read about these people. The thing they had in common is that they’d all been trained—they’d all either gone to Yale School of Drama or Juilliard. I think they were my greatest influences because it was a new generation of actors who were very, very serious, very well respected, took their craft very seriously, and had gone to school to study. I’d never really heard of that before. I’d never heard that you could go study acting in a conservatory training situation like a ballet dancer could do or violin player—that the craft was that tangible and that real. I think that those people were my heroes. All roads lead back to Meryl, don’t they? [John laughs]
But also you worked with Kevin Kline on The Ice Storm, so that’s pretty cool.
I did. Allison Janney and I both worked with Kevin Kline on that movie—Allison who I’m of course co-starring with in Six Degrees of Separation. Allison’s character threw the infamous key party at the end of The Ice Storm. I was at that key party and had a nice little scene with Kevin. That was the first time that I met Kevin and he was an absolute hero of mine and still is—today more than ever because his performance in Present Laughter right now is absolutely amazing. I’m so happy I got to see him in it.
Obviously, Juilliard is an incredible school. For you, how did studying there help set you up for success?
I think it was a seriousness of craft: that there really is a technique based on repetition, based on getting experience as a student. As a student at Juilliard, you’re there for four years and there are only roughly 15 of you in a class, give or take. One month you’re doing a Chekhov play—a full Chekhov play—and you’re playing maybe two or three parts in it. Two months after that you’re doing Twelfth Night. Two months after that you’re doing a George Bernard Shaw play. You’re doing the great works in the history of the theater and you’re doing plays that you probably won’t get a chance to do professionally because sadly a lot of those plays aren’t done anymore. People don’t do Shaw as much as they used to, so the opportunities you’re afforded are so great because you’re in way over your head. That’s the way you learn. You learn by reaching really, really far and high, and sometimes falling flat on your face or butt. But you get up and do it again and learn from it: “Okay, this is what I need to work on. I need to work on my voice, I need to work on my body.” You have this wonderful training ground there.
I remember one of my great teachers there, Tim Monich, who is a dialect coach and works on basically every great movie where an English person is doing an American accent or vice versa. He said to us when I was there, “There’s something about this training here where you really won’t even see it pay off until 10 years from now.” He was absolutely right. That has been very evident to me now doing Six Degrees of Separation with Corey Hawkins graduated from Juilliard himself 10 years ago. He has a massive part in this play. It’s like doing Hamlet for a young African American actor. You have to be a million different things to a million different people. One day we were talking and he was like, “The things I learned at Juilliard, I’m just sort of realizing what they are as I’m playing this part.” That was the thing that Tim, our great teacher, told us all those years ago becoming self-evident.
I love your radio show My Favorite Song on Radio Andy. Some actors use music as a way to connect to their characters. I’m curious, is that something that helps you? Have you ever tried that? Because from your interviews we learn so much about the people you talk to simply through their favorite songs.
I’m so happy to hear you say that. Thank you, first of all, for listening to it. It’s so interesting. I’ve asked so many people the question you’re asking me, especially when I have great actors on the show. I ask, “Do you use music as a form of warming up?” When you’re on a television or movie set, you have a million different people around you building sets, hammering nails, so you need to put a form of blinders on and drown out the rest of the world. Sometimes music can do that. Also, music makes us feel so many different things depending on what kind of music it is.
I love music. I love music as a form of giving me energy. Let’s say I’m going in to do a Wednesday matinee, it’s 12:30pm on a two-show day, and I’m a little bleary-eyed. Allison Janney will come down to my dressing room and I have a radio on my dressing room table. I’ll turn the radio on and either she turns the dial or I turn the dial until we find a song that we can agree upon to dance to, be inspired by. Because we’re not kids anymore, it’s usually some classic rock song or golden oldie. It can be anything. It doesn’t have to be something that pertains to the material you’re working on. It can just be something silly. There’s a great Noël Coward line, “Extraordinary how potent cheap music is,” [from Private Lives]. I think what he meant by “cheap music” is the music you would maybe even consider disposable, but what it can do to you—bring up a memory, evoke a feeling, give you energy—that’s how I like to use music. I don’t program anything consciously or decide beforehand what I’m going to listen to. I just turn the music on and whatever pops up that’s going to do it for me that day, I let that be my warm-up.
It’s just extraordinary the thing I learned from the [radio] show. I didn’t realize that music is such a great way to talk about your life without talking about your life. So you ask a person, “What was your favorite song from high school?” and it gives them an opportunity for them to talk about their experience in high school through the music they were listening to. That’s a really good roundabout or left-of-center way of getting into a person’s head and heart. I love learning about people through the music they like.
I have to know what the rehearsal room was like for Six Degrees of Separation with you heavyweight actors and director Trip Cullman all working together.
It was incredibly exciting, deeply challenging, scary at times. This play is like a symphony. It really is a symphony of extraordinary, musical language where Trip would tell us on a daily basis, “Every single word is important. We must hear every word. Nothing is thrown away. No conversation in this play is casual.” The stakes are very high just because of the way John [Guare, the playwright] has written it. There are so many different styles of clay inside of this hour-and-a-half-long play, which means we’re sort of dancing on the head of a pin. You must get all 17 instruments—all 17 cast members—in tune and on the same pinhead, as it were [John laughs]. It’s a real high-wire act and unlike any play I’ve ever done before, and I’ve done my share. For people who are veterans like we are, I think both Allison and I found it deeply challenging and never ever took it for granted because we were smart enough to know that if you treat it cavalierly or too casually, it can bite you in the ass.
We officially started rehearsals in late January or early February, but Allison and I were both in Los Angeles in the fall. We started working on the script in early November. We spent a solid three months working on the material, getting on top of the words, and trying to understand it on an unconscious level before we started working on it with Trip, the director. We wanted to understand what the play was and who these people were. I think I can speak for Allison and Corey that it was almost like the first time we’d ever done a play before. It’s that challenging a piece of material.
Even though it was written in the 90s, there’s something about this play that feels very socially relevant. As an actor, especially in such a tumultuous time politically, do you feel an urge to do socially relevant work?
Sometimes you go where the work is. Sometimes you just need a job, so you can’t be picky about whether it has social relevance or not. In the case of this play, I saw the original production many, many years ago. I was so formed by it. It was a really indelible night in the theater for me—a very, very important play for me. So when I picked it up 25 years later I wondered, “Is this going to be something that’s just a memory based on something I remember as a young person? What will it mean to me now?” What I was most struck by was how relevant, how present the play is now. It seems both like a period piece and like it was written last week. There are so many themes of division, separation, walls we build around each other that we hear about nightly on the news—the xenophobia and how we should be afraid of each other. This play is a cry of acknowledging how close we are as human beings to one another. The most famous speech in the play is this woman trying to wrap her head around the fact that there are only six degrees of separation between me and you and every other person on the planet. I think we live in a world that is incredibly divided in terms of race, gender, and class, now more than ever. I would say there are themes in the play that are more relevant now than they were at the time it was written. That’s just a testament to it being a truly great play…
Is there anything else you do in your pre-show routine besides having a dance party with Allison?
We all warm up as a cast together. We all get onstage. Allison, Corey, and I get onstage at 7pm if the curtain is at 8 and we do a lot of tongue twisters, we do a lot of vocal warm-ups, we do a lot of stretching. Then all the other cast members slowly begin to trickle in and we play a game called Zip Zap Zop.
You guys do not! Are you serious?!
Yeah, yeah we play Zip Zap Zop! We love Zip Zap Zop. We do a little prayer every night that one of the young cast members brought in: “I take from the heavens and bring it into myself. I take from the earth and bring it into myself. And when I have it inside me, I give it away.” It’s one of those actor-artist prayers. Then we all put our hands in a circle and each night a different person comes up with a line from the play that we all say together. It’s a way for us to all come together because it’s a big group of people. There are certain cast members who I never see because I’m not in scenes with them. It’s a chance for everybody to remember and recognize the fact that we’re all in the same orchestra.
That’s so cool to hear because I was in a play a month ago and we did very similar warm-ups—the fact that you guys are doing that on Broadway and we were doing it in a little college student theater production.
The six degrees of separation [John laughs]. One day, if being an actor is what you want to do and you’re in the position I’m in, you will be amazed by how little distance there is in what you’re doing and what I’m doing. It’s the same thing: all the same fears, all the same anxieties, all the same feelings of triumph, all the same feelings of falling on your ass. They’re all the same.
So what’s your advice for aspiring actors?
I think you have to go where the love is and go where the work is. Go where the good play is. When you can, go where the good material is. When somebody asks you to do Uncle Vanya with them, you seize the opportunity. I think you could ask this to Meryl Streep, you could ask it to Allison Janney, you can ask it to Corey Hawkins, you could ask it to me: “Why did you do the things you did in your career? Why did you make those choices? Why did you play those parts?” I think every single person would say, “I basically went where the opportunity was.” It’s either, “Somebody offered me a job and I loved that job and wanted to work on that part, so I did it,” or “I needed a job and needed to make money.” I think my biggest advice is, be careful of strategizing too much. A lot of people think, “I need to move here, to LA, because then I’ll have this.” You just want to be in the best place for you to have the most experience as you can be. Where ever the most love and support is, that’s where you want to be as an artist. Try your best to work as much as possible because that’s the only way you’re going to learn. ♦