Meet the Artist
Q&A with Zach Appelman
From grade school Hamlet to Vanessa Redgrave, a life with Shakespeare.
Where are you from? Where do you live?
I was born and raised in Palo Alto, California, and I’m currently living in Brooklyn, NY.
What was the first play you were in?
My first play was actually an abridged children’s adaptation of Hamlet when I was in the fifth grade. I was the only one willing to learn all of Hamlet’s lines, so I was given my first crack at the role! I remember when I stabbed Polonius (played by a girl in a white Santa Claus beard), I would hold my plastic sword through the curtain for a few extra moments while she discretely ripped open a ketchup packet, and squirted it onto the plastic blade! We were really proud of the effect!
What was the first professional Shakespeare play you were in?
The first professional Shakespeare plays I did were King Lear and As You Like It in repertory at Shakespeare Santa Cruz. It was one of the most important summers of my life. I was playing messengers and spear-carriers, but I got to understudy Dan Donohue, who is simply one of the greatest classical actors in the country. I tried to be like a sponge, watching how he worked in rehearsal, listening to how he played with the language. I’d never seen someone with so much stage presence; I was in awe. I thought, “That’s what I want to do!”
How do you prepare to play a role as colossal as Hamlet?
To a certain extent, I prepare for Hamlet just as I would any other role; lots of detailed detective work with the text, finding clues to the character, exploring the rhythms of the verse, glossing unfamiliar words with a dictionary, making sure I have a crystal-clear, visceral understanding of every line he speaks.
Obviously Hamlet is a special role, with an undeniable legacy behind it. But there’s a danger there. As an actor you can’t think about playing the iconic role…that way madness lies. It’s a trap that can leave you feeling woefully inadequate, with impossible expectations to live up to. When you go back to the text, though, you can re-connect with the simple story, and be reminded that Shakespeare didn’t write iconic figures, he wrote beautifully accessible, painfully human characters, and Hamlet is certainly one of them. Behind this pinnacle of all Shakespearean roles, there is a person: a lost young man, trying to cope with the death of a parent, struggling through some very human grief, like many of us have. That is a great starting point for an actor. So that’s where I begin, by letting go of the baggage, the preconceived notions, the expectations, and trying to find the human being underneath it all.
At his essence, who is Hamlet to you? What motivates his world view?
I think he’s a young man actively searching for a world view. He’s been away at University in Wittenberg, the birthplace of the Protestant Reformation, which was a hotbed of radical thinking. Revolutionary new theories about man’s relationship with God and the Church were being debated; astronomical discoveries were uprooting the notion of man’s place at the center of the universe. This is where Hamlet was getting his education. I think his mind is bursting with conflicting ideas, and burning questions about humanity.
What’s exciting about the play is watching this prince come face to face with these massive questions in the wake of his Father’s death, when his world view feels the most bleak. What does it mean to be a man? How do we keep going when life feels unbearable? Why did God put us on this earth? Watching the play, you have an incredible opportunity to investigate these questions with him. With his soliloquies, Hamlet extends a hand to the audience, almost saying, “Come with me, let’s figure this out together…”
Do you have a favorite moment in the play?
I’m really excited to explore what happens after Hamlet starts to feign madness. He becomes so unpredictable, so dangerous. His mind works incredibly quickly. There’s a lot of different ways those scenes can go, endless options. It’s a wonderful opportunity as an actor to challenge yourself, to dive in and really push the limits in the rehearsal room. I can’t wait to play with that material.
You have a long list of distinguished Shakespeare credits for a younger actor. What’s your attraction to Shakespeare in general?
I don’t know how to explain it. There’s such range and depth to his plays. He has written these epic, larger than life stories, and filled them with such intimate human moments. The language is so exciting the play with. When I do Shakespeare, I feel like a chef being handed a barrel of the most delicious ingredients in the world, and getting to just go wild with them in the kitchen.
You have had some very interesting TV credits this year. Any thoughts on what it’s like to step on the amazing set of “Sleepy Hollow” or to play a scene with Vanessa Redgrave?
It’s been so much fun to be on “Sleepy Hollow.” It’s my first time working in the supernatural/fantasy genre, and the environments they create feel so real! I was wandering around the massive studio one night, waiting to shoot a scene, and literally got lost in a maze of set pieces. I was walking through these endless “underground tunnels” that they’ve built, and when I finally found my way out, I was standing in a giant torch-lit “cave” with some sort of sacrificial altar and creepy demonic hieroglyphs scrawled all over the walls! Not a place you’d want to get stuck in when they turn off the lights at the end of the night.
Working with Vanessa Redgrave earlier this year was something I’ll never forget. I was a bit nervous to film with her, but she put me completely at ease. We were the only two actors filming that day, so she came and sat with me in my dressing room during our lunch break, and we ended up talking about Shakespeare for half an hour! It was our common ground, and it totally broke the ice!