Coming up as a young actor in Chicago’s theater scene, John Sanders played his share of bad guys and villains in original productions, but none that prepared him for playing one of the most notorious scoundrels in 20th Century pop culture—Peter and the Starcatcher’s Black Stache, the man who would become Captain Hook.
“Normally when I play a villain, I approach the role as someone who doesn’t truly think they are bad. That’s one of the keys to making them accessible,” he says. “While there’s an element to that in an actor’s approach to Black Stache, the cool thing about him is that he is a self-professed villain—he really wants people to think of him as one, that’s his main goal in life. So, you can dig into that and have a lot of fun with that.”
Sanders has been playing the devious rogue in the National Tour of the Tony Award-winning play for the past year, having previously understudied the role on Broadway. The production plays at The Kennedy Center from January 28 through February 16, 2014.
The play, based on a novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, was written by Rick Elice and is co-directed by Roger Rees and Alex Timbers. It was Sanders’ association with Elice on another play he did in Chicago—Turn of the Century—that led to the actor first hearing about the idea for a Peter Pan prequel.
“It was 2008 and at the opening night party I met Roger Rees and over a couple of drinks, he was telling me all about this play that he and Rick were developing that they were about to take out to the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego,” Sanders says. “Years later I get a call to audition for this play for the part of Lord Astor, and I knew I had heard about it somewhere before, but it didn’t hit me right away.”
Sanders was offered the cover for Black Stache, played originally by Christian Borle (of Smash fame), and he decided to move from Chicago to New York because he absolutely loved the play and wanted to be a part of it. After being with the Broadway production for eight months, Sanders left to do Matilda but then received the offer to play Black Stache in the National Tour and he jumped at the opportunity to play such a delicious character.
“When we first meet him, he’s this guy whose overly concerned with himself and his appearance and he’s decided he wants to be a pirate, but it’s in a time when pirates aren’t really the thing to be,” Sanders says. “He doesn’t have a lot of success and he’s surrounded by fools. He admits early on that what he really wants to be is a hero, but he’d rather have the money and be rich and famous.”
Although Sanders admits that outside of seeing the animated version of Peter Pan as a child, he wasn’t enthralled with the story like some others, but understands why it resonates with so many.
“It’s a combination of the magical and fantastical, with the real and melancholy, and that embodies our show really well,” he says. “Everyone likes to believe that magic is real. Everyone wants to believe someone can fly.”
In Peter and the Starcatcher, the dozen actors play approximately 100 characters between them and there are limited props so it’s up to the actors not in the scene to serve as walls and anything else needed to make it work. That means doing squats and carrying people and pushing things back and forth, all in a very fast-paced environment.
“It’s really physically demanding and the most demanding thing I have ever done,” Sanders says. “This isn’t a musical –but it has great, Tony-nominated music in it. But because it’s not a musical, many of the performers in it aren’t dancers by trade and there’s lots of heavy muscular lifting and movement in it. We started every rehearsal with a 30-minute workout session that would get us ready for what we needed to do in the show.”
When it comes to Roger Rees, obviously Sanders knew him from his Tony-winning title role in The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, but Sanders was also a fan of his from his television appearances on Cheers and The West Wing.
“Some people on this tour had not been introduced to Cheers before, so there’s been a lot of watching that between the cast lately, and that’s been fun,” he says. “Our show shares a lot of [Nicholas Nickleby’s] style in the way it’s about actors coming together to present the play. It’s one of the reasons I think he was asked to develop this play.”
Playing Black Stache affords him the chance to chew the scenery a bit and have some fun with the audience during the pivotal scene when he loses his hand and transforms into Captain Hook.
“My experience in the play all ramps up to this scene and it’s probably the most fun part in the show for me because it’s when I get to have a direct conversation with the audience and it’s a little different every night,” he says. “The writing is so good and the performances so excellent that it looks like we are improvising a lot, when really there’s only one or two moments we were allowed to go for that. This is one of those surprising, fun moments.”