At the age of 7, Richard Thomas made his Broadway debut playing the son of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Sunrise at Campobello. Now, 56 years later, the veteran actor will be starring as a POTUS of his own, playing Jimmy Carter in Arena Stage’s world premiere of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Lawrence Wright’s Camp David.
The play is a historic look at the events that unfolded during the 1978 peace talks at the presidential retreat, when for 13 days President Carter and his wife Rosalynn welcomed Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in an attempt to find peace in the Middle East.
“I received a call about the show last October. [Arena Artistic Director] Molly Smith wanted me to do a reading in New York, and I was really intrigued because I am a big fan of Larry Wright’s work. His last book on scientology (Going Clear) – it’s like watching a house burn down, it’s so interesting,” Thomas says. “The first thing that appealed to me about this was that he had turned it into a four hander. I liked the intimacy and thought it had humor and it jumped right off the page at the reading. It really worked in every way.”
Although he can’t put his finger on exactly why he was thought of to play President Carter, Thomas did feel upon reading the script that it felt comfortable on his shoulders.
“This really felt like a good part for me; a good Richard Thomas part,” he says. “When I consider a part, it’s really two fold. How do I respond to the material as a whole and how do I respond to the role. Is it a part I’ve played too many times, never played, a part like The Americans that I would not normally be cast in? I ask myself why I want to be a part of it and for this, it was an easy decision.”
Making the decision easier was the casting of Tony Award winner Ron Rifkin as Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Although the two had never worked together before, Thomas has known Rifkin since he was 14, six years before he would gain notoriety as John-Boy Walton but already carving out an acting career on New York-based soap operas, TV movies and the theater.
“Ron studied dance at my parent’s ballet school (New York School of Ballet) so we have known each other for quite a long time,” Thomas says. “He’s a wonderful actor and I am having a very good time with him. He’s terrific in the part and it’s a great part for him.”
A veteran of the stage and screen, Rifkin hasn’t played too many historic characters in his day, but was intrigued by Camp David because of the story and the nuances of Begin.
“This certainly is a major character and someone that I was drawn to and learned to appreciate and love and respect. I’m totally in awe of him,” Rifkin says. “He was a magnificent human being filled with wonder and a grace and elegance and he’s fierce and funny and articulate. I feel privileged to be able to spend some time living in his interior world.”
Thomas has been researching President Carter and the events of Camp David for the past five months, but insists the process is not just about the information he is collecting.
“It has a quality of preparation beyond just the facts. It’s about immersion into the world and life of the character. It’s the process of putting your head under and dipping in,” he says. “For me, the challenge is to play the character the right way within the context of the piece. It’s best and most constructive for me to look at Jimmy Carter as just a character in a play.”
To that end, he won’t simply be doing a Carter impression in the play, but understands that unlike, say, Richard II, people are very knowledgeable about our contemporary presidents and so he needs to have some of the mannerisms and speech reflections in play.
“I think one has to make a gesture physically in the direction of who the guy was but not to the degree of doing a character impersonation. That to me feels false. I choose to play the essence,” he says. “When you play a living character there’s a fundamental thing that hits all actors, the only person you can bring to the project is yourself. You can put on costumes and makeup and do the walk but ultimately, you are bringing you.”
Rifkin agrees that mimicking the character is not the way to go.
“I never stop reading and watching him but certainly I am doing my version of who the man was. As we rehearse, we find different parts of ourselves that are like these guys, and they start to come out and develop,” Rifkin says. “Gradually, we take on a different physical persona and blend in with what the writer has given us. It’s a process.”
The cast also includes Khaled Nabawy as Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Tony nominee Hallie Foote as Rosalynn Carter—and Thomas says the ensemble is one of the best he’s ever worked with.
Having lived through the time period, both Thomas and Rifkin remember the importance the Camp David talks had on our country and the world, and are finding new meaning from the events that transpired in the play.
“As a Jew, I certainly have feelings about all of this. I am thinking about this more than I ever have before. Certainly, it has given me more information than I had before and given me more food for thought,” Rifkin says. “Larry Wright has written a very unbiased play and doesn’t take sides. People will come in with their own opinions and feelings, and hopefully experience something that will open their hearts and minds.”
Closes May 4, 2014
Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theatter
1101 Sixth Street, SW
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Details and Tickets
“I think having lived through it keeps you interested in the material and it feels more natural in a funny part of way,” Thomas adds. “You remember these people and watching the news and reading about it every day and the implications of what it all meant. Working on this brings that all back and I like that and am enjoying it.”
President Carter himself will be coming to opening night and Thomas is looking forward to the chance to ask him personally about some of what takes place in the play.
“I’d like to ask him how angry he really got and how he manifested his anger. For a man who smiles a lot, he had a lot to be angry about in these 13 days and in the play, he is not a passive character at all,” he says. “That would be helpful for me.”
And if the former president offers some insight that may be different from what is happening in the play Thomas admits he would certainly take it and bring it up with the director and writer, but his first duty is to the play and staying true to the production.
“We’re all looking forward to meeting him,” Rifkin says. “It’s going add another layer to what is already an exciting production.”
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