Blair Underwood is making theater history. Sixty-five years after A Streetcar Named Desire first debuted on Broadway, the Grammy Award-winning actor assumes the iconic role of Stanley in the show’s first multicultural production to ever hit the Great White Way. And if you recognize that face (and that body) from his roles on such TV shows as Sex and the City, L.A. Law, and In Treatment, you might need some time to adjust to his portrayal of a character he describes as "a very different animal." Here, Underwood discusses Stanley’s volcanic nature, his passion for theater, and his new clothing line.
After you wake up in the morning and head to the theater, how do you crawl into the role of Stanley?
That’s a great question. I think I jump into him instead of ease into him. It’s like a switch, which is very consistent with him. He’s impulsive, sexual, volcanic, erupting. His energy and spirit is so different from mine; I’m more laidback, and Stanley’s a life force. It’s about getting into his thought process, which is very cut and dry. It’s very 1940s male; he plays poker, hangs out with the guys, believes in male and female roles. He’s incredibly complicated yet simplistic – it’s what makes him so fascinating to play.
Describe his relationship with “STELLA!!!”
That famous scene is what it’s all about. Their relationship is beyond love – it’s profound necessity. He’s a man-child: strong and violent, yet vulnerable and needy. The idea of her leaving him is something he can’t even compute. It’s not just “Stella, come down. I want to see you.” It’s, “Stella, I can’t live without you.” You see this man beat his pregnant wife, and then you see him fall to his knees and beg her to come back. It’s juicy stuff.
When was your first exposure to Streetcar?
I had read the play in college and seen the movie, and remember being struck by how different Marlon Brando’s acting was from Vivien Leigh. Brando’s acting was so naturalistic and raw and violent, whereas Vivien Leigh’s was so stylized, straight from the British school of theater. Not only do the two characters clash, but so their acting styles. I think it’s one of the reasons people were so impressed and blown away by Marlon Brando’s performance; in 1947, that style of acting had never been seen on stage before. He brought that whole method style of acting to America.
How did you become a part of this production?
Four years ago, the show’s producers did Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with an African American cast. I very much wanted to be a part of that production, but it wasn’t meant to be. I remember coming to see the production, and I met one of the producers in the lobby, and I jokingly said, “You know I wanted to be in this!” and he said, “I know, but I control the theatrical and film rights to Tennessee Williams’ estate, and I’d like to doStreetcar sometime down the road – we should talk.” Years later, we started having conversations about it. And here’s the irony of this: our performance of Streetcar is debuting in the exact same theater as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – the Broadhurst. To remember that place, in that lobby where we had that first conversation – it’s a blessing.
What’s your greatest challenge in taking on one of theater’s most coveted and well-known roles?
Not allowing other people’s memory of any particular performance of Stanley color what I do. Instead of trying to reach for the stars and imitate what someone has done, I’m creating my own separate mind of the character and that character’s reality at this time in 2012, not 1947.
I read that theater has always been your first love, yet you’ve had such a prolific TV and film career. What do you love so much about theater?
We control it. You’re on that stage and in that moment. When you watch things on TV and film, they were acted months, years ago. In theater, it’s all happening right there, right now and it’s dangerous. You live a character for two hours, and the audience is a part of it. In film, an editor controls you. If you want to take a beat for 10 seconds to make a point, that editor makes it three seconds, which creates a completely different intent. On stage, you have the control.
Your clothing line recently debuted. How would you describe your collection?
It’s exclusively suits and ties for now, and sold at K&G. They’re quality and affordable men’s wear. That’s the whole MO. The most expensive suit is $199, but it’s quality, and everybody who’s had them has been very happy with them.
Would Stanley wear them?
No… actually, he would. They’re in his price range!