In his many years as a New York–based actor, John Douglas Thompson has built a reputation so stellar that he is now “regarded by some as the best classical actor in America,” according a recent profile in The New Yorker. But John’s gripping performance as Joe Mott in the Goodman’s production of The Iceman Cometh marks only the second Chicago production for this celebrated actor, and his first on the Goodman stage. Here’s our Backstage interview with this extraordinarily talented actor.
| John Douglas Thompson as Joe Mott
Photo by Liz Lauren
Place of birth and/or hometown?
Bath, England is my place of birth, and my hometown is Rochester, New York.
First professional role/ production you were in?
My first professional role was as Young Scrooge in A Christmas Carol at Trinity Rep in Providence, Rhode Island.
Favorite professional role/production you were in?
That would be a tie between Othello in Othello at Theater for a New Audience (TFANA), and The Emperor Jones by Eugene O'Neill at The Irish Repertory Theatre; both NYC off Broadway productions.
Dream role or production you hope to be in in the future?
Role you know you'll never get to play because of your age/sex/race but would love to play in an alternate universe, and why?
I've always been moved by the "quality of mercy speech" by Portia in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice for its temperance and acknowledgment of our highest ideals. The idea that mercy is at the center of our humanity and what defines us as sentient beings is subtle and profound all at once. And the role itself of Portia is filled with all the turmoil and complexity of pleasing a dead parent to falling in love to cross gender role playing, complete with trust issues. You can't find better substance for an actor (in my case a male actor) to practice the art of transformation and transcendence.
Production or role you've experienced as an audience member that left you speechless?
Prior to being an actor I was a corporate salesperson for a Fortune 500 company called Unisys. While I was employed by Unisys I went on a date to see Joe Turner's Come and Gone by August Wilson at Yale Rep in New Haven, Connecticut. My date never showed up but the play changed the course of my life and challenged me to be an actor. Not only was I speechless but emotionally full from love to sadness to joy and back again. Up to that point I was unaware of the theatrical experience, and to this day it still remains definitive. Joe Turner's Come and Gone is now part of my own mythology not only as my inspiration for becoming an actor, but also as a benchmark for performance and craftsmanship.
Biggest on stage flub and how you handled it?
Two years ago I was playing the lead role in Richard III at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts, and I skipped a portion of a soliloquy about 10 minutes into the show. It was so egregious that I couldn't correct it, and it was prior to an exit. I felt so horrible that I didn't want to go back on stage fearing it would happen again! I did go back on stage and it all worked out fine. Some flubs you just can't fix, you just have to put it behind you and go forward. The funny thing about it was that nobody else noticed. Just another actor’s case of much ado about nothing.
Pre- or post-show ritual?
I read my script to go over my lines, do a vocal warm-up and some stretching, and say a little prayer.
Favorite thing about working in Chicago?
Experiencing the range and talent of the Chicago theater scene on stage at the Goodman and other stages in the city. Also, I love the city of Chicago itself; it's gorgeous, from the rivers to the lake to the architecture to the restaurants, with world class cultural institutions and entertainment venues. I can't say enough about Chicago and its delights except, I look forward to coming back someday. PS—the architectural boat ride is amazing; done it four times and counting!