An American Hero
Richard Thomas talks about portraying the iconic Atticus Finch
Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird has been called “the most successful American play in Broadway history.”
The Blumenthal Performing Arts Center has brought the powerhouse play to the Belk Theater this week as part of its Broadway Lights series. Legendary actor Richard Thomas (The Waltons, Ozark, Twelve Angry Men) brings the iconic Atticus Finch to life. The show opened Tuesday and runs through Sunday, July 31. Tickets are on sale now..
We talked to Thomas about the role, the message of the book and the play and his impressions of Charlotte.
I read that you didn’t rewatch the movie To Kill A Mockingbird in preparation for playing Atticus. How did you prepare?
Right. Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation is not an adaptation of the movie. It’s an adaptation of the novel. I love that movie and I remember it well, and I didn’t not see it on purpose. I just felt that once I had reread the novel, that was just unnecessary.
However, now that we’re well into it, I’ll probably take a look at it again. I love the film and I love all the performances and of course, you know, the wonderful Mary Bradham – who played Scout in the movie – is our terrible, racist Mrs. Dubose in the play. So, I really want to watch the picture, in part, to see Mary’s performance now that I’m working with her.
I have also read that Aaron Sorkin, in his adaptation, made Atticus a more fully human, less on-a-pedestal sort of character. Is that true?
A lot of people have said to me: What does it feel like to be playing an icon?
As I’ve said before, icons are unplayable. You can’t play an icon; you can just play a person. And I mean, in a novel, Atticus is very much a real man with real issues and problems he’s dealing with, including raising his children.
In the novel, Atticus is seen through the filter of his daughter’s memory. In the play, Atticus is more of an intimate presence in terms of what he’s going through and his journey. Aaron has given him a real journey and not entirely a loss of idealism, but a kind of loss of innocence about his feelings and about people in general. The play portrays his loss of innocence as well as the children’s loss of innocence. They’re becoming aware of society and of social justice.
So yes, Aaron’s given Atticus a wonderful story, a very personal and intimate storyline that I can share with the audience and hopefully, that brings this great source material a little closer to them. And, it’s all done in the spirit of Harper Lee’s wonderful novel.
What has director Bartlett Sher brought to the production?
He has brought his incredible, unbelievable gifts as a director. This work is full of energy and ideas, and it’s vibrant and funny. There’s so much humor in the script. People may not anticipate seeing humor in To Kill a Mockingbird. Bart has given us a beautiful world to inhabit.
The set design, combined with the community of actors, builds this experience, and it’s unique – it’s a theatrical event, not a novel and not a film. He’s given us such beautiful insights into the material and he’s helped us all develop our performances and our characterizations in the way a great director does. Plus, he’s just a lot of fun.
To Kill a Mockingbird is timeless, but sadly, it is still very relevant today in what it has to say about racism. Does the cast and crew discuss that?
During the rehearsal process, we had several get-togethers where we talked about the relevance of the play and what the story meant to each of us individually – the African-American actors, as well as the white actors. We could share a lot of that as we were putting the pieces together to understand each other’s perspectives and sensitivities. It was a very important part of the process, actually.
And, sadly, it is still our story. It’s still at the heart of our American life.
The novel and the play are so much about the gap between our aspirations and the accomplishment of those aspirations – how we aspire to be our best selves and how we fall short time and time again. In this case, it’s about social injustice and racism, which is at the heart of American history. And so, it is our story and it continues to be our story. This is the task that we have – to look with a cold eye at the reality of our situation but not lose our desire to do the best we can.
You’ve been to Charlotte before, and I’ve seen you on stage before [in Twelve Angry Men and The Humans]. What are your impressions of the city?
It’s a great city. I love walking around downtown. I’m very monkish when I’m doing a play. I don’t do a lot of stuff. But there is such good eating in Charlotte. I can’t wait to get back to The King’s Kitchen. I love that place. It’s one of my favorite restaurants in the country.
So, I’ll be doing that, and my wife will be with me in Charlotte this time. It will be wonderful to be able to share it together.
I have to ask you about what may be your most famous role. It’s certainly how I first came to know you. And that’s your role as John Boy on The Waltons. What does it mean to be associated with a character that, like To Kill a Mockingbird, is sort of timeless?
Well, I love it. I loved doing the show. I love how people remind me of the show every day. I love the impact that it’s had; I’m proud of it. It was a wonderful character. And, of course, it was probably the most important influence on my career in terms of my continued work success.
I have a huge amount of gratitude and pride in that show, and I love being associated with it. Anybody who wants to come up to me and say hello to John Boy, I welcome it.
I also want to hear about a more recent character you played – completely different from John Boy – and that’s Wendy’s dad, Nathan, on Ozark. You were a really good asshole.
I was invited to play Laura’s [Linney] dad a mere four years after having played her husband in the Broadway revival of The Little Foxes. Apparently, I aged a lot in those four years. (Laughs.)
So, we’ve had two very interesting relationships as colleagues. She’s a wonderful woman and a great colleague – and obviously a great actress. The whole company was great – Jason Bateman, all of them. It was a wonderful experience, and I love the richness of that character. You know, the bad guys are fun to play.
What about Atticus – who’s the polar opposite of a bad guy – is fun to play?
I love Atticus deeply. I love the Southern-ness of Atticus and the story. Aaron’s writing really captures the cadences of the South. I love his compassion. I love his gentleness. I love his relationship with his children, his desire to do the right thing. I love his relationship with Calpurnia, which is very much essential to the story.
He’s a wonderful man to spend three hours with.
I read that you actually love being on the road and touring. Is that still the case?
I love the road. This is my third big national tour, and I’ve been in Charlotte with both of them. Yes, Broadway is wonderful. I’ve done it my whole life. There’s nothing like doing a great show in New York City. It’s just a great thrill.
But touring has been this great, rich surprise for me. I knew I wanted to do it because it’s a traditional part of being an actor. The history of touring theater goes back centuries. So, I felt like I was very much part of an acting tradition when I went on my first tour.
What I didn’t realize is how much I would love going from community to community, seeing the country and being able to play in all these wonderful theaters from the oldest – great old opera houses and movie houses that have been restored – to these wonderful new play houses and fantastic new performing arts complexes around the country. It’s a great privilege.
It’s very rich, it’s very immediate and it has great meaning for people. I love seeing how audiences from region to region respond to this material. It’s very powerful.
To Kill A Mockingbird is playing at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center’s Belk Theater from July 26-31. Learn more and buy tickets at blumenthalarts.org.
Photo Credits & Captions
All photos below are credited to Julieta Cervantes.
- Main Photo: Courtroom Scene – (l to r) Arianna Gayle Stucki (“Mayella Ewell”), Richard Thomas (“Atticus Finch”), Stephen Elrod (“Bailiff”), Richard Poe (“Judge Taylor”), Greg Wood (“Mr. Roscoe”) and Joey Collins (“Bob Ewell”).
- Second Photo: Porch Scene – (l to r) Justin Mark (“Jem Finch”), Richard Thomas (“Atticus Finch”), Melanie Moore (“Scout Finch”) and Steven Lee Johnson (“Dill Harris”).
- Third Photo: (l to r) Dorcas Sowunmi and Mary Badham (“Mrs. Henry Dubose”).
- Fourth Photo: Richard Thomas (“Atticus Finch”) and Yaegel T. Welch (“Tom Robinson”).
- Fifth Photo: Yaegel T. Welch (“Tom Robinson”), Stephen Elrod, Jacqueline Williams (“Calpurnia”) and Richard Thomas (“Atticus Finch”)
- Sixth Photo: Richard Thomas (“Atticus Finch”) and Melanie Moore (“Scout Finch”).
About the Author
This story was sponsored by Blumenthal Performing Arts. A portion of funds generated through it will fuel the HUG Micro-Grant Program.
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