No one can talk up The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer’s semi-autobiographical drama about the early days of the AIDS crisis, like John Benjamin Hickey. “It absolutely floored me at what a gut punch the play is,” he remembers about the first time he saw it in 1993. “At how emotionally devastating, how polemical, but also what a heartbreaking love story it is and how funny it is. It’s real thrill ride.” What Hickey doesn’t mention is how his Tony-nominated performance as Felix Turner, the boyfriend of the show’s hero Ned Weeks (Joe Mantello), is key to the current Broadway revival. Or how amazing it is that he spends the other half of his day filming scenes as Laura Linney’s homeless lothario brother on The Big C (which returns to Showtime on June 27). So, during a recent phone call, we tried to squeeze it out of him.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You only had a few weeks to rehearse for the play. Was that frightening?
JOHN BENJAMIN HICKEY: Jim Parsons had to fly back-and-forth twice [to finish filming The Big Bang Theory] and I was shooting, and [am] still shooting, The Big C throughout all of it. It was terrifying. George [C. Wolfe, the play’s Tony nominated co-director] was so careful and ever so lovingly and imperceptibly picked us up by our throats, turned, and dropped us into the mouth of the cannon. He convinced us to allow our terror at not having enough time to do it be part of our fuel because the play is about terror. The play is about adrenaline. The play is about nervous energy and nervous exhaustion.
Were you filming The Big C in the morning and acting in the play at night?
Oh dude. On a day like yesterday or tomorrow morning, I usually have a 6 a.m. pickup and so I am out on the set by 7:30, 8 a.m. in Stamford, Conn. It would be one thing if we were shooting in Queens, but we’re about an hour and 20 minute commute out of the city. I’ve not only had the wonderful advantage of having one of the world’s great actresses, Laura Linney, be the leading lady of our show, but theater is also her home. And she’s a very old friend of mine — we went to drama school together at Juilliard 25 years ago. So, when I said to her, “Oh my God, this play has come up and I don’t think I can do it,” she said, “Yeah, you’re doing it. We’re gonna make this work for you. We’re gonna make the impossible possible.”
How do you get from your Big C character Sean’s headspace to Felix’s in an hour and 20 minutes?
I know, Sean is like the nutty, manic-depressive, homeless-by-choice guy and Felix is the f—ing fashion editor of the New York Times. Let’s just start with how much I have to shower and comb my hair. But the play is so brilliantly written that much of your work is done for you. You just have to give yourself to the material. I come into my dressing room — which I share with Jim and Lee Pace, both of who are so brilliant — and we turn on some disco music or some great rock-n-roll. We drink Gatorade, nothing stronger, and we just get our hearts and minds wrapped around it.
When I saw the play, the man sitting next to me was crying so hard that he had to leave. Can you sense the audience’s reaction from the stage?
You certainly do. You feel it. You can see it. There are a lot of lights on the audience. I am too fragile to look out into the audience for fear of A) seeing somebody I know or B) seeing somebody checking their cell phone messages. Although, we’ve never seen that. But the overwhelming emotional response people have to the play is audible. I mean, truly, audible. The greatest high you can have as an actor is to feel an audience collectively conspiring with [you] on the stage to experience the story. It’s the best feeling.
Like a first Tony nod? How does that feel?
Great, man, just really great. I’ve done a lot of Broadway plays and I’m fortunate they’ve all been so successful. And all of them have gotten lots of nominations, but it’s not something that ever happened to me before and I’ve never given it that much thought. Of course, I’ve always dreamed of having one. It feels really nice to be invited.