What is theater? What is the force that drives an actor to not only hold the characters they portray live on stage, but to have the audience hypnotised by their existence in a way even science, I doubt, can explain. In the Stratford Festival, there were a variety of plays on show but Shakespeare is always the King of theater.
The complexity of his stories, the way of opening up the society, digging up and reveal its dark side, or just telling a love story, a story of a family, revenge or redemption. While it all sounds Shakespearean, it is, let’s not forget, depiction of life itself.
Director Antoni Cimolino brings “The Tempest” to Stratford with a stellar cast including the young and talented Sébastien Heins. His portrayal of Ferdinand is compelling and profoundly deep.
This is why I am extremely proud to present my interview with the actor who truly deserves to be considered as one of the best of his generation. To come to that conclusion is very easy; first, seeing his performance in “The Tempest” is evidence itself but his approach to the role, way of seeing himself as an actor, and his deep knowledge of performing art and craft we like calling acting is commendable.
MOVIEMOVESME: What is theater for you?
Sébastien Heins: I think personally, on a day to day basis, the theater is a home for me. When I rehearse or I perform in a show, I feel like I’m with my family, and so I don’t feel so alone, if that makes sense. And then we have an audience on stage, the family is even bigger. I love to feel together in this great big crazy life of ours. But more practically speaking, I love the theater because it’s alive, because you don’t know what’s going to happen, because sometimes things go wrong, like they do in life, but you figure out a way to make them work.
So, if you forget a line, then you look over at your other actor and you figure it out, and it’s exhilarating. You get a huge adrenalin rush. And the stakes are really high, because the show must go on. You can’t just stop the show and say, “I don’t want to do this anymore.” You’ve got to keep going. So I love the theater because it’s a place where you might have rehearsed the show, but you try not to know exactly what’s going to happen next. I think life is most exciting like that, too.
MOVIEMOVESME: How about “The Tempest”? How did you become Ferdinand?
Sébastien Heins: I’d spent two seasons already in Stratford, 2015, 2017, and during the season of 2017, my agent told me that the director, Antoni Cimolino, wanted to audition me for the part of Ferdinand. So I prepared a scene for him and memorized it, and came in and performed it with a reader. There are lots of little details within that, but I spent a lot of time understanding who this guy is, this Ferdinand, prince, character, and trying to see how much he’s like me and find out what all the personal connections were so that I could come from a more personal place when auditioning.
MOVIEMOVESME: “The Tempest” is about so many things – there’s revenge, family betrayal, redemption, and magic. This particular play is the last one ever written by William Shakespeare which is full of various of interpretations of its content. So what do you think “The Tempest” is about?
Sébastien Heins: I think it’s partially about a wedding and the union of two different worlds, the union of the world of politics with the world of nature. I also think it’s about forgiveness, being able to forgive those who wronged you many years ago, rightly or wrongly, but wronged you, and having the strength to start a new chapter with them. I also think it’s about an artist trying to sum up his relationship with his audience.
Prospero has this incredible speech at the end where the character basically admits all that they wanted from the audience, just wishing that the audience would set them free with their applause, which is a great way to get people to start clapping at the end of your play. But I think that as an artist myself, I think that Shakespeare’s trying to say goodbye and trying to leave the audience with something magical, but also something human, too.
MOVIEMOVESME: I think being a theater actor is more difficult than being a film actor. Once you’re on the stage, where do you see? Do you see the audience or you are trying to get in the world where you’re your character? What’s going on in your head when you are right there?
Sébastien Heins: That’s an interesting question. Thank you for asking that. Believe it or not, it’s actually all of those things. It’s not all those things at the same time. You can only really focus on one thing at a time. The optimal place to be as an actor is in a state of free flow and listening and reacting to your scene partners, and taking in what’s happening to you, and trying to change the world through your character’s actions. But you also need to make sure that you’re standing in the right place so that the light hits you just correctly so the audience can see you.
And then you need be able to judge whether a laugh is a bit longer or a little bit more shorter, so you’re listening to the laughter of the audience, so that you know when exactly to come in so that they get the satisfaction of laughing, but you usher them onto the next moment, and that they can still hear you. And then you need to watch out for new things that might have happened. Let’s say a prop piece has fallen, it’s a good idea to know that the audience is probably going to be looking at that handkerchief that fell on the stage, because they’re wondering, “Oh, what are they going to do with the handkerchief?”
So, as an actor, you have to improvise, pick that thing up, move it around, give it to somebody else, make sure that the stage is safe for your other actors, no matter what happens. And regarding seeing audience members, right now I’m doing a show that’s very intimate. We can see everybody in the audience. They’re very close to us. It is definitely more challenging when you can see them, because you can see them looking at their program and then looking at you and looking at the program. I’d say that it’s a mixture of wanting to connect with them, not making them feel nervous by being overbearing, but also inviting them into the story and inviting them into your arguments, like a lawyer would, or a politician would.
MOVIEMOVESME: It’s not enough to be an actor just on stage, to perform, but you need to really have all the other skills to ensure that you get into the skin of the character you’re playing be it a judge or prosecutor or even Einstein!
Sébastien Heins: I think that’s a really interesting point, actually. Just to add that. I think that one of the best things about being an actor is that with every project that you do, you’re given the opportunity to become a mini expert in the time period of your play, in the emotional arcs of the characters in that play, in the history of that moment, and you get to study humanity as an actor. So I always find that I’m enriched by every show that I do, because I learn just a little bit more about the world that I live in.
MOVIEMOVESME: Maria Callas once said, “When you are successful on stage, everybody praises you. But once you fail to get the high note due to cold, they forgot about your successes and begin criticizing you.” So what happens if you have the flu or you got a cold or you’re injured and don’t have a backup. Can you talk about the challenges that actors are going through before pulling off the act on stage?
Sébastien Heins: Yeah, it’s a great question and I really appreciate you thinking about the struggle. I’ll try to answer this in two parts. It’s good to keep in mind that even when everything is perfect, even when you’re firing on all cylinders and all your lines came out, as you thought, perfectly, and you did all your notes that your director gave you, and your body is in perfect condition, people will still judge you. People will still judge you negatively and think that you’re not doing as good a job as you could do, or that they’ve seen it done better before, or that you have no business being an actor, or that this is the reason why the theater is dead, because of you. So there is no perfect situation for performing live in front of people, because we just judge. We judge. So, that’s one thing to keep in mind.
The other thing, to more specifically answer your question, is that it is really frustrating when you have a cold or something. You kind of want to, at the beginning of the show, come out and say to the audience, “Just as a disclaimer, I just want you to know I’m not quite feeling perfect today. Got a little tickle in my throat. So please, if I don’t quite hit all the right notes or if I don’t go to that emotional place, please bear with me.”
I think something also to keep in mind is that sometimes people can’t even tell, but sometimes they don’t even know. They just come and the script has taken them away, it’s gotten them excited, and they can’t even tell that you’ve got a little bit of a snuffle. I find that sometimes when you tell people that you’re less than 100%, they actually notice it more. Just an example, one time in high school I fractured my ankle, and I was about to do a monologue for this big assembly for my whole school. And so I was put in a cast.
I came out and I did the monologue, and I had crutches. Afterwards, everybody said to me, “Oh, wow. Was that a prop that you used for your leg? Because it just brought a whole new level to that character All of a sudden, I realized that he’s not just injured on the inside, he’s also injured on the outside.” I was like, “Well, you know, I fractured my ankle. That’s what happened.” So we don’t know actually what the effect is, and sometimes having hindrances endears the audience to your performance more than if you seem like you’re in perfect shape.
MOVIEMOVESME: With the rich concept of “The Tempest” that touches upon the topic of society itself, how do you think this will apply to our current society?
Sébastien Heins: I’d say specifically, The Tempest in particular gives us room in a dark space to really consider what kind of society we want to build in the next 10, 15, 20, 50, 100 years. As we’re seeing massive shifts in the political inclinations of our neighbors to the south, in Europe, a different understanding of climate change and its possible effects on us, I think that we have to consider that we are all on an island. We’re on this little, as there was once stated, “Pale blue dot,” this Earth place. I think what we can take away from The Tempest is to consider all of the denizens of this world and all of their situations, and that there is no perfect solution to all of it, but that we need to listen to everyone as we forge into the future.
Gonzalo has this really interesting, some people call it super Utopian, political, communist speech, Marxist speech, about how he would create a world, how he would create society, and then everybody would treat each other perfectly and there’d be no this and no that. I think that we’re going to have to ask ourselves those questions as we set up new businesses, as we set up new markets, as we maybe destroy some types of markets and forge new ways of being humans together and having this world be sustainable.
So, I don’t know if The Tempest gives us very specific tools with which to deal with our society. I think that, like most theater and like most good art, it invites us to contemplate these questions as we move forward.