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Building Character: Finn Wittrock

Date: Feb 27, 2012


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Welcome to Building Character, TDF Stages' ongoing series about actors and how they create their roles

Every night, before the audience arrives at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre for Death of a Salesman, Finn Wittrock spends time on the set walking around his "own house."

The house is based on Jo Mielziner's set design for the original 1949 production of Arthur Miller's classic play, which follows the tragic final days of salesman Willy Loman (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Wittrock, who plays Willy's son Happy, says the history of the set helps him prepare for the harrowing show.

"I think there is a connection to the house in which you're born that is like no other connection to any other place, and if you can really ground yourself to that, I think that all your history and your childhood will really be right below the surface," he says. "And if you can connect to the house then it's easy to connect to the emotional response that you're going to give."

Wittrock is a Julliard-trained actor making his Broadway debut. Over the summer, while he was starring in the Signature Theatre Company's production of Tony Kushner's The Illusion, he caught the attention of director Mike Nichols, who invited him to audition for Happy a few months later.

But to soap opera fans, Wittrock is best known as Damon Miller in All My Children (2009 to 2011). He says the experience in daytime television was beneficial because there is really no process in the soap opera world. "The one thing that daytime TV can really teach you is how to be spontaneous and how to make a decision on the spot. That really helped when we were starting to work through [Death of a Salesman]," he says. "A lot of what I do is very reactive. I spend a lot of time listening."

Happy Loman is a womanizer who lives in the shadow of his older brother Biff (Andrew Garfield). As Wittrock explains, he's a character who rarely looks inward and assesses himself.

"I've realized that [Happy] is more emotionally stunted than I ever thought," he says. "I think he's stunted emotionally at about 12 years old. One of the stage directions is that he has never allowed himself to turn his face towards defeat, and that's something I've really discovered as we've gone. That people like that can't look in. Because if they look in, they'll crumble. Their fortress is built on sand."

Wittrock says that working with this cast makes his job easy. "I remember I had an acting teacher who said, 'The way you talk about the work is the way the work will be,' and I never really knew what that meant until I worked with these guys," he says. "If you can actually put words to what you're going through and what is happening at any given moment, then you can do it night after night and not just when you're inspired. Then you can do a play like this and know the path you have to take every night and then that liberates you to be spontaneous and responsive in the moment."

It's an intense journey that he takes every night with his cast, and after the show, Wittrock winds down on the long train ride home to Brooklyn and by checking in with his fellow actors before they leave for the night. He says, "It's very important---this is something I learned from Phil---to laugh about it and be humble about it and be able to let go and let off steam and make some jokes and not take yourself too seriously once it's over."

Linda Buchwald tweets as @PataphysicalSci