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Building Character: Jessica Hecht

Date: Jun 15, 2012


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Welcome to Building Character, our ongoing series about actors and how they create their roles

Acting is always about mimicry---about the quest to embody a nurse, a sister, a patient---but at the same time, it's also about going your own way.

That's especially true when a play has a long history. When she's the tenth (or hundredth) performer in a role, an actor needs to avoid imitating what's come before her. She needs to portray her character without also parroting other performers.

Right now, those challenges are facing Jessica Hecht, who's starring in the Roundabout's Broadway revival of Harvey.

Written by Mary Chase in 1944, the play follows Elwood Dowd, a charming fellow who insists his best friend is a six-foot tall, invisible rabbit. This startles his sister Veta Louise (Hecht), who's conflicted about how to take care of her brother. Should she send him away for the sake of her daughter, or should she keep him at home and accept him for who he is?

Those questions have been enticing audiences for decades: The play won a Pulitzer Prize and was adapted into a popular film starring Jimmy Stewart. Since then, it's become a staple of regional and high school theatres and has been remade for television several times.

In other words, Hecht is following an awful lot of Veta Louises.

However, they haven't overwhelmed her. And unlike some performers, she doesn't mind earlier performances of her roles. "I do often take a peek at that kind of material," she says. "I just look at it to see what I think the actor was interested in. Most often, it's something that I can't capitalize on in what I'm doing, and it makes me realize how individual people's takes on these great characters are."

For instance, when she rewatched the original film, Hecht saw an enormous divide between herself and Josephine Hull, who won an Oscar for her performance. "The film is iconic and it's wonderful, but there's no way for us to model anything we're doing off of the characters in the film," she says. "They're so physically different than we are that you just can't sub yourself into what they're doing at all."

Of course, it's possible that Hecht would be even more influenced by Swoosie Kurtz, who played Veta Louise in a TV movie adaptation that aired on CBS in 1999. Hecht was also in that movie, as a nurse, but ultimately, that's just a striking coincidence. Hecht didn't have many scenes with Kurtz, and looking back, what she mostly remembers is director George Schaefer staying very close to the script, aiming to keep things as pure as possible.

Working on the play with director Scott Ellis has been quite different. Ellis asked his cast to trust in themselves and their intuition. Hecht calls him a "nudger."

"He just told us the stakes of the situation. He did not talk about the rabbit or the significance of the play, or what was going on historically or anything," she says. "He just said: It's about this family, and from my character's perspective, the effort for this normality to return. For the family to be once again functional."

Not being heavily directed, and not being overly influenced by earlier performances, Hecht found her answers in the script, which she argues contains a good dose of psychoanalysis. And she should know.  Hecht comes from a family of therapists and psychiatrists---her mother, sisters, and stepfather are all in the profession.

"The whole series of the unconscious mind and what you're asking for, it's completely connected to this play," says the actress. "I actually don't usually look at characters from such an analytic point of view, but it's totally in the text. Totally."

An example? When Veta Louise brings Elwood to a sanitarium in the first act, the staff decides that she has a problem. When Veta returns home, her daughter asks about Elwood's whereabouts, and she replies, "How should I know? They're not interested in men in places like that."

Hecht believes in that line. "Even though it's a play about Elwood and the magic of trying to find your way through life---and in the most general way just to feel OK---I think it's a great, interesting piece of feminist literature," she says. "Not in a strident way, but there are so many lines that just scream out how evolved she was."


Laura Hedli is a writer based in New York City
Photo by Joan Marcus