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Peter Francis James on the alternate universe of Hillary and Clinton
In Lucas Hnath's Hillary and Clinton, currently running on Broadway, titular star Laurie Metcalf comes on stage and introduces the play as herself. She makes it clear that, even though the show is about a woman named Hillary with a husband named Bill who is losing the 2008 Democratic presidential primary to a man named Barack, it's not meant to be a recreation of history. All the action takes place in an alternate universe.
Perhaps in another alternate universe, Peter Francis James, the veteran character actor who plays Barack Obama, would have become a politician. It's a life he imagined pursuing while growing up on the South Side of Chicago. "I was vice president of my class," he recalls. "I thought I was heading to law school. My parents were very politically active, so it wasn't a long walk for me to politics." But his acceptance into London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art altered his path.
Playing Obama has been on James' bucket list since the politician burst onto the national scene. Not only is James' physical resemblance to the former POTUS striking, the parallels between the two men are notable. Both are biracial, and their mothers are from the Midwest -- Obama's is from Kansas and James's from Wisconsin. Their connections to Chicago run deep: James and Michelle Obama grew up in the same neighborhood, and Barack Obama served the region as Senator on both the state and federal levels.
But their most marked similarity, which is on full display in Hillary and Clinton, is the way they speak. Obama's distinctive timbre and cadence are instantly recognizable, so when James delivers his lines, one might think he's nailed the impression -- except he's not really doing one. That comforting, resonant baritone is mostly James with a touch of his dad, a South Side resident for more than 80 years. "Using my father's voice is perfect, because that would be the accent and sensibility of Michelle's family," James explains. "And it's the sound that, over time, Obama adopted more and more, especially as a public speaking style, which is, of course, how we know him best."
While other actors might feel intimidated tackling such a famous figure, James, 62, is used to portraying well-known individuals. On screen, he played Thurgood Marshall and Rosa Parks' husband Raymond; on stage, he won an Obie Award for his turn as Colin Powell in Stuff Happens at The Public Theater. According to James, the key to playing real people, especially those still living, is simply decency. "One feels an obligation -- I do at least -- to always be careful of the person's humanity," he says.
That said, James is adamant that he's playing a version of Obama, not the man himself. Since Hillary and Clinton isn't meant to be true to life, the cast (which includes John Lithgow as Bill and Zak Orth as Mark, Hillary's chief strategist) is able to separate the real people from the characters. "It's about keeping what you know of them in the world out of your head and trying to inhabit them in the play," James explains. "Lucas is playing to the strengths of theatre. It's easier than trying to present absolute truth, because then you're holding it up to your sense of reality every two seconds to say, 'Well, that's not what I think they're like,' or, 'Barack doesn't wear those shoes.' Well, in this universe he does. And that's the deal we make with an audience: Come to the universe of this play and we're going to show you what's there."
Yet no one involved in this production is naive enough to think that any theatregoer could experience this show in a vacuum. In fact, the audience's familiarity with these luminaries does a lot of the heavy lifting. Although James' Obama doesn't come on until the climax of the one-act, his impact is felt from the moment Metcalf morphs into Hillary. Each night, James listens backstage for the first mention of his character. "I can feel the audience respond to his name," he says. James only has about ten minutes of stage time, yet his presence ripples through the theatre, the audience hanging on his every word and even deflating a bit when he exits. "When I walk on stage, I can sense a welcoming from a world that longs for him," he says.
For James, the play boils down to fate. In the show, Obama tells Hillary, "I have a feeling it's my time." James had a similar experience just before he was accepted to RADA. "It was nothing beyond a private sense of destiny," he says. "It was not obvious at all that the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art was going to say, 'Let's take one of the 20 places we have for people from across the entire planet and offer it to this 19-year-old black kid from Chicago.' And yet I felt it was going to happen." So seemingly fate set him on the path that led him all the way to this role.
Top image: Peter Francis James and Laurie Metcalf in Hillary and Clinton. Photos by Julieta Cervantes.