Antwayn Hopper | Performer of the week
As Kilroy, a failed boxer who stumbles on a dead-end road populated by lost souls, Antwayn Hopper exudes raw power in Goodman Theatre’s production of Tennessee Williams’s Camino Real. An army brat, Hopper was born in Germany, then moved to Georgia and North Carolina before settling in Topeka, Kansas, where his father was stationed at Fort Reilly. Camino Real marks his third visit to Chicago, his last trip prior being for the audition that would earn him a full-ride scholarship to Carnegie-Mellon University. Since graduating in 2007, he has worked steadily in both New York City and regional theaters across the country, but Camino Real marks a bold shift in the young artist’s life and career. Hopper talks to us about the inspiration behind his Kilroy, working with provocateur director Calixto Bieto, and how Kilroy’s journey mirrors his own.
How did you approach Kilroy’s character?
Well, I’m a Midwest boy, I’m an army brat. It’s kind of crazy I played this role, who’s an American soldier who’s a boxer, because my dad is an Army veteran. Retired drill sergeant first class. And he joined the army at 18, he’s a Southern boy. And that’s why I made Kilroy have an accent, because I love him so much, I wanted to base this character off of what I know, and that’s my father, who actually trained boxers in the military. That’s what he did on the side, he worked with boxers. My dad was in the audience [Monday] night, and it was just—kind of to say “thank you for being who you are.”
Were you familiar with Camino Real before getting called in for the role?
I was familiar with it. Did I know it? No. Because I knew Kilroy is normally white, and I have to be honest, let’s be real, I kind of familiarize myself first with the plays that I know I can be in. August Wilson, Othello, any Shakespearean show. But Tennessee Williams is known for not really having any black characters in any of his shows, so no, I didn’t really know Camino Real. When they called me in to audition I was kind of stunned. I did know that Kilroy is normally white, and I did know about Al Pacino and Ethan Hawke portraying this role. The great [Goodman casting director] Adam Belcuore I give all credit to, because it was his idea to go after a black Kilroy. The director was just like, “Bring me people! Bring me people!” Adam called my manager and said, “We want to see him.” Even my manager was like, “What? For Kilroy? Okay.” It’s just a blessing, everything else is history.
Did you have a strong knowledge of boxing from your father or did you have to train for the role?
The role before this one I played a South African boxer. I didn’t have to box like I do in this, but I started realizing, “Okay, Antwayn, people view you as a very strong person, this is something I need to get in my vocabulary.” Once I got this role, I told them, “Please let me get a boxing coach.” I worked with a woman named Kerstin Brookmann, she worked with me three times, two hours each. She’s a Golden Gloves champion in Chicago, and she’s about 5’3” and that girl whipped my ass into shape. I didn’t know footing. She taught me how to cover my ribs, how to duck low, how to bob and weave. The correct punches. She really broke it down because I wanted it to be as realistic as possible. Even though I don’t box in the show, he’s a champion, so I thank her for that. And I knew my dad would be here opening night, so I can’t bullshit it because he would give me notes. (Laughs.) I learned how to box with this contract.
What was the rehearsal process with Calixto like?
From day one, I knew this was going to be an out-of-this-world experience for me because Calixto—well, thank God for the training at Carnegie. Because Calixto is a hands-off director. He trusts the people that he casts in a show, and that’s what directing is all about. It should be about utmost respect, it’s trust between the actors and directors. I trust you, where I don’t have to baby you. Let’s play. Be off-book by the first rehearsal, that was our requirement. Off-book, and we got our scripts a week before we had to be off-book. And I’m freaking out, because I’m in every block except four and there’s 16 blocks. (Laughs.)
We did a read-through, and the first day, Calixto looks at all of us after our read-through with tears in his eyes. “I’m overwhelmed,” he says. “We must stop. I’m overwhelmed.” It was an hour of rehearsal, we had six more hours left. He said, “Go home. I can’t think. I’ve never had this experience of great actors in one room and I’m overwhelmed.” And he was crying. Calixto, this bad boy of European opera, this guy that Goodman’s been trying to get out to the theater since 2009, this legend is crying. And I’ve never been in that situation where I felt so safe. I felt that I could be brave because my director loved me. And he later found me that day and he gave me the biggest kiss ever. And he hugged me and he looked at me and said, “You are beautiful.” This is before we even started blocking, so already we have a sense of, “We want to do our best work for this man.” Not just this man, but for our fellow castmates and for ourselves and for me personally, for God. Because it’s a blessing that I’m in this situation.
So from day one, it was balls to the wall. Everything you saw on that stage we created. He let us improv. Of course, he molded it and shaped us. I remember, I have it in my head: “More! More! More!” That’s his note to me. “More!” When I box at the end, in rehearsal I would box ten minutes to myself. I’d act like I’m falling and he’d be like, “No! Get up!” He’d get behind me and make me keep boxing until I’m dead, dog-tired. When I would run, he’d keep me running while he was talking to the cast. He’d say, “Run! Run!” and chase me. [Laughs.] He’s a hard worker, and I love the way he works because I’m like that. I want the best, I’m a perfectionist. And I want the best because you’re only given this opportunity so many times, which is once, so make it the best you can.
The fact that he gave us that trust the first day and that love, the cast will tell you, they’ll do anything and we act like we’re doing everything. You’ve Barbara Robertson, the whore, she’s making love to a freaking microphone stand. She starts her song off giving a blow job. You’ve got André De Shields, a legend of the theater, getting butt-fucked on stage and doing poppers in the midst of it. Jonno Roberts is fucking him. You’ve got these great actors who are bending over backwards, and that’s what theater should be about. Leave your ego at the door and get ready to work. And Calixto worked us.
What is your reaction to the audience walk-outs?
At first I took offense to it. I was taught by Peter Brook in school about deadly theater, rough theater. And at first I was like, “This is deadly. This is so disrespectful.” I’m thinking, “At least sit in your chairs and give us the respect.” And then I realized that’s my ego speaking. I have no idea what these people are going through. These are hard workers, they’re probably getting off of work, some of them are tired. Some people just want to freaking watch Sound of Music and not have to think about what they’re seeing. And honestly, it’s magical realism. The realism is the part that scares people, and those are the people that leave. And that’s beautiful to me now. I now love it because that’s what theater should be. Great theater should evoke a feeling, whether it’s “I’m getting out of here,” or “I’m throwing up because a gay guy’s getting fucked.” Whether it’s this black guy with blood on his chest at the end. It should evoke something, and if it doesn’t, it’s boring theater, and that’s deadly theater.
So I love it because it’s real and I welcome it. That’s why I got so emotional when they stood up [Monday] night. We’ve had at least 200 people in our seven showings walk out, so for all of us, all these amazing actors—Chicago is a beast. I used to think New York is it, but it’s Chicago. For them to acknowledge, and give us the respect by standing on their feet after this crazy rape of a play, I was overjoyed. I was just thankful for the Chicago crowd, because that’s what it should be about. And I don’t think they should censor themselves because I don’t think we’re censoring ourselves. If the spirit moves you to get out of the theater, please do so in an orderly fashion. [Laughs.] I love it now. At first no, but now I’m like, “You know what, Antwayn? That’s their right, it’s America.” It’s our right, the show’s about that. They should be able to leave, and feel comfortable in doing so.
How did balance the magical and realistic elements of the script?
I’m not religious, I’m spiritual. Just letting you know, because I know I’m saying a lot of God stuff. But it is, for me, from God. I’m at a crossroads in my life as Antwayn Hopper. I used be very cynical. I used to be kind of negative, I used to be hateful and mean. I hated myself, I didn’t love myself. I surrounded myself with bad people. And the Camino Real is the beginning of the end. That’s what the show’s about. These are people that are on their last leg, and they come here to die. They cross over into the Camino Real, where they accept their reality. So I accepted my reality, and I realized I don’t like my reality. And so I changed. Since October, I’ve been praying, I’ve been working on being positive, loving everyone, finding empathy in every situation, even with people walking out of the show. Empathy is what it’s about. Being pleasant to be around. Killing that old Antwayn and accepting this new one, this man. I’m 27 years old, it’s time to grow up.
And that’s what Kilroy is doing. He’s accepting his reality, he’s no longer running from the fact that he is a failure in his own eyes. This ex-boxing champion that lost the battle of his life with his wife, he had to leave her because he was scared he was going to die because of a hard kiss. His heart can’t take it. He’s accepted his reality. That’s why at the end he’s like, “I’m not afraid, I’m here! Kilroy is here!” Which happens to be a great American saying, but he’s saying, “I love myself. I may be washed up, I may be finished, but I’m here!” And that’s what I’m saying as Antwayn, and that’s why it was easy. For me, the Camino Real is the beginning of the beginning, because I’ve seen the beautiful person that God wants me to be. For me to play this role, it really does feel real to me. I told Calixto, “This is my story.” And it’s crazy that my dad happened to be a soldier that was also a boxer. It’s like the universes are lining up. When I checked into my hotel, there was a freaking punching bag in the gym! That never happens! But it’s meant to happen. That’s when I was like, “This is bigger than me. This is God.”