Stage Directions: Moonlight’s André Holland Brings an Actor’s Perspective to Directing

Interview   Stage Directions: Moonlight’s André Holland Brings an Actor’s Perspective to Directing
 
Best known for the Oscar-winning film and Broadway’s Jitney, the actor makes his directorial debut Off-Broadway.
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André Holland Simon Luethi and Andres Otero

André Holland caught the attention of moviegoers in 2016 with the success of Oscar-winning Best Picture Moonlight. As Kevin, Holland played a crucial part in a story about race, class, and coming of age. Now, he takes on similar themes from a different point of view with his directorial debut: Greg Keller’s Dutch Masters at The Wild Project in downtown Manhattan.

Greg Keller and André Holland
Jake Horowitz and Ian Duff Spencer Moses

“It’s about class, and race, and cultural appropriation,” Holland says. “And family and loss. It’s a compelling story. To me it has all the elements that any great play has. That’s why I wanted to direct it.” The production runs through April 21.

Holland, 38, is as also known for his stage acting, as the Vietnam veteran Youngblood in the 2017 Broadway revival of August Wilson’s Jitney. His New York theatre credits include Wig Out!, The Brother/Sister Plays and Matthew Lopez’s The Whipping Man. Holland also played civil rights activist Andrew Young in the movie Selma and Matt Miller on American Horror Story: Roanoke. He will be seen later this year in Steve McQueen’s Widows and on Hulu in the Stephen King series Castle Rock.

Read: ANDRÉ HOLLAND PUTS IT IN WRITING

Dutch Masters, which stars Ian Duff and Jake Horowitz, is set in 1992 in New York City. It involves two young boys, one black, one white, who encounter each other on a subway train one summer afternoon.

Holland spoke about Dutch Masters, his acting career, his decision to direct, being a first-time director, and his future plans.

Why he wanted to direct:
“To be honest, it wasn’t something I was looking to do. Acting is what I’ve done pretty much all my life. I’ve never really aspired to directing. Only recently, in the last two years, I started to branch out from just acting into producing and writing. I started a small production company, and we finished our first film: High Flying Bird, directed by Steven Soderbergh, with a script by Tarell Alvin McCraney, who wrote Moonlight, which we think will be out in three or four months. And I directed a short film for the company a year or so ago, and found I enjoyed the process.

“Part of it for me is trying to create new avenues of work and access for not only myself but other young people of color, and young people in general, who want to get involved in the business. I’ve always felt called to tell my own story, and now I feel empowered to take steps toward doing that. Directing this play felt like the logical next step. It’s the perfect place for me to start—a two-person play that’s only 65–70 minutes long, written by a friend of mine. I felt as if it was a great opportunity to cut my teeth.”

His beginning principles of directing:
“I’ve had the privilege of working with a lot of great directors—Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Dan Sullivan, Leigh Silverman and on and on—and I’m a keen observer, so I’ve always paid attention to how they run the room and how they direct. That was helpful for sure. But for me, my principle has always been that the actors should be at the center of the theatrical experience. I believe in allowing an actor to explore his or her own instincts. So directing for me, at least for this project, was more about shaping what their impulses were rather than imposing my own concept onto the play. That’s probably because that’s the way I like to work as an actor. I don’t like to be told what to do. I like to discover things myself and then be guided along the way.”

A mistake he made in his career that he learned from:
“There have been times when I’ve allowed myself to be swayed by [other people’s opinions], but what I’ve learned is that listening to my own inner voice is the only thing I have. When I didn’t listen to that voice are the times when things that can be called mistakes happened.”

A decision he made that paid off:
“There are so many. When I was in graduate drama school at NYU, the third-year students, when they were graduating, got to audition for the Public Theater for Shakespeare in the Park. It was primarily for the ensemble. After my first year, I really wanted to audition, but everyone said, it’s only for third-years, you can’t do it after your first year. It never happens. So I wrote a letter to the casting department at the Public; I think I also wrote one to Oskar Eustis [its artistic director], asking, or rather begging, that they let me come in. The school didn’t let me audition, but I did get to go in to audition at the Public at one of their open audition days. I wound up cast in the ensemble. That started a relationship with Oskar and the Public and the casting directors that, to this day, is one of the most important relationships of my life. I spent three summers in the park, and several shows at the Public, and most important, I walk into the building now and it feels like coming home, seeing family. That decision, to just take a chance, and listen to that gut instinct of mine that said I really want to do this, paid off.”

About Dutch Masters:
“Greg Keller, the playwright, and I went to drama school together at NYU and I first came across the play when we were in school in 2003 and read it and loved it. I wanted to play the part of Eric when I read it and never got a chance to, but I always loved what the play had to say. I loved Greg’s writing. And when he came to me with this opportunity it felt like the next best thing to getting to play the part was getting to direct.

“The two young boys who meet on the train decide to spend an afternoon and evening together. As this rather mysterious story unfolds we find out that these two boys’ lives are linked in a way that only one of them remembered. You see them rekindle this friendship or build this new friendship, which then is complicated by this information from their past.”

His admiration for August Wilson:
“Without being exposed to his work, I probably wouldn’t be an actor. Even though I had done theatre in my youth and all through high school and college, I never really felt until I read August Wilson that people I knew, people like me, were represented in the theatre. I remember first seeing a play of his that my mother took me to, The Piano Lesson, and then going home and reading the rest of them nonstop, and laughing out loud and crying. It sounded like they were people I knew. It wasn’t like characters in a play. [It was like] that guy is my father! It was so empowering to see people like me, marginalized people who weren’t famous, weren’t wealthy. They weren’t ‘important people,’ but they were important to me. To see them celebrated in the way August Wilson celebrated them was everything to me. For a long time I dreamt of being in an August Wilson play, and it took me a long time, until I got cast in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. That was my first, and Jitney was my second. And I want to do them all.”

The future—acting and directing:
“I’m at a bit of a crossroads. I have been very lucky and have gotten into very wonderful things. I’m going to play Othello later this year at the Globe in London with Mark Rylance as Iago. That was a bucket-list item. Producing is a big interest for me. I’m also interested in furthering my education. I don’t know exactly what that’s going to mean. I’ve been taking some classes in my spare time. I want that to be part of my life. I’m open to whatever else comes along. I’ll be listening to that little voice inside.”

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