WILLIAMSTOWN -- When actor Robert Sean Leonard takes the stage as Henry Higgins in the Williamstown Theatre Festival's production of "Pygmalion," don't expect his portrayal of the iconic phonetics professor to resemble the celluloid performances of Leslie Howard or Rex Harrison.
It's a role Leonard readily admits he never imagined playing, and that it took some persuasion from director Nicholas Martin, who asked him to play the professor in a production at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre in January, for him to even consider stepping into it for that first time.
"I was never interested in playing Higgins. I never liked the role. I just thought he was a bit natty and fussy. I love [playwright George Bernard] Shaw. I've done two Shaw plays; I just never felt the desire to do Higgins," he said during an interview at the Williams Inn on Tuesday.
While considering Martin's request, Leonard re-read the play, which served as the basis for "My Fair Lady," and found his inspiration in a single line.
"There is a line in the play where [Higgins'] mother says, ‘Oh, this is the day I have visitors. You can't stay. Every time my friends meet you, they never want to come back.' I thought, Leslie Howard? They met him and didn't want to come back? It didn't make sense to me," he said. "Of course, at that time, just saying something wrong could do that. I thought for a modern audience, that he shouldn't be natty of fussy or perfect. Even though he's interested in elocution and pronunciation, that doesn't mean his speech has to be perfect. Mostly those people aren't.
"I think he should be eating a lot. I think he should be sloppy and rude and he should be the Robert Downey Jr. -- from the 1980s-- of his generation. He should be a guy your friends meet and then don't want to come back to your house. That was the way in for me."
When Martin decided to bring the production to Williamstown's Main Stage this summer, Leonard was happy to return to the role of Higgins, which he says is an opportunity to fine tune the character. Also returning from the Old Globe Theatre performance is Paxton Whitehead in the role of Col. Pickering. Heather Lind, who appeared opposite Blythe Danner in last season's "Blue Deep," will play Eliza Doolittle.
Taking on the role of Eliza, Lind said she was very aware of the challenge of portraying a character most often associated with Audrey Hepburn in the "My Fair Lady" film adaptation.
"I think when I first took this on, I was really conscious of just using the text for a long time," she said. "Shaw writes a huge prologue and huge epilogue at the end of the play that specifically explains why he wrote it and how he wants it to be told. I took the script at face value at first. I wanted to really only use information I was getting from the text and from Shaw."
Lind added, "I had to put blinders on and not take into consideration my own interpretations or previous associations with the play. That was really the way I started it. At some point, I had to acknowledge that there is a certain energy around this character, and I couldn't back off from it and be unique. I had to play the role. What this woman does, the way she speaks, the decisions she makes are what make the role iconic. But I also found there were so many things about Eliza that I didn't know and are keeping me curious as to how to most truthfully portray her."
By George Bernard Shaw
Directed by Nicholas Martin
Where: Main Stage, Williamstown Theatre Festival
When: July 17-27
Cast: Robert Sean Leonard, Heather Lind, Paxton Whitehead, Patricia Conolly, Caitlin O'Connell, Don Lee Sparks, Dan O'Brien, Maura Hooper, Federico Rodriquez, Alex Seife, Ariana Seigel
Tickets: $60. Can be purchased at wtfestival.org, by phone at 413-597-3400, or in person at the Box Office at the '62 Center for Theatre and Dance, 1000 Main St. (Route 2), Williamstown