Many know New York native Gaius Charles as star running back Brian "Smash" Williams in the hit high school football series Friday Night Lights. But Public Theater audiences are about to know him as the Duke of Venice, star potentate of the Most Serene Republic of Venice, in William Shakespeare's Othello. This hotly anticipated production, directed by minimalist avant-garde opera and theater director Peter Sellars, electrified Vienna earlier this summer and makes its American debut on Saturday, for 23 performances only. The cast also includes the reliable and potentially riveting match-up of John Ortiz as Othello and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Iago—and that probably has something to do with why the run is almost sold out. During rehearsals last week Gaius spoke with us about Sellars's production, what the play means for contemporary audiences, and the odds of returning to Friday Night Lights for a cameo.
The part of Othello is often played by a black actor. Did you feel strange at all to not be playing Othello? To be the Duke of Venice?
No, actually, because this is not your cookie-cutter production of Othello. This is probably not the Othello that most people expect, but I'm very confident that it'll be the Othello that people really want to see. And so when Peter Sellars was coming up with all the ideas and cast would come in and we started to really get a sense of what the vision was, you know it was really exciting. And I think it's really going to speak to American politics today and what people are dealing with on a day to day basis.
How is that? This play is obviously set in Venice, but it's a very contemporary interpretation. We set it in some type of world that is parallel to the United States, and the Duke of Venice, who is a black person played by myself, is a parallel to our President, a black President. And what that means and how people feel about that, and all the questions, all of the drama and politics that comes with that.
How has it been working with Peter Sellars, whose approach to theater is radically different than a lot of mainstream directors? Actually, that's amazing. I remember before the audition going back to brush up on my Shakespeare and everything, because I had been doing a lot of work in television. I went to Carnegie Mellon and got a BFA and we did tons and tons of Shakespeare, so I was going back and reviewing all the rules and I get in there and I'm doing all my "Shakespeare" training, and Peter's just like, "I don't want that. I don't want to hear that." And so he instructed us not to follow the "rule" of Shakespeare, and not to worry about the scansion, or any traditional Shakespeare requirement, but make it yours. This is not a production where you can sit back and fall into the text like we've always seen. We've seen a lot of productions that are just outdated and I think this production really brings the language back to the audience.
What can you say about working with Phil Hoffman and John Ortiz? Amazing. It's amazing. I remember first getting in there with Phil and John and watching them work. They're, first of all, so humble. There are many times that I forget that I'm working with John Ortiz and Phil Hoffman because they're so humble and so gracious and they're just masters. So it's been really inspiring just watching them work and just learning from them. Part of the old school way of doing theater was to get into a good company and sit under the masters and watch them work, and acquire as much knowledge and wisdom and expertise from them as possible, and that's not really the way it is anymore now. You grab your school and run off and do TV and film and stuff, and you don't really get to sit under a mentor or an expert, and I think that's really important in any craft. And that's sort of what I have right now.
You performed in Europe and now you're rehearsing again. What's that about? I thought the production was finished. Is it changing a lot? No, it's not changing a lot. It's funny because ever since day one, I remember Peter saying something like "Don't worry about the performance, because performance is just a rehearsal with an audience." In the sense that the show is never done; it's never locked. You can always go further, you can always go deeper. And we're in a new space, we've had some time off to think about things. The show is still a very large undertaking; it's not some one act or two act play that you can do in an hour and a half. I remember when we were doing it in Vienna, it was four hours when we first started to run it, over four hours, and then it started to come down. And it's just a big show. And so it's important that we all get back in sync, see what we've learned, and come back to the table.
What's one thing you've learned coming back to it again with a fresh look?
Yeah, I think it's just important to make it yours. I think that's what I've learned. I know it's a simple thing that actors always say, but I think what's really unique about this production is that nobody's character is like any other interpretation that you've seen, because everybody's character is personal. Obviously it's within the story, but what I've learned is that a true mark of really great work is when it's truly yours, when it's just your soul actually being expressed through the character. You don't hide behind the language, you don't hide behind the stereotypes or the conventions of what the character should be, but you really let it see your soul. And I think people who see the show will see eight distinct characters, eight unique and wonderful and deep people. I think that's what I've learned.
Okay, one last question for the Friday Night Lights fans. Were you surprised about how passionate people are about that show? Do you miss doing it? Well, it's funny because I actually saw Peter Berg last night. I had, obviously, great relationships on that show, was really close to a lot of the cast, and I talked to him last night because I have a friend who is actually his assistant now. And I was catching up with him, and we were just talking about how amazing it's been. Three years of just total joy and creativity. We all hoped it would be successful and would go on for three, four, five seasons, but it's actually at a place where it has done that and we can look back and remember how it all started. It's great. And they have a whole new cast, and they're starting a new school or something like that, but it's great to see how the story evolves, and I really feel honored and blessed to be a part of it.
Any chance you could come back for a cameo? [Laughs] We'll see. You never know. But yeah, I have nothing but great things to say about that show.