Inside Tom Hanks' L.A. Production of 'Henry IV'

Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging
From left: Joe Morton, Ben Donenberg, Tom Hanks, Harry Groener and Rondi Reed

The Oscar winner will star alongside Joe Morton and Hamish Linklater in the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles production, opening Friday at the VA's Japanese Garden on a set built by military veterans.

Fat suits aren’t as uncomfortable as one might think, according to Ben Donnenberg, artistic director of the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles. "These days they’re very sophisticated," he says. "They actually have pockets for ice packs and stuff."

In other words, Tom Hanks is going to be OK. 

Hanks will be wearing a custom-built fat suit nightly starting Friday, when he begins a run as Falstaff in SCLA’s Henry IV at the VA West’s Japanese Garden. Without the suit he’d be too thin to play the famously fat knight, who is described in the play as "a tun of man," a "bolting-hutch of beastliness," and a "stuffed cloak-bag of guts," among other eloquent examples of fat-shaming. Also, every actor who has ever played Falstaff has probably worn a fat suit, says Daniel Sullivan, who is directing the production. Even Falstaffs who are independently fat wear fat suits.  

It’s just part of the deal. Falstaff is, after all, the biggest, most challenging role Shakespeare ever threw at an actor. On top of the fat, there are the reams of dialogue, clever wordplay, boasting, appetites, petty thievery, swilling of sack. Not to mention the devastating story arc. The literary critic Harold Bloom considers Falstaff Shakespeare’s greatest character, nothing less than "life itself."

Sullivan, a veteran director (he won a Tony for directing Proof) with many Shakespeare plays on his résumé, had never actually tackled Henry IV, which Shakespeare divided into two parts, each a full-length play. Like many directors before him, Sullivan has condensed the two plays into one to allow the audience to experience the full impact of the story in one evening.

"I always like to challenge myself," says Sullivan, about why he chose Henry IV when Donnenberg invited him to direct this summer. Another reason was that he really thought Hanks should play Falstaff.

Hanks "was a little surprised" by the suggestion, Sullivan recalls. He’d never envisioned himself in the role. But he warmed to it immediately. "He told me just the other day that it’s even more fun than he thought it would be," reports Donnenberg.

Hanks and his wife, Rita Wilson, have supported SCLA for the past 25 years, participating in staged readings at its annual benefit, Simply Shakespeare. Wilson actually started her professional acting career in a Shakespeare Center production in 1988.

"We had an open call and she showed up," says Donnenberg. "She got her Equity card doing As You Like It with us."

Recently, Hanks told Donnenberg that he was ready to do a play. (Surprisingly, it will be his L.A. stage debut.) "He said, 'I'm going to take two months out of my schedule and I want to do a full-on play.' I said, ‘Great.’ He said, ‘Who do you think should direct it?’ I said, ‘The best director around is Dan Sullivan for this kind of stuff. He’s directed like 10 Shakespeare in the Parks in New York.'"

It turned out that Hanks already knew Sullivan — although the two had last worked together in the 1970s, at the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival in Ohio. “Back when he was just a kid,” says Sullivan.

“Rita got her start with us, and Tom got his start with Dan Sullivan,” says Donnenberg. All the storylines are coming together in a way that seems "Shakespearean. We have a plot and a subplot.”

Wilson was on board, too, at first, to play the innkeeper Mistress Quickly. Then a film she was attached to got its funding, and the timing conflicted. It's one of the occupational hazards of producing theater in L.A., says Sullivan. There are plenty of wonderful Shakespearean actors around. The trick is finding a two-month span that works for all of their schedules.

Tony winner Rondi Reed stepped in as Mistress Quickly. Among the other stars who signed on are Joe Morton, who is playing King Henry IV, Hamish Linklater as Prince Hal and Harry Groener as Northumberland.

Before the cast had even started rehearsing, military veterans were building the stage, hanging the lights and installing 600 seats in the Japanese Garden. This little-known mid-city oasis belongs to the West Long Angeles VA, which has had a long partnership with SCLA. As part of its community outreach program Veterans in Art, SCLA hires veterans as the stage crew for the summer festival. (SCLA even pays for those who want further training to take classes at Santa Monica College.) One of SCLA's missions is "to do art that has a tangible impact on our community — beyond an aesthetic impact," says Donnenberg. "We’re helping veterans to change the trajectory of their lives."

"Shakespeare has a lot of military plays with a lot of soldiers," Donnenberg points out, so doing Shakespeare on the VA campus has special resonance. 

When the actors got to the Japanese Garden to begin rehearsal, the veterans were there to welcome them. "We had this ginormous meet and greet," says Donnenberg. "All the veterans introduced themselves to the cast and the cast to the veterans. The veterans said where they served and what years they served, and the actors said what roles they’re playing. It became a community."