Requiem of Genius: An Interview with Bruce Randolph Nelson on Playing Salieri in Amadeus

What a story. What a scandal. What does he cry? Amadeus! But it is Salieri’s tale to tell. And what better a way to hear it than in an exclusive interview with Baltimore area actor Bruce Randolph Nelson, playing the lead role of Salieri in Centerstage’s production of Amadeus. The first production of their 2014/2015 season is underway and in a sit down interview Bruce gives us the real deal on what it’s like to play the lesser genius to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Bruce Randolph NelsonCenterstage
Bruce Randolph Nelson

Thank you so much for giving us your time, Bruce, it’s great to be interviewing you again. Remind our readers where they’ve seen you last, if you will, and we’ll get started.

Bruce Randolph Nelson: My season ended with a production of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, the Durang play at Centerstage, which was a last-minute insert into their season when a previous show was not ready for prime time. They needed to very quickly juggle shows around and I was asked to step into that role, so I needed to very quickly learn it after coming down from a production of The Dresser as Norman at Everyman Theatre. That’s pretty common for me, a couple of scripts going on in my head at the same time. It always takes me a minute or two to remember the shows that I’ve done that’s just the nature of my memory. I have to work backwards sometimes just to piece together what it is that I’ve done. It was good that recently I won Baltimore Magazine’s Best Actor Award. I love it because on the little plaque it lists all these shows that I’ve been in and I’ve been able to reference that and say “Oh yeah that’s what I just did.” It goes back a while, I think, all the way back to the restoration piece with Boniface— what was it? Beaux Stratagem? That one. And of course Animal Crackers and Red, which were more recent but not as recent as the first two I mentioned. They all blend after a while, they just start blending in my head.

Is Salieri a role that you were hoping to have the chance to play should the opportunity ever present itself? What made you interested in the role?

Bruce: I am not the kind of actor, believe it or not, that seeks out certain bucket list roles that I have to do before it’s too late. I am so reliant on the powers that be: friends, directors, artistic directors, to recommend to me what would be a good fit. When this came across my radar I just jumped at the chance because I knew it was a plum role. Even though it’s called Amadeus it really is Salieri’s story. It hadn’t been on my short list but when it was recommended to me, I just jumped at the chance.

It started as a play and made its way to a film? Or it started as a film and made its way to a play?

Bruce: Exactly. It started as a play which opened in the mid 80’s in London. No that’s not right, ’79 maybe? Peter Shaffer, the same guy who wrote Equus, wrote this. It opened up over there and then came over here to Broadway, I think it was Ian McKellen, Tim Curry, and Jane Seymour in the Broadway cast. Of course later there was the film version directed by Milos Forman starring Tom Hulce and F. Murray Abraham. There’s a great hour and a half long documentary online— I found it on YouTube— of the making of Amadeus. That’s when they decided that Prague was going to be Vienna, which was kind of perfect because the city hadn’t changed in 300 years, well not really. It was the perfect historical backdrop.

Do you have any classical music exposure that draws you into the worlds of Mozart and Salieri?

Bruce: When I was in middle school or maybe high school all of my peers were listening to what was current popular music, I was stuck on the classical music station. Now that didn’t mean that I could reference difference artists or knew which one was doing what but it was so lovely and peaceful to either go to sleep to or wake up to that kind of music. It just became a thread through those school years for me. It wouldn’t be until college that I realized that there was music beyond the classical set.

Does having that rich background of enjoying classical music transform how you look at Salieri?

Bruce: It definitely points out how Salieri was so bland and tame in comparison to the richness of Mozart. I can’t think of another play right off where the soundtrack is so perfectly married to the text or in support of it. And by extension in support of all the emotions that tumble through the piece. You’ve got this core music that is just sort of driving the piece. It’s quite an homage to his work.

What have been some of your biggest challenges in taking this very iconic role and making it your own for this particular production at Centerstage?

Bruce: You know, I am not afraid of getting online and seeing what other productions of Amadeus were— at least in part— filmed and seeing what has been done by other actors. There’s a wonderful clip of Paul Schofield, who originated the role in London years ago, and I’m not afraid to watch these videos to see what’s been done. I’m not afraid to watch the movie to see what F. Murray Abraham brought to the role or what other actors have brought to the role. I’m not afraid to apply or embody some of these other actors’ choices and then leave myself open to what will end up happening in the rehearsal process. Input from other actors, input from of course Kwame (Director Kwame Kwei-Armah) and my own take on the role will develop that. I know that ultimately the characterization will be my own. But I’ll get out there and look and see what was done by other people, it’s a great way to borrow ideas and piece together something that I can make my own.

Where else are you drawing inspiration for Salieri? Is there a dramaturgical cavern that you’re mining for ideas?

Bruce: Well I’m certainly leaning on Gavin Witt, he’s the Dramaturg at Centerstage, he put out this 100-page dramaturgy packet and it is so nice. Even before that packet was made available I had been busily researching the Italian that gets spoken and any number of musical references that get made that I didn’t know and knew that I needed to look up. A lot of the inspiration in piecing together something like this is researching the words that I’m going to be saying. Actually figuring out— number one— what I’m saying and then figuring out how I might interpret the line. A lot of my inspiration is very technical, I’m sort of holed up in my office kind of making sense of the text. The rest of the inspiration really comes from the rehearsal process. Being in the room, on my feet opposite another actor and just playing with what they give me.

Stanton Nash as Mozart (l) and Bruce Randolph Nelson as Salieri (r) Richard Anderson
Stanton Nash as Mozart (l) and Bruce Randolph Nelson as Salieri (r)

Have you found as an actor that you are experiencing any of the jealousies that Salieri experiences with Mozart, perhaps either in general as a performer or specifically with Stanton Nash, who is playing Mozart in this production?

Bruce: You know there is not jealousy there, specifically with Stanton. But I am not a stranger to insecurity, which is where I think jealousy springs from. It’s always been there, I think, well insecurity has been there since day one. But then all the different ugly underbellies that spring from insecurity like jealousy, it’s all part of the makeup. It’s all important to driving the characters that I play on stage. Not just jealousy but having a certain availability to all of those emotions—the good ones and the not so good ones. Although the jealousy is not a flattering thing, I know it’s part of the mix. It makes me a multi-dimensional person/actor so it’s along for the ride whether I like it or not.

How does playing Salieri compare to other roles that you have undertaken in your career?

Bruce: There’s a theme with the serious characters versus the comic characters. The theme is restraint. I think comic characters, if not for the most part, certainly largely require a certain amount of that word you so fondly created for me— “cuckoobananas.” Comic characters require a large amount of cuckoobananas. They require a wide range right up to the ceiling. The serious characters need to be taken seriously. There needs to be a contained restraint, a withholding of information that all doesn’t get put out there. It’s telegraphed through the eyes— only letting you silently see what cogs are spinning— keeping a certain amount of stillness at the forefront of the character. That’s the big difference. My instinct is to want to do too much.

It’s been nice to be reminded by Kwame that a lot of Salieri’s references either in the stage directions or in his music that there’s a coolness, there’s a blandness, there’s a smoothness; he’s like Kevin Spacey in House of Cards. I think Kwame made that suggestion. He’s the ultimate political mover that doesn’t look like or act like or behave like a political mover. But he’s always ingratiating. He’s the one that you want to confide in and then he’ll turn on a dime when your back is turned and he’ll use that information against you. Salieri has this conniving kind of charm as it were. He knows that he needs to not ever look like the guilty party. Plausible deniability. He has orchestrated everything so that he always has an out. Until he can no longer do that and he gets caught up in the whirlwind.

In playing Salieri— who sees Mozart for what he truly is, this crass, uncouth, immature musical prodigy— and I am hesitant to throw this word around because it does come with a certain connotation, what is it like being this man who is seen as villainous, and how do you balance all of his jealousies and emotions against how the audience perceives Salieri in order to maintain the story as his?

Bruce: That’s a great question. I think it has to do with the fact that as you research a character and as you piece together what the play has to say and what history has to say, what you end up finding is that there are so many more dimensions to one’s evilness. The audience will certainly see Salieri behaving in a way that is evil. But what I know from my research is that he is really in a fight with God. He doesn’t think he’s evil. He thinks he is doing the absolute right thing given these wild circumstances. I think the challenge is to not think “play Salieri evil” but to think instead “play Salieri honestly tortured by his own sense of mediocrity as compared to Amadeus and his fight with God whom he bargained with.” He says “God, you were going to make me your voice on earth so what the hell is Mozart?” And that battle causes him to do inappropriate, conniving, evil things, but all with a thread of “but I’ve got to do it, it’s the right next step” woven into it. You know?

If this next question is too personal, we can retract it. Do you have a struggle with, I don’t want to say with God or your religious beliefs, but do you have a relatability on that level that you were just talking about, in regards to your acting or another facet of your life?

Bruce: Absolutely. I’ve said on occasion that on my tombstone it will say something like “Finally he can relax.” The relatability is that in my own wound-too-tightness as a person, beyond the lovely charming funny guy, there is not a tortured soul but somebody who has all the struggles and the ups and the downs. Hearing about Robin Williams passing hit me particularly hard because he is sort of the center of the fun attention not unlike myself. Isn’t it so true that for many of us on the other side of that happy mask is pain enough to— well, in his case, do what he did. I’m faced with my own struggles and that’s where I think it’s relatable. There isn’t a higher power kind of fight but there is an internal struggle with Bruce against Bruce if you will.

You know, my brother came to see me years ago in a production of Faith Healer he said “Bruce, all of your emotions are sort of dumped onto the stage. That’s where you’re particularly emotional and you tap into all of those dark corners.” And he’s absolutely right. Off stage it gets kind of packaged up and a different kind of me gets presented. On stage it’s my chance to wail, and wail, and wail, and gnash teeth and get it all out there. It’s been a perfect recipe for my life to be able to have the balance of stage drama with off-stage pulling-it-back together.

I think that’s everything I have for you, unless there’s anything else you wanted to say about the production?

Bruce: Maybe just briefly, and by lovely coincidence Richard and I just went to Italy. It was kind of wonderful to be in Salieri’s home country and to experience the wonder that is Rome and Florence and the west coast of Italy. It was so much fun. The art, in Florence in particular, it is so densely artistic. And in Rome it is so densely Catholic. I think those were touchstones for me in experiencing Salieri. Florence you get a sense this flourishing, brimming artistic nature. And in Rome you get this sense of the good Catholic boy, everywhere you turn is God and the exultation of it. Those were the takeaways for me from that trip.

What is it that you’re hoping that people will take away from this production of Amadeus?

Bruce: I think touching upon what we said before, I think they will come away thinking that Salieri was multi-dimensional. That he wasn’t just out to be bad that he was broken himself. Perhaps with genius, which was very true in Mozart’s case, sometimes with genius comes this black, bleak fragility. It is sort of part and parcel for some that the genius springs from the place where we’re so deeply wounded. People will come away thinking in parallel to Salieri that he isn’t all evil and that Mozart isn’t all genius or up on that pedestal. He has his brokenness as well. No one is just one thing, evil or genius and I hope people see that in this show.  

Amadeus plays through October 12, 2014 at Centerstage— 700 N. Calvert Street in Baltimore, MD. For tickets call the box office at (410) 332-0033 or purchase them online.

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