As Richard Hannay in The 39 Steps, John Behlmann gets to hone his comedic chops, which, according to the actor, is rare. But that may soon change after audiences catch the wacky stage adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock’s film.
In the intensely physical role, Behlmann brings the epic spy tale to life. Richard Hannay is an innocent bystander who races cross-country in England to solve a mysterious crime before it’s blamed on him.
The 39 Steps features four players in over 150 roles, acting as stars, set pieces and special effects artists all at once.
An established writer and professional trapeze artist, Behlmann brings great intrigue to the new Off-Broadway production at New World Stages. He recently spoke with TheImproper about his Hitchcockian experience.
TheImproper: What is your earliest memory of yourself as a performer?
Behlmann: I used to do lots of stupid things! In the sixth grade we had this double period of English and Reading class, and I became good friends with this guy, and we started writing these skits when we had lunch in between the two periods. Then we ended up performing them for the class when we came back from lunch. It was great for us, but it kind of ruined our education for the rest of that year because then it became this kind of skit factory that everyone in the class wanted to be a part of! I don’t think Mrs. Grimes was too happy.
IM: Do you think Mrs. Grimes will see The 39 Steps?
Behlmann: I doubt it, but if she did maybe she would think it was all worth it. I should indeed invite her! (laughs)
IM: One of the most interesting aspects of The 39 Steps is that the entire story is told through the talent of the actors. There are no amazing special effects; it just relies on the actors’ huge performances. What type of training did you have that prepared you for such an experience?
Behlmann: I give a lot of credit to Maria [director Maria Aitken] for trusting in the people that she finds. I went to grad school for three years in a program that really emphasizes this kind of basic theatricality, making something from nothing, which I think is something that people have kind of gotten away from a lot recently. Theatrical things now seem to mean, ‘How do we get a helicopter on stage?’ as opposed to ‘How do we make a little bit of magic?’ I think that’s the thing that people all fall in love with when they start doing theater in high school or whenever. They love taking something and making it out of nothing. I’ve always been a pretty physical person, I’m also a trapeze artist, so that gets to factor in a little bit in the show. I’m comfortable climbing on things and jumping around things and climbing down ropes and all that nonsense.
IM: Most kids say they want to be astronauts or sports pros when they grow up. What made you decide to be a trapeze artist?
Behlmann: I always had a desire for oddball talent. I wanted to cultivate that in my life. Little did I know I would someday actually be able to put those on my job resume as special skills! (laughs) But I remember desperately wanting a unicycle when I was in tenth grade, or maybe even younger. With trapeze I started in grad school a little bit, and then kept going. Now I run Matchbook Productions, a trapeze theater company, with a few folks here in the city.
IM: That sounds like a really unique idea! What would people witness at one of those performances?
Behlmann: We’ve been performing at a lot of these aerial dance concerts, which we don’t quite belong in, because we’re not really dancers, we’re actors that do trapeze. We tell stories as opposed to wearing unitards and spinning around to music. But we are doing our first full-length production in May. It’s Richard II on the trapeze. Unfortunately, because of The 39 Steps, I won’t be able to be in the show, but I’m assisting directing it and helping to choreograph it.
IM: Well, that’s not a bad reason not to be able to do it.
Behlmann: No, no, it’s a great reason! I am perfectly comfortable with that reason. (laughs)
IM: What is the most difficult aspect of being Richard Hannay, which is such a farcical role?
Behlmann: I think it’s remembering to tell the story. There’s so much going on all the time in The 39 Steps, and we really started in a different way than I think a lot of other rehearsal processes started. We kind of had to sketch out the skeleton of what we’re doing first, because until you know the words and where your body is going, you can’t really do much else. The real trick was once we got all the mechanics of that down, then being able to live in and tell the story. And also just making sure I eat enough. That’s kind of my other biggest issue in the whole thing, because I have my own personal weight loss program going on every night!
IM: In The 39 Steps you’re so impeccably European. Describe your voice training.
Behlmann: Actually, I lived in the very North of England for about a year when I was eight years old, so I think that helps a little bit. Dialects have always been something that you can train in, but a lot of people can either do it or not. I’ve had excellent voice training with a great teacher. But I only do the one throughout the whole show, so I think the other guys should get all the credit for that- they do so many accents!
IM: Richard Hannay is such a do-gooder. While he’s not exactly modest, everybody loves him. How are you and Hannay similar? Do you always get the girl in the end?
Behlmann: I wish I always got the girl, I don’t always get the girl! There’s a strong streak in Hannay that’s not totally comfortable around women, and I think he can put on a good bluster for someone who’s slightly beneath him, or who he doesn’t really have a threat of being with. That’s kind of similar with me. I was a nerdy kid growing up, I played Magic: The Gathering. I don’t think I kissed a girl until I was 16 or 17 years old. I definitely do not always get the girl. That late blooming in life really helps to feed that kind of underlying discomfort.
IM: Are you still nerdy enough to be found playing Magic: The Gathering?
Behlmann: I think people still play it! I still have all my cards, and every once in a while… I have a very close group of equally nerdy junior high school friends who, when we get home at Christmas time, will sometimes break out the old dusty cards and hang out and do that.
IM: One would imagine that the rehearsal process for The 39 Steps would be great for theater students to watch. It seems that so much of the script is probably not even on the page.
Behlmann: Well, it is now! I’m glad that Maria was great about letting us invent some things new for ourselves, because we’re a new group of people from the Broadway production, but a lot of the stuff that we do was in place, or the bones of it were there from the previous incarnations of the show. It’s actually the show I sent my non-theatergoing family members to when they came to town while it was still on Broadway, before I ever knew I was ever going to possibly be involved with it! I think that this show can really make a whole generation of theater artists. We’ve gotten quite a few teenagers and high school kids, and even college kids coming in to see the show, and in theory, it’s a show they could do. All we have are chairs and ladders and some trunks and coats and hats and things. I think that magic is something that everyone craves, and this can really help cultivate that sensibility in younger people.
IM: Are you a fan of Alfred Hitchcock?
Behlmann: I am, I’m hardly a connoisseur, but I took a film class in college which was kind of my first exposure to it. I wasn’t one of those people that grew up watching old black and white movies. I was more of a cartoon guy. The funny thing is, if you’ve seen the movie and then see our show, I’d say seventy percent of the dialogue comes directly from the movie. And even some of the best comic bits, like when we’re tied up in the handcuffs and try to cross the fence, that was a Hitchcock moment. That’s something that his kind of mad genius put together, and then all we had to do was put it on stage.
IM: In your opinion, was the film equally funny?
Behlmann:The film is not really a comedy! There are some pretty funny moments in the movie, but I think that the thing that makes this such a successful comedic show is that it’s not overtly trying to be a zinger comedy. The storyline is comedic because it’s told by four people in a kind of madcap, ridiculous way, not because it’s some wild story about some zany happenings. It’s a very serious spy story just told by some ludicrous people.
IM: If you could make a sequel to The 39 Steps called The 40 Steps, what would it be about?
Behlmann:I think there would have to be some kind of reemergence of the spy. Maybe we could skip ahead in time, and go to the Cold War era, the next great time of international spy stuff, and Hannay could be an old man. His son could continue on and fight the Commies instead of the Nazis.
IM: You came up with that off the top of your head, that was pretty good!
Behlmann: I did, I’m pretty proud of myself!
IM: If somehow the entertainment industry had never embraced you, what would you have wanted to do for a career?
Behlmann: I’d really love to be a writer. It might be a bit too solitary a career for me. I think I need to be around people, which is probably why I ended up where I am. Or maybe, God forbid, a politician. I’d say astronaut or something, but I’m too tall for that. All the good careers like fighter pilots and astronauts, they don’t make for guys that are 6’5”.
IM: You had a part in the film “Revolutionary Road.” Were Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet as beautiful in person are as they are on film?
Behlmann: Well sadly, I’m at the very end of the movie after all the shit has gone down, basically. Leo and Kate had just finished shooting the night before I got there to shoot! It was a real tragedy. And my scene wasn’t with them, it was with their two neighbors in the film. It was kind of a bummer. I can pretend, I mean yes, the answer to your question is yes, they were great and they loved me! (laughs)
IM: In addition to work on Broadway (Journey’s End) and other theater, you’ve also starred in some television programs, including “The Good Wife,” “Guiding Light” and “All My Children.” Do you prefer theater to camerawork?
Behlmann: There’s something I would never ever, ever want to give up about performing in front of a live group of people. In my limited experience of the television and film world, I love it, the money is great obviously, and it’s a great challenge, but it’s a whole different thing. What I really love about the theater is the group of people coming together to solve the problems of this play and present it to people. And the collaborative excitement of people in a room together making things that sometimes I feel like can get lost in some of that camera stuff. In the stuff that I’ve done, you come in for a short stint, you don’t really know anyone, you do your thing, and you are out the door. I like it, I’d like to do more of it, don’t get me wrong, and hopefully I will, but I would never give up the theater. It’s definitely my first love.
IM: Tell me something that no one else would know about you.
Behlmann: I guess everyone that knows me would know I grew up a geeky kid, and I’m kind of a computery nerd guy. There’s a select group of individuals every year that receive a birthday invitation from me that is in the form of a rap music video. You can find them online if you really look hard! (laughs) It started after I had knee surgery and I was kind of confined to my house a few years ago. But, no one else would know that.
IM: Where would you like to see yourself in ten years?
Behlmann: I would like to be a mix. I would like to be Tina Fey, and have her career with a dash of Hugh Jackman! I’d like to be in a position where I can be picking things I want to do, but really also have something that I’m creating on my own for myself, with and for people that I love. I think that’s a great goal. And then settling down and not having to worry about which job is going to pay for which, and having kind of a career all over in the varying different forms. It’s not a very exciting answer I guess. I should think of something better than that!
IM: You’re so talented, it’s difficult to imagine you not being where you want to be in ten years.
Behlmann: I have Maria Aitken to thank for so much of that, for letting me have the chance to do this. Usually, the tall, handsome guy doesn’t get to be very funny. It’s something that I relish doing, and that she saw in me and has enabled me to take part in, so I’m thankful for that, it’s great.
IM: What other projects do you find yourself involved with when you’re not making New York laugh?
Behlmann: I’m part of this poetry CD called Poetic License. It’s one hundred performers reading one hundred different poems of their choosing, and I just kind of signed up on a whim through a friend of mine. Then it turns up that Catherine Zeta Jones, and Jason Alexander, and Kathleen Turner were also working on it, and I am one of one hundred including them, so I am very honored to be in that company. I’m also writing a play right now that’s going to be produced in June for a theater company called Amios. They’re starting this cycle of their three playwrights that they’ve asked to write four plays (one every three months) over the course of the year. The plays are themed around the year, so it’s called The New York Cycle.
IM: You have so much going on!
Behlmann: I do. It’s kind of fun at times, and at other times it’s just maddening!
Catch John Behlmann in The 39 Steps at New World Stages, Theatre 1.
To purchase tickets online go to: 39StepsNY
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