Rick Holmes on playing the comedic villain, breaking character with Celia Keenan-Bolger, and the influence of the late Roger Rees

by Angela Tricario

As the delightfully stupid and hilarious Mr. Wormwood, Rick Holmes causes raucous laughter and cheers from the audience eight times a week in Matilda. It’s not his first time as the comedic villain; when Peter and the Starcatcher went from Broadway to the New World Stages off-Broadway, Holmes went with it and transitioned from playing patriarch Lord Aster to the conniving Black Stache. Holmes also explored his comedic side in Spamalot, where he played Lancelot, the French Taunter, Tim the Enchanter and one of the Knights of Ni. While many of his memorable roles have been within musicals, Holmes admitted actually planned on becoming a musical theater actor.

Holmes took time to chat with Stage Door Dish about the path he thought his career would take, the late Roger Rees, and the pros of faking accents in public.

What was it like to step into a long running show more than two years into the run?

I had that before with Cabaret and Spamalot, so it’s not something that’s out of the realm of my experience. This was actually great because they gave us more rehearsal time than you normally get. It was a very thorough and exhaustive rehearsal period which was cool. There was a great combination of showing the map of the show and letting people bring their own personalities to it. It is a specific thing. You have to acknowledge that it is what it is. To some degree, the Broadway production was doing that in the beginning, because the London production had established the map of the production already. It’s preferable to have access to the director for five or six weeks, but we chatted with Matthew [Warchus] a little bit. He came to see run-throughs and stuff like that. It was great. There were also several of us coming in together, so it felt like a rehearsal process. Amy Spanger, Allison Case, and I all started together. Amy is my scene partner so I was able to feel like I was having a rehearsal period with the actor I would be working with.

What ways have you and Amy created your own version of who Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood are?

I think it happens organically based on how you read the script. It comes from the chemistry between you and the fun you have on stage bouncing off of each other. They’re very clear about who these people are and describing to us what the dynamics are. They are slightly cartoonish characters, but Matilda really has to feel under threat in her own home. That was the place we started from, that they’re loud and boisterous and dancing as fast as they can to distract themselves from the fact they’re in a desperate situation. He’s trying to get all the money she clearly wants for her life and yet he’s not a great businessman and has a daughter who makes him feel stupid every time he looks at her. It’s going to be different than whoever played it before you and whoever will play it after you. It just comes naturally, although I am not above stealing things.

Have you stolen anything?

Oh, totally. There are little comic bits that happen throughout, some of which are physical. If you see something you like, you steal it. Before I started the show, I saw Matt Harrington and his understudy so I saw two different interpretations. I believe in stealing, even things from performances that don’t have anything to do with this show. It’s a library of stuff you build over time.

Your onstage chemistry with Amy is so strong. What do you credit that to?

We have worked together before. We did a thing for Casey Nicholaw called Robin and the 7 Hoods, which was a Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen jukebox musical based on the film but very different from it. It had jazzy arrangements from the 50s and 60s. We didn’t have much to do with each other in that show but we got to know one another and hang out at the Old Globe in San Diego for a few months. When I walked in the first day and we saw each other, we were thrilled. We share a sense of humor, so we have a lot of fun, as do a lot of us in the show. That goes a long way and leads to a shorthand that makes you feel comfortable on stage. Being on stage together always feels like we’re there for each other, in terms of ‘Whatever you want to do, I’ll go with it,’ so that feels good. It’s a treat.

You and Christopher Sieber were both in Spamalot. Is being in Matilda together like a reunion for you?

We’ve run into each other during readings and workshops. I’ve always had a great admiration for him and he’s a blast to hang out with backstage and also a great talent. It is a reunion, and it’s great to be back in that theatre, which is where we did Spamalot. With Mike Nichols passing this year, we’ve done a lot of reminiscing about that experience, and it’s fortunate that he came back while I was in it and we had a chance to be in it together.

What is it like for you to play a character who’s a comedic villain?

That’s the thing that we most spent time trying to parse, in terms of what we were after. You want a very real sense that Matilda is in danger, that he’s a mean dude, and he’s inflicting pain and abusive. They really want you to feel that, not just at the school with Miss Trunchbull, but also at home with the Wormwoods. On the other hand, he’s a clown, and the way to merge the two was that the abuse that he’s spewing is the result of his own frustration with what a clown he is. Nothing quite works, but the harder he tries, it comes out in his abusiveness, as well as his love of his hair and his suits, and the way he walks through the world trying to puff himself up and be this this thing he wishes he was. They link up in that way. On some level, he’s aware that his whole life is not working out the way he wants, but he certainly has an indomitable will to keep trying. That battle creates the abuse, because she’s an obstacle for him.

Black Stache and Mr. Wormwood are both classified as villains, but they’re both very funny as well. How do you balance the comedy with the darker parts of the characters?

I think Black Stache, for the most part, is more self aware. Things didn’t work out for his grand plan but he’s much brighter than Mr. Wormwood and has the capacity to be leader. His humor comes from someone who loves the aplomb and his style. He thinks ‘I can really spin this web. I can make this beautiful souffle for you, watch this.’ They both have that outsized sense of humor and appetite to conquer whatever they’re trying to do and run the world. It’s a fun thing to merge because we want to have some basis in reality.

Are you drawn to playing characters who have questionable morality?

Totally. Whether they have questionable morality or not, you want to play someone who’s out there on the fringes of what’s decent or allowable or is out there pushing the envelope in some weird way. It’s exciting, because you don’t get to live your life that way, and there’s some kind of fantasy. It comes into Spamalot and feeds the acting style as well. ‘I can just try this. I may not always have the best taste, but I’m certainly willing to try.’ I think characters like that are useful, because you figure out how to extend it without breaking the tether to something that keeps you human and something we can all identify with.

Have you always been a fan of physical humor?

Growing up, I enjoyed the verbal humor as well, and I grew up on Monty Python and the Three Stooges. I wasn’t a huge fan of clowns, in general, but I was always an athlete as a kid. It was seeing how far you could extend something, like with the improv in Spamalot. I loved the idea of ‘How can we go further than we’re allowed to go, and still come out the other side?’ Sometimes there’s a spot in the middle where you go ‘How long could this possibly go on?’ There’s a sense of taking a risk and having it pay off or not. It doesn’t always pay off, but it’s like being on a high wire, and the physical comedy has a sense of danger to it. It’s adrenalizing.

Mr. Wormwood sings about the ‘telly’. What are your favorite things to watch on television?

I mostly watch movies. I’m totally into Vinyl right now, because I grew up in the 70s. There’s a kind of appetite in that show I identify with. Portlandia, because I love sketch comedy as well. I’m watching Billions, too, but I tend to go more for comedy.

Do you feel a difference between Matilda, where your daughter is played by a 10 year old actress, and Peter and the Starcatcher, where your 13 year old daughter was played by Celia Keenan-Bolger?

Celia is one of my wife’s best friends, and we introduced her to her husband [John Ellison Conlee], so she’s an old friend. The real problem was on Broadway, when I was playing Lord Aster, I had so much trouble not laughing in the first scene when I was telling her what the most important mission of her life was. It was the opposite of trivial, and yet I was having trouble getting through it without laughing. She was a real scene partner and friend and someone you could have great chemistry with.

This has nothing to do with age, but there are four different Matildas. There’s going to be a change in the next few months, and we’ll go down to three, which is what they do on the road as well. You’re doing it with a different girl pretty much every show. They’re very special kids, they’re amazing. They’re vigorous in terms of their discipline, but they also have these special spirits. They’re all different, which keeps you on your toes, because a moment that you get used to isn’t there the next night, so you have to stay loose. It’s been amazing working with the kids, because you feel a sense of responsibility with them, even though they shock you with how adult they are. Especially when you’re manhandling a child, as Wormwood does, you really want to take care of them. This is their first Broadway show, and who knows what they’re going to do, some may be actors and some not, so you really want to make this experience as special as possible for them. When you work with an adult, who’s got their own career, you don’t have that responsibility. You always want to make the experience as great for those around you as you can, but it’s different with the kids. You feel this care-taking responsibility with the kids. They’re extraordinary. They’re so much more poised and capable than I was at that age.

You worked with Roger Rees in Peter and the Starcatcher and in The Visit. Can you speak about him, and do you have a favorite moment?

He’s a totally inspirational man and character. I worked with him in 1998 when he directed The Rivals in Williamstown so I had known him for years. I crossed paths with him over the years but to get the chance to do Peter with him was such a treat. I think one of the things that didn’t make any sense with his passing was that he was always so energetic and indefatigable. Especially being in The Visit in Williamstown, the guy just loved being an actor. That infectious joy about doing what we do was an inspiration. I do remember in Peter and the Starcatcher, Lord Aster was different than a lot of the parts I had played recently, who had been sort of 95 year old priests, he was the simple heart of that story. He was heroic in that 19th century sense and surrounded by a lot of flamboyant characters. It reminded me of doing Angels in America and playing Joe Pitt where once in awhile you’re like ‘These guys get to be really funny and outsized and doing all sorts of amazing stuff and I just have to be telling the truth.’ I was trying to inject some comedy into it, and Roger basically stopped me and said ‘I promise you, the next thing we do, you can have a red nose on and you can do whatever you want, but this is not that. Just play the scene.’ Of course the next thing was Black Stache but even then he was having to rein me in. I really miss him, and he was an incredible role model. To watch how he handled The Visit and how he handled working through that, his courageousness and his positivity just blew me away.

Is there any one role in your career you wish you could revisit?

I did get a chance to revisit Spamalot, because we did it at the Hollywood Bowl this past summer. That would have maybe been one. I didn’t realize how much I would enjoy it. It was such a huge kick. For one thing, it’s 18,000 people there, and there’s Jumbotrons, so it’s much less intimate than a Broadway stage but there are screens where they’re watching your face. The whole thing was a great revisit of Spamalot, and it was done very quickly, but it was so cool. Eric Idle was in it and was around a lot, so we got to reconnect. That was a big one on the list because I grew up with those guys. I don’t have a great desire to go back and do things again, I’m just looking for the next thing.

Your most memorable roles involve using a British accent. Are people ever surprised you’re not British?

With anything, I suppose, you just start to do something and it takes off. I was never planning on being a musical theatre actor, I went to grad school at NYU and I always say out of the 15 people in that class, I was the 12th best singer. None of those people are doing musicals, they’re either doing movies and television or they’re not in the business anymore. I sang just well enough to stumble into a few things, and then Cabaret happened, and then Spamalot. Again, it goes back to Monty Python, because that’s the kind of thing I was doing with my friends in 7th and 8th grade. There’s some con man in Canada who confessed he created a whole persona, and he learned it from Monty Python. I guess I’ve kind of done the same thing. In this business, you have to figure out how your sense of humor and your aesthetic fits your type, and I look like I could be British. It’s just one of those things where I started doing it, then I did more of it, then every time Roundabout does a British show, I audition for it. It just snowballed, not because I set out in my career to do that. One of the things I like is that it’s something I do that not everyone else does. It narrows the field a little bit.

Speaking of the accent, is it true you’ve used your fake accent?

I have done that. When I first got out of school, I was working with a director from Dublin and we were doing Othello in the park with Christopher Walken. I had this audition for a tour of Ireland with Siobhan O’Casey, who is Sean O’Casey’s daughter, who ran a theatre company that was supposed to be a salve to the troubles, and we would rehearse it in Ireland, and it would have American, British, northern Irish, and southern Irish actors. The idea would be that we were all working together to create this piece of theatre. I had him work with me on the accent and I had done a little bit of Irish accent stuff in college. At the time I was working as a doorman at Catch a Rising Star, where all the Saturday Night Live people used to go. I spent that whole night speaking in that Irish accent, and what I discovered was that girls really liked an accent. I was getting attention from people I never would have gotten attention from. It felt like such a scam, and I was like ‘Man, is that what you have to do?’ I don’t think it works in the reverse. Maybe it does in northern Ireland because Americans didn’t go there. My picture got stolen in front of the theatre in this thing we were doing for the kids, which went along with the main play about the life of Sean O’Casey. I met with the kids, and asked them why they were stealing my picture when I had such a small part, and a little girl said ‘Cause you’re American.’ In New York, it was a real kick to discover that accents can get you a date.

Who have you worked with that you would want to work with again?

A lot of people. That’s a tough one. I’d love to work with Eric Idle again, I don’t know what he’s got in the pipeline. Casey Nicholaw, for sure. We keep talking about stuff, but that never seems to work out. Rick Ellis, who wrote Peter and the Starcatcher. Christian Borle, I had so much fun working with him. The list goes on.

What is something you’ve learned from someone you worked with that you’ll always keep with you?

With Christian, that sense of fearlessness. You have to believe in yourself and never admit defeat. That can be so invigorating and such joyful thing, but you have to risk making a fool of yourself to do that. You have to believe ‘What’s the worst than can happen?’ It’s the opposite of that feeling when you know someone’s in the house that you really want to impress, and you’re not sure they think you’re that great, so you end up in the place of wanting to please somebody. Working on a show, you have to totally respect what the creative team is trying to do and give them that, but also give them something they didn’t even know was there and is unique to you. You have to have a certain bravery and self-belief to pull that off. Sometimes that’s there for me, and sometimes I have to pretend it’s there.

If you could step into any other role on Broadway, which would you choose?

I just saw The Crucible. My wife is covering Sophie Okonedo who’s playing Elizabeth Proctor, and playing John Proctor would be a kick. That would be a whole other thing. You always want to do the thing that people don’t necessarily know you could do. Earlier in my career, I used to do less clownish stuff, and I’ve done a lot of that now, so it would be nice to go back to that.

If you weren’t an actor, what would you want to be doing?

I always said I would be a marine biologist, but I actually don’t think I have the brains for that so I’m going to go with park ranger. When I was growing up, I did a lot of hiking and canoeing and all sorts of stuff that put that side of myself to sleep, and over the years I don’t get the chance to do it as much. I actually don’t know if I’d want to be a park ranger, but I’d like to spend a lot of time in a park and get paid for it, and I don’t know if there’s any other jobs in parks that let you do that. I’ve been recording a series of books for this author Keith McCafferty, he sets these murder mysteries out where he lives not far from Yellowstone in Montana. There’s beautiful fly fishing out there, and just reading those books makes me want to be out there. I love New York, but it’s that otherness I like.

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