James O'Hagan Murphy on playing Robert F. Kennedy in RFK
James O'Hagan Murphy didn't set out to specialize in playing members of the Kennedy family. But he's currently portraying Robert F. Kennedy in the one-man show RFK at the Avenue Theater, a role for which he won our Best Actor in a Drama in the Best of Denver 2013. He got that part after playing Joe Kennedy Jr. in Grey Gardens, also he's also been cast as Torvald in A Doll's House and Dieter in Iddo Netanyahu's A Happy End. Before this RFK run ends on Sunday, we caught up with Murphy to talk about the challenges of playing a Kennedy.
James O'Hagan Murphy in the Vintage production of RFK.
Westword: How many runs has RFK had now?
James O'Hagan Murphy: There's the initial run at Vintage, which got extended for about a month. And then we moved over to the Aurora Fox for a run. And then we went back to the Vintage for another short run. And now we're over at the Avenue. So, third theater, fourth run.
It's been pretty popular.
It's been hitting a chord with people, for sure. I've noticed that a lot of audience members were alive when Bobby was alive or were very close to that time. So it's really struck a chord with a lot of those people and it's kind of eerily relevant to today still. As you saw in the show, he says things that were meant to be speaking about the '60s, but it seems like he's talking about 2013, 2014.
Have you done any other one-man shows?
No, that was one of the things that drew me to it. I was doing Grey Gardens at the Vintage Theater the first time they did the run of that show, and I was playing Joe Kennedy in it. I kind of wanted to do a one-man show because I'd never done one, and it seemed scary as heck. I like the idea of being scared of something and doing it anyway. Craig Bond, who runs the Vintage, saw me reading another one-man show and said he had one that I should read. So he brought in RFK, and I read it and I fell in love with it.
I love lines like, "Always do what you're afraid to do." That is exactly why I wanted to do a one-man show. A year later, I saw the Vintage was doing RFK. Luckily, Terry, who had the ultimate decision on who got cast, cast me.
Is this your main work?
Right now this is it. I've been lucky enough these last couple of years to just be acting. Last year, I toured with the Colorado Shakespeare Festival doing the anti-bullying program. We would do one-hour versions of The Tempest or Twelfth Night, and then do one-hour anti-bullying workshops afterwards. I toured in schools around Colorado right before this most recent run.
You've been doing RFK for a year now. What's kept you coming back to the role?
I just love the script. I fell in love with the man more and more as I did research for the show. And I think more than anything, it's the response from the audience. Not just during the show but going out after the show and talking to people who were alive then. Or just looking at the audience and seeing all the years of memories just flooding back into their eyes or seeing them knowingly nodding when I say something or shaking their head. I think that, more than anything, keeps bringing me back -- because he meant a lot to a lot of these people and they get to relive some of these memories and hopefully feel like they've spent an evening with him. Not just watching him onstage, but gotten to be in the room with him and hung out with him for a little bit.
Did you know a lot about Bobby Kennedy before doing the show?
I did have to do a good bit of research. I knew a good chunk about the Kennedys, but not necessarily a lot about Bobby in particular. I also grew up in an Irish-Catholic household on both sides. With my mom's side, my grandmother and grandfather lived with us, and they had two pictures on their wall. One was Jesus Christ and then, just a little bit lower to the right, was a picture of JKF; those were like the two models in our household. So I knew a bit about the Kennedys growing up, but then after getting this role, I wanted to know more about him. I got to learn a heck of a lot about him, reading a lot of what he read. His own things that he read. It helped me to understand where he was coming from and who he was.
And that's how you prepared for the show?
A mix of that and then watching. Luckily, he came around in politics when TV was starting to come around in politics, so there were plenty of recordings of him doing some of the speeches and also interviews. Then there's the Kennedy home movies. You get to see him hanging out with the family. And then his personal journal helped a lot. And, to be honest, the script itself helped a lot to just find out where he's coming from. At least to me, it feels like there's an arc to the story from admiring his brother but feeling like he's in the shadow of his brother to finally coming into his own, by the end.
By that very sad ending.
The very abrupt ending not only to the show, but that was how his life was. There was all this upward momentum where everything was really about to start. That's one of the stories I get from a lot of people after the show. They went to bed that night not knowing that he'd been shot, just knowing that he'd won. They woke up in the morning and he was dead. It was like, what happened? And the show ends that abruptly, too, where everything seemed fine and then there's that great sound queue that's just to me chilling, of him getting shot.
Keep reading for more from James O'Hagan Murphy.
How has it affected you personally, portraying RFK?
It's hard to say exactly how, because I know that any show I do affects me in some way. Whether it's just getting in better shape because it's a show like 39 Steps and I'm running constantly or a show like this, because it does make me think a lot. Because I've gotten to live with the show for a year, you get to thinking about the lines in different ways. You'll be driving around in the car and all of a sudden you'll be listening to a song or NPR and there's nothing really to do with the show, but for some reason it makes you think about a particular part of the show in a whole new way.
I know that parts of the show have bled into my life. I find myself quoting him a lot more for sure, but that might be because it's in my head now. Professionally as an actor, it's give me a lot more confidence, at least when it comes to memorization. I'd done a little direct address before, and I feel very confident talking to the audience now.
Another thing is that since I've done the show I'll get my Irish up a little bit more when it comes to things I care about. Like I'm a bit more willing to, instead of being like, well ok you have your point of view and I have mine, I'll be like, okay you have your point of view, but let me tell you why mine is right. Now I'll get a little bit more passionate about things from time to time, I think.
How has the experience been different from other shows you've done with other actors?
I had stage frright like I haven't had in years. Moments half an hour before the show going, I don't know if I want to do this. And it's like literally that fleeting second of, of course I'm going to, but I can't. So that was different for sure. And knowing that a lot of times you're on stage with these actors you've worked with for at least a month, a month and a half, and some of them you've worked with for years, possibly in other shows and such, you have that trust that if something happens and you mess up, they're there and they'll help you get back on track. In this show, there was no way of that, it's me. If something happens that's wrong, then I'd better be able to fix it, 'cause otherwise the show just kind of ends. So that's been a great exercise in just having to stay in the moment. If I think of something that's coming up in a page, that's when I'm lost, and I forget what I'm saying at the moment.
Has anything ever gone wrong?
There's horror stories in every show, every actor has something. I remember one show, during the second run at Vintage, I was talking about RFK's kids running around the office and I was just talking about J. Edgar Hoover and him wiretapping people. And someone's phone in the audience starts ringing. It's not like a phone from the '60s, of course; it's some weird ring tone that would be completely foreign to the ears of RFK. So the person kind of picks it up and like gets up, and they walk in front of the entire audience out of my view and people murmuring. I just kind of went, "Eh, must have been with Hoover." That was a fun little moment.
Another fun moment was when my mother was in the audience and she brought my aunt from New York. There was that line about, "They couldn't overthrow their own mothers. Of course, who could?" I looked dead at my mom when I said it. My aunt just laughed so hard. We're a typical Irish-Catholic family with the mothers in charge, so it got a good laugh from just my aunt alone, which made me feel good.
Are you going to continue this show for a while? What's your next project?
I'm hoping to do the show for a while. After this run, I'll be doing The Odd Couple at the Miners Alley Playhouse. I'll be playing Felix, so that will be a lot of fun. Then I'll actually be doing this show again at the Littleton Town Hall for a couple weeks in October. I love the show, and also as an actor it's rare to find a role that just kind of fits you well enough that you can do it anytime. And it's an easy show for people to put up. I'm hoping to do it till I can't play 42, at least. Beause he unfortunately died at 42, so if I start looking older than 42, I can't play the show anymore.
You're so good in it. They'll probably make you do it for a while.
I'm hoping so. I'm crossing my fingers that I can pull it off. I'm 35 now, so at least seven more years I hope and maybe I can push it till I'm 45.
James O'Hagan Murphy is starring in RFK: A Portrait of Robert Kennedy, at the Avenue Theater, 417 East 17th Avenue, through May 11, with shows Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are available online at avenuetheater.com or call 303-321-5925.
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