Sam Hartley, star of Disney's "Beauty and the Beast," talks about the musical coming to TPAC May 31 - June 5.
It’s the first national tour for 27-year-old Sam Hartley. The friendly Lincoln, Neb., native talks with Nashville Parent about Beauty and the Beast and what’s its like to get to throw tantrums on the stage eight times a week. We caught up with him for a phone interview during the tour’s stop in Baltimore, Md.
NP: Congratulations on landing your first national tour! That’s exciting! When did you know you wanted to be on stage?
I feel like I’ve known since I can remember. I was very lucky growing up. My folks had me try a little bit of everything, so I played every sport, did gymnastics, tap dance classes, acting classes. I got to see what it was going to be like to do all of it and choose from there what I wanted to focus on. I’ve never found something that felt as natural I think as performing.
The thing that caught my attention early on was making somebody laugh … being that sort of catalyst for someone … to alleviate their day-to-day lives and escape into some other character.
For a living, I get to play dress-up, I get to play make-believe. There’s no better fun as a child than that, and I’m very lucky that I get to do it especially with this show and this role.
NP: Do you remember the first theatrical show you saw as a child?
My first theater memory is of Peter Pan, and it was a production in Kansas City at the Starlight Theatre, which is where Beauty and the Beast closes this year. So, that’s kind of a full-circle thing.
An actor named B.D. Wong played Peter, and I can still picture sitting down in the amphitheater that seats 7,000 people. Just sitting on the ground watching the show so entranced. I remember the sets, costumes and storytelling — and a man in front of my eyes FLEW! It was so much more tangible than anything I’d felt from a movie or TV show.
I was probably 5 or 6 years old when that happened. I started acting classes at age 7 at our local community theater in Lincoln, Neb. The first two roles I played that I remember were Papa Bear in The Three Bears and the Wolf in The Three Little Pigs, so you can say beast animals are a theme for me!
NP: Did you grow up watching the movie version of Beauty and the Beast, and what can you say about how it translates to the stage?
Absolutely! Some people don’t know this, and The Lion King is still very present, but many people consider it to be THE Disney Broadway musical, but Beauty and the Beast was the first one, and it opened back in the ’90s when I was still very young. I knew it as a musical, but the first real Disney stage musical on my radar was The Lion King, and that came much later in my life.
Beauty does such a great job translating directly from the move that we know and love. Linda Woolverton wrote the book of the animated movie that everyone’s familiar with, and she also wrote the book for the stage musical. So, a lot of what we do and say in Beauty and the Beast is verbatim what we know from the movie. What better hands to be in than the woman who created the world of the movie, and she’s expanded the characters in such a brilliant way into the theater.
On stage, you get to know the characters on such a deeper level. Anyone who’s ever seen the move before is going to fall back in love with these characters they already know, and we get to meet them on a more adult level. We don’t really talk about the fact that these people have literally lost their humanity in this sort of silly spell. We kind of write it off as a silly make-believe spell, and Linda really too into account the humanity of all that. It’s cool to watch people go beyond that expectation of the film.
NP: What is it about your character do you relate to the most? What’s the hardest and most exciting things about playing Beast?
We meet the Beast and he’s a young prince whose exterior has been turned into a monster to match his nasty interior. He’s judged an old woman who’s only looking for shelter during a storm. He’s judged her by her looks and is turned into this horrible beast. But he’s YOUNG! Robby Benson voiced the Beast in the film, and Terrence Mann played the role on Broadway — we are used to experiencing him as an adult because of those things, but he’s really just a young guy .. and young kid, really, going through adolescence and what all that means.
I stand right now at 6’3″, and I remember being 13 or 14 and suddenly I was close to six-feet tall and everyone else … was NOT! So, I became uncomfortable in my own skin at that age and with my peers, and that was troublesome to me growing up. I relate on such a literal level to that sort of physical outcast feeling that Beast experiences.
What’s interesting — and a brilliant part of the script — is the Beast is only ever referred to as horrible, hideous, monstrous, ugly … and because of that he plays into it. If you say something so often it sort of becomes true; we only look at it as true. This poor late teens/early 20-something is really struggling with being called those things every day of the week.
On the opposite spectrum, you have Beauty — Belle — who’s judged on the way that she acts, and you have Beast who’s judged on the way that he looks. What a human experience in a nutshell right there! Who hasn’t at one point felt mistreated or overlooked or judged because of something so simple as your appearance or because of an action you took part in? It’s such a human relatability factor in the storytelling.
And on the fun, actor side, who doesn’t like to get to yell and scream at everybody now and then?
NP: Is that therapeutic … getting to play a character that expresses so much anger?
Very much so! It’s our job as actors to dig down and let life and art imitate one another. Letting our own experience imitate what we know to pull from in our own experience. It’s therapy.
I have a very dear professor and mentor in my life who once said, “Many actors will go through a lengthy career to realize that they only needed therapy to begin with.” It’s a cool thing we get to do as actors in providing that therapy for others who are coming to see the show.
Whether or note people wan to admit it, I think they related to that person who just wants to scream sometimes. They’re so frustrated and they feel so misunderstood, that they just want to scream, and we consider that to be childish … so we don’t do it. We’re taught to bottle that up. We’re taught to dismiss things that irritate us or are wronging us in some way, and the Beast certainly won’t apologize for once second about yelling at someone.
NP: How much does the costume weigh and is it hard to maneuver?
It’s a lot of Disney magic! There’s quite a bit of Disney magic that goes into it all. The costume is certainly heavy and warm, but it’s designed in such a smart way to respond to every curve of a muscle and bone on the human body. So I have this incredible suit that transforms a human frame into the Beast. The cartoon is said to be a combination of seven different species, so the costume reflects that in a more literal sense. I had to learn how to communicate with my whole body. With the costume, I’m about 6’7” … so it’s a pretty imposing figure on stage. As I studied the character, I learned that most animals breathe with their entire bodies head to toe, so it was fun to discover how to communicate in that way. I still feel like I find little nuances here and there as I continue this journey, which is rewarding as an actor to get to continue to grow with the show.
NP: What unique thing do you feel you bring to your portrayal of the Beast?
Aside from knowing the movie, I had only seen the stage musical once. I wasn’t that familiar with the role and the development Linda had done with the script. So when I first read it, I connected to the inner child that we see in the Beast, and I really wanted to make sure that we don’t forget that through the story — that Belle and Beast are still very young humans in their lives.
I try to play up that childlike nature in him. He tends to throw tantrums when he doesn’t get what he wants. He’s never been told “NO” in his whole life, he’s never had to say the word “PLEASE” in his life. He finally meets this person who’s going to make him say “please” and who’s going to tell him “no” for the first time, and there’s something that’s so funny about that.
I think we’ve all watched a child — whether we’ve parented them or they’re a niece or nephew — hear the word “no,” and we’ve watched them have to beg for something. There’s something kind of sweet and innocent and laughable about watching that. So, I wanted to keep that in the subset of Beast’s character … that he isn’t just this mean, vicious beast. It’s very easy to look into this role and in the script and have it just be mean the entire time and not understand.
I think there’s so much more to him. He wants to be nice. He wants to understand. He doesn’t understand his own strength. He doesn’t understand exactly how he looks and how he comes across, and when you’ve been silent for 10 years living as an animal in a castle secluded from the rest of hte world, that’s gonna do a thing or two to your brain and they way you process stuff.
I’m having a lot of fun finding the humor in him, and want to make sure that comes across.
NP: What’s your favorite part of the show?
As an actor on stage, there’s no better theatrical experience than hearing everyone in the room is on the same page in the same moment experiencing something. When Belle steps out on stage in that yellow dress you hear the audience go, “AAH!” … you hear this collective inhale, and every single human from the 3-year-old kid to the grandparent who’s seen it 90 times reacts the same way. There’s no more rewarding moment than to share that on stage with an audience.
NP: What do you hope kids will take away from the show?
Every performance is going to be someone’s first or last show, and what a cool thing that we get to be responsible for. I certainly hope it instills a passion and respect for theater. I certainly remember my first show, and I’ve been hooked ever since. Kids tend to get the story on such a simple, innocent level that it’s sometimes the adults who need reminding that sometimes you have to look past someone’s bad day to fine the lovable human underneath that exterior.