Want to see Nathan Darrow really come alive?
Visit Heart of America Shakespeare Festival’s production of “Hamlet” in Southmoreland Park, opening this week.
It’s there, a quarter mile from the hum of the Country Club Plaza, underneath the stars and perhaps with a bag of the festival’s famous kettle corn in hand, that theatergoers can experience Darrow — a Kansas City born and bred actor who has found major commercial success in television — as he revels in his role as the troubled prince.
“Just so good to be home, man!” Darrow says during a break in a rehearsal room in the basement of Kansas City Repertory Theatre. With Sidonie Garrett, the festival’s longtime executive artistic director, and choreographer Bill Warren in the wings, Darrow is a beacon of exuberance as he rehearses a fight scene with cast mates.
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When he’s not listening intently to every word of Warren’s instruction on how to master the nuances of sword fighting, Darrow is bouncy and playful, cracking jokes with his co-stars and flashing smiles so wide they show off his bicuspids. At one point, as he’s face to face with his male sparring partner, he lands a playful kiss on his cheek, sending the room into laughter.
Seeing Darrow as the gallivanting Hamlet may be a far cry from how most of us are used to seeing him.
Since 2014, Darrow has made a name for himself by piecing together a string of critically acclaimed roles — often brimming with stoicism and gravitas — on a hodgepodge of TV favorites. On “House of Cards,” he was faithful bodyguard Meechum, instructed by his boss to become “a rock who absorbs nothing.” On Showtime’s “Billions” he’s a neurotic surety trader. In Fox’s “Gotham,” as Batman villain Mr. Freeze, Darrow is icy (in all its forms). On the recent “Wizard of Lies” on HBO, he’s the woebegone son of infamous Wall Street fraudster Bernie Madoff.
This production of “Hamlet” that Darrow and company are rehearsing will mark the 25th year that the festival has offered free, topnotch Shakespeare productions, as well as educational resources for youth. To celebrate, the festival has organized “25 for the 25th,” nearly a year of events hosted with other arts organizations.
“Out of everything, the play is our marquee event, and I wanted to do something really special this year,” Garrett says.
Garrett has known Darrow, a Shawnee Mission North grad, since he was an upstart actor working his way through the local theater scene. He has been in plays at the Actors Theatre of Kansas City, Kansas City Repertory Theatre, Unicorn Theatre, New Theatre Restaurant and, especially, the Shakespeare festival.
“He’s a great actor,” Garrett says. “Nathan and I have a long history of working together. He played King Henry V in ‘Henry V’ for us before, so I knew he could carry a show. … And it doesn’t hurt having a guy people are used to seeing in their living rooms,” she adds, laughing.
Shakespeare is partially responsible for Darrow’s big break.
In 2012, Darrow worked alongside actor Kevin Spacey in an international touring production of Shakespeare’s “Richard III.” Spacey recommended Darrow and a few other cast mates for roles in the then-upcoming Netflix series “House of Cards.”
The Star talked with Darrow about the advantage the theater scene in Kansas City has over cities like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, why he’ll never leave the theater, and who’s the better kisser, Robin Wright or Kevin Spacey.
Read on to discover more.
Q: Where exactly in Kansas City are you from?
A: I was born at St. Luke’s in KCMO. At the time my parents were living in North Kansas City. When I was 2 years old, my parents moved to Overland Park. That’s pretty much where my memories start and where I grew up.
Q: When did you become interested in acting?
A: Consciously, I guess I was interested pretty young. I think when I was in sixth grade (at Santa Fe Trail Elementary) I got to play the Big Bad Wolf in the spring play “The Trial of the Big Bad Wolf.” It was a pretty flashy role that one of my teachers basically gave to me. I felt very comfortable doing it, very excited doing it.
Q: Was that the beginning of the acting bug?
A: I don’t know if I can say that gave me the acting bug, but I know it certainly gave me the performing bug and the have-a-lot-of-eyes-on-you bug. It certainly got me interested enough and confident enough to where when I went to Shawnee Mission North High School, which had a very precocious drama department led by these extraordinary women — Maureen Davis and Margaret McClatchey — I went there and I started getting opportunities. I probably started to get the acting bug then.
(We took a peek at Darrow’s high school yearbook from his senior year and found that he starred as Tony in “West Side Story.”)
Q: You’ve performed with so many local acting troupes: the KC Rep, the Unicorn, Shakespeare festival, etc. Do you have a favorite?
A: I would say the KC theater is my favorite. Working at all those places, you start to understand that a town like Kansas City operates somewhat the way the old theater companies operated. There used to be regional theater companies where you were on staff and got to play all these roles and you end up working with a lot of the same people. That’s kind of the way the Kansas City community works, and it’s really beautiful.
It’s beautiful to get to go do some Shakespeare outside, then go to the Unicorn and do a play in a really intimate space, and then get to go do this cross-dressing farce at the New Theater Restaurant. It’s kind of like an actor’s dream to get to go and do different things.
Q: It seems you have a particular affinity for Shakespeare.
A: A lot of my health insurance was gained by playing Shakespeare roles in my career so far (laughter). I was telling someone else, I think, as it relates to “Hamlet,” I was like 15 when someone handed me a copy, and I had never read it before. I just remember how it had penetrated. It made me interested in Shakespeare really early on.
Q: Were there any acting tools you think you sharpened specifically during your time on the local theater circuit?
A: Absolutely. Getting experience in different types of plays and roles.
If you contrast someone who’s trying to bang away at this profession in like New York or L.A. or Chicago or somewhere where there’s a larger pool, there might be more going on, but it tends to be that you have this larger structure of casting where you kind of get blocked into a certain type where you’re only getting called for certain roles. You’re not being asked to play such a variety, and that was huge for me as an actor.
But also the way our scene here works in how we encounter a lot of the same people. It really is about how you’re able to work with people and be open and creative and kind to yourself but also to play well with others. I think my time in Kansas City in that six-year period before I moved back to New York was a learning experience.
Q: What keeps you coming back to the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival?
A: I certainly enjoy doing Shakespeare. I also love that Heart of America is fully professional and a free theater. There’s something very special about that. It’s open to anyone who wants to walk in the grass and just enjoy. Theater can be really expensive for a lot of people if you want to really go a lot. I still think it’s usually worth it, but HOA is free, and that’s really special.
Q: Do you have a favorite Shakespeare play?
A: Well right now it’s “Hamlet” (laughter). Yeah, the one I’m doing, that’s my favorite one.
Q: You’ve worked on a variety of small screen mediums: cable, network TV and streaming. How do they all differ?
A: I wouldn’t say that there is a difference as far as understanding what the job is and what everyone is trying to do. It’s still people getting together trying to make it as good as they can.
“House of Cards” had a kind of lavish production schedule as far as television goes, with up to 10 days per episode, but you adjust accordingly.
Q: Do you have a medium that you prefer over the other?
A: No. It’s kind of boring in a way, but I’m easy. I really just love to act. I’m really just happy to work on stuff.
Q: Are there any roles or television shows that are fascinating to you right now?
A: I don’t watch a lot of TV, but my wife and I really absorbed “Transparent” (on Amazon). I love that show. The acting and the writing and the way it’s done. And we’re excited to watch “I Love Dick” (also on Amazon).
Q: Of course you’re asked a million questions about the infamous “House of Cards” scene (when, after imbibing a bit too much, Meechum and his employers, Frank and Claire Underwood, get somewhat friendlier than usual). Who’s the better kisser: Robin Wright or Kevin Spacey?
A: Aw man, I don’t know! Would you rather have a Cadillac or a Mercedes? They’re both fantastic (laughs).
Q: Are there any stage or movie actors you look up to?
A: When I saw David Fritts, who is a KC actor, play Biff Loman in “Death of a Salesman” at the Rep), that role really burned in me at a really fertile time. And actually in that same production, the actor playing his mom, Jayne Houdyshell, she works now a lot in New York on stage, she is just absolutely the tops, man. She’s just so good.
Q: Even as your profile has risen, you still seem to have a loyalty to the stage. What keeps you coming back?
A: I love the event of the play. I love that the audience and the storytellers all come together for the same duration of time. And everyone’s life stops for that time, and we do a story, and it’s all together, and then it’s over (laughter). There’s something really special about that.
And also as an actor it’s nice to be able to do something again and again and again.
Q: Where are you based now?
A: Currently, New York.
Q: When you fly in, what are your Kansas City must-do’s?
A: (Laughter.) I don’t know, man. I’m not a big shopper. Back in the day we used to go to the Blarney Stone. Sometimes we would go to Fred P. Otts since they’d have food kind of late. Oh, and we used to go to the Peanut. Crap, now I’m thinking about those wings (laughter).
Q: Are you a barbecue man?
A: Oh yeah.
Q: Any favorites?
A: I think consistently I like Gates the best.
Q: What’s on the horizon?
A: Yeah. I don’t know when it’s coming out, but there’s this show on Netflix called “Godless.” It’s a Western. I don’t have a huge part in it, but I have a nice part. Assuming that I make the cut (laughter). It probably won’t be out for a while, though.
Q: What would you say to someone if you wanted to get them to check out the Shakespeare festival for the first time?
A: I would say it is a real community event. There’s just a really cool vibration that happens in that park when we do those shows. It’s just nice. I wish I could describe it better, but it’s definitely something you should experience if you haven’t.
The Heart of America Shakespeare Festival presents “Hamlet” at 7:30 p.m. June 13 to July 2 at Southmoreland Park, 4600 Oak St. Admission is free, but reserved seating up front is available for $25. Learn more about the performance and other “25 for the 25th” events at kcshakes.org.