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In another life, Drew Cortese might have ended up a banker instead of a mendacious, murderous king.
The 38-year-old star of the Folger Theatre’s intimate, in-the-round production of Richard III began researching the role, after a fashion, almost 17 years ago. It was the summer before he was enrolled in the Tisch School of the Arts Graduate Acting Program, working as a uniformed security guard at MTV Studios in Times Square.
It was the worst job Cortese ever had. “No one looks at you,” he says. He’d spent earlier summers as an intern on a trading desk at Goldman Sachs, wearing silk ties to work, commanding respect. In his clip-on-tie rent-a-cop garb, people peered right through him. “I learned a lot about acting that summer,” he says. “I learned a lot about people that summer.”
If New York University’s graduate acting program hadn’t accepted him back in 1997, Cortese would have gone off “to trade Southeast Asian equities,” whatever that means. And the last couple of years in D.C. theater would have been at least two electrifying performances poorer for his absence.
Cortese’s face is still somewhat unfamiliar around here. He played Bassanio in Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Merchant of Venice in the summer of 2011. Then in January 2013 came his electrifying turn as Jackie, the cuckolded ex-con and recovering addict in Stephen Adly Guirgis’ wrenching The Motherfucker With the Hat at Studio Theatre. The Helen Hayes Awards took no notice, but it was as blistering a performance as was seen on a D.C. stage last year, free of vanity or visible calculation. The show was still running when he auditioned for Richard, one of the most vain, calculating characters ever written.
Cortese took an indirect route to Folger Theatre. His dad was a bank guy. He’d moved the family from Elizabeth, N.J., to London when Cortese was 8 years old. The British schools Cortese attended made a practice of taking students to plays. He was back in the U.S. for the last three years of high school, and when he later studied public policy at Duke University, he found only eight classes were required to earn a theater degree. So he double-majored.
His junior year, Cortese did a study-abroad theater program at the University of Bristol. The talent pool was more competitive than the one he’d faced in the States, but he still snapped up parts. He got the title role in Philip Massinger’s The Roman Actor. He played Laertes in Hamlet. Only with those successes under his belt did he begin to contemplate a career onstage, where excitement abounds and financial security very much does not. Sometimes he thinks of what could have been, had he stayed at Goldman Sachs.
“I could be retired now,” he says, sitting in an office at the Folger the afternoon after the Super Bowl, just hours before Richard’s official opening. “Or I could be in prison.” A pause. “Or not. I would never go to jail. They never do.” Cortese doesn’t look like a man haunted by regret. Or by cancerous ambition, the malady that drives the protagonist-villain of Richard III to stab and seduce his way to a throne he’ll hold only briefly. Cortese certainly isn’t “rudely stamp’d” or crippled or hunchbacked, afflictions that Shakespeare harped on to make the deposed Yorkist more repulsive—and at least some of which seem to have been authenticated by the August 2012 discovery of the real-life Richard’s 500-year-old remains. (Scientists in London have just begun sequencing Richard’s genome to try to determine his appearance and state of health prior to his death in the Battle of Bosworth in 1485.)
No, Cortese makes a sharp-featured Richard. Handsome, in fact: lithe frame, dark skin, dark eyes. He plays the limp but gives the last of the Plantagenet kings no other outward sign of corruption. That opening monologue about how he was not “made to court an amorous looking-glass” now calls to mind that old Twilight Zone episode in which surgeons huddle with their backs to the camera, discussing how to correct a beautiful young woman’s “disfigurement,” and later the doctors and nurses are revealed as Cubist-faced ghouls.
I ask if great villains must convince themselves that they’re heroes. Cortese has a more nuanced read: To him, Richard is simply a man who feels incomplete, despite being an accomplished warrior and a prince.
The first contemporary analogue that occurred to him was Oscar Pistorius, the South African double-amputee Olympic runner who was charged last year with murdering his girlfriend and is now awaiting trial. “Here’s this guy who has limitations, physically, that are very visible,” Cortese says, “and then overcomes them to compete in an able-bodied world at the highest level. And it turns out he was probably taking steroids to get to that point; he allegedly has murdered his girlfriend. What drives a person to do stuff that extreme when he feels…less than?”
Richard III director Robert Richmond, who had seen The Motherfucker With the Hat, offered Cortese the lead role in April. As Cortese began to prepare, he found that Richmond’s svelte edit of Shakespeare’s second-longest play was giving him the first difficulty he’d ever experienced memorizing lines. He had to build up Richard’s speeches one word at a time.
“The real challenge is how do we get Richard to sound, in some ways, like Motherfucker,” he says. “I want the language to spit out of me at the same rate of utterance as modern text.” He points out that the overwhelming majority of Shakespeare’s audience was illiterate. Their ability to function in society depended on their ability to listen carefully to speech.
The actor didn’t try to avoid other interpretations during the eight-month interval between when he got the job and when rehearsals began in a church in Capitol Hill. He even went to see Mark Rylance play the role in the celebrated, all-male Shakespeare’s Globe production that’s still running on Broadway.
“It was very interesting, and not at all something that I could do,” he says. But he didn’t lose any sleep fretting that it might influence his own interpretation. “Even if you were to try to imitate someone else, your own instrument and your biases will always creep in and make it your own thing.”
It’s the kind of observation Cortese shares with his students. He taught at Vassar College for about a decade and now teaches drama at Avenues, a progressive kindergarten-to-12th-grade private school that opened two years ago in New York City, where he lives when he isn’t out of town for a show. (The same outfit is opening campuses around the world.) There he’s had the opportunity to build a curriculum from scratch. Once Richard closes, he’ll be working on Hamlet with high schoolers, three to four hours a day for six weeks.
He thinks he could make a good Claudius when he’s older, but he has no designs on playing the equivocating, vengeance-obsessed Dane. “I know how to pull the trigger,” he laughs. “I don’t think I could stand around talking about it for three-and-a-half hours.”
Unlike his Vassar students, Cortese’s younger pupils haven’t yet decided they want to be actors. He loves that; he likes turning them on to theater. But he says he accepted the offer to build Avenues’ drama department at least in part because he wanted some credentials that would make it harder for theaters to dismiss him when he spoke up about things that were, from their perspective, none of his business—like how to put butts in seats.
He thinks many Americans—even some who work at theaters—believe his job is easy, that anyone can do it, and that even doing it professionally around the country for 15 years doesn’t necessarily teach you much. “I have firsthand, in-the-field knowledge that I can impart,” he says. “But you don’t want to hear it because you think my job is just to spit out lines? That’s frustrating to me.”
Maybe it’s the echo of the businessman that might’ve been, or the seed of the artistic director he’d like to eventually be, but Cortese does due diligence when he’s looking at theaters. He reads annual reports. He thinks about whether they’re reaching the audience they want. He isn’t shy about sharing his observations.
“When I walk out on stage, I do my job at 100 percent. When I look at the audience and I only see 30 percent of the seats filled, I get upset,” Cortese says. “You get paid 52 weeks a year to fill the theater at 30 percent capacity? When the show is over, I’m going to be unemployed, and you’ll still have a job, even though you’re failing at it 70 percent of the time. So I was like, ‘If I ever want people to listen to me, I need to find a way out of just being an actor.’”
Yet playing Richard at the Folger is a career peak—almost enough to silence his doubts about his chosen path. Acting “is a war of attrition,” Cortese says. “When I was 25 and I came out of grad school, most of the people around me were gung-ho: ‘All right, this will be my life, this is what I’m going to do.’ By the time I was 35, 80 percent of them were gone.”
He still has moments when he thinks about opening his drawer full of half-finished law school applications. Or joining the Peace Corps. Or the Marines. “You freak out, you panic. The level of uncertainty and sheer chance to have a career that is self-sustaining can wear on you,” he says.
But the longer Cortese toughs it out, the more certain he feels that he should keep toughing it out. He says he’s inspired by the work ethic and humility of his older Richard castmates. “What they have is not something you can teach, and it is not something you can learn. It’s something you have to earn. And they earned it for staying in it for this long. I want to be a part of that tradition.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery