Q&A: John Kuntz of SpeakEasy's The Whale
Speakeasy Stage Company’s next production is a big one—in more ways than one. Starting on March 7, they’re staging Samuel D. Hunter’s The Whale, a tragicomedy about a morbidly obese man making one last desperate attempt to connect with his teenage daughter. We chatted with the star of the show, John Kuntz, about smells, prosthetics and the fat suit.
What initially drew you to this role? I guess, initially, it was how high the stakes are for Charlie. He doesn't have a lot of time left and he really needs to connect with his daughter before it's too late. I also love Charlie's dark humor and find playing with the complex tangle of his relationships and history to be very rewarding.
Were you familiar with the play beforehand? I had first read the play in American Theatre magazine. I had no idea I would be playing Charlie at the time. It's really a bit of a dream!
How do you get into character? I'm quiet, and go over his words in my head. The (fat) suit also helps. It really changes everything, once I put it on. I'm big on smells lately, too. It sounds strange, but it's interesting to try and find a scent for the character, or for the world of the play, something that I don't really associate with anything else. Smells are so powerful and contain so many memories and emotions, etc. When I did Santaland Diaries, I remember I really liked the smell of pine trees (which I guess makes sense), so I had one of those pine-scented car fresheners hanging in my dressing room. Whenever I smelled it, I felt like an elf! I found this really musky cologne for The Whale. It's my Charlie smell!
What are the biggest challenges of playing Charlie? The biggest challenge so far has been trying to figure out how he moves through the world. His body is so much larger than mine and takes up space in a different way. He is also very, very sick. Charlie is dying of congestive heart failure as the play opens, and his condition just gets worse and worse. Capturing his breathing is also very important and challenging. It needs to sound short, desperate, and frantic at times. I need to tell that story while being careful not to hyperventilate. In addition, the suit gets very hot. It's like being in an oven, and weighs around 60 pounds. I also have prosthetics attached to my face and neck, which take getting used to!
Tell me about the fat suit. Where did it come from? How long does it take to put it on? The fat suit is actually from the original production of The Whale. It is very well designed and wildly complicated when you really look at it. It takes only a few minutes to get it on me, but I need two people helping me to do it. Once I get my legs in, I stand up and sort of jump up and down until it pulls up and over me. That's what we sort of worked out, anyway. It's a bit like being swallowed.
What's your favorite moment in the play? That's hard to say, because there's so many great moments, and they keep changing and multiplying. One really cool moment we discovered recently in rehearsal has to do with the character of my daughter, Ellie. Charlie, who is an English teacher, thinks she could be a strong writer and asks her to write something for him. But Ellie is completely uninterested and just writes three caustic, mean-spirited sentences in his notebook. But we realized that the three sentences are actually a haiku. So Ellie really DOES have great writing instincts, even if they're buried deep inside her.