Robert Sean Leonard is one of those many actors who you’ve definitely seen in role after role even if you can’t place his name. He’s appeared in film (Dead Poets Society), television (House), and on Broadway (he won a Tony Award for The Invention of Love) since he began acting as a teenager. While currently starring as Higgins in Pygmalion at the Old Globe Theatre at San Diego, he spoke candidly about his career to The San Diego Union-Tribune.
When it comes to acting for television, Leonard certainly doesn’t glamorize it. He says, “The hours are so long. And the sun comes up and the sun goes down, and man, you’re still there. You don’t see your kids. I mean, you’re well compensated — overly compensated, to say the least. So you can’t complain about it. But it’s not fun. Besides the money, there’s nothing good about it. It’s just a drag.” Furthermore, he later adds, “Making TV is really horrible.”
Then again, Leonard doesn’t seem to enjoy much about theater either. When asked about starring a role as popular as Higgins in Pygmalion, he says, “I was terrified to play Higgins. I really was. There are a lot of ghosts in this profession of mine. You don’t ever walk into a play on your own. There are many people behind you, taunting you.” Still, in contrast to his feelings on starring in a television series he adds, “I don’t find stage work hard.”
It’s almost odd to hear that from an actor who began appearing on stage at a young age. He recalls, “My dad often says that he admired my headstrong beginnings. I don’t think of it that way — I don’t recall it being that way. But I started at the Public (Theater) when I was 14. I don’t know if I would go into it now, with a family. But at 14, you’re not thinking. It’s not so much bravery as indifference to danger. You don’t know it exists. (So) I didn’t have the Glee childhood. Probably luckily. I don’t have many regrets about school. I had a better time with Swoosie Kurtz and George Grizzard (his co-stars in the 1985 off-Broadway play The Beach House) than I would’ve at my prom.”
He describes being fueled by ego as a young actor, pointing out, “Between the ages of 14 and 24, it doesn’t feel like work, because you’re so full of yourself. You are the center of the universe, and you meet Ethan Hawke at 2 in the morning at the White Horse Tavern to discuss Romeo and Juliet because it feels that important. Whereas now it’d be, ‘Are you out of your (bleeding) mind? Who cares whether you play Mercutio or I play Mercutio?’”
Yet even if he is hesitant to make his acting life sound desirable, Leonard admits that he’s been blessed by a great career. He confesses, “I’ve been really spoiled. I’m a spoiled little Chihuahua. I’ve been doing what I want for my whole career, and being paid pretty well for it.”