Interview: David Christopher Wells on His Role in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, Being an Understudy and Getting His MFA

David Christopher Wells on his role, working with Richard Thomas and how being an understudy can feel like "jumping out of a plane."

David Christopher Wells To Kill a Mockingbird Interview

David Christopher Wells stars as Sheriff Heck Tate in the touring production of the Broadway hit, To Kill a Mockingbird. The play, which is based on the classic novel by Harper Lee and written for the stage by Aaron Sorkin, tells the story of Atticus Finch, a lawyer who defends a black man falsely accused of a heinous crime in a small Southern town during the 1930s. “It’s an interesting part because it’s a pretty small role in terms of dialogue, but there’s a lot of stage time for the sheriff,” Wells told me.

In this interview, Wells, who received his MFA from the Old Globe/University of San Diego’s graduate program, talks about the show and his role, working with Richard Thomas (who plays Atticus Finch) and how being an understudy can feel like “jumping out of a plane.” These are edited excerpts from that conversation. For the full interview, check out the video below or watch it on YouTube.

You play Sheriff Heck Tate in the show. That’s a great name for a character, by the way. Can you tell me about the role?

David Christopher Wells: It’s an interesting part because it’s a pretty small role in terms of dialogue, but there’s a lot of stage time for the sheriff.

From the beginning, the sheriff arrests the wrongly accused Tom Robinson just on the word of these horrible people. This father, daughter combo that says, “Hey, this guy did this thing to my daughter.” And he arrests him and they’re going to trial. And then at the end of the play, he’s trying really hard to do the right thing and to save a different character’s life. So, it’s almost like Aaron Sorkin gave him an arc, and the middle is kind of left to the audience’s imagination because he doesn’t do a good job of investigating the crime that is the central crime to the story. He doesn’t really go past just taking somebody at their word, that this man committed a really terrible crime.

But of course, you don’t see any of that. You just open up and here’s the trial. But at the end of the play, Atticus includes the sheriff. He gives this small list of the people in the town who can make change, and the Sheriff is included in that list.

It’s an interesting journey in that regard, because it does feel like Aaron Sorkin specifically says positive change can be made, and here’s an example of it. But so much of it is off stage.

Did you get a chance to see the actual Broadway run before you got the part?

David Christopher Wells: My wife actually originated two roles on Broadway back in 2018, and then she stayed on when Ed Harris took over for Jeff Daniels as Atticus. So, I’ve seen the show before I was involved in it maybe four or five times. I think I’ve seen three or four different actors play the part that I play.

Since you’ve watched those actors in the role, does that inform how you play it?

David Christopher Wells: I think inevitably you have some version of it in your brain, but obviously, you have to do it through your filter. I can’t change having a deep voice or dark hair, you know what I mean? Like you kinda have to do it through you. So yes, I think it does influence how you come to it because you’ve seen other people do it successfully. But I think you always have to put it through your lens, otherwise it feels weird and probably looks weird.

I haven’t seen the show yet, but does it feel Sorkin-y?

David Christopher Wells: I think that people who are fans of his work will definitely recognize his style in some of our dialogue, and there are definitely some great speeches in there, sort of Sorkin wit, I would say is definitely present.

I always like to point out too that he was really, in my opinion, smart. A lot of my favorite lines that I have, he takes directly from Harper Lee. That’s not the case in a lot of the play, but two or three of my lines at the end of the show that I just think are great, they just have a great ring to them, I went back to the book and I was like, “Oh, those are direct quotes from the novel.” So, he, I think, really wisely pulled what he could keep from the novel when it was appropriate, and then tried to keep the tone of the novel in places.

But definitely, if you like his work and recognize it, it’s definitely an Aaron Sorkin script.

When you got the part, did you immediately go and start reading the book?

David Christopher Wells: I did a funny thing. I had never read the book in high school or junior high. It was never a part of our curriculum where I grew up. And I said, “Okay, when the contracts come in, I’m gonna read the novel for the first time.” And the contracts didn’t come in until the Saturday before we started rehearsal, which was Tuesday. So, about a week before that, I was like, “Okay, I need to start [laughter] reading now.”

How much did that help you with your character?

David Christopher Wells: It was really helpful in terms of a kind of overall tone. Because the book is really beautifully written, not only as a piece of Americana and nostalgia for so many people, it’s a really beautiful piece of American writing. She wrote a really great book. The prose is beautiful, the style is beautiful. I think there was a general overarching like, “Okay, this is the world that we’re trying to create.” That was helpful.

But like what I just said about the lines that the sheriff has that are straight from the book, there’s the final scene that I’m in, which was one of the last scenes of the play. It’s slightly different, but you really see in the novel, and what Aaron was trying to take from that.

There’s a moment where they’re trying to do the right thing after having failed to do so previously, and it’s one of the themes of the play really. So, when those things overlaps, you’ve got the script and you’ve got the novel and you’re like, “Okay, I see what we’re going for here.” That’s helpful.

There are not too many plays going on tour these days. I’m hoping at least that this could be a trend. How are the audiences reacting to it?

David Christopher Wells: We’re really, really lucky. The audiences have been amazing. And you’re right, plays touring is very rare. It’s usually musicals that get to tour. We’re playing these 2500, 2600, 2700 seat houses, and they’ve been great, and we’re at 85%, 90%, 95% capacity, which I want to believe that that’s because people crave seeing a play in a scale like this. But also a lot of people love this story, a lot of people know the movie or know the book, and it’s one of their favorite movies or books, which I think helps us draw a good crowd. And I think the success that it had on Broadway, the people and reputation behind it, and having Richard Thomas playing the lead can’t hurt because he’s amazing in the part and a beloved American actor.

How is it working with him and being in his presence on the road?

David Christopher Wells: It’s amazing. I honestly couldn’t speak highly enough of how fortunate we are to have him as a human being and as an actor as the head of our company. He is truly like, without exaggeration, just a really nice, kind, funny, fun guy to be on the road with. And he likes touring. He’s done, I think, two other national tours of plays in the last 15, 20 years. It’s not for everybody. You pack up your life every week or two and go to a different city. It’s tricky. A lot of people have families that they’ve left behind for a period of time, so you’ve got a wife, or husband, or kids, or something, so it’s a lot to ask. But he really loves it and he’s an absolute trooper and obviously a consummate professional, but kind of beyond that, he’s just fun to be around, and he sets a great tone.

And you’re the understudy for him?

David Christopher Wells: I am, yeah.

I saw that you have gone for him at least once. How was that? I’ve been asked to be an understudy a couple of times, and one time during the show, I was like, “Yeah, I’ll do it.” Thank God it never happened because I would have just been like a mess.

David Christopher Wells: I’ve understudied several times, and as a graduate of The Old Globe there in San Diego, that’s part of what the MFA students do, is understudy all of those main stage productions. So, I’ve done it a lot and I have a fair amount of experience.

But the actual going on, the only thing I can compare it to in my life is the one time I went skydiving. [laughter] Because you’re in a plane attached to a human being at like 12,000 feet, and then they open the door, and you get in front of the door, and your body is just like, “No. None of this makes sense.” And I’m like, you’re telling me that you want us to go out of the flying plane and fall?

And when you’re about to go on as an understudy, you’ve rehearsed, hopefully. In my case, I was rehearsed and prepared. But it’s a group of people who’ve never done this with you, and it just feels like you’re about to jump out of a plane. And then it’s really a sink or swim situation, at least for me. I’m sure there are understudies out there that have ice water in their veins that can do it without feeling any fear or tension or anxiety, but you do it or you fail and you fail the entire company. And my choice was, do not fail the entire company.

You do the job. You do it as best you can, and luckily for me, it went very well, and the group of people I had around me is incredibly supportive and it’s a really good company. It’s a really good understudy company, so I was very well prepared to do that.

When you get that call, do you just stop everything and start going over the script and your lines again?

David Christopher Wells: Yep. So, let’s see, the one time I went on on Broadway, I was at a Yankee game, and this time I was sitting in a movie theater having watched the first 20 minutes of the new Top Gun movie. So apparently, for me to go on as an understudy, I need to be in an event.

Did you immediately leave both places?

David Christopher Wells: Yep, you just pack your stuff, if you have to go clean up, if you haven’t taken a shower yet, so I went home shaved, showered, got to the theater and you just run it until it’s time to go.

You mentioned the Old Globe, that’s one of the best schools acting-wise around. Are you from there originally?

David Christopher Wells: No. I grew up in the northeast in New Jersey. And a friend of mine in college had had The Old Globe’s MFA program recommended to him. I looked into it and I auditioned for a bunch of schools when I was still in college in ’97 or ’96, I think, and got called back a few places and didn’t get in. But through that process I met the man who at the time ran the MFA Program at The Old Globe USD program, and then the following year, I just only auditioned for them and was lucky enough to get in. His name was Rick Seer, he retired a few years ago. He’s back in New York now. But we just hit it off. I really liked him and his idea of the program, and it was a classical theater-based, small, it was everything I was kinda looking for.

How was your time there?

David Christopher Wells: I loved it. One of the things I really wanted when I was going for my Master’s degree was a real working theater. In the old days, you would apprentice somewhere, you would go to a theater company, and they would bring you up, and that doesn’t really happen as much anymore.

But at The Old Globe, not only are you in school all day, but you’re understudying and you’re working on shows at night, you’re in the shows in the summer, sometimes in the regular season as well, so I really wanted to be a part of. And The Old Globe is obviously one of the country’s gems in terms of regional theater, so I loved it and I loved almost everything about it.

What you learned there, is that kind of the foundation of everything that you use today?

David Christopher Wells: Yeah. I think as an actor especially, you’ve got in terms of, “I’m not gonna change. My face is gonna be the same, my… ” Whatever. The basic skills are basically the same, and then you kinda build on that. But in terms of experience, it was really important, “Oh this is what it is to be in the theater.” Because we met so many actors just ’cause they’ve got three theaters there, and everyone is in the ensemble of the Summer Shakespeare stuff. Then you’re understudying every other show and you go to all the opening nights, and you’ve met probably hundreds of actors in a course of two and a half, three years. So, you kinda see what the life is and that was absolutely invaluable. The training obviously gives you a base level of, “Okay, this is what the work is.” But also having the example of, “Oh, this is what the life is.” That was really, really important, I think.

What’s been your worst audition ever?

David Christopher Wells: Ooh, that’s great. What has been my worst audition ever? I could be making this up because it’s a long time ago but I auditioned for a Summer Shakespeare Festival somewhere, and the director, I think, literally about halfway through my first scene just put his hands up like that and was like, “That’s great. Stop, stop. Thank you.” [laughter] And I think that happened, I could be wrong. It’s a long time ago, but let’s just say someone actually did that to me because that’s funny.

For more info and tickets, check out Broadway San Diego.

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