James O'Hagan Murphy on playing Robert F. Kennedy in RFK
James O'Hagan Murphy didn't set out to specialize in playing members of the Kennedy family. But he's currently portraying Robert F. Kennedy in the one-man show RFK at the Avenue Theater, a role for which he won our Best Actor in a Drama in the Best of Denver 2013. He got that part after playing Joe Kennedy Jr. in Grey Gardens, also he's also been cast as Torvald in A Doll's House and Dieter in Iddo Netanyahu's A Happy End. Before this RFK run ends on Sunday, we caught up with Murphy to talk about the challenges of playing a Kennedy.
See also: Best Actor in a Drama 2013 -- James O'Hagan Murphy in RFK
James O'Hagan Murphy: There's the initial run at Vintage, which got extended for about a month. And then we moved over to the Aurora Fox for a run. And then we went back to the Vintage for another short run. And now we're over at the Avenue. So, third theater, fourth run.
It's been pretty popular.
It's been hitting a chord with people, for sure. I've noticed that a lot of audience members were alive when Bobby was alive or were very close to that time. So it's really struck a chord with a lot of those people and it's kind of eerily relevant to today still. As you saw in the show, he says things that were meant to be speaking about the '60s, but it seems like he's talking about 2013, 2014.
Have you done any other one-man shows?
No, that was one of the things that drew me to it. I was doing Grey Gardens at the Vintage Theater the first time they did the run of that show, and I was playing Joe Kennedy in it. I kind of wanted to do a one-man show because I'd never done one, and it seemed scary as heck. I like the idea of being scared of something and doing it anyway. Craig Bond, who runs the Vintage, saw me reading another one-man show and said he had one that I should read. So he brought in RFK, and I read it and I fell in love with it.
I love lines like, "Always do what you're afraid to do." That is exactly why I wanted to do a one-man show. A year later, I saw the Vintage was doing RFK. Luckily, Terry, who had the ultimate decision on who got cast, cast me.
Is this your main work?
Right now this is it. I've been lucky enough these last couple of years to just be acting. Last year, I toured with the Colorado Shakespeare Festival doing the anti-bullying program. We would do one-hour versions of The Tempest or Twelfth Night, and then do one-hour anti-bullying workshops afterwards. I toured in schools around Colorado right before this most recent run.
You've been doing RFK for a year now. What's kept you coming back to the role?
I just love the script. I fell in love with the man more and more as I did research for the show. And I think more than anything, it's the response from the audience. Not just during the show but going out after the show and talking to people who were alive then. Or just looking at the audience and seeing all the years of memories just flooding back into their eyes or seeing them knowingly nodding when I say something or shaking their head. I think that, more than anything, keeps bringing me back -- because he meant a lot to a lot of these people and they get to relive some of these memories and hopefully feel like they've spent an evening with him. Not just watching him onstage, but gotten to be in the room with him and hung out with him for a little bit.
Did you know a lot about Bobby Kennedy before doing the show?
I did have to do a good bit of research. I knew a good chunk about the Kennedys, but not necessarily a lot about Bobby in particular. I also grew up in an Irish-Catholic household on both sides. With my mom's side, my grandmother and grandfather lived with us, and they had two pictures on their wall. One was Jesus Christ and then, just a little bit lower to the right, was a picture of JKF; those were like the two models in our household. So I knew a bit about the Kennedys growing up, but then after getting this role, I wanted to know more about him. I got to learn a heck of a lot about him, reading a lot of what he read. His own things that he read. It helped me to understand where he was coming from and who he was.
And that's how you prepared for the show?
A mix of that and then watching. Luckily, he came around in politics when TV was starting to come around in politics, so there were plenty of recordings of him doing some of the speeches and also interviews. Then there's the Kennedy home movies. You get to see him hanging out with the family. And then his personal journal helped a lot. And, to be honest, the script itself helped a lot to just find out where he's coming from. At least to me, it feels like there's an arc to the story from admiring his brother but feeling like he's in the shadow of his brother to finally coming into his own, by the end.
By that very sad ending.
The very abrupt ending not only to the show, but that was how his life was. There was all this upward momentum where everything was really about to start. That's one of the stories I get from a lot of people after the show. They went to bed that night not knowing that he'd been shot, just knowing that he'd won. They woke up in the morning and he was dead. It was like, what happened? And the show ends that abruptly, too, where everything seemed fine and then there's that great sound queue that's just to me chilling, of him getting shot.
Keep reading for more from James O'Hagan Murphy.