Shuler Hensley has learned many things from playing Frankenstein's monster in the new Mel Brooks' musical Young Frankenstein
He's honed his tap-dancing, for one thing: "I'm a real hoofer in this show--I'm channeling Savion Glover during 'Puttin' on the Ritz,' " says Shuler, the genetically blessed son of a football player and a ballet dancer.
And he's learned the ways of a certain extra-terrestrial zone known as "the Planet Mel Brooks, which I enjoy inhabiting." It's a place not unlike earth, only with "many more high-quality actors than I've ever worked with" and "lots of green makeup."
Speaking of green makeup, he's also picked up a bit of unexpected parenting wisdom.
"I used to always tell my kids to clean their hands," says Hensley, who at 6' 3" has often been typecast as monsters and lugs, from the gorilla Kerchak in Tarzan
to Jud in Oklahoma
. "But now I realize how hard it is to thoroughly clean your hands--I still have traces of green from the show as we speak."
Hensley's children, in fact, have gotten so acclimated to Daddy's monster guise that they didn't seriously consider it a valid option for their Halloween costumes.
"We had this grand notion of having my seven-year-old daughter and my three-year-old son dressing up for Halloween as these mutant Frankenstein children," Hensley says with a laugh. "But they ended up going as a surgeon and a Power Ranger. I lost out--their attitude was kind of, 'Yeah, dressing up as Daddy, that's great, but…' "
He even half-jokingly imagines his children in therapy one day claiming, "My daddy was a monster when I was a child. No, he really
was a monster."
In all seriousness, Hensley knows his way around this role: He played the monster in a 2001 demo of Mark Baron and Jeffrey Jackson's very serious Frankenstein
musical (coincidentally, also currently running in its world premiere at 37 Arts). And he also appeared as the monster in 2004's monster mash-up film Van Helsing
For him, the key to the monster is not that he's scary but that he's scared.
"If you really look at it, he's sort of thrust into this world, and completely based on his look, people are casting him out," says Hensley. "He's an outsider before he even learns to speak. It's a pretty overwhelming scenario. He hasn't done anything to anyone, and he's being hunted and feared. What would you do in that situation? He's scared. I think anyone would be."
Of course, in Mel Brooks' zany vision of the story, Hensley may play the part straight, but the effect is anything but serious.
"The relationship of the creature with Dr. Frankenstein is a father/son relationship," Hensley explains. "And like father, like son, they're both really the straight guys with a lot of very crazy people around. That's a pretty funny idea in itself: A giant monster being the straight guy with a bunch of fruity people running after him."
Given that he communicates mainly in grunts and tap-dancing until near the very end of the show, Hensley counts it one of the blessings of the role that it forces him to rely on his most basic acting instincts.
"Every scene I'm just playing it real, just reacting," he says. "Because I don't have dialogue, I'm free to do the old acting exercise of actively listening, and that's really a lot of fun. I can respond differently every show." In Mel Brooks' outrageous world, Hensler says, "The straighter and more real you make it, the funnier it is."
Dialogue or not, Hensley finds great freedom in what other actors might chafe at as typecasting.
"Because of my size, I tend to play more menacing figures," Hensley concedes. "But if you're in a giant monster suit, and you're made up to look scary, you don't have to play that--the costume is doing the monster part. In that sense, it gives you a lot of freedom to play against that. And that's a real joy when you can affect an audience, when they come up to you afterward and say, 'I felt something for the monster that I wasn't planning on feeling.' "
Hensley admits that while he might not have planned to play Frankenstein's monster yet again, "When you put Mel Brooks' name in front of the title, all bets are off. It's a completely new experience. I would play the mop in a Mel Brooks production.
"Coming to the theatre, it's sort of like a birthday party every day, like, Do we really get to do this eight times a week?"
As for that pesky green makeup, Hensley confesses: "I don't know if it will ever come off. Eventually I'll exfoliate naturally, I guess."
For tickets to Young Frankenstein, go here.