Getting into character is all in a day’s work for Michael Hawke, a veteran local actor well known to Richmond theater audiences.
But to play the role of Charlie, the dissolute, despairing 600-pound man at the center of Samuel D. Hunter’s “The Whale,” Hawke has taken special pains to locate his character’s physical and emotional center. The play opens Friday night at HATTheatre as part of the Acts of Faith Festival.
“The Whale” follows Charlie, a man virtually eating himself to death, as he attempts to reconcile with the 17-year-old daughter he barely knows and come to terms with a series of unfortunate life circumstances.
“When the lights come up, and I’m onstage, you think, ‘It’s hard to look at this person,’ ” Hawke said of Charlie, who rarely moves during the show’s two-hour running time. “But by the end, people will say, ‘Oh, my God, I can see how I’m like this person.’ His humanity is revealed.”
To inhabit Charlie’s troubled, all-too-human soul, Hawke plays the role in a specially purchased fat suit that has been enhanced with extra rubber and foam by makeup and prosthetic designer Vincent Venuti, fashion specialist Shannon Colson and HATTheatre’s executive director Vickie Scallion.
The HATTheatre team has also created a thick neckpiece with contoured elements that extend up onto Hawke’s face. Clothes to fit Charlie’s large frame were bought from a special online store catering to the overweight.
Hawke, 59, who credits a two-year theater conservatory program at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts more than 40 years ago with first grounding him in the teachings of Constantin Stanislavski and other acting pioneers, lost 15 pounds last February to play Neil, a man fighting valiantly against terminal cancer in HATTheatre’s production of “The Quality of Life.”
To impede Neil’s gait and duplicate his constant pain, Hawke even duct-taped stones, twigs and other detritus to his body during performances.
“People say, ‘Oh, you’re so Method,’ ” said Hawke, referring to the common shorthand for Stanislavski’s acting tradition. “But it has nothing to do with Method. It has to do with one more thing you don’t have to think about when you’re acting.”
During rehearsals for “The Whale” as costume and prosthetics took shape, Hawke trained himself to think, feel and breathe like an obese person by strapping bricks and telephone books to his abdomen.
“Michael has once again shown true commitment and dedication to creating real honesty onstage,” said Scallion, “which is vitally important in such an intimate venue as ours.”
Hawke also took time to interview formerly overweight friends who had received gastric-bypass surgery, including one who once weighed nearly 500 pounds. He also watched episodes of TLC’s “My 600-lb Life” to learn more about the particular psychology of those trapped in obesity.
“The way these people talk about sugar, it’s like it’s orgasmic or something,” said Hawke. “I battled with addiction myself for several years, but I found a way out nearly three decades ago.”