Tell actor Hank West you want to write a newspaper story about him, and he immediately thinks of people you should be talking to.
Not about him. Instead of him. Maybe his Frost/Nixon co-star would be a good subject for a profile. And their director has done fine work at Carolina Actors Studio Theatre for years.
No, you reassure him. This is Wimburn Henry West Jr.s turn in the metaphoric spotlight, after three decades in the literal one.
Who else in Charlotte has played so many characters old or young, powerful or weak, appealing or hideous, sane or deranged, paternal or maternal or even nocturnal? (That last would be Draculas slave, Renfield.)
Hank is a chameleon, says director Michael Harris, who chose him to play David Frost for CAST without an audition. Hank submits his body and soul to every character he portrays. He doesnt just pretend to be the character; he becomes the character.
That may explain why, though West is a gregarious host he shared a birthday cake at the end of our interview hes a shy subject.
He talks thoughtfully about Richard III, whom he played for Shakespeare Carolina in 2008: Hes not evil incarnate. Theres a lot of resentment about the way hes judged, a lot of pain in a man whose mother didnt even care for him. In theater, we all feel were being judged all the time, and I found a core of pain I could bring out.
But ask about himself, and he searches for words. Blessed comes to the surface as often as any other.
To make acting your profession is impossible in Charlotte, he observes. So theres always going to be a what-if factor about it as in, what if West had bolted for Los Angeles or New York right after college? but Ive been blessed to have my parents next door, my (job) for 30 years and a big support system in this extended theater family.
Business and art
Since getting a B.S. in social work at UNC Greensboro, he has worked for the Social Security Administration (SSA). In Charlotte, hes a claims representative for survivors and children.
His artistic side began to develop long before that.
How many other little boys would have played sick to stay home from school and watch Sunset Boulevard on TV? About as many as would have written a fan letter to their favorite actress, Bette Davis, in her 70s and gotten one back or gone to the first Turner Classic Movies festival. West did all three.
He acted in community theater in his native Asheboro, at UNCG, in Hendersonville when the SSA sent him there. Soon after being reassigned to Charlotte in 1987, he was working onstage and backstage with no thought of turning pro.
The word professional can have negative connotations, he says. Ive worked with some professionals who (give you) a sense that youre not on their level. I prefer amateur, because it means youre having fun.
What makes West good?
Dedication, above all. He dyed his pale hair brown to play Frost, though few theatergoers will recall how Frost looked 40 years ago while interviewing Richard Nixon. (Peter Morgans play focuses on meetings in 1977, when Nixon needed to raise cash by making TV appearances and Frost hoped to prove himself a serious journalist by challenging the ex-president.)
Two unique things Hank brings to the stage are his vulnerability and truthfulness, says director Glenn Griffin of Queen City Theatre Company. A lot of actors put a wall up and only allow the audience to see what they want them to see.
Hank doesnt do that. He shows the audience everything they need to see about a character . His characters are all truthful, even the most ridiculous ones!
Griffin may be thinking about Queen Citys Die, Mommie, Die! West played twin sisters, one of them homicidal, in this tribute to Joan Crawford-type characters. As wacky as Charles Buschs play may be, West took it seriously.
He tends to be analytical, to think about how characters hand movements would be, how they would stand, glare at someone else, exactly what they would be thinking, says Griffin. Minute details are important to him. He wants to know their likes, their dislikes, favorite music.
Hank (also) has amazing instincts. As much as he loves watching old movies, Hank loves to watch people. He gets great ideas from the times he might just be sitting and observing.
West may take work seriously, but not himself. The license plate on his silver Saturn reads MMOUSE, both because hes a Disney fan and because a critic said his high-voiced performance in Amadeus came off as Mozart Mouse.
Ask what roles appeal to him strongly, and hell say, I have been naked onstage a lot but those days are over! He refers to Equus, where he played a boy who blinded horses, and The Elephant Man, in which he wore a sort of diaper as deformed Joseph Merrick.
Getting under their skins
Press a little harder, and he admits, I have an affinity for broken souls. That could be true even of David Frost, who was perceived as a pseudo-journalist and stung by criticism that he couldnt stand up to Nixon on the subject of the Watergate scandal.
West finds his way into those souls by a long, patient process, says Harris:
Hank definitely does not lock in early. Hes a slow, steady starter, but as the rehearsal process progresses, his confidence strengthens. He continues to experiment, not only through rehearsals but throughout the performance period.
West likes to revisit roles and shows: Hes been Mozart three times in Amadeus and now hopes to play Salieri. And he likes to confound expectations, so he hopes to play the psychotic killer in Wait Until Dark. But what he mostly wants to do is work with company after company.
I always think, This is my last show. Ill never be cast again, he says. I ask myself whether people havent seen a lot of Hank West. Will people get over me? So far, they havent.