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Russell Harvard, Reaching Beyond ‘King Lear’


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Russell Harvard, Reaching Beyond ‘King Lear’


Even though he gouges out eyeballs eight times a week, Russell Harvard seems like a really nice guy.

When I tell the actor that I have a cold, as we sit in a corner of the Lambs Club in the theater district, he insists on pouring me a glass of the jasmine, elderflower and violet kombucha he is drinking.

“That’s my favorite,” said Mr. Harvard, who is deaf. He can speak with what he has called “a deaf accent” and, with a hearing aid, the sound in his right ear can get “pretty crisp.” But for this interview, he mostly relied on an American Sign Language interpreter, his friend Steven Nugent.

The tall, brawny Mr. Harvard, 38, is playing the Duke of Cornwall, the sadistic husband of Lear’s rotten daughter, Regan, in the buzzy (if mostly Tony-snubbed) Broadway production of “King Lear,” with Glenda Jackson as Lear.

I had always thought of “King Lear” in terms of metaphors about sight. Lear and his ally, the Earl of Gloucester, are both blind when it comes to deciding which of their children to trust. An obtuse Lear orders his loyal daughter, Cordelia, out of his sight. “See better, Lear,” his friend, the Earl of Kent, warns him. Cornwall stabs Gloucester’s eyes with the imprecation, “Out, vile jelly!”

But now, thanks to Mr. Harvard, who translates Shakespearean language into sign language for his role, I also think about the play in terms of metaphors about deafness.

Like Donald Trump and so many other leaders and moguls bombarded with the white noise of flattery, Lear cannot hear the truth. His ears are attuned only to sycophants, a ruinous trait.

“The word ‘nothing’ is the most important word of the play, and absence is an important theme,’’ said Sam Gold, who directed “King Lear.” “Speechlessness. Literal and metaphorical blindness. The silence and lack of spoken language in my production is an exploration of that thematic nothingness.”

Mr. Harvard’s interpreter onstage is his childhood friend Michael Arden, who also plays Cornwall’s servant. Mr. Harvard, Mr. Gold and Alexandria Wailes, the show’s director of artistic sign language, worked together to interpret Shakespeare.

“Russell is a very beautiful and poetic signer,” Mr. Gold said. “Sign language is the perfect language for translating Shakespeare because it’s filled with imagery and metaphor. Shakespeare’s language, unlike contemporary English, is dense with images and invented words, much like A.S.L.”

As Cornwall, Mr. Harvard wears a kilt. “I’m keeping the kilt for a burlesque show,” he joked. He and Aisling O’Sullivan, the Irish actress and Nicole Kidman look-alike who plays Regan, have conjured elaborate back stories about their characters, and sign them as the play begins.

The relationship between Cornwall and Regan is passionate. “I noticed that Russell smelled very good, and I asked him what scent he was wearing,” Ms. O’Sullivan said. “He told me it was Zum Mist, frankincense and myrrh. The following day he presented me with a bottle of Zum Mist, which I now wear, too. The couple that smells together, stays together.”

Pedro Pascal, who was the sexy Oberyn, Prince of Dorne in “Game of Thrones” and now plays the sexy villainous Edmund, the bastard son of the Earl of Gloucester, in “King Lear,” said that Mr. Harvard’s kindness as a person and generosity as an actor shine through his bad guys in “Fargo” and “Lear” and “ends up creating a much more original villain, more human and accessible and ultimately more terrifying because you can see yourself in it.”

Ms. Jackson told me that “Russell can be ferocious on the stage, but invariably charming and utterly delightful off.”

When I asked what Ms. Jackson was like, Mr. Harvard grinned and said, “She’s a diva. She’s obviously extremely talented. She knows what she’s doing.”

He recalled a tussle between Mr. Gold and Ms. Jackson about whether to waterboard Gloucester. Mr. Gold, with a set redolent of Trump’s glittering Fifth Avenue penthouse, was trying to heighten the comparisons between their mad king and the current occupant of the White House. But Ms. Jackson objected to adding Trump-approved torture and in the end, they did it Glenda’s way.

“She’s the director,” Mr. Harvard said, laughing.

For the premiere party at the Bowery Hotel, the actor wore a pink suit he found on Amazon for $100 by typing in the words “rose gold.” Inspired by Michael B. Jordan’s Louis Vuitton harness at the Screen Actors Guild awards, he added a black chain harness that his friend Mr. Nugent found on Etsy.

For our interview, Mr. Harvard was dressed down in Levi’s, an olive Banana Republic shirt, Jordan kicks and a baseball cap, backward, depicting a wolf howling at the moon.

“I love the moon,” he said. “I go to it for advice.” He named his chocolate Labradoodle Lunar.

He talked about going to see Muse, the English rock band, on his day off and his YouTube channel, where he has over 6,500 subscribers to see his American Sign Language (A.S.L.) interpretations of Top 40 songs and classics, including “The Chain,” by Fleetwood Mac.

Mr. Harvard, who made a splash off Broadway in “Tribes,” by Nina Raine, and “I was Most Alive With You,” by Craig Lucas, is from a third-generation deaf family in Texas.

He lives with his mother (“best roommate ever”) in a house he bought in Austin, Tex. His aunt lives across the street and other family members live on the block. His father, now divorced from his mother but still good friends, lives in a nearby retirement home.

Russell attended the Texas School for the Deaf, where his parents and grandparents also went and his father worked as a dormitory house parent. Then he studied theater at Gallaudet University in D.C. before starting his career with a bang, playing the adult adopted deaf son of Daniel Day-Lewis’s character, the oilman Daniel Plainview, in the 2007 Paul Thomas Anderson epic, “There Will Be Blood.”

For that movie, Mr. Harvard employed a vintage form of sign language used at the turn of the 20th century: signing “small,” as he put it.

“Now we sign bigger,” he said. “There’s a lot more facial expression. Back in earlier decades, facial expression was very limited. We were a lot more stoic when we signed, because we didn’t want to be too intrusive with hearing people in their environment.”

Dauntingly, his first movie audition was with Mr. Anderson. After two readings in New York, he was asked to fly to Los Angeles to try out with Mr. Day-Lewis at the Chateau Marmont.

He felt confident, but after he signed his scene, Mr. Thomas said, “Do a little less.” So Mr. Harvard reined in his facial expressions, emotions and gestures, and still the director said, “Do it less.”

“So I signed as quietly as I could,” Mr. Harvard said. He recalled walking outside and Mr. Thomas running after him, frantically grabbing a cigarette and saying, “You got it! You got it!”

“I gave him my thumbs up,” Mr. Harvard said. “Then I went back into my hotel room and I started jumping up and down on my bed. I was like, ‘Yay, I got it!’”

He remembered Mr. Day-Lewis as very reserved, locked in his rapacious character. “He had tattoos all over his arms,” Mr. Harvard said. “I never thought he would. He has sons and their handprints as children are on his arm. So that was kind of cute. I really like what he does. He’s very, very Method. It’s really beautiful. Because I was chatting with whoever the hell would listen.”

His next film was an indie, “The Hammer,” about a deaf college wrestler named Matt Hamill; he inherited the part after another actor stepped aside to accommodate the deaf community’s wish to see a deaf actor in the role.

Mr. Harvard said that he knows that it’s “a fine line,” noting: “I was talking to a friend of mine who was debating whether her straight friend, who was playing a lesbian role, should not have that. And I said, ‘Fine, then you can’t play a straight person.’ And it caught her off guard a little bit.”

Still, he said, he thinks that it’s important for deaf people to play deaf roles, because “obviously deaf people can’t play hearing roles. And I mean, we have so many deaf actors out there. Why are we not taking advantage of that?” He credited Julianne Moore for doing well in a deaf role in Todd Haynes’s 2017 “Wonderstruck,” but would have preferred to see a deaf actress get the job.

“I’ve met with people from CBS and NBC and they’ve asked me, ‘What would you like to see?’ And I say, ‘I challenge you to have an all-deaf cast on a TV show.’ Because for example, ‘Animal Planet,’ they have a TV show mainly about meerkats.” And why can there be a show about meerkats but not deaf people?

“And they were like, ‘How do we understand you guys?’ And I said, ‘Subtitles. I’ve been reading subtitles, captions, on movies my entire life. Now it’s your turn.’ And they laughed at me. But they said, ‘Oh yeah, you’re right. Take “The Americans.” They speak in the Russian language and they subtitle it.’ I’m like, ‘Exactly.’

“Are the writers afraid of writing deaf characters? Are we too complex?”

Mr. Harvard invoked a D.C. Comics character called Man-Bat, a scientist who develops a serum to cure deafness and who tangles with Batman sometimes.

“It’s a tad offensive,” he said. “Because being deaf is sacred. It’s pride, it’s culture. We have our community. We have our language. We have our mores.” (He said that what he was doing a bit with me, signing and speaking at the same time — known as SimCom, for simultaneous communication — is “strongly discouraged” in the community “because you’re not able to do both languages perfectly at the same time.”)

Mr. Harvard continued, “I was thinking that it would be really cool to have a deaf character play Man-Bat’s part. Maybe it doesn’t happen in New York. Maybe it happens in Texas, because they have the famous bat bridge, the Congress Avenue Bridge where the bats fly out.”

He pondered whether he could get Noah Hawley, who created the TV shows “Legion” and “Fargo,” to help him write it. Mr. Hawley, who lives in Austin near the Texas School for the Deaf, was inspired by seeing his neighbors communicating in “a secret language” to write a popular deaf hit man character named Mr. Wrench for “Fargo.”

Mr. Harvard played the role with a fringed suede jacket that shimmied when he signed and a hidden buzzer inside a jacket pocket that signaled him when the director was yelling “cut.”

Mr. Hawley liked the actor so much that he brought him back for another season. “There are a lot of actors who work very hard and do complicated things,” he said. “But at the end of the day, it’s really about what the camera tells you when you’re looking at their face.” He said that Mr. Harvard has “an empathetic quality” that tugs at your heart, even when he’s doing bad things.

I asked him why more people in charge of shows don’t create deaf characters. “There’s no nefarious reason,” Mr. Hawley said. “It’s just not in their consciousness. And you create a challenge for yourself.”

Mr. Harvard, who first got smitten with acting as a child when he saw his cousin play a witch in “The Wizard of Oz,” said he likes dark roles. He would love to do an all-deaf production of “Macbeth” on or Off Broadway with Mr. Gold directing. Even though his friends in grade school told him boys couldn’t be witches, he managed to play a female witch in a play in fifth grade.

“And my dad came and he saw the show,” Mr. Harvard said. “And after, he came up to me and he’s like, ‘Why? Why did you have to play a female witch?’ He was a little disappointed. And I said, ‘Well, because I wanted to.’”

When he told his parents later that he was gay, it was a “little bit of a struggle,” he said, noting that his father was hoping for a different scenario: “Have a wife, have a kid, the very ideal American family.”

“My mom was absolutely easy and of course O.K. with it and my dad now admires me, but we just don’t quite talk about it, I guess you could say.”

In 2015, he was on Broadway for the first time in a revival of “Spring Awakening,” put on by Deaf West Theater and also starring Marlee Matlin, who became a “sweet” mentor.

His drinking amped up “into hyperdrive,” he said. “The cast members are drinking, you know? So I would have a drink. But then after the show every night, I would go hit up a bar. I would meet a bunch of fans. ‘Let me get you a shot! Let me hug you. Let me love you.’ It helps you to feel excited. And then the next day, I wouldn’t feel good. And I do not miss the hangovers.”

That year, he went to Madonna’s Rebel Heart Tour at Madison Square Garden, “which is the best place that you can go and use your deaf card and get access to the very front.”

He went heavy on the Patrón. “I woke up and people were leaving the arena,” he said.

He hit bottom in Austin after a night of drinking in April 2018. “I kneeled down, and I did a very primal scream,” he said. He said that his mom, who is also deaf, couldn’t hear his scream but his dog freaked out and ran out of the room. “It was so worth it, so I could reflect. Knowing I squirmed like a worm. It was the saddest thing I could see.”

He called his agent, who told him to go to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. But it took him 48 hours to get an interpreter to go with him to his first meeting. He says he has been sober for a year.

“I have a lot more clarity,” he said. “I never thought that I was an addict. Because my brother is, and I never thought that I was like him. But I really was. I would say I was an alcoholic. And probably a little bit of drugs, too.” He said that he took care of his brother, who is even more profoundly deaf, and then took a break, moving to Alaska to teach preschool deaf and hard-of-hearing kids.

“For a really long time, I’ve been looking, searching, looking, looking, looking for love in all the wrong places and experiencing heartbreak,” he said, “and I finally have become sober and I just feel like I don’t have the need to look. And it feels great. And I feel like I’ve found myself for the very first time and I’m just relishing it. I would rather have something happen organically.”

He’s not on Tinder or Grindr. “My dating is if I see someone at the gym or Facebook or Instagram,” he said. “Those are my dating apps.”

It’s time for Mr. Harvard to go. He’s got some eyes to gouge out.

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