How this new ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ takes Atticus Finch ‘down off that pedestal’
‘He’s really taken Atticus down off that pedestal, which is great because icons are unplayable — you can’t play an icon,’ Richard Thomas said
The spotlight fell upon Richard Thomas as he stood on the stage. Act One of the play “The Member of the Wedding,” based on Carson McCullers’ novel, was coming to an end, and in that instant, Thomas had an important moment of self-realization.
“‘OK, this is what you are. You’re an actor,’” Thomas recalled himself thinking. “‘This is who you are. This is you. This is your life.’”
He was 9 years old.
Today, the 71-year-old actor said he has never questioned his profession, joking that you need other skills to be able to consider another career. His exploration of the acting world started early — he was 7 when he made his Broadway debut.
“Children have a sense of who they are and who they want to be a lot sooner than a lot of people realize,” Thomas recently told the Deseret News. “I just was lucky enough to be actually doing it when I realized it.”
Over the years, Thomas has appeared in countless productions on TV, film and Broadway. Although he is well known for his portrayal of John-Boy in the 1970s series “The Waltons,” he’s also had lead roles in movies including “The Red Badge of Courage” and “All Quiet on the Western Front.”
Now, that epiphany from his childhood has led him to portraying Atticus Finch in a newer take on Harper Lee’s classic “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which just concluded a run in Salt Lake City and is now moving on to the West Coast.
Aaron Sorkin reinterprets Atticus in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’
When Thomas first heard about “West Wing” creator Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird” — which had a 2018 Broadway debut with Jeff Daniels in the role of Atticus — Thomas knew he wanted to be a part of the show in some capacity.
So when an invitation to star as Atticus in the production’s national tour came along, the actor was ready.
Like the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel — which follows the story of Tom Robinson, an honest Black man accused of raping a white woman in 1930s Alabama — Sorkin’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” hasn’t been without controversy. Prior to its debut, Sorkin’s script ran into issues with Lee’s estate because it strayed from the novel. The estate was especially concerned with the liberties the script took when it came to Robinson’s lawyer Atticus, whose views are challenged and called into question.
But for Thomas, this was one of the biggest draws.
“He’s really taken Atticus down off that pedestal, which is great because icons are unplayable — you can’t play an icon,” Thomas said. “You can play a human being, a person, because icons are not interesting as theatrical roles.”
In reinterpreting Atticus, Sorkin creates more vulnerability for the character, Thomas said. Audiences see Atticus struggling to raise his children and struggling to maintain his idealism. His challenges and breakdowns are more transparent. And through substantially expanding the role of Calpurnia, the Finches’ Black housekeeper, Sorkin has created a stronger voice that is simultaneously supportive and critical of Atticus — a relationship Thomas called “one of the most moving parts of the play.”
“He’s anticipated the problems with the whole white savior scenario,” Thomas said, noting how the novel has sometimes been criticized for perpetuating that trope and leaving Black characters relegated to the margins in a story about oppression.
“I would hope this makes him a more relatable character rather than a sort of a father figure, which he is to the kids but not to the audience — nor should he be,” he continued. “He’s just a good man trying to do the right thing. But also, with a very naive point of view about everybody’s goodness.”
Bringing ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ to life
Thomas first read “To Kill a Mockingbird” as a kid in school. But in preparing to bring the character of Atticus to life, the actor revisited the novel, which unexpectedly ended up being one of the most rewarding parts of starring in Sorkin’s production.
“As with a lot of books we read in school, it’s not a book for kids; it’s a book for adults,” Thomas said. “And so if you liked ‘Mockingbird’ and if it meant something to you as a young person, and you want to, you should read it again as an adult because it’s a whole different experience and very, very deep and very fulfilling.”
The national “Mockingbird” tour started in late March. Six months later, Thomas’ routine has largely stayed the same. On the night of a performance, he spends the whole day thinking about how he will perform once the curtain rises. He gets to the theater about 90 minutes before a show, and runs through the story in his mind, letting “Richard and Atticus slowly come together.”
Although the script doesn’t change, no performance is the same. Night after night, audiences connect with different moments, and have varying reactions to the same scenes.
“If there’s no audience, it’s not theater,” Thomas said. “They are the other character in the theater with you. They are doing the show with you every night. It’s like you have a new actor in the part of the audience every night, and you don’t know how they’re going to respond moment to moment.”
One commonality Thomas has found, though, is the overall response to the production.
“We all like our applause, but there is such a feeling of the play being embraced emotionally by the audiences,” he said. “So it’s really gratifying. It’s very moving for me. At the end of the show, the audience demonstrates that we all shared something, and that means a great deal.”
‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ gets shelved on Broadway
The warm reception Thomas has received on tour stands in stark contrast to the trouble the production has recently faced on Broadway.
In late July, it was announced that Sorkin’s adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird” was being shelved on Broadway — a controversial decision made by former producer Scott Rudin, who still owns the rights to the show, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
Rudin told the show’s team in an email that he had “a lack of confidence in the climate for plays next winter,” and that he “did not believe that a remount of ‘Mockingbird’ would have been competitive in the marketplace,” per IndieWire.
“It’s too risky and the downside is too great,” Rudin wrote, according to IndieWire. “It’s the right decision for the long life of the show.”
This arguably puts the national tour of “Mockingbird” even more in the spotlight, but Thomas said the tour is a “separate entity” and far removed from the pressures the Broadway production has faced.
“People are coming like crazy and enjoying it,” he said. “The road has actually been a little bit more secure than New York and Broadway at this point, in terms of being able to stay open. People are flocking to the theaters on tour. They really want to go out and see shows, so we’re reaping the benefit of that.”
The tour extends through summer 2023. As it travels from coast to coast, from San Francisco to Fort Lauderdale, Thomas believes it will continue to receive praise and success, largely thanks to an adaptation that brings something new to a familiar story.
“These different iterations of classic materials should be different,” he said. “It should change. It should, you know, reflect where we’re at now. That’s really important to me, and it makes it more than just a museum piece.”