Beyond the mustache

Larry Yando has been a prominent presence on stages in Chicago and beyond for many years, including as Ebenezer Scrooge in the Goodman’s annual production of A Christmas Carol (this year marks his 15th outing). He plays Hercule Poirot in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express at Drury Lane Theatre through October 23. (Read Kimzyn Campbell’s review here.) This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

Emily McClanathan: You’ve played a variety of roles on stage that are already well-known from literature, film, or history—Scrooge at the Goodman Theatre, Scar in The Lion King national tour, and Nixon at Writers Theatre. What’s your approach when you’re playing a famous character on stage? How do you make the role your own?

Larry Yando: I don’t think I approach it any differently than I would any other role. The first thing I do is try to understand why this particular playwright wrote this particular play. I start with what the playwright’s take is on that character, whether he’s famous or a totally fictional character. 

But when there’s source material to pull from, I like to know as many intricate, intimate details about a character that I can. I read as much of the source material as possible, but I always keep in mind that we’re not doing the source material, and we’re not doing another person’s idea of Scrooge, Nixon, Scar, or Poirot. We’re doing this particular playwright, so I think you have to always return to what serves this playwright’s vision. 

Also, some actors are very good mimics. I’m not really a good mimic, so I don’t even attempt it. What’s more important to me is the content of this human being, not the form. Sometimes the form is slightly important because the audiences need to believe that you’re playing Nixon or believe that you’re Scar in that movie they saw a long time ago. It’s a balancing act, for me, of just enough hints of something familiar or iconic about the character. And then, I treat it like any other role and assume that what will make this particular event unique is it being filtered through Larry Yando, as opposed to another actor. 

What attracted you to the role of Hercule Poirot, and what has the process of developing this role been like?

I love British mysteries and British crime drama, so, for Poirot, I’d been aware of him for a very long time. In the books, he’s immaculately described. He’s a bit self-absorbed and very vain, so I already had all that information in my head.

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Murder on the Orient Express was adapted by Ken Ludwig, a playwright who writes farces normally. Now, I believe that nothing is ever all funny or all tragic; there’s always both. I think that’s what human beings are, and I think that’s what every great character in a play is. What I love about Poirot is, in this particular story, he does not remain above this particular crime, and he is deeply affected by it. This is a major, unusual, specific, extraordinary case for him that changes him irrevocably—and that, to me, is what happens in great plays to great characters, so I latched onto that. And then, it’s just like doing King Lear—he makes one mistake, one thing happens in the beginning, and he’s haunted forever. 

My process is not trying to be funny, not trying to imitate previous Poirots, but digging deep within myself to find something large enough that would haunt you for the rest of your life, because that’s what I think this play is about for Poirot. 

And yes, there’s a Belgian accent, which is basically French. What’s funny is that Poirot is constantly correcting people that he is not French, he’s Belgian. There are, of course, some requirements when you play a famous character. They usually have to do with form, what people expect to see, and you have to decide which ones are important to you and help you find the human being behind this iconic character, and which ones you can drop. 

I do not think you can drop the French accent; I do not think you can drop the mustache. He’s also an “odd little man,” as described by Agatha Christie and other characters all the time, in all the books. I can’t be a little man—I’m not little—but I certainly can be odd. I certainly can have a mustache, and I can have the French accent. So, it’s about picking the iconic traits that feed the character, feed the dramatic action, and feed the three-dimensionality, and not worrying about those characteristics that don’t matter. Just trust the audience will go with you because you’re being honest, and you’re exposing something that reflects them in some way, like any great play. 

Murder on the Orient Express Through 10/23: Wed 1:30 PM, Thu 1:30 and 8 PM, Fri 8 PM, Sat 3 and 8 PM, Sun 2 and 6 PM, Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace, 630-530-0111, drurylanetheatre.com, $69-$84 ($5 discount for seniors Wed and Thu matinees)

Murder on the Orient Express is one of the most popular Agatha Christie novels and has been adapted many times for film and TV. Why do you think this story has such enduring appeal?

In our American culture, film is a very powerful medium. I remember the 1974 film vividly; I loved it, and I’ve seen it about 40 times. Once a film adaptation happens, at least in America, I believe it reaches many more people, and then people will go read the book. 

Also, in my opinion, it goes to what I said interests me about playing Poirot—it’s an unusual case for the lead detective. It affects him in a different way, and it affects him in a way that all of us can relate to—having to make a difficult decision in our lives and living with it forever, and never knowing if it was the right decision. I believe—with a film, with TV, with theater—when an audience is faced with something that goes very deep into their own history and their own lives, that stays with them. 

Could you tell me more about Ken Ludwig’s stage adaptation? Why do you think this story works well on stage? 

I know Ken Ludwig as writing Lend Me a Tenor—farcical stuff. Agatha Christie’s Poirot series are not farces; you must take them seriously or you won’t find the comedy when you read the books. They’re very funny, but what’s brilliant about all the Poirot stories—or any good British mystery—are the hysterically odd, funny, recognizable characters, with a very dark vein of evil running underneath the entire story. She’s brilliant at making those two things exist side by side. And those two things, side by side, are what always excite me about any good play. 

What I love about this adaptation is that it absolutely has all the comic possibilities because of these extravagant characters, and people get to laugh. Then, at the center is a very conflicted witness to something tragic and potentially evil and wrong. I think Ken Ludwig got both elements in the play, and that’s why I think it works on stage because, to me, that’s what theater is, that tug-of-war between two very opposing forces. The audience gets to be surprised at every turn, because you don’t know which one of those two extremes is going to rear its head at any given moment. 

Finally, I have to ask about Poirot’s iconic mustache. On a scale from 1 to 10, how large of a mustache does your Poirot wear? 

I would say my mustache for this production, on 1 to 10, would be a 7, maybe 8. It’s enough to call attention to itself, and it’s impeccably groomed—because it could be no other way with Hercule—and it doesn’t obliterate anything else on the stage. It’s believable and slightly extreme. I really love having it, because all of a sudden, you go, “Now I am complete.”

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