The Covey Center for the Arts in Provo has been increasingly impressing local audiences with thoughtful and family friendly productions. Their latest offering is Jimmy Stewart Goes to Hollywood, by Utah-based playwright Mahonri Stewart, and produced by Zion Theatre Company. Actor William McAllister is playing the well-loved and well-known actor Jimmy Stewart. I was able to speak with William about his work as an actor and how he approached playing such an iconic and well known character.
UTBA: How did you originally get started with the theatre world?
McAllister: Well, it all started for me a few years back when a group of my close friends created the organization known as New Play Project. It was a non-profit group dedicated to getting original plays written by local playwrights on the stage. Arisael Rivera was one of the founders, and was a great friend of mine who was studying acting. So I was using him as an actor in a bunch of my student films I was making as a film student at Brigham Young University. Eventually New Play Project became so popular that it was hard to get a part in one of the plays. But when they began in 2006 (I think it was), they didn’t have a big pool of actors to choose from. Well, since I’d used Ari so much in all of my films, he called in a favor: he asked me to audition for their show.
And, I’ll be honest, I was scared! I had never been in a play. When it came to making films, I was always the guy behind the camera. But, he wanted me to be an actor? To get on the stage in front of people? These thoughts instantly brought with them flashbacks of high school when I, an extremely shy kid, mustered all the courage I could to audition for the high school play (secretly it’d always been a dream of mine. However, my hopes and dreams were crushed when I didn’t get the part (and understandably so: when you don’t look anyone in the eye and barely speak up at an audition, it isn’t exactly what directors are looking for). But, Ari is a friend; he’d always been there for me. So, I went and auditioned—and feared the worst. I was dealing with some serious high school post-traumatic stress! But, as I walked into the room to audition, I saw James Goldberg (another founder, who soon later became a close friend), jump for joy! They hadn’t had enough guys audition—seeing his joy in just seeing me come in the room gave me courage to go forward, and I got the part (out of necessity, I think, but, hey, I’m not complaining).
UTBA: What makes acting a passion for you now?
McAllister: I caught the bug—I fell in love with the rehearsal process, the discovery process—figuring out characters, bonding with the cast and crew, connecting with the audience—telling stories. I love it. I love it a lot!
UTBA: Did you have any challenges or fears about working on the premiere production? If so, what?
McAllister: The premiere production of Jimmy Stewart? Oh, millions of fears! Not any fears or worries about the other cast members or the director or crew—they are all phenomenal—but fears within myself. I’ve been doing theatre almost non-stop since 2006, but my stage fright is ever present. Always there. But, that fear is truly helped by knowing an army of talented people are helping bring this story to life. I just want to do my part in telling this story the best I can, and to do it justice. It is a great history of a great man, written so well by Mahonri Stewart.
UTBA: How did you approach playing such an iconic and well known personality?
McAllister: Well, the biggest thing I was worried about was getting down Jimmy’s iconic voice. I felt like hearing a well-done impression of him would be expected by the audience. It is a hard accent to mimic. On our first rehearsal, though, Scott [director J. Scott Bronson] informed us of the directorial choice he’d made for us, the actors, to not try to do the accents or voices of the characters we were playing. Every character in the show is a real, historical figure—ones people recognize from the classic movies they love. He didn’t want us to distract the audience from the wonderful story by having them constantly comparing us to the actual actors—the real Katherine Hepburn, the real Henry Fonda, the real Jimmy Stewart, etc. He told us to take on these characters with our own voices, the story is strong and the people will connect with these characters if they are played authentically by us. When he informed me of that decision (one that I think is very good), it truly lifted a weight of worry from me.
Without being fixated on doing his voice, I was able to engross myself in finding the spirit of the man and his personality. I have a stack of maybe 25 or 30 Jimmy Stewart films next to my DVD player, and I’ve been watching his films, I’ve been reading about the man, I’ve been watching interviews he gave, and I’ve been trying to soak in his essence, like a sponge. Funnest “homework” for a play I’ve ever had to do!
UTBA: What is the biggest challenge for playing Stewart? What is the biggest reward?
McAllister: Well, like Jimmy himself who had a hard time memorizing, learning lines doesn’t come easy to me. I’ve been hitting the script hard, but I’ve never had so many lines in my entire theatre career—that has been a challenge, for sure.
Plus, he’s Jimmy Stewart?!? How do you play that man, and do him justice? He’s so lovable and wonderful—can I capture that? Even a tiny bit of it?
The rewards are many. Mostly, I have gained a deeper love for somebody who was already my hero and one of my favorite actors. Learning more about him humanized him even more for me, and I think that is a good thing (because humans are cool). I needed to learn about mistakes and flaws in his life. I learned that he was human. He had weaknesses and flaws like we all do. But, that never changed the fact that he had a great heart, and that he was a good man. He cared about people deeply, and did his best to be his best. I love him even more now that I did before. That is the biggest reward.
UTBA: Through your research, did you find any similarities between your experiences and Stewart’s?
McAllister: Oh yes, certainly. The man was sincerely bumbly around the opposite gender, ha-ha, charming in his nervousness around women. I don’t know about charming, but I certainly lose my train of thought when I’m trying to talk to a girl. It may sound silly, but that is a big connection. It makes him feel so human, and it gives me hope!
He was constantly in awe when he was in the presence of movie stars that he loved. He was a huge star, and yet when he met a star he admired, he’d be all sorts of star-struck. I get star-struck and geek out over things all the time. Get me at Comic-Con meeting Peter Mayhew, and I don’t even know what to say! But, this attribute of Stewart’s leads me to believe he kept with him always a boy-like whimsy and wonder for life. He’s inspired me to try even harder to do the same.
Jimmy Stewart knew how to appreciate everything he had. He took nothing for granted and was always incredibly gracious. It’s an example I try to live by—it makes every day a wonder, everyday special.
UTBA: You were already a fan of Stewart before you were cast. How did you translate that admiration into your portrayal?
McAllister: I hold onto my love for him while I’m playing him. It really helps me, keeping that love and admiration for him in my heart. It is almost as if he’s really there helping me along. It is pretty wonderful.
UTBA: Is there anything you want our readers to know before they attend?
McAllister: If you love film history, if you love Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, Margaret Sullivan, Frank Capra, Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart; if you love stories of people doing their best to be their best—stories of family, friendship, hardship; if you love stories of hope through that hardship, well, you’ll love this play. You should come.