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Badgering: Nathaniel Stampley ’08

Broadway actor Nathaniel Stampley ’08 talks getting into character and the role he’s always ready to reprise.

Nathaniel Stampley on stage.

Nathaniel Stampley ’08 has lived many lives. From The Lion King’s Mufasa, to the freewheeling Robert Kincaid of The Bridges of Madison County, to the eponymous character of Sweeney Todd, Stampley’s repertoire spans eras, realms, and even species. But whether he’s playing the wise Old Deuteronomy of CATS or the manager of a Motown singer in Dreamgirls, Stampley roots his performance in the universalities that cause an audience to empathize with even the most barbaric barber.

“What makes storytelling so compelling is that when it’s done well, humanity is always at the forefront,” he says. “We all love, we all have had loss, we all get angry, we all celebrate — all of those things are part of our humanity, and our ancestors have been sharing stories about lives since day one or two on this planet.”

Stampley’s story starts with a musical childhood in Milwaukee (his mother is a musician) that developed in high school as he began performing in professional shows with Skylight Opera Theater (now Skylight Music Theatre) and attending summer music clinics at UW–Madison. He’s since appeared in several Broadway, off-Broadway, regional, and nationally touring shows, bringing beloved, iconic characters, historical figures, and new faces to life. When he’s not performing in live theater or preparing for his next role, he’s directing, voice acting, and making appearances in popular television shows like Law & Order: SVU, The Blacklist, and Billions.

In short, Stampley’s story is a one-man epic of all the stories he has told, and the ones he has yet to tell. Committed as he is to his craft, he finds the unifying factor in this role, too: “Sometimes I still view myself as just a kid going up Bascom Hill.” Here, Stampley shares insight into the people he loves to play and his process of becoming them.

What were some of your favorite plays and musicals as a budding actor?
Porgy and Bess is an opera, and it’s my mom’s favorite. She had introduced me to some of that music, and that was just such a high bar. There are few things that are better than that. I was in the chorus of Porgy and Bess at the Florentine Opera Company in downtown Milwaukee [when I was in high school] … and to be in that rehearsal room with all of these professional and even international artists really left a deep imprint on me. On the musical theater side, I always enjoyed Oklahoma! and I even got to play one of the cowboys in Oklahoma! in high school.

To what roles do you tend to be drawn?

The character has to have some redeeming qualities: [maybe] you can start off one way and change, or, if you are a bad guy, [you] have moments of goodness. I [also] really care about the legacy of performing. My wife and I have two incredible children, and I don’t want to ever be embarrassed at any roles that I’ve taken that they’ll look back on. How I represent my family is really, really important to me. On the flip side of that, I like roles that are really challenging. … You set challenges for yourself as an actor sometimes in a scene or even in the role itself, and then you try to overcome those challenges, just as the characters [do] in a play or a musical.

Nathaniel Stampley portrait

When you portray a well-known character, do you try to emulate what’s been done before or do something completely new?

When you’re on stage, an entire theater is full of opinions, and each opinion is valid because we all are entitled to what we think. But I try not to live up to other people’s opinions of how they think this role should be portrayed or what they think this character should do. … I try to make everything my own, and then I’ll read the reviews five to 10 years later.

What is your relationship to a character when you are studying them, becoming them, and portraying them?

When I get a script, I immediately try to say, ‘Okay, what’s my way into this guy? What about him is close to who I am or to other people I know?’ Then you start to build: there’s a core, and then you’re adding layers and layers and layers on top of that. The performance is the last layer, but inside of that core has to be a truth of that character that you know and are intimately attached to. I try my best to not judge my characters because at the end of the day, they’re living their lives. We might not agree with the choices of people we know or don’t know, [but] we also don’t have to walk in their shoes. As an actor, you do, and the best way to do that is to reserve all judgment. Now, that leads to us sometimes playing really diabolical people that do incredibly dastardly things, but they still are human and, most times, they’re not looking at their lives objectively. They’re just reacting to circumstances and environments around them.

By the time you get to the performance, does that core element of the character shine through?

Something my teachers shared with me in my training is that there’s a secret that every actor has about their character, and that’s something sometimes you don’t even share with your director or other fellow actors. There’s a level of intimacy that only you know, but it has to be so honest and so loud that it informs all of the other choices that come out.

What have been some of your favorite roles to portray?

My personal hero is Paul Robeson, and I had an opportunity to do his one-man play, Paul Robeson, here in New Jersey at Crossroads Theatre. The play is written by Phillip Hayes Dean, and it’s two acts — a little over two hours — and it’s just me. That’s probably the most challenging thing I’ve ever done in my life. It’s a lot of text and a lot of emotions to keep an audience interested. We have Marvel superheroes, and then there’s actual superheroes. Paul Robeson was an actual superhero: activist, athlete, scholar, attorney, spoke several languages, Shakespearean authority, film [and] stage [expert], arguably the Othello of the 19th century — he checks all the boxes. … I felt like I was running a marathon during each act.

Are there any roles you’d still like to play? Any you’d like to reprise?

One of my favorite roles was Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha. It’s such an interesting show because you get to play three characters at once: you play Don Miguel Cervantes, who created the story of Don Quixote, and then you play Alonso Quijano, who’s this elderly man who dreams up this character of Don Quixote. I got a chance to play the role twice, and I loved it. [So] the easy answer is to say the Don Quixote character, but [my favorite role] really is the next new role that I get to originate. To be the first person that the playwright sees in a role is always so much fun, and I cherish those opportunities.

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