Why Tony Nominee Corey Hawkins Embraced Fearlessness in ‘Topdog/Underdog’

The recent Broadway revival of “Topdog/Underdog” may have ended its run, but for Corey Hawkins, the actor now nominated for a Tony Award for his role in the play, the experience left him with something that he’s still carrying forward into all his future work: “Fearlessness,” he said on the latest episode of Stagecraft, Variety‘s theater podcast.

Listen to this week’s “Stagecraft” podcast below:

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Hawkins (“In the Heights,” “Straight Outta Compton”), a nominee for best actor in a leading role in a play (alongside his co-star Yahya Abdul-Mateen II in the same category), explained why embracing fearlessness was a conscious choice for him as an actor — and recalled the theater performance that pushed him to seek out a role like Lincoln, the one he played in “Topdog/Underdog.”

“I got to see ‘Jerusalem‘ in London, and I remember looking at Mark Rylance and then asking myself and asking friends: Why don’t we have that? Why can’t we get up there and have the opportunity to use all of ourselves and play and take risks? Where are those roles for Black people?” he said. “And then I realized: Wait, those roles are absolute there. ‘Topdog/Underdog’ is one of them. It’s up to us to take that risk, and we have to be fearless.”

By the time Hawkins’ Tony nomination was announced, he’d already decamped to Atlanta to film the upcoming Netflix movie adaptation of “The Piano Lesson.” (That’s just one of his upcoming screen projects, alongside “The Last Voyage of the Demeter” this summer and “The Color Purple” due for release this Christmas.) But, he said, “I look back on ‘Topdog/Underdog’ fondly because I never had a role that challenged me quite as much as Lincoln.”

On the new episode of Stagecraft, Hawkins singled out all the elements that made “Topdog” so hard for him, including learning to play the guitar and teaching himself how to shuffle cards like an expert. There was also the work that the director Kenny Leon pushed him and Abdul-Mateen II to do in order to keep their performances alive and fresh.

“Kenny encouraged us to be students of the world, to look outside of ourselves,” Hawkins said. “Every day we came in we would talk about our environments, just encouraging actors to not be so focused on the work in front of you but also be focused on the life you have to live in order to bring yourself to the work. It got heavy.”

Also on the podcast, Hawkins talked up what fans can expect from both “Color Purple” and “Piano Lesson” — and revealed how he ended up having a recent surprise dinner with Patti LuPone.

To hear the full conversation, listen at the link above or download and subscribe to “Stagecraft” on podcast platforms including Apple PodcastsSpotify and the Broadway Podcast NetworkNew episodes of “Stagecraft” are released every other week.

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