Aaron Sorkin’s stage version of Harper Lee Kill a mockingbird hit the road on tour, Richard Thomas donning Atticus Finch’s cream linen suit. During the show’s first stop in Buffalo — ahead of 24 more cities during the year — we spoke to Thomas about the possibility of playing the iconic role.

Richard Thomas in the national tour of Kill a mockingbird
(© Julieta Cervantes)

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

How does it feel to be on tour in 25 cities, knowing that each city will probably react differently?
One of the fascinating aspects of tours is that you are playing an away game. They are not like tourists in New York, coming to see a show. You enter their homes. This is going to be especially interesting because it’s such familiar source material. Most people, I think, have an idea or a memory from reading the book or seeing the movie. But the regional context is really important. And I’m very excited about it. The difference between north and south. The difference between west and east.

What’s it like to build your own Atticus Finch, to step into the shoes of actors like Gregory Peck on screen and Jeff Daniels on stage?
It’s an interesting thing, doing the tour, because you’re basically inhabiting someone else’s world. These people have been working on this part for a very long time and have already solved many problems and figured out how and where it works. I want this information. I don’t have that sense of ownership over the roles, that we have to start from scratch and I have to make all the choices. No. It’s just nonsense. This is the directory. You hold hands with people who have played the role before. Why would you want to spoil something that’s already so good?

If the role is complex and open enough, it will wrap around you, whoever you are and wherever you are in your life. And in this regard, everyone can play this role. You obviously have to have technical chops to do this, but that’s to be expected. But in terms of interpretation, a big role can be played in an incredibly different number of ways. And that’s what’s exciting. That’s what’s going to be exciting with the next Atticus. I feel very close to him. But when that alchemy finally takes place and you’ve plugged in all the connectors you have with the room… It’s an affinity. There are affective affinities between the actor and certain roles. And I feel an affinity. I felt an affinity from the start.

I think people who know this story might be shocked by some moments. Like when Jem asks Atticus which side he would be on if Civil War was now.
The beauty of what Aaron did with this relationship is that he built, from the first scene, a growing conflict between the boy and his father. It’s a classic trope of the son having to declare his independence and the resistant father, continuing to treat him like a boy as he grows into a man. Aaron follows him beautifully throughout the play to come to a head with the verbal confrontation where Atticus finally has to say, “We go, you’re a man now, aren’t you?” I have two sons. I understand well. When he asks that specific question about hiding under the bed, I think Atticus is trying to be light on something he just learned about himself, which is the distance between his longing goodness and the realities of the world. The play is not only about the loss of innocence in children. But it’s also really, in Aaron’s version, Atticus’ loss of innocence too. When he says, “Small armies changed the world,” it’s a reconfiguration of the sense of community.

Aaron Sorkin’s language is very particular. How does it feel to learn?
First of all, his ear for the southern dialect is delightful and makes it so easy to play – inflection and cadence and rhythm and all that. He knows exactly how to build short lines with long lines together in the context of a speech. His punctuation is very precise. You have his monosyllabic lines followed by very long lines that are delightful to play on one breath. Everything he writes moves forward, so as an actor you always want to say the next thing. Just as Shakespeare’s verse is easier to learn than his prose; prose is meant to be more of a thicket of words and is harder to say.

Can you give me an example?
When he first goes to Tom’s cell and meets him, he has a line where he says, “Tom, the last thing in the world I want is to be your lawyer right now.” End of sentence. “A nigger, a white teenager. I wouldn’t go with a winning hand.” Complete sentence. “But I am obligated to defend you as an officer of the court. And in that capacity I have taken a solemn oath to give you my best advice, which is that you must not plead guilty and go to jail for a crime you did not and could not commit.” It’s a line.

You see the montage: I don’t want to be your lawyer. Here is the second configuration: why I don’t want to be your lawyer. “That’s what I don’t want. Here’s why. But here’s what I have to do.” In the “this is what I must do”, everything is woven into a single line that goes absolutely to the end. And the icing on the cake is that after he makes that long, long, long, long line, he has a five-word line, “I believe in the law.”

So you see the music of that. Fantastic, right? Simply fantastic. And it’s fun to play. See, that’s the other thing, there’s taste in it. There is taste in the argument. All you have to do is devote yourself to writing. And that’s what every actor prays for. Because we have enough to do!