Skip to main content

John Douglas Thompson plays Joe Mott in The Iceman Cometh.Larry Busacca/Getty Images

The Goodman Theatre's 2012 production of The Iceman Cometh had one of the most exceptional ensembles in recent stage history. Stratford Festival regulars Brian Dennehy and Stephen Ouimette performed alongside Tony-winner Nathan Lane in director Robert Falls's painterly production of Eugene O'Neill's classic 1939 drama about alcoholics chasing pipe dreams in a New York saloon.

Less well known to Canadians is their co-star John Douglas Thompson – even though the 51-year-old stage actor grew up on this side of the border. Thompson was stunning as Joe Mott, a former gambling-house operator "whose gentle good humour masks a volcanic rage at a life warped by racism," according to New York Times critic Charles Isherwood.

In advance of the Iceman remount at the prestigious Brooklyn Academy of Music this month, The Globe and Mail's theatre critic spoke over the phone with Thompson – who, according to The New Yorker, is "regarded by some as the best classical actor in America."

I went to Chicago three years ago because I wanted to see Ouimette, Lane and Dennehy. I didn't know you – and I just loved your Joe Mott. Then I looked you up on Wikipedia and it said you were Canadian-American.

Well, I was born in Bath, England, to Jamaican parents, and we moved, when I was a little boy, to Canada. I lived in Montreal from the age of two to 12, then moved to America. So a lot of people say I'm Canadian-American. I'm more Jamaican-American … though I've settled on African-American.

Did that time in Montreal have an impact on you at all?

I have a lot of fond memories of living in Montreal – and the Montreal Canadiens. I was a big, big hockey fan – and my brother and I played a lot of hockey. My mom would always take us to the Stanley Cup parades: Yvan Cournoyer, Ken Dryden.…

The Times's Ben Brantley has called you "one of the most compelling classical stage actors of [your] generation" – and scholar James Shapiro called you "the best American actor in Shakespeare, hands down." I was hoping you might say Canada played a role in that.

I've got to come up to Canada and do some Shakespeare. I've had some inquiries from the people at Stratford. The only complication has been my schedule. I hear such great things about that company from Brian Dennehy. And I was in a production of Julius Caesar with Colm Feore [and some guy named Denzel Washington] on Broadway – and he spoke highly of it too.

I thought this Iceman ensemble was extraordinary; I was gripped for the full 4 1/2 hours. Are you glad to have a second chance to play this character in this company?

It's great to get a second opportunity to explore these amazing characters – who all had some kind of relationship with O'Neill. I did a lot of research into Joe Mott – and the real guy was Joe Smith [O'Neill's roommate and drinking buddy] … I'm always conscious when I'm working on Joe Mott to pay homage to Smith.

I read somewhere that O'Neill modelled both Brutus Jones in [1920's] The Emperor Jones and Joe Mott on Smith. You've played both roles now.

The Emperor Jones had the first African-American lead role on the American stage – and I'd venture to say perhaps in the world stage. O'Neill wrote this black character – the protagonist of a play – that was not going to be played by a white man in blackface. It was a huge statement. Many of the white actors in the Provincetown Players wanted to do it because it's such a great role. And O'Neill said no: It has to be a black actor.

O'Neill had black characters in his early one-act plays that were maybe one-dimensional or superficial or stereotypical. Then he wrote these major characters – Brutus Jones and Joe Mott. Do you see a progression?

Each of these characters from Brutus Jones to Jim Harris [in 1924's All God's Chillun Got Wings] to Joe Mott are all advancements on one another. I think someone from the outside looking in, without having done the research, might say these aren't really strong black characters. If you look further, you find O'Neill had a great deal of respect for these characters that he wrote and was really looking to integrate American theatre. Nobody else was writing black characters at the time, certainly of the size and scope and complexity … Joe Mott to me is like an August Wilson character.

It's still hard to find white playwrights today who will incorporate significant black characters – though now there's that whole conversation about whether it's their story to tell.

The time that O'Neill did it, it was such a bold move – now, you're right, we have this argument: Who's writing this character, who has the agency to write these characters? I know in New York, there's a lot of new, younger black playwrights writing these characters and saying these characters are the terrain of black writers. But I think that any writer with sensitivity, empathy and understanding of humanity can write these characters, certainly as O'Neill has proved.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

The Iceman Cometh is at BAM in Brooklyn, N.Y., from Feb. 5 to March 15 (

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe