Detroit native Sydney James Harcourt on playing a 'Hamilton' villain
Singer, musician and actor Sydney James Harcourt says while "Hamilton" is always topical, the frenzy for the Tony Award-winning musical cranked back up when it was announced the show would stream on Disney+ on just before Independence Day.
"People are always talking about ‘Hamilton’ in some way or another, but it can be like a general level of buzz, but for me the fever sort of rushed back in … when they announced the film," said Harcourt, who is part of the original cast. "To quote it, the world turned upside down.”
The Detroit native plays James Reynolds, the man who blackmails the show's hero Alexander Hamilton and changes the trajectory of the entire production with just a few lines. Harcourt was also an understudy for many main roles including Aaron Burr and King George. He was in the original ensemble and therefore appears in the "Hamilton" movie, which hits Disney+ at 3 a.m. Friday.
Filming "Hamilton" from the stage of the Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York City four years ago, he said there was no indication when the footage would ever see the light of day. More important than buzz, is the accessibility for those who may never be able to afford a ticket to the massively popular show.
"It moves me how excited I am to share this experience with the rest of the world and the rest of the country that I think needs it right now. Sort of like a healing, we are all Americans, so we’re all up here on stage, a 'you are in this movie too' kind of experience."
He said this week he's "on pins and needles" about so many being able to experience "Hamilton" this week.
"It brings people into the tradition of theater when they don’t maybe see themselves as part of that," he said. "Here’s the musical to change all of that, to flip it all on its head and bring the kids and the adults that I think really need to hear this story, it’s going to give them access that nobody has had before. I can’t wait."
He said his approach to the role of the unlikable Reynolds (whose wife has an affair with Hamilton) was to play him "with no shame."
"He’s an opportunist. He’s a poor person seeing everybody else get rich and he’s going to find out where he fits into this," he said. "That’s a real archetype that we have in the world today."
He said once Rosie O'Donnell, who was a frequent viewer of the original show once admitted she shied away from Harcourt at first because he played the unlikable role so well.
"It’s completely different than playing Aaron Burr who keeps a lot under his vest and who is always going to try to charm you and be his best friend even when he’s stabbing you in the back," he said. "Or George Washington who is completely circumspect and doesn’t really let emotion show on his face. It was actually quite a treat. I loved going out here and catching everybody’s hero in this horrible situation."
Harcourt was born in Detroit in the “Six Mile and Old Redford-ish area.” His mother was a teacher at Cooley High School. They moved to Southfield, where he said it was “not cool” to be in the choir or the musicals, especially as a young man. Later he auditioned for and got a full Skillman Foundation scholarship to Interlochen Arts Academy.
“I had camped across the street when I was a kid, and it seemed like Hogwarts, like magical, and it changed my life completely,” he said, speaking about the seriousness of study and the access to theaters and training. “That opportunity was available to me and that the scholarship came from the Skillman Foundation that was based in Detroit. There were about eight a year who were able to go to this magical place because of foundations like that from Detroit”
“I feel like because of my Detroit roots I have a more grounded, real view of the world and that has definitely influenced my artistry,” he said.
For young artists in Detroit and Michigan who want to follow a similar path, his advice is to "put it all out there."
“You are what you believe you are,” he said. “If you demand something from the world, it will come to you. The advice I always try to give to the kids I work with is: you are that star, you just have to show other people that you are so keep working as hard as you can.”
He also says there are more opportunities now than he had when he was young, including social media, the internet and more inclusive programming.
"There’s no limit," he said. "If we look at what’s going on with shows like “(RuPaul’s) Drag Race” and “Pose,” you got to believe that nothing will stop you."
Starts Friday on Disney+