NEW YORK — About 15 years ago, Bill Camp felt like a hamster spinning inside a wheel. He had just won an Obie Award for playing heroin-addicted Quango Twistleton in Tony Kushner’s “Homebody/Kabul,” and critics were praising his pulsating performances, but the joy he’d felt about acting had waned and he was questioning what it was all for.
“I think I had, in an unhealthy way, identified myself as this actor, and I didn’t really know who I was anymore. Everything was kind of an extension of this audition or that audition or this job or that job,” says Camp, who grew up in Groton, Mass., and was a regular on Boston stages in the 1990s. “I had become such an intense narcissist that it was despicable to me. It took over everything and permeated all my relationships.”
His solution? Hop off the wheel.
So in 2002 he moved to California, where his girlfriend (now wife) Elizabeth Marvel was acting in the TV series “The District.” To pay the bills, he took jobs as a landscaper, a waiter, a cook, and worked at a friend’s garage.
The sabbatical would last two years, long enough to revitalize him and, he says, make him a better actor. “I think it just helped me have a new appreciation about what it was that I was doing and why I was doing it,” says Camp, slouching sideways in a banquette at Sardi’s on a recent afternoon. “It gave me a healthy perspective in terms of looking at it as a job — a job that I love — as opposed to, ‘This is my life.’ ”
Camp has been enjoying his professional rejuvenation for years, but now there’s this: a Tony nomination — his first — for his portrayal of the Rev. John Hale, a conflicted man of the cloth, in “The Crucible.” Nominated for best featured actor in a play, Camp will square off against Michael Shannon (“Long Day’s Journey Into Night”), Reed Birney (“The Humans”), David Furr (“Noises Off”), and Richard Goulding (“King Charles III”). The 70th annual Tony Awards will be broadcast June 12 at 8 p.m. on CBS.
While Camp acknowledges that recognition for his work is immensely gratifying, he shrugs that “not much has really changed” since the Tony nod (he’s also been nominated for a Drama Desk Award). “I’ve gone to a few parties, luncheons, and stuff.”
If Camp seems unimpressed with himself, his low-key reaction to the accolades reflects a workaday actor who comes across as laid-back and not entirely at ease talking about himself so extensively, even as he proves to be open and engaging in conversation.
Camp has worked frequently both on and off Broadway. But for years, he was also seen regularly on stages in Boston and Cambridge. He won an Elliot Norton Award in 1997 for playing Jamie Tyrone in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” at the American Repertory Theater, where he also starred as Prince Hal in “Henry IV, Parts I and II,” in Steve Martin’s “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” and in a Robert Woodruff-directed production of “Richard II” opposite Thomas Derrah.
The lure of performing eventually beckoned Camp back onto the boards when Kushner asked him to do a new version of “Homebody” that was slated for New York and Los Angeles in 2004. But it was his return to the ART, first in a production of “The Provok’d Wife,” and then as the protagonist in the searing “Olly’s Prison” in 2005, directed by Woodruff, that really got his blood pumping again. The Globe praised Camp’s performance as “awe-inducing,” saying that he “gets to the heart of what it means to be a defeated person.”
“I think working with Robert [Woodruff] again at ART really turned the engine on again for me,” says Camp of the theater’s former artistic director. “It opened my mind. It was a spark that has yet to go out, which Robert really inspired.”
Marvel, who started dating Camp when they were students at Juilliard in the late 1980s, calls her husband “a seeker” and “a ferocious stage animal.” When they were first coming up in the New York theater world in their 20s, Marvel says, “we were both just maniacs. We were willing to dive extremely deep and show everything all the time.”
“It’s so interesting now to be further down the road and at this stage in life where we aren’t maniacs anymore. Bill still has a ferocity about him. But he also has a very profound stillness and steadiness about him, which has grown and evolved over time,” says Marvel, a celebrated stage actress who has a recurring role as Heather Dunbar in “House of Cards.” The couple has a 10-year-old son.
A graduate of the Groton School, Camp grew up on the picturesque campus, where his father was on the faculty for 25 years and served for a time as headmaster. His mother was a painter and librarian. A huge hockey fan who still plays in a men’s league, Camp participated in several sports at Groton. But as a senior in 1982, he decided to hang up his skates that winter so he could act in a school production of “The Crucible” instead.
‘I think [the sabbatical] just helped me have a new appreciation about what it was that I was doing and why I was doing it.’
“I kid you not,” he says, with a smile. Of that early brush with Arthur Miller’s 1953 drama about the mass hysteria surrounding the Salem witch trials, he adds, “I had no idea how to look at a play then. I was 17. I’m now 51. That was a different life.”
Camp’s character, Reverend Hale, the town’s “spiritual doctor,” has perhaps the play’s most dramatic moral arc — a man who argues for the legitimacy of the witchcraft accusations and then becomes convinced they’re a pack of lies. Camp’s performance has been praised for its “marvelous nuance” and slow-burning power, as the agonizing realization that the town is sending innocent people to the gallows overtakes Hale.
“The pursuit of reason and logic is what drives him, and that ultimately is the door that then allows him to see, oh my gosh, this is totally out of hand now,” Camp says. “At a certain moment, he’s adamant that he can no longer shut his conscience to it. He has to speak up, and come what may.”
Miller wrote “The Crucible” as an allegory to McCarthyism. But the director of the Broadway production, Ivo Van Hove, who is known for radical stagings that often divide critics, swept away the play’s period trappings to underscore its timeless qualities. Indeed, Camp marvels at its contemporary resonances — about power structures, individual freedom, misguided moralism, and compliance to authority, “how we just sort of go along and before we know it, we have brown shirts on our backs,” he says, with a laugh.
Marvel says Hale fits Camp like a glove because her husband and his character are “morally and spiritually aligned.” Both share “a willingness to question oneself and one’s beliefs and one’s ideas, which can get fixed over time, and to constantly be digging and prodding and re-examining.”
Indeed, what Camp loves about acting, especially in the theater, is that “it continues to teach me and enlighten me and unfold the world in front of me.”
“I learn about history and religion and politics. It keeps me tuned in. If I hear something on the news, I’m like, oh my God, this is what somebody is talking about in the play that I’m about to do in two hours.
“The act itself — of rehearsing, failing, and still persisting and trying to create — keeps me curious, keeps me searching. And as long as I’m staying very curious, I’m happy.”Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.