Peter Hermann, who plays Captain Friedrich Müller, a German officer, inWar Horse, is a highly intelligent man. He spent his childhood in Germany, speaks several languages, graduated from Yale, and, after two post-graduate years as a teacher in the Bronx, toiled as a fact-checker at Vanity Fair.
His initial gig as a professional actor, however, did not quite draw on all these gifts. "I got my first job on a soap, 'Guiding Light,' Hermann told me the other day in one of LCT's downstairs rehearsal halls. "I played a physical therapist who was working in a convent in Switzerland and who had lost his medical license because he had attempted to clone his wife." Hermann described other aspects of the role, but once he got past "clone his wife" my jaw was so stuck on the floor that I was unable to jot them all down.
"It was possibly the most hated story line on any soap ever," Hermann continued, which, if you've ever tuned into daytime - a genre disappearing as fast as the postal service - is saying something.
It didn't take long for Hermann, who studied acting with Richard Pinter of New York's Neighborhood Playhouse, to move on to more challenging fare. "I did Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Arena, in Washington," he said. "It was the first production done by Molly Smith as the Arena's artistic director."
Another career highlight: Hermann appeared in the 2001 Broadway production of Judgment at Nuremberg. "I played a small part, as a translator," he said. "But when Michael Hayden, who played the part of the defense attorney, had to take some vocal rest, I stepped into that role for a weekend." He continued: "That was the role for which Maxmillian Schell won an Academy Award in the movie version. He was in the Broadway cast, playing the part of Ernst Janning, a German judge, a role that was played by Burt Lancaster in the movie version. It was extraordinary to share the stage with the actor who'd once won an Academy Award for my part."
Did the fact that both Hermann's parents are German and that he'd grown up in Germany have an influence on how he approached the Nurembergrole? "I'm not sure how deeply I tapped into my roots then," Hermann answered. "At the time, I said that what I liked about the play was having something meaningful to say with the language to say it."
Judgment ran a modest 56 performances. With War Horse, by contrast, Hermann said he is having the opportunity to access his German background over a longer run. The process has not always been easy, especially toward the end of the production's rehearsal process. "It became increasingly unpleasant to be in a room covered with photographs of dead soldiers - so much evidence of death, war, loss," Hermann said.
"These things put me into a state of anxiety that was anything but creative." He added: "My parents were both children in Germany during the war. I have family who died in both world wars."
Hermann credits the directors of War Horse, Marianne Elliot and Tom Morris, for helping him get through the toughest part of rehearsals. "They were helpful in encouraging me to access a kind of anxiety that in the end is very useful in the role."
Hermann is careful not to attribute all of his performance as Friedrich to his own background; a good actor brings many things besides family life into a performance. (Hermann's family life in New York includes his wife, the actress Mariska Hargitay, and their two young children, August and Amaya.) But Hermann also knows that with a role as haunted by family as Friedrich is, certain echoes may be inescapable.
"If I do in fact bring something of my past to the part, I hope I do in a way that helps tell the story," he said. Further: "Even if I now know myself much more in English than in German, German is my first language and I feel very at home in the sound of it, even when, as in War Horse, it involves not speaking German but speaking English with a German accent. There is something deeply familiar about all this in ways I don't always consciously understand." Whatever the contents of Hermann's creative sources for Friedrich, the actor said, "It's lovely to be given the gift of his journey every night and what he is endeavoring to do."
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.