Actor Hugh Kennedy bikes and runs several miles a day. His intensive exercise regimen, which also includes swimming, yoga and regular visits to a chiropractor, is like that of a prizefighter.
"That's what playing Hamlet feels like on most days," he said recently over a salad at a Minneapolis eatery. "You're going so many rounds and you can't flag."
If Kennedy, 25, seems like he's battling for a belt, it's because he's getting the biggest break of his young career. In the three years since he graduated from the University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater's BFA program, Kennedy has acted in a half-dozen productions at the Guthrie, including "Arsenic and Old Lace" and "A View From the Bridge."
But none of his previous parts compares to the Olympian heft of Hamlet. It's a role that's on many a bucket list; Kennedy won it by besting 100 other Twin Cities actors.
"No doubt Hugh's got the craft, the physical, mental and psychological strength to climb this mountain," said director Bain Boehlke, whose contemporary setting of the Shakespearean tragedy opens Friday at the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis. "But what made him really stand out at the auditions was his soul. He's got this intelligence and charisma and is just a really beautiful person, which is a perfect fit for Hamlet."
Director Boehlke left Shakespeare's language unchanged in his big production, but he's updated the set, which he designed, to the 1970s. Concrete and glass serve as the playing area. Other modern touches include an array of surveillance cameras and characters communicating by Skype.
A week before opening, the director was thinking of doing a multimedia Facebook memorial site for Hamlet, the young prince whose uncle has killed his father, married his mother and ascended to the throne. No kidding, it's complicated.
"They are people of this world, of today," Boehlke said. "They talk in a distinct idiom but in every other way, they're not removed from us. And Hugh invites us in."
Hamlet's 'sweet ache'
Rebecca Meyer-Larson, Kennedy's theater teacher at Moorhead High School, agreed.
"I cannot think of a better match of actor to role," she said. "Hugh's got Hamlet's sweet ache. It comes from his background and from his rare, sensitive talent."
Kennedy was born in Ithaca, N.Y., where his father was a graduate student in landscape architecture at Cornell University. He had a peripatetic childhood that followed his father's teaching jobs, with stops in New Haven, Conn., and Athens, Ga. His acting talent began to flower in junior high when the family -- rounded out by his yoga-teacher mother and brother -- moved to the Fargo-Moorhead area after his father took a teaching job at the University of North Dakota.
Kennedy loved dancing so much as a youngster that he thought he would become a professional hoofer. "I was a tap dancing fool," he said. "Every Christmas show, every special occasion, there I was."
He carried that joy for entertaining elsewhere in his life. At Scotland's Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where he and a friend performed during his high school days, they advertised their show by busking on the sidewalk near the venue.
"The only problem was there was no tap dancing in the show," said Meyer-Larson. "But he's got happy feet, and this irrepressible energy."
Kennedy got bitten by the Shakespeare bug at the Guthrie, where his formative experiences include seeing Mark Stafford-Clark's landmark promenade production of "Macbeth" at the former Guthrie Lab in 2005, the actor's freshman year at the U of M.
Kennedy remembered being seated at the dining room table for the otherwise stand-up production, and being offered a glass of wine by a member of the cast. "I was a freshman, and was not supposed to drink," he said. "But I didn't want to decline the offer."
He played along with the play, thinking that perhaps the stuff in the tumbler was not real wine. He didn't get a chance to find out. When someone lifted a toast to Macbeth, Banquo's ghost popped out of the table in front of him, startling him into spilling his drink.
"That was probably the most powerful show I'd ever seen," he said.
Other major influences include Mark Rylance, the internationally celebrated Shakespearean actor whose talent he first saw up close in "Measure for Measure," a Globe Theatre staging at the Guthrie. "I admire how Mark Rylance tries to trick himself into becoming the character," he said.
Kennedy also counts famed actor Charles Keating, with whom he performed in the Guthrie's "A Christmas Carol," as a mentor. He has studied formally and informally with both Rylance and Keating.
"When you come across the kind of passion that Hugh has, the dedication, the methodical studiousness, the sheer exultation for this work, it's just lovely to see," said Keating from his Connecticut home. "He's certainly got this talent but you don't know the size of it yet. Is it a big talent? A really big talent? He's in the process of finding himself. So, let this 'Hamlet' be the first of many. Bravo."
Hamlet, Hamlet everywhere
Kennedy, who memorized all of his "Hamlet" monologues before he auditioned, sees shades of the play's characters in everything he does and reads nowadays.
Three hikers, disobeying posted warnings, recently were killed when they were swept over a waterfall at Yosemite National Park. Kennedy said he heard the voice of Horatio. ("What if it shall tempt you towards the cliff and lead you into madness?")
He sees echoes of Hamlet in a golf superstar: "Tiger Woods has had this traumatic fall from grace in every department of his life, so he hires his best friend from junior high to be his caddie. It's an uncomplicated relationship. They want nothing from each other but companionship. That's like Hamlet and Horatio."
Kennedy also views the governing styles of the two most recent U.S. presidents through the lens of the play. "George Bush was like Claudius," he said. "If he has to kill someone, he just does it. But Barack Obama is Hamlet. He knows he has to do something hard but he tries to think his way out of it."
Of course, Hamlet doesn't just think. He acts -- after much talking. (He delivers three times as many lines as his nearest rival, Claudius.) Hence Kennedy's painstaking physical and mental preparation for the role.
"I never thought I'd climb this mountain until I was in my 40s, doing it at some place like a community theater," he said. "Now that I'm in it, it fills me with awe and excitement. And I can see nothing else."