Sam Hartley’s gamble yields Beastly reward

Two years ago, Sam Hartley decided to leave his hometown of Lincoln, Neb., to pursue an acting career on Broadway. This week his journey brings him to Charlotte as the Beast in the Disney classic “Beauty and the Beast.”

Beauty and Beast photo

Jillian Butterfield as Belle and Ryan Everett Wood as Beast in Disney's "Beauty and the Beast." In the current production, Nebraska native Same Hartley plays the role of Beast. (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

Sam Hartly

Sam Hartley left Lincoln, Nebraska to pursue acting in New York. He landed a role in the touring production Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast.”

Two years ago, Sam Hartley and a friend found themselves sitting in a Lincoln, Neb. coffee shop wrestling with  a life-changing choice: Should they pack their bags and move to New York to pursue acting careers on Broadway, or should they stay put and opt for a safer route?

Now two years later, Hartley is in Charlotte this week performing the role of the Beast in the Disney classic “Beauty and the Beast.” Looking back, he said, the decision to leave Lincoln was an easy choice, though they had no leads or prospects at the time.

“I just knew that if I never gave myself a chance to go to New York and really audition, to go for it, to take a chance on a dream, I’d always regret it,” he said. “There was just no looking back. We gave ourselves two months to get everything lined up and put together, and we just kind of made the leap.”

That’s not to say the move led to instant results. Hartley said he and the friend found work where they could and put aside money each month to attend theater productions, “just to remind ourselves what we were there for and working toward.”

Before landing the role as the Beast, Hartley, a classically trained vocalist, landed roles in regional productions such as “Young Frankenstein,” and “Les Misérables.” But landing the role as the Beast, he said, was his first acting job on a national scale.

Before coming to Charlotte, the cast Traveled to Albany, Ga., to rehearse and familiarize themselves with the set. From there they went to Lexington, Ky., then here.

“I’m just so excited to get to share the show with so many people across the country,” he told Qcitymetro in a phone interview. “The thing that’s so special to me about this art form is the connection you make with the audience. It’s really about that connection with a group of people who have come to be transformed into a new place, into a new person. It’s a magical thing.”

Hartley said the toughest part about playing the Beast has been allowing himself to be vulnerable enough to release his “inner beast.”

“Everyone has a version of a best inside, whether they are willing to let him or her out,” he said. “He is not a nice guy when we first meet him in this story. In fact, he’s very cruel, and he’s very unloving and finds it hard to relate to anyone around him. So that’s a very dark place to go into.”

Hartley said that, like most people of his generation, he grew up watching the Disney classic repeatedly on tape. But even after all those years, he said, the story with its basic message of redemption has not lost its ability to inspire.

“That’s a very powerful thing, that this story can still affect you,” he said. “I’ve known this story basically my whole life…and it’s moving me in different ways as an adult than it did back then. I think that has surprised me more than anything…that it’s still such a moving piece.”

Growing up in Lincoln, Hartley said, playing make-believe was among his favorite pastimes. It’s what attracted him to theater, he said.

“At a very basic level, that’s what we’re doing (as actors); we are kids on a playground make-believing we are kings and beasts and knights and wizards,” he said. “We get to play make-believe every day.”

Despite his passion for the work, Hartley acknowledges that acting can be a tough business, and he recalled the advice of a mentor who suggested that, if he could find something else he also liked, then he should pursue that instead.

So far, he said, he has found nothing that even comes close.

“What a beautiful journey I get to go on every day, transforming from a beastly, mean character into a beautiful, kind human spirit that was in him the whole time.”

“Beauty and the Beast” runs through Sunday at Belk Theater at Blumenthal Performing Arts Center. Tickets start at $25.

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