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‘You Create That Chemistry’: How Actors Fall in Instant Love

Then they have to take their bows, go home to their various partners and come back the next night to desire all over again. Faking true love: How do they do it?

Sitting outside the Delacorte on a sweaty afternoon, slugging water and dressed in casual rehearsal wear, the four actors described a process that involves a particular blend of practice and experiment, memory and imagination. Chemistry isn’t always automatic, said Ms. Ashford: “You use your tools as an actor. You create that chemistry. If it’s not given from the gods, then you make it.”

That work begins on the first day of rehearsal, Ms. Grant explained. She recalled siting next to Mr. Beltran and asking herself, “What do I like about this person?” She noted his kindness, his chivalry and the way he approached the text. (It was at this point in the conversation that Mr. Beltran started to blush.) “It was a longer version of a first date — that’s how I saw our rehearsal process,” Ms. Grant said.

Mr. Beltran agreed, saying that they’d built the Hermia and Lysander relationship on trust and openness and care. This came in handy during the scene in which she seizes him like a praying mantis about to enjoy a post-coital snack.

Mr. Hernandez had a different mode of attack, maybe because his work on the play “is way more family friendly than how I live my life” and “my actual sort of carnal appetite isn’t what’s necessary,” he said. (It was at this point in the conversation that I started to blush.)


Alex Hernandez, left, as Demetrius and Annaleigh Ashford as Helena in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Delacorte Theater.

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Instead of trying out the first date stuff with Ms. Ashford, he has looked to Shakespeare’s language. “The emotionality of it really gets me and makes it really easy,” he said. “When you have these beautiful speeches about how devoted I am to the beauty of your eyes and all, I could almost do it to a rock.”

“I’ll be your rock, baby,” said Ms. Ashford, unoffended.

For her part, she’s grateful that she’s had weeks of rehearsal with Mr. Hernandez. She spent several years on the Showtime television series “Masters of Sex,” where, she said, actors would often introduce themselves in the morning and by afternoon “we’d see them having a tryst without any clothes on except for a sock. So we are really lucky here.”

While Ms. Grant and Mr. Beltran began to practice their kisses early on, the better to establish the intimacy between a longtime couple like Hermia and Lysander, Ms. Ashford made Mr. Hernandez wait until a full run-through to try out the kiss between Helena and Demetrius. “I’ve been waiting to get down with him maybe my whole life,” Ms. Ashford said, speaking for her character, “so it made sense to just sort of wait. It’s a whopper of a kiss.”

Kissing is a reminder of how strange and funny it is that actors’ bodies have to substitute for the bodies of their characters. It’s maybe even funnier for Ms. Ashford, whose real-life husband, Joe Tapper, whom she thinks of when a scene needs “more crackle,” is also in “Midsummer,” playing one of the Rude Mechanicals. (He is a little in love with Mr. Hernandez, joked Ms. Ashford. “He is astounded by your physique, as we all are,” she said.)

But the actors are clear about drawing distinctions between performance and life. Ms. Grant believes in “really healthy, strong boundaries,” she said, and as Mr. Hernandez put it, “This is literally my job. I went to school for it. I’m not skeezing on anybody. It is in the text.” No carnal appetite here.

And yet they have to make audiences feel otherwise, which means substitutions and tricks and what-ifs to sell what Mr. Hernandez calls “unadulterated, family-friendly passion.” At the end of the play, which which culminates in that triple wedding, Mr. Beltran, who is unmarried, thinks about “what it would be like to have this moment.” In that scene Mr. Hernandez, also unmarried, feels “really like beautifully nervous, and awkward and wonderful,” he said. “Playing pretend, you get a second of the real emotion.”


From left: Alex Hernandez, Annaleigh Ashford, Shalita Grant and Kyle Beltran in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Delacorte Theater.

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Mostly the emotions come pretty easily, helped along by the ample rehearsal, the heightened language and the demands of the text. (Lear deBessonet is the director). During a fight scene, when Hermia believes she has been betrayed by both her lover and her friend, Ms. Grant finds it hard to catch her breath, “And I am a fit person!” she said.

The kisses aren’t much of a worry either. As Ms. Ashford said, “the buildup to me is more important. You want to see them fall in love. The kiss is the payoff.”

Mr. Beltran congratulated himself on never having had an awkward stage kiss. “Maybe I’ve just been fortunate in that way,”

“You have been,” both women said immediately.

At the end of each performance the actors feel exhausted from the mosquitoes and the choreography and the verse. They feel exhilarated, too. Ms. Grant said that she can’t fall asleep until 2 a.m. Mr. Hernandez needs a long bike ride back to Brooklyn to calm down.

The next day they’re ready to come back to fight and flail and kiss again.

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