Michael Wyatt Cox's Florida childhood provided an unexpected boost to his career. The actor, starring in the touring production of "War Horse," grew up in Jupiter Farms, west of the turnpike in Palm Beach County.
"I grew up around horses," says the University of Central Florida graduate, 26, with a laugh. "It was rural."
Cox plays the leading man in "War Horse," which opens Tuesday (Feb. 25) in Orlando, but he's not the leading character. That would be Joey, the horse, who is drafted into the British army during World War I. Cox's character, an English teen named Albert, follows Joey into the horrors of war in a bid to rescue his beloved companion.
Nick Stafford adapted Michael Morpurgo's 1982 novel into the play, which debuted in 2007 at England's National Theatre in London. In 2011, Steven Spielberg turned the story into a movie.
Onstage, Joey is portrayed by three actors who manipulate a life-size puppet. Cox acts opposite the puppet; not the people controlling it.
Because different puppeteers take turns playing Joey, "it's a different show every night," Cox says. "One night he might be more spunky, another night more loving."
A familiarity with horses lets him respond to Joey more realistically, he says.
"Being around horses from an early age, you can't put on a price on that research," Cox says. "You learn their energy. What's incredible about horses is they have a huge capacity for understanding and empathy."
Those characteristics, plus the beauty of the puppet, trigger an emotional response in the audience — and critics.
"Nothing on screen could replicate the specific thrill of watching Joey take on substance and soul, out of disparate artificial parts, before our eyes," wrote New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley during the show's two-year Broadway run.
"War Horse" won five Tony awards for nearly every key aspect of the production — best play, best direction and best scenic, lighting and sound design. In addition, Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones of Handspring Puppet Company, which designed Joey and other animals, were awarded a special Tony.
"The main thing with acting in this show is to give yourself up to the magic of what it is," Cox says. "We treat the horse like a real horse. That's what makes it real to us and to the audience."
Cox earned a bachelor's degree in acting from the University of Central Florida.
Professor Mark Brotherton remembers him as a disciplined student.
"He was very self-motivated," Brotherton says. "His work was really wonderful."
Brotherton taught a course on accents — a class Cox found useful. As Albert, he speaks with a rural, southern English accent.
"It's ingrained now," he says of the dialect. "I think I'm doing it all the time."
Cox has fond memories of his time in Central Florida.
"I just remember auditioning at UCF and everyone being so welcoming. That atmosphere continued the whole time I was there," he says. "The theater program feels like a tight-knit community."
He later had an apprenticeship at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, Ky., before moving to New York.
The "War Horse" tour spent much of the winter in northern climes, sparking homesickness in Cox.
"We've been going through polar vortexes and massive snowfalls," he says. "People have been talking about getting to Florida for weeks — especially me. I just want to put sandals on, you know?"
Before playing Orlando, the tour stops in Jacksonville and West Palm Beach, Cox's old stomping grounds.
"I'm living at my parents' house that week," he says. Then he sends out a plea to old Orlando acquaintances: "Maybe a professor will let me stay with them… I need a couch!"
He's excited for former instructors to see him in the show.
"The stagecraft is so amazing," he says. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime, unique theater thing. Getting a chance to connect with that horse is a dream come true."
Audience members can't help but get caught up in the adventure of Albert and his horse, he says.
"He and Joey go through so much," Cox says. "I think people respond to their loyalty, that feeling of love and commitment."
"War Horse" is notorious for making audience members — male or female — cry. Those with pets might want to bring an extra handkerchief.
"Animal lovers, especially, get a lot out of our show," says Cox. "I think after seeing it, a lot of people go home to their dogs and talk a little more to them that night."
• What: Touring Broadway production of the Nick Stafford drama based on Michael Morpurgo's novel
• When: 8 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, Feb. 25-28; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, March 1; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday, March 2
• Where: Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre, 401 W. Livingston St., Orlando
• Tickets: $41 and higher
• Call: 407-246-4262
• Online: Orlando.broadway.comCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun