InDepth InterView: Michael Cerveris Part I: STAKE LAND & A Career Retrospective
This weekend marks the opening of his new vampire-centric horror film STAKE LAND, and you can catch him every week on FOX's hit series FRINGE, but Michael Cerveris is certainly best known for his series of stunning performances in some of the finest musical theatre productions of the 21st century - John Doyle's SWEENEY TODD and Joe Mantello's ASSASSINS chief among them - as well as for originating the title role in Pete Townshend's singular Broadway foray, The Who's TOMMY. With a captivating new double-disc concept album - NINE LIVES - out now, it seems that Cerveris has found a way to juggle it all. In this extensive two-part conversation, we take a look back at his experiences in the aforementioned Sondheim musicals, as well as his series of performances in Sondheim shows under the direction of Lonny Price at the Ravinia Festival co-starring Audra McDonald and Patti LuPone, and also touch upon his work in plays, such as his recent Kent in Kevin Kline's KING LEAR at The Public, HEDDA GABLER opposite Mary Louise Parker, and Sarah Ruhl's IN THE NEXT ROOM (OR THE VIBRATOR PLAY). Additionally, he shares his Tony memories, singing SWEENEY TODD at the recent SONDHEIM! Celebration, HEDWIG & THE ANGRY INCH, TITANIC and much, much more in this compelling and comprehensive conversation. His new feature film STAKE LAND opens in selected cities this weekend and Part II arrives next week!
Part I: ASSASSINS, TOMMY, HEDWIG & STAKE LAND
PC: I interviewed Stephen Sondheim for this column and he cited ASSASSINS as "the most perfect production" of one of his musicals.
MC: Oh, really? (Pause.) Wow, that's really wonderful to hear.
PC: Neil Patrick Harris and Denis O'Hare have told me about the special chemistry in that cast. Can you tell me about the experience doing that show?
ME: Oh, well, it was kind of really daunting in some ways - because we were all sort of in the room altogether. The way that the piece is constructed, there are scenes that involve several of us - all of us - sometimes.
PC: It's an ensemble piece at its heart.
ME: Yeah, but, also, a lot of it is, you know: you get up and you get your turn. And, so, it's really kind of daunting to stand up in front of everyone - it's like being in acting class, basically, when you have to get up and do a scene for the class. In this case, the class is so many actors that you admire most! So, it was really intimidating in that way, but everybody was extremely supportive and extremely encouraging - everybody just brought their best to the room. With Sondheim there?
PC: I can only imagine.
MC: And, with Joe Mantello, as well, he was an actor - and an actor I had seen in ANGELS IN AMERICA and admired, too - so, I constantly was feeling like I had to up my game all the time just to keep up with everybody.
PC: Was that your first show with Mantello?
MC: Yeah, that was my first time working with him.
PC: What a vast array of character actors - Mario Cantone to Marc Kudisch and beyond. What do you think of the casting choices?
MC: You know, it was just perfect because it was such a wide range of personalities and ways of working and everything else, but we somehow congealed. I mean, in a way, that's an aspect of the piece, as well - that these very disparate characters exist in this sort of alternative universe together and somehow have to work things out between then. But, also, near the end they kind of combine as a force - I think that's one of the most remarkable moments is when these people who are such iconoclasts and outcasts and such unique individuals kind of bond together to try to convince Oswald to attempt to assassinate Kennedy. You know, that's a key moment - when these people who are only in things for themselves suddenly band together and speak with one voice as the collective will of some strange people.
PC: A band of outsiders. And that moment - with the Zapruder footage shown on Oswald's T-shirt - is one of the great moments in Broadway history.
MC: Yeah. Yeah. Did Neil tell you how that came to be?
PC: In a way, but I'd love to know your experience as well.
MC: Well, the original idea was for it was to be projected across the entire stage - you know, projected on us, on the set, on the wall; it would just fill the entire proscenium. But, because the set was so dark, they couldn't make the image bright enough for the audience to tell what it really was - and, that was obviously going to be the big coup de theatre kind of moment. And, we didn't discover this until tech.
PC: What did Mantello do then?
MC: Well, they immediately began searching around for some alternative way to do it. You know: could they bring in a scrim? But, that just kind of wouldn't have been appropriate and would make too much of a big thing of it and take you out. Then, they thought for awhile - when Kendra Kasselbaum was doing the laundry at the beginning of "Something Just Broke" - they thought, "Well, maybe we can project it on the sheet and then they can fold it up." But, everybody ending up thinking, "That's gonna be really unnatural to project it on this sheet." (Laughs.)
PC: Right decision.
MC: Yeah. They were just sort of testing it out with the projector and I think they focused it on Neil's shirt just to sort of get a reading on it - not thinking we could actually do that - and, then, suddenly, everybody realized that that image is so indelibly etched on our nation's psyche - with people of a certain age, anyway - that, even though it was so small, you could sit in the back row of the audience and you could still see that little pillbox hat of Jackie O's climbing. We just know that image so well that you would know what the image was even if it was relatively small. And, it turned out to be the most brilliant of accidents.
PC: You can say that again. Do you remember seeing the JFK assassination on TV?
MC: No. The moment I remember was Bobby Kennedy's assassination. I was really little at the time of JFK's assassination, so I don't really remember that so much. The memory I have is how upset my parents were when Bobby was assassinated.
PC: At first, I wasn't even sure you were alive yet for JFK - you look much younger than your years!
MC: Yeah, well, having no hair - it takes away some of the indicators; that's for sure! (Laughs.) But, I'm also incredibly immature, so that keeps me young.
PC: I remember seeing you in TOMMY over fifteen years ago - what a blazing Broadway debut.
MC: It was kind of the best possible way for it all to happen. You know, we started out in La Jolla and it was just a small regional theater job playing for a few hundred people a night. And, it did extraordinarily well - and we got standing ovations from the beginning - but, you never imagine that that will translate into it continuing. And, step by step by step, it just keep growing and getting more and more exciting. Then, after making us audition for our roles again, almost all of us ended up making the transfer to Broadway.
PC: And, what a cast!
MC: Yeah, actually, that's the thing I was always most proud of: it was the Broadway debut of every single person in that show. And, when you look now at who was in that show, it was a truly amazing company. But, none of us did it thinking, "This is gonna be my big Broadway break!" They just did it because they loved the music and loved the show and we all kind of got into it for the right reasons. So, when it turned into this enormously successful thing, that was fantastic and thrilling but, as far as the cast goes, it hadn't been anything we ever expected.
PC: To name but two debuts: Norm Lewis and Sherie Rene Scott.
MC: Yeah! And, Alice Ripley, as well.
PC: Of course.
MC: And, Jonathan Dokuchitz, as well. (Pause.) It was an enormous array of people. I mean, I think it's a testament to how much it meant to all of us that when we did the reunion concert a couple of Christmases ago that Alice even came up to it. Alice actually was just an ensemble member, but she ended up playing Mrs. Walker a lot because Marcia Mitzman missed a number of performances, so Alice went on a lot. But, her role was really, originally, as one of the nurses and an all-purpose ensemble member. But, she came up from rehearsals in Washington for that Broadway Cares benefit that we did just to be part of the company because we were getting everybody together again. And, Marcia was with us, so she sang Mrs. Walker, of course. But, Alice came up just to be in the ensemble again because it had meant so much to all of us. That pretty much encapsulates how we all feel about it.
PC: Des McAnuff did a truly tech-wiz job on that show - especially "Pinball Wizard" and the physicalization of the inside of the pinball machine.
MC: Oh, yeah.
PC: What was it like doing that song on Broadway every night?
MC: Oh, it was absolutely thrilling! To get to pretend you are Pete Townshend? It's kind of like a combination of being in The Who, being in URBAN COWBOY and being Evil Knievel at the same time.
PC: It seems like you, Alice Ripley and Raul Esparza are leading the way of the new generation of serious musical theatre actors who also do straight plays.
MC: I think somebody forgot to tell us that we're not supposed to do everything - so, we just do.
PC: Do you feel particularly privileged to have essayed nearly every Sondheim male lead role besides Ben in FOLLIES?
MC: I'm getting close! You know, he's going to have to write some more!
MC: Otherwise, I'm gonna have to start playing women's roles - and it's not like I haven't done that!
PC: Speaking of which: you were so magnificent in HEDWIG & THE ANGRY INCH - that show has dated so brilliantly. It is almost even better now, ten years later, than it was then - and it was genius then.
MC: Yeah, I totally agree. (Pause.) It was enormously gratifying to do and it was really kind of meaningful for me in my development of an actor, I think.
PC: In what ways?
MC: Well, I have kind of always been more of a downtown theatre guy, really. The privilege that I have had of getting to be opening shows on Broadway - and, above all, getting to perform Stephen Sondheim's works anyplace; but, especially, on Broadway - that's been an incredible honor and an incredible thrill. But, it's a complete surprise to me and not at all what I was expecting when I was slaving away at school.
PC: What did you expect?
MC: Well, I expected to just kind of come out of school and have a career in regional theatre and off-Broadway theatre and off-off-Broadway theatre and experimental theatre, because those were the things I did when I got out of school - and, really, no musicals to speak of until TOMMY. (Laughs.)
PC: That's crazy, looking at your work since then.
MC: For music, I always just played music myself - and, I had rock bands and wrote songs and put bands together that were loud, but not especially good.
PC: That's hilarious.
MC: That was sort of the place music had in my career, you know?
PC: It wasn't integrated into your acting.
MC: Yeah. So, then, with HEDWIG, I remember going to see HEDWIG because John Cameron Mitchell was a friend of mine - and, I just thought, "If I were clever enough to write anything, this is what I would have wanted to write." I had always sort of felt that I just don't get why rock n roll and theatre just don't click - they seems like natural bedfellows, but it so seldom seems to happen that it isn't at the detriment of one or the other.
MC: Here was something that was absolutely something that, you know, was a band you would go see, but, also, really insightful theatre - and clever and witty and everything else. But, also, really moving - on an emotional and an intellectual level.
PC: HEDWIG is Plato and punk - literally.
MC: Exactly! Exactly. And, it was so thrilling, because when John called and asked me to do it, he said he needed to take the month off just because he was exhausted - they were trying to figure out who might be able to step in. And, I said yes after a wave of complete panic.
PC: How do you replace the author himself in his pretty much solo show?
MC: We didn't really know. We didn't know if it would work with anyone but John doing it because he was the only one who had and it had come out of his brain. So, it was a tremendous relief to everybody - and, I think, chiefly, to John - to discover John didn't have to do it for the rest of his life for the piece to be able to live on. So, it was really me stepping in and working with Peter [Askin], the director, that really made us all realize that it was a really sturdy piece of writing that could take all kinds of interpretations - and has, over the years.
PC: How do you wrap up your experiences doing it?
MC: Oh, it was one of my favorite experiences and it is kind of exactly the type of scrappy little show that I have always felt the closest affinity for.
PC: I loved the Jane Street Theater, too - isn't that gone now?
MC: You know, I don't know. I don't imagine that it is, because people would be using it more!
PC: Tell me about hanging out in that awesome building. I love the footage of it on the DVD of the film, as well.
MC: The whole experience of that - the dressing room was fantastic. It's this sort of octagonal room at the top of the building - the hotel. It's just this one big room and we were all kind of in one big dressing room. Everybody kind of had their space - Miriam [Shor] had a couple sheets tied together as a little area for her to change in and the rest of us sort of just changed out in the open. And, you know, walking past these doorways with junkies and German backpacking tourists - every trip to the stage felt like you were walking through a David Lynch movie. (Laughs.)
PC: That's so funny. I'm a huge Lynch fan - MULHOLLAND DRIVE?
MC: Oh, yeah. Amazing.
PC: INLAND EMPIRE.
PC: Are you a horror film fan?
MC: Yes, very much. Actually, if you are a David Lynch fan, I think you will enjoy my new movie STAKE LAND, as well. It has got a kind of feel that some David Lynch movies sort of have - you know, the natural world suddenly seeming surreal and unnatural.
PC: What was the whole atmosphere like on set working on STAKE LAND?
MC: I mean, you know, on this there was no money and there were no trailers or anything - you were lucky if you had a folding chair to sit on between takes. Everybody had to kind of pitch in. The make-up trailer - which was also the production office and everything else - was a little, tiny Winnebago that they rented for awhile.
PC: That sounds like the type of downtown experience you like.
PC: What was it like working with Kelly McGillis on STAKE LAND? She hasn't done in a film in quite a while.
MC: It was terrific. You know, Kelly chipped in just like everybody else. She's a real, total team player and, also, she took it really seriously. Yes, it may be a genre film and there may be people with fangs and dripping blood and stuff, but she wasn't about to treat it with any less seriousness or professionalism than anything else that she's done.
PC: That doesn't always happen, either.
MC: And, that kind of was the attitude that everyone was taking to it: that it was nice to see something like this validated by somebody of her stature and I think it made everybody else raise their game just that much more, as well.
PC: What was your first experience of the script? Did your agent send it to you?
MC: Yeah, my agent sent it to me and I read it. I immediately was excited by it and wanted to join because I grew up with horror movies.
PC: What horror films did you enjoy growing up?
MC: I grew up as a fan of the old Universal, 1930s movies - you know, the original black and white DRACULA and THE WOLF MAN and FRANKENSTEIN and THE MUMMY and all those - and, I used to read FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND magazine as a kid and watch Chiller Theater. And, I loved the old Hammer films - you know, the COUNT YORGA, THE VAMPIRE with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. They were films that had classical actors doing these great English horror films.
PC: And the great director James Whale.
MC: Yes, and James Whale. Exactly. To me, STAKE LAND did seem to have that in it. The thing that appealed to me most was: yes, it was completely satisfying on a horror level and satisfying in a way all the TWILIGHT FILMS and TRUE BLOOD don't live up to at all. But, also, there is a lot of humanity in it, as well, and the focus is on the characters and the story. Even my character: he is a horrific, sort of white supremacist, Evangelical militia person. But, his whole thing of wanting revenge is because his son was just murdered.
PC: Does that justify what he does?
MC: His son was probably not a terribly nice guy, either, but that is the conflict: the father whose son has been taken away from him by this guy, who happens to be the hero of the movie. So, I thought, "Here it is." Because that's what I look for in scripts, really - I do play a lot more of the darker characters and troubled characters; you know, the Sweeney Todds and the John Wilkes Booths. But, no villain - no person - thinks of himself as a villain, really.
PC: Of course not.
MC: And people have their reasons for doing what they do - however twisted they may be. What I look for and what I try to bring out is that one small part of their humanity that lets the audience look at even the most repellant of characters and realize that there is a part of all of us that can understand that - and, that doesn't justify what the character does and it doesn't make it OK, but it's better to me than something that just seems like such a monster or such a freak that makes them not seem to even apply to the real world. That doesn't challenge us to anything at all. Like Larry Fessenden , one of our producers, said, "Otherwise, it's just like pornography, really."
PC: I felt a Dario Argento influence in the color palette of STAKE LAND.
MC: Oh, yes! Absolutely. Absolutely.
PC: Are you an Argento fan?
MC: Yes! Yes. Very much.
PC: Will you be picking up PROFUNDO RUSSO on Blu-ray this week?
MC: Well, I'll have to buy a Blu-ray player first! (Laughs.) I keep doing these not-for-profit Broadway shows and you don't buy Blu-ray players with those salaries! (Laughs.)
Photo Credit: Walter McBride/WM Photos