Interview: Stephen Kunken, One of ENRON's Corporate Baddies
Jeffrey Skilling and Kenneth Lay emerged as the most notorious figures in the Enron scandal, but it was CFO Andrew Fastow who conceived the financial chicanery that eventually brought down the company. Fastow, who created shell companies to hide Enron's debt and thus keep the stock price of the cash-poor company up, is played by Stephen Kunken in the new Broadway play Enron.
Written by Lucy Prebble, Enron depicts Fastow as a disliked outcast among his peers and a suck-up to company president Skilling (Norbert Leo Butz). It's not the first time Kunken has played someone in the shadow of a more powerful or famous man—in theater parlance, a second banana. His past Broadway roles include the best friend of the main character (played by Rufus Sewell) in Tom Stoppard's Rock 'n' Roll and James Reston Jr., the journalist who coached David Frost (Michael Sheen) for his interviews with Richard Nixon (Frank Langella), in Frost/Nixon. Last summer, Kunken was seen at Playwrights Horizons as the TV news director losing a battle for integrity with the network chief (Christopher Evan Welch) in Our House, Theresa Rebeck's take on television's ever-blurring line between news and entertainment.
In 2007, Kunken's performances in both Frost/Nixon and MCC's A Very Common Procedure were recognized with a Drama League nomination; he was also nominated for an Outer Critics Circle Award for Frost/Nixon. In addition to his many theater roles, he's had small parts in films and on such TV series as Gossip Girl, Law & Order, The Sopranos and Spin City. Kunken also has moonlighted as sound designer for several shows directed by his wife, Jenn Thompson, including TACT's recent productions of The Late Christopher Bean and Bedroom Farce and the 2009 NYMF entry Seeing Stars. His last stage appearance prior to Enron was the off-Broadway revival of Our Town, where he followed David Cromer (also the show's director) in the role of the Stage Manager.
An awards favorite in London, Enron chronicles the rise and fall of the Houston-based energy firm via a multimedia satire where business-suited dinosaurs consume Enron debt. (In real life, Andy Fastow—who's currently serving a six-year prison sentence for conspiracy—did nickname his loss-disguising ventures "raptors.") Songs, puppets, lightsabers and other fantastical devices, as well as serious scenes, are also featured in the play.
Kunken sat down with BWW at theater-district hangout Angus McIndoe during Enron's previews to talk about the show, his career and his other new role: daddy. Soon after leaving his six-week stint in Our Town in February, Kunken and his wife traveled to Ethiopia to adopt a baby girl. But first, we discuss Enron.
Did you know much about Andy Fastow before you were cast?
We both went to the same university, Tufts, so I had seen him in the alumni brochures: When the company was doing well, they touted him. I was actually in Houston in 2001 right after the collapse—I was on tour with Proof—and I remember his name kept coming up.
To the general public, those Enron executives are scum, plain and simple. Do you have to see more in Fastow to portray him?
The more you work on a part, the more you have to like the guy. There's no question that what these guys did is awful, but when you're living in this world playing Andy Fastow, you have all the fun and you can forget he pillaged thousands of people. All I have to do is take one step back and go, "This guy's a repugnant human being." Within it, you have to find all the other things.
He's in a social structure where he really, really wants to impress Jeff Skilling. He's aggressively opportunistic. The company is having problems and Skilling says, "How are you going to help?" Suddenly he steps up to the plate and he becomes god in some way. These guys all were in this crazy world of the bottom line is the most important thing; they considered self above everybody. They figured the economics would follow them: If they did well, then everybody else would do well. He's just so isolated and myopic that he doesn't consider the greater ramifications of what he does. If it wasn't illegal, people would probably say, "Wow, that guy was great." Unfortunately, it was incredibly illegal.