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.
Once the criminal investigations began, CEO Ken Lay pretty much made Andy the fall guy, and Fastow ended up cutting a deal with prosecutors to testify against the others. Do you consider him the most sympathetic of the Enron brass?
I've read all this stuff, and sometimes he's completely villainized, but almost always at the end there's some caveat, where somebody says, "I actually sort of feel sorry for him. He sort of got set up to fail." I forgot where I read this, but [one analysis said that people may think that] Enron was a great corporation that Andy Fastow's mechanics took down, but it's the complete opposite: Enron was a really bad corporation that Andy Fastow propped up for as long as he could. I think the truth lies somewhere in between. On every deal that he cut, he stole money for himself; he's certainly not guiltless. But he's human. They're all human. That's what's sad, and surprising, about the way the play presents it. It would be easy to present these three guys in black-and-white as completely horrible human beings. We get to distance ourselves from their decision-making. But we all have that bit in us to want to make more money. The people who saw their stock portfolios rise 20 percent over a year without asking questions—it's that to a smaller degree. I cut Andy ever so much slack for that reason.
In the play, you're pushed around by unfriendly coworkers, and then have to jog alongside Jeff Skilling to get his attention. Is this the most physical role you've ever had?
There's a whole lot of falling. I've got a couple of nice bruises all over. What's great about getting to work on this is it's kind of this hybrid of musical theater, vaudeville, straight-up drama... I've done a couple of musicals, I've done a lot of straight plays, but it's definitely the most I've had to throw into one. It's like a slalom in terms of style. There are scenes that are very naturalistic that blow up into something completely unnaturalistic. As an actor, you have to be able to fill both colors in.
It's interesting to watch, as time has gone on, the stamina of everybody involved. To get people with the skill set to do a musical number, then do a puppet, then play a velociraptor, then do a scene...some of those muscles are gonna be rusty. Everybody built the stamina over the rehearsal period, where things that were impossible on day one, [now it's] "Yeah, I can actually do the dance number" or "I can actually run on a treadmill for a whole scene."
How do you manage in that treadmill scene?
I ran the Marathon two years ago. The wardrobe supervisor from Frost/Nixon and Rock 'n' Roll got me into running, so we ran it together. It's so much harder to run badly, in a suit...it's really tiring.
You also portrayed a real person in Frost/Nixon and some other plays. How do you prepare for that?
Andy is cusping into a public figure that people know. If I did a spot-on impersonation of Jim Reston, nobody would know—he's just not a public figure in that way. So you had to get the essence of who that guy was. Even when you play somebody who existed, your obligation is to start with what the playwright gives you; your first responsibility is to the text. No matter how much work you do, if it's not supported by what the playwright says, you're running against the thing itself. But you try to find as much stuff to bolster what's in there. You piece together what people in the play say about you, what you say about yourself and what you get to do in the play, and match that up against pieces of information that you know. You say: At this point in this guy's life, he still had the chance not only to be the CFO but to be the COO. This is what his motor ran on. We are just far enough out of the Enron saga to have some really great critical work. There's tons of video, fantastic books, there's a great documentary [Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room]. I read the whole book that was based on. I was sitting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, reading about places like Nigeria that they had basically pillaged. In Addis Ababa, they have rolling blackouts daily—it's part of the infrastructure. And we're sitting over in the West thinking, "My 401(k) is destroyed."
When Frost/Nixon was made into a movie, Sam Rockwell played James Reston Jr. Did you get to audition?
No, I did not. When Ron Howard got the rights, he was incredibly generous to the people who did it on stage. He came to see the production multiple times, and he was very, very nice. He didn't want to inherit somebody else's production and basically put it on film. For a long time, even Frank wasn't going to do the movie. As much as I would have loved to, it was very nice to have an actor of Sam's caliber.
You've mostly done new plays, as opposed to revivals. Was that in your plans?
It's a chicken-or-egg: I don't know whether I sought it out or it just happened. Knock wood, it's always something I want to do. When I was at Juilliard, it was the first years of their playwriting program, and I found it really exhilarating to lend my voice to creating a part. Just to be on the maiden voyage of something is thrilling. I love talking to playwrights, figuring out what they're trying to say. Hopefully, I'm able to articulate something, and if it's not working, we can dissect whether it's my inability to act it or it's something we can dig out further. It sort of feels like you're playing all the notes on an instrument.
That said, are there existing roles that you covet?
I tend to get really excited when the opportunity to play something is placed in front of me. I know some people who are like, "I'm going to play Hamlet before I die." I don't really have those. There are a couple of Shakespeare parts that seem really interesting to me, like Iago. Some of these guys who seem very, very put-together who have dark souls. Which is kind of like Andy Fastow.
Had you ever been in Our Town before this year?
I played the Stage Manager in college. It was in a New England school, directed by this old New Hampshire guy—the head of the drama department—and it was sweet and sentimental. And David's production was so the opposite: Let's just start the play and show you what this is. It was a 180-degree switch. I think as you get older and start to see how magnificent that play is, you need to do so much less. It's the American play. It's amazing to watch that play work its magic every night on people in the audience.
Did you go to Juilliard for your master's straight from undergraduate?
I went right in. I felt like I needed to invest four years, so it would close off a back door for me trying to escape if it got too scary. It's a scary business, in terms of knowing where the next thing is going to come from. And when you've invested eight years of your life, you're like: I'm not doing anything else.
I went into college as a political science major. I was taking political science classes and feeling...not disgruntled, but the shine had worn off when I saw it's all about numbers and manipulation of groups of people. Kind of like acting, but I'd rather do it for entertainment. Then I started doing shows. Sometimes it just comes and gets you.
What's been your biggest screen role?
Probably in this Ang Lee movie that I did, Taking Woodstock. It's one of those, if you have a pause button, you'll see a lot of me. I was on that movie [set] for a good bit of time. We improvved, and I spent a lot of time up in the Berkshires with a lot of theater people—Jonathan Groff, Mamie Gummer... But that's the thing with a movie: You just never know [what will make the final cut]. It was a big, big story, and I think Ang did a smart thing in focusing it on this one guy [played by Demetri Martin].
You have a movie awaiting release. What's that one?
It's called All Good Things. It was bought by the Weinsteins, and then the Weinsteins sold it back finally to the director—a great director, Andrew Jarecki, who directed Capturing the Friedmans. I'm very excited about it—they can't cut me out of that one! I have some big stuff in that. It's based on the Durst family. Seymour Durst was a very wealthy New York City land developer in the 1970s, who had a son—sort of a Prince Hal type—he kept trying to bring him into the family business, and the son always shunned it. The son ended up going off the deep end and murdering his wife and living a life as a cross-dresser. There's this sort of Double Indemnity—people crossing over and committing crimes for each other. It's a great, great cast: Frank Langella plays the Seymour Durst character, Ryan Gosling plays his son, and I play Ryan Gosling's coked-up '70s best friend, and Kristen Dunst plays his wife. I saw Andrew at the opening of the Frost/Nixon movie and he was saying it was coming out, and then it just died. They were going to release it on video at one point; now, I think, it's back for the fall.
Is there a role you consider your breakthrough as an actor?
I can almost go back to any one of the jobs I've had and say, "That one led to this one, led to that one, led to this one..." Each one builds on the next. That's the beauty of being a New York theater actor: You end up seeing people again and again. [For example] A good friend of mine, David Auburn, who wrote Proof, has given me a lot of amazing opportunities. I did a one-man show he wrote called The Journals of Mihail Sebastian. I got to do Proof for a long time. I understudied on Broadway, then I did a national tour of it, then I came back and did it with Anne Heche.
What are some of the challenges you've faced in various roles?
Certainly this play because it's such a physical show. In terms of just learning a play, that one-man play that I did of Dave Auburn's was two hours of straight talking. You learn things about your brain that you never knew. [With] Rock 'n' Roll, which was so intellectually dense, figuring out how to have the dexterity and speed of thought that Stoppard requires—and in something political that you may not have any connection to. That was really challenging.
I've been fortunate to work with a lot of British directors and British plays. Most often they're bringing a production here that has been successful abroad. They have a shorthand for what to do with the material, so you don't have the luxury of starting at zero. That presents its own set of challenges.
How do you feel as an actor who's usually employed, when so many actors aren't?
I've been really, really lucky. You can be working most of the time and still feel like you're not having what you want. I have to give my wife a lot of credit, and my in-laws—they're all actors [Joan Shepard and Evan Thompson]. It was sort of foreign to me because my dad was a dentist, and they presented a great role model for me with their pure love of the craft and just appreciating every job that you have. It's a business where you have to take a leap of faith every time you get out of a job.
What was it like being in such an of-the-moment play like Our House, which is about reality TV?
I had watched a lot of reality television, I had gotten so saturated with it, that I felt a personal connection, along with Theresa, to trying to skewer it. Those shows are a guilty pleasure. Although they're mind-numbing, they're also really dangerous after a while because they present this fake reality. And that play gets it.
Both Enron and Our House are new plays by women. Have you noticed a different dynamic working with women playwrights compared to men?
I also did the Lynn Nottage play Fabulation. This may be completely particular to the personalities I've worked with, but I have found that women playwrights have been incredibly open to collaboration and have been less protective of their work. I've worked with male playwrights who were like, "I hear what you're saying, but I'm going to come back with new pages and that's what we'll do." To a person, each of these [female] playwrights would say, like, "What do you think it is? How can you help me?" There isn't this proprietary feel to it that I recognize in the men as kind of ego-tripping or "you're stepping on my turf." These three women are really generous, and it's smart because actors, they're not always right, but they have a certain amount of information that the playwright won't have. You can only benefit from having that collaborative experience.
Did you and your wife meet doing a show?
We met playing husband and wife in a play in Buffalo years and years ago, at the Studio Arena theater, which I think is defunct now. It was called King o' the Moon; it's part of this Tom Dudzik Over the Tavern trilogy.
Okay, now you can be proud papa. Let's hear about your baby daughter and your experience adopting from Ethiopia.
Naomi Kunken is eight months old. We've been home for almost two months. Once we decided we were going to adopt, there's only a large handful of places that deal with the United States, and that just felt like the perfect fit for us. We're really attracted to that part of the world—we honeymooned in Tanzania. Children are an incredibly valued part of that society. It's not like these countries where they're put in an orphanage and have one caregiver for 55 children. And the need for families is huge; there's a tremendous amount of poverty.
Did you go through Enron rehearsals and previews on no sleep because of the baby?
She's amazing. She's Ultimate Baby. She's like, "Whaddaya need? You need eight hours tonight? I'll sleep eight hours." There's mornings I go in there and she's awake, she didn't cry. My wife has been amazing too, because I have been inundated with work on this. As soon as this opens, I can't wait to relieve her.
Photos, from top: Stephen Kunken's headshot; Andy Fastow with his "raptors" as portrayed in the play Enron; the costars of Enron, (from left) Marin Mazzie, Stephen Kunken, Norbert Leo Butz and Gregory Itzin as Kenneth Lay; two con men in the making, Jeff Skilling (Butz) and Andy Fastow (Kunken); Stephen as the Stage Manager in Our Town; Kunken on right, in Frost/Nixon with Michael Sheen (left) and Armand Schultz; Our House, with Morena Baccarin, Christopher Evan Welch and Stephen Kunken. [Our Town photo by Carol Rosegg; all other production photos by Joan Marcus]