BWW Interviews: Max Quinlan Talks LES MISÉRABLES U.S. Tour & 'Marius'
Max Quinlan is currently starring as Marius in the 25th Anniversary U.S. National Tour of LES MISÉRABLES. Max has been with the show for 16 months. He has been playing Marius for 7 months. Max grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and got started in theatre at a very young age. He made his professional debut at 12 in Ragtime. Max attended the University of Cincinnati-College Conservatory of Music and got his degree in Music Theatre. He moved to New York and was lucky to get the chance to audition for Les Mis and has been on the road ever since.
Max Quinlan, Joel Herbst (Company Manager), and Andrew Michaelson (Associate Company Manager) attended a special brown bag lunch sponsored by the Texas Performing Arts where the community was invited to participate in this special event and ask questions of the panel. After the discussion, I got to sit down one-on-one with Max and chat about his career, his future and the role of Marius.
Tell us how you got started in theatre? What was your first professional role?
I got started when I was a kid. My mom is a singer so I was brought up in a singing household. She did community theatre. I got started really young. My first show was when I was 5 years old. I started from there and Ragtime happened as a coincidence. My mom saw a clipping in a newspaper that they were having auditions for the Wizard of Oz at a professional theatre in Chicago. They were going to have kids be the munchkins possibly. They had a huge open call and it was in the community newspaper. I think someone actually told my mom about it to bring me to the audition. My mom asked me if I wanted to go. I went. There were like 300 kids there. It was ridiculous. There were a ton of us. We all had to sing and dance. Afterwards, they brought us into this huge theatre and they were like, “Thank you all so much for coming in. We really appreciate it. We don’t need to see anybody else at this time. We just need to see Max Quinlan and everyone else is dismissed. I thought I was in trouble. Luckily it was not the case this time.
So I stayed and they asked me if I could sing something else for them. I was doing a production of Secret Garden at the time so I sang Round-Shouldered Man. They were like, “Great. Is your mom here?” My mom came in, they talked to my mom. I left and that was it. They told my mom that they were not going to use kids, that it was a huge mistake. They told her, “We really liked your son. We’d like to keep him on file and bring him if we do any show in the future that has a little boy in it.” We didn’t think anything of it and 2 weeks later, I got a call from Canada from the producers of Ragtime for Broadway and national tour saying that my name was recommended to the team for a new little boy in Ragtime. What had happened was the director of Wizard of Oz was good friends with the director of Ragtime and he called him and told him they were looking for a new little boy, the show was coming to Chicago and they said, “We can’t find anybody. We’ve been having auditions.” And they said, “Well, I just saw this kid.”
My audition process started and had about 5 auditions. I had to eventually work with every director, the choreographers, the musical director, the producers; I had to work with the lady who was playing the mother. She did the scene with the last 3 final boys that were there. I got a call 2 days later saying that it was down to me and one other kid which they should never do. Then I found out that I got the part. That started when I was 12 and ended when I was 13. From there, I decided to go back to normal high school because I didn’t want to do performing arts always. I went back to regular school and did high school and then when it came to college time, I decided that I did want to pursue a life of theatre so I luckily got into Cincinnati and went there. During Cincinnati, I was still auditioning for some stuff. If anyone is aware of Spring Awakening, I got 8 callbacks for that show. It was during college so I was travelling from Cincinnati to New York. It was the first time that I was ever in that type of a process as an adult, going in for something and seeing what that’s all about. Auditioning is hard. It’s difficult and when you’re a professional actor, your real job is to be a professional auditioner.
That is what you do. You are auditioning all day long. You are being rejected all day long. You’re going out on 3 auditions a day if you’re lucky or maybe nothing’s going on and you have 1 audition a month. It’s a difficult thing. You’re hearing no a lot. You’re hearing yes a lot. You’re hearing, “Your perfect but we’re going with somebody else.” It’s a different beast. This show, I was very fortunate to get it. I feel very fortunate every day that I’m out here. Acting is a completely different type of business that I don’t think a lot of people understand the ins and outs of it and how difficult it is on our side. Every once in a while you get lucky and you get a job like this.
When you get into the character of Marius, it’s a very intense and deep role. There are so many different emotions that he goes through. How do you get ready for that? What do you do to prepare yourself mentally and emotionally every night?
It is a difficult role that goes through so many different stages. He's one of those few characters in the play that as far as emotion goes has every single emotion. Marius has so many throughout the show. You get to see his passion as a student. He is blindsided by love and not knowing what that feeling was and falling in love for the first time and deal with death and dealing with moving on in life. It's a huge arc and it's a very big undertaking. The best way that I feel like I can prepare for it is to not think about all that other stuff. If I approach the beginning of the show from truly a beginning stand point allows it come out naturally and to be, I think more emotionally raw. And to be more readily available to the audience and more readily available for what the role requires. He goes through so much and so many things happen to him. It's one those roles that in every scene, it's a life changing scene. Because of that I think the best way to prepare for it is to go into it open because you want to receive everything. You want to receive all the feelings from the other actors; the feelings that you get from Enjolas and from Cossette and from Eponine and it's a lot. I'm very fortunate that the material is so beautiful and so well written. It does a lot of the work for you. You have to trust the material that you have and let it do what it's always done. You have to understand what your relationships are with the people that you develop them with as actors and know where you guys stand and know what is comfortable. It becomes really easy even though it is an exhausting role. That’s the process I go through.
Did you read the book?
I did read the book. I read the whole book. It took me quite some time, but I read the whole book. The hard part about the book for me was the history aspect of it. There’s a lot of history and it’s wonderful because there is so much. It goes so in depth and you get these vivid pictures of the time period; what was going on, what it felt like. Doing research is very important especially with a show that has so much history. Reading the book was extremely informative especially for our new production of it. We go back to a lot of what the book has to say, bring a lot of elements of the book into the show that aren’t necessarily obvious to the stage production but inform so much more.
Do you think that helped you to prepare better to play Marius?
I do, yes. He’s a very detailed role in the book and he’s very detailed in the show. Luckily a lot of roles that are extremely detailed aren’t necessarily that large of roles in the musical and a lot of it is done well, translation wise for my specific character and I think it helped in preparation for fully understanding. I think that our directors did a fantastic job of allowing me to bring something new to it and not just do what has always been done. He’s much more than a romantic lead; however, that’s what everyone thinks of him. There is so much in the material and I think we’ve done a really good job of finding more of it and bringing more of it out.
Doing the same role night after night, how do you keep it fresh?
As an actor, that’s what you do. People ask all the time if it gets boring. And it doesn’t. That’s my job to not have it get boring and it is the same thing, but the show is never the same thing. The show is a living breathing entity and the audience is different every night, the actors are different every night. What you’re seeing; that’s the beauty of live theatre. That performance that you see that night will never be repeated. Anything can change. The smallest things will change and we’re fortunate that we’re working on a beautiful musical and it’s an extremely moving piece. I luckily have a lot of wonderful material that I get to do in the show and it inspires you. You want people to experience the show for the first time, we assume they are experiencing it for the first time, and if they aren’t, it’s a brand new Les Mis. The scenes are played differently. It’s not as difficult as it might be to do the same show every night because it presents a lot of challenges. We’re moving around a lot. The travelling creates another thing as an actor to deal with like allergies and climate. You may spend an entire day in the airport when it’s supposed to be your day off and resting. It’s a different beast to be on a tour. The show is fresh and it’s great every single night. In live theatre, anything can happen. I think that’s an exciting thing for somebody who performs it and for somebody who watches it. As a performer, I try to remind myself of that and go out there and do the show.
When I saw the show in San Antonio, J. Mark McVey played the role of Jean Valjean and he was considerably larger in stature than Peter Lockyer. In watching the show the other night, I noticed as Peter stood next to you, he was smaller in stature. Is it more difficult for you to be carried by Peter than it was with J. Mark? And are you afraid?
I’m definitely not afraid. Different actors present different challenges. Peter’s great and we are both very aware of our bodies. We know how to carry ourselves and the carrying in the sewers is a lot of give and take. I carry some of the weight and he carries some of the weight. It’s about balance and it’s about finding where when he throws me over his shoulder; it’s placement really. As long as I line up on his shoulder at a certain part of my torso, we’re safe and comfortable and everything is great. We rehearse it a lot and we make sure it’s as safe as possible. We rehearse it, we go over it and we communicate with each other and it’s wonderful. Sometimes you’re lucky enough to get somebody who is playing the part to sling you over his shoulder and it’s no problem and for Peter and me to do it, it’s almost like choreography. It’s almost like a dance number that we have to figure out how to carry one and other and support one another. It’s actually very easy, all things considered.
Have you ever been dropped?
I have never been dropped. I got close to falling one time with an understudy who was on, but, it’s never happened.
If you ever decide, “I’m done with this,” What would you do?
I’ve thought a lot about that actually because there are so many facets and so many different careers. I would probably go back to school and do something completely unrelated. I would have loved to be a high school counselor.
What does Max Quinlan’s future look like? Do you want to stay in live theatre? Do you want to do TV, film?
I’ve always loved live theatre. It’s my passion. It’s what I’ve been most passionate about. I love the experience of doing a show onstage, feeling the audience having the audience inform your material. TV and film I think are these amazing different forms of acting that I would love to partake in. I really see myself doing live theatre. I love it. I love musical theatre. I think that it’s an art form that is so difficult and so beautiful when done correctly. I’ve done it all my life and I hope to continue doing it.
Photo Credit: Deborah Gerwitz/Kathy Strain