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.