BWW Interviews: Broadway's James Tabeek Chats Going from Stage to Screen on THE RESIDUALS
Described by friend, and co-creator of THE RESIDUALS, Michael Paul Smith as the "Unofficial Mayor of Midtown," James Tabeek has appeared on Broadway in BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, TABOO, and MARY POPPINS, and on tour with WICKED. However, recently, James has been subtly moving his career away from the stage towards screens of all sizes. His first step in this new direction was in the first season of the hit webseries THE RESIDUALS. The comedy tells the tumultuous stories of actors auditioning for commercials. James plays Devan, the assistant to hot-headed casting director Mark Lyell (played by SUBMISSIONS ONLY's Mark Gessner).
Recently, James spoke with BWW about the show, his Broadway career, and his childhood big break alongside Dulé Hill.
I know you were friends with Mike and Gillian (Pensavalle, Mike's wife and co-creator) before THE RESIDUALS, so how did they get you on board for the show?
Mikey, I call him Mikey, and GP, and I are friends through the business, and I've always really admired them for their talent; and they're both very tenacious, which I appreciate, because I'm the same way. Mikey told me he was writing this webseries about actors auditioning for commercials, and he actually wrote the part with me in mind, which I thought was really cool and refreshing, because that doesn't happen that often. So, he wrote the role of Devan, and he asked if I would come in and read it. And (laughing) I just kind of fell in love with it, because I can relate. So, I came in and read, and it was a great fit and I responded really well to it. Mikey is such a wonderful writer; he has such a great ear for dialogue and a feeling for how people relate to each other. He was so open to people bringing their own perspective, so there was a lot of improvisation, and he was very trusting in that, which I was very grateful for, and it just made the atmosphere that much more fun and that much more interesting for me as an actor.
Your character Devan came into the season about half-way through, so we haven't had a chance to learn much about him outside of work. How do you see Devan as a character?
You know what's so funny is that I've never said this to Mikey, but in Season 1, I kind of love it that we don't get to see Devan outside of the office, so our primary focus on him is his function at work, which is to hold everything together as it is falling apart.
And I particularly liked his relationship with Mark. I think they are excellent foils for each other. I also really enjoy Devan's relationship with Gillian's character, because I kind of see Devan as a young man who maybe didn't opt to be in this business. I think he probably comes from a very wealthy family, and was probably headed on the track to a more blessed lifestyle, but wanted to branch out and prove to his family and the world that he could make it on his own. So, I think he maybe fell into this job by happenstance.
(Laughing) I've never even said this to Mike, but I don't even think his name is Devan. I think his name could be Duncan, or David, or something else. And in the back of my mind, I have this feeling that Mark's character probably couldn't quite latch on to what his actual name is, so they just landed on Devan, and why fight with Mark, because he has the attention span of a flea? I imagine this poor character trying to hold this office together and the boss is calling him Devan, so, "Ok, we'll go with that."
One of the things that I really enjoyed was that when Valerie asked Devan how to get a little more responsibility around the office, the cliché "sitcommy" thing would have been for Devan to be real caddy and territorial, but instead he took her under his wing a bit, which resulted in my favorite scene of the season (the PRICE IS RIGHT scene in Episode 9). So, for me, I really appreciated that it didn't go the cheap comedy route.
Well, I think that's one of the great things about Mikey's writing. It seldom goes where you expect it was going to go, but it always goes to a funnier place than you expected it to go. And that scene with Gillian is actually one of my favorites in the entire process that I had. And I think it says a lot about Devan's character that he wants to share the keys to the kingdom with Valerie, because he connects to her and sees what she does on a daily basis. And quite frankly, for Devan, any support he can get with wrangling Mark is helpful.
To Devan, Mark's character is kind of this crazy, runaway balloon at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade knocking over telephone poles in the wind. And anymore handlers he can get on this balloon is a positive.
You've talked about this fully-fleshed out backstory for Devan, and I know Mike and Gillian are already in the planning stages for Season 2. Have you whispered in their ears about some of the things you would like to see for Devan in next season?
One of the reasons why I think people are connecting to the show is that it's really incredibly authentic. Everyone responsible from the writing to the editing, I want to say that Gillian did an incredible job with the editing and all of the shots she picked, to the actors are all people who experience this on a daily basis. There've been times when I've been at an audition for a commercial and ridiculous things are happening, because ridiculous things are always happening, and I'm thinking in the back of my head, "I have to write this down in the notes section of my phone to tell Mikey, so he can write it into Season 2."
Seeing as how, I work for BroadwayWorld, I am intimately familiar with SUBMISSIONS ONLY, and seeing the difference between Mark (Gessner)'s characters in both of the shows (Eric in SUBMISSIONS ONLY and Mark Lyell in THE RESIDUALS) is one of the most fun parts of his performance.
(Laughs) I suggested to Mikey the last time I saw him that I think it would be interesting to see an ambiguous, maybe not entirely clearly defined, dinner-date between Devon and Mark; where the viewers are kind of left questioning the relationship between these two people. It would be interesting for everyone to see what, and how, that relationship translated outside of the office, and then what kind of insanity can come out of that.
It definitely would be interesting to see Mark have any kind of affectionate relationship with anyone, whether it was romantic or platonic or with his mother.
A lot of actors have talked about being proactive in a career that has no guarantees, and webseries have turned out to be a great new form of entertainment while also being a bit of self-marketing for performers. What did you think of your first experience working on a webseries?
I've made my living for the past however many years doing Broadway shows, but I've always been an actor in my heart and I've always thought of myself as a comedian. I was always very inspired when I was very little watching Peter Sellers' PINK PANTHERS movies again and again and again and again. I really admired his timing, his physicality, and his characterization.
I think that this is amazing because you don't really get to explore yourself to the fullest extent of your talent and creativity in the ensemble of a Broadway show. That's not to say that I'm not grateful for those experiences. I'm very proud of those opportunities and I worked very hard for them, but I'm really kind of excited with this direction that my career is taking; more into a straight-acting direction and more into TV/film.
It's really great to have the opportunity to showcase that, especially in such a great environment, like the one that Mike and Gillian provided onset. From a personal perspective it has less to do with (webseries) being a new medium for actors, and more to do with my own personal journey of expanding myself creatively, and using gifts that maybe I haven't been able to showcase in musical theater.
I know you've done a lot of musical theater, on Broadway and on tour, so when did you start your professional career?
I started actually very very young. I did commercials as a kid. I did a few national commercials when I was 10 years old which kind of propelled my professional career. Then I broke into musical theater out of college.
Do you remember what that first commercial was?
(Laughs) You know, it's so funny, someone actually sent me a link to my first big commercial on Youtube a few months ago. I couldn't believe that it existed online, because this is back in the 80s for a product called Fruit Slush. Are we the same age, do you remember this?
No, I am a child of 80s as well, but I have no recollection of what that is. (After some joint Googling, we found the video and watched James play the drums and, star of stage and screen, Dulé Hill breakdance.)
Who in the world just had a VHS of this laying around from the mid-80s and decided to put it Youtube in 2009?
This is one of those "I Love of the 80s" kind of girls. I think this is one of those commercials for one of those products that only would've come out of the 80s; this product wouldn't come out any time before or after, because it's literally just a bucket of frozen sugar. It wasn't all that successful, but the commercial was very successful; maybe that's why it has a bit of a cult following.
Based on the comments, it appears to be quite popular. I'm from Ohio, maybe this thing didn't make it out to the Midwest, but it definitely appears to be quite popular online. If nothing else happens with your on-screen career, at least you have this moment.
(Laughs) Yes, I do anticipate more on-screen things happening, but if this is the apex of it, I'm happy with that.
Ok, before I finally let you go, is there anything else about THE RESIDUALS or your career in general that we need to talk about?
There was a moment, we had a party after we wrapped (THE RESIDUALS). It was a rainy evening, and I was walking home and getting back on the train, and I was overcome with a sense of artistic satisfaction. These moments in our careers as actors can be really few and far between, and that artistic satisfaction doesn't necessarily go hand-in-hand with the size of the production. I feel like this is one of those moments in my career where I felt a tremendous amount of artistic fulfillment and had nothing but positive, loving feelings while shooting with these amazing actors.
THE RESIDUALS just released their Season Finale, but have no fear, if you need to catch up, head over to TheResiduals.tv and watch all 10 episodes. You can also follow the show on Twitter @TheResiduals or "Like" it on Facebook. You can also follow James on Twitter @JamesTabeek.