BWW Interviews: Catching Up with FREUD'S LAST SESSION's Jim Stanek
Jim Stanek is a tried-and-true New York theater veteran, having appeared in musicals, dramas and comedies for years. Currently, he is appearing in Mark St. Germain's long-running off-Broadway play Freud’s Last Session, playing Chronicles of Narnia author C.S. Lewis.
In the play, the titular famed psychologist and the equally famed author square off on a 90-minute intellectual roller-coaster ride. And while Stanek has done two-person plays--and musicals--before, he feels that this play is different.
“There is a heightened presence you have to have, because the tension between these two men is so strong,” Stanek says of the play. “It’s not always tension, like, anger. But there’s always this give and take, this push and pull between these two characters.” The emotions tend to run high, he adds, and audiences respond to that in different ways. “Some come and totally get all of the comedy, because it is very funny...And then sometimes the audience is so quiet, you can hear a pin drop, because they are so engaged and listening to every word.”
And that, he says, is the best gift that an actor can have: “A play that engages the audience, such as this does, and a role that engages the actor as much as this one does...It’s always better when you’re acting with good material, without question, because it makes your job easier--but in a way, it sometimes pushes you to stay engaged. You can’t sit back and just walk through this play. You have to be engaged in it.”
While the subject matter can get dense, he acknowledges, the play itself has plenty of humor and light. “It doesn’t feel dense when you’re watching. It’s intense for the actors, though. And I have to say, I love doing musicals and I do musicals a lot, but it has been a great joy for me to return to a play.”
To help create the character, Stanek looked to C.S. Lewis’ autobiography, Surprised by Joy, and focused on the dichotomies of faith and reason that Lewis embodied: Lewis was an atheist until the not-at-all symbolic age of 33, when he adopted Christianity. “It was an intellectual conversion for him,” Stanek says. “Most people convert to Christianity or some sort of religion because of an emotional change in their life. They’re seeking God for some reason because they’re having a difficult time...But C.S. Lewis converted intellectually, not emotionally, and that‘s what’s so interesting to play.” Once Lewis found Christianity, Stanek adds, he became much calmer and more content with life. “And that’s what I focus on: his joy, his sense of humor, his belief in the positivity of life. And, I will say, I try to live my own life that way.”
Stanek’s joy, he says, comes from his wife and three sons. And while his own personal life may not fully relate to Lewis’, he says he can connect to the famous author on an emotional level. “It makes the intensity of the arguments--the points these men are trying to make--a little less intense if there’s joy added to it, or some sort of a buoyancy. So, that’s what I try to draw on, the joy of my own life, to give him the joy that he had in his own life.”
Not that every step of the way has been joyous. Performing is never easy, and the industry can make an optimistic outlook difficult to maintain. Ten years ago, Stanek worked on the La Jolla production of Thoroughly Modern Millie...but was not invited to join the show when it premiered on Broadway. “That was the first time that I’d been replaced,” he remembers. “And that was devastating, because it just put everything into question. For myself, I was questioning my abilities. I was questioning the choices I had made that got me to that point, doing that show.” As he prepared for other auditions, he found himself at the point where he was wondering if it all wasn’t a waste of time. “I remember going into the bathroom and splashing some water on my face...and I looked up in the mirror and I actually talked to myself and said, ‘What are you doing? What are you thinking? You’re 30 years old. Your career is just beginning, if you want it. And are you going to let somebody else dictate your career? Or are you going to take control of it?’ And, like, two and a half weeks later, I booked a national commercial and then a month after that, another one and then another.”
And that, Stanek feels, is the hardest part of being an actor. “You go and do a job and you do it to the best of your ability, and you get kudos for it and praise. But once that job is over, oftentimes people forget and you have to prove to them again that you’re worthy of being hired for another job. And then you do it again. And then, you have to do it again. It can be exhausting, but the result, when you do get the jobs, is that you get to play to a whole new audience of people. You get to play a whole new character. You get to work with a whole New Group of people. And as long as the positives outweigh the negatives, I’m going to stick around here. ”