BWW Special Feature: In Conversation with EXTINCTION's James Roday & Michael Weston
It has been said that there is approximately only a 1 in 100th of a chance that a person will land a job working in theater in New York. The chances of working successfully in the industry are smaller than that. Sometimes, though, you meet people like EXTINCTION's James Roday (of the hit television series "Psych") and Michael Weston ("House") who make you forget that the odds of doing so are not stacked so high - who make you truly believe that if one can simply "find good material, do what you know and grow it into something bigger" (to quote Roday) that enriched careers in entertainment are truly achievable.
In their latest collaboration, Roday and Weston play two friends on a reckless weekend in Gabe McKinley's new play EXTINCTION, now running at the Cherry Lane Theatre. Wayne Kasserman directs. Roday and Weston are reprising their roles Off-Broadway in EXTINCTION following its acclaimed, sold-out run this past fall in Los Angeles at the Elephant Space theatre in Hollywood.
With a cast also featuring Amanda Detmer and Stefanie E. Frame, EXTINCTION tells a story about what transpires between two college buddies whose annual outing of male-bonding and debauchery veers precipitously off course.
The production has been quite a family affair. Roday, McKinley and Kasserman studied together at New York University's Experimental Theatre Wing and have been supporting each other's work since. Roday and Weston became fast friends on the set of "The Dukes of Hazzard" in 2005.
Unwinding from an intense finale, Roday and Weston spoke with BroadwayWorld (uncut) about the production, and how they have managed to build careers the old fashioned way - seeking out quality material with quality people to create product that, like EXTINCTION, is just plain great. And it is refreshing.
Start with the genesis: how did EXTINCTION come into your lives? Was it production ready or in concept form?
JR: I have a little Equity waiver company in Los Angeles called Red Dog Squadron. We did EXTINCTION last fall there. Gabe McKinley - the writer - and I went to college together and I've been reading his material for a while now. And I read this and just felt "Wow, this is ready. It's time to announce your presence with authority and I think this is the piece." So, unbeknownst to us, we ended up using the LA run as something of a workshop. And by the end of it we were all so moved by the experience and our expectations had been so far surpassed, we weren't ready to be done. My co-star on "Psych," the TV show I work on, Dule Hill, has a great relationship with the Cherry Lane Theatre and he said, "let me see if I can get some interest going." That's how we landed here.
MW: James produces as well so he brought the script to me to do a reading initially. The script was in really good shape but it was hard to tell from just the reading what was fleshed out and what was not. We all wanted to work on it but we also felt like we needed to understand the characters better. And that's what the LA run did for me. It really allowed us to get into the characters, discover all the little possibilities.
JR: Even at the reading the trajectory was pretty clear. At its core it's a really honest piece about a friendship. And if you could use that, and then we go from there we could be in good shape.
Why was it important for you to work on this project, perhaps over others?
MW: There was great depth in the male psyche and in the male relationship in this play. That's something you don't see in much writing.
JR: You don't - it's a unique thing for a male actor to get to work with.
MW: It gets into the nitty-gritty, the subtleties, beneath this really tight male friendship. And this relationship reflects the sort of deep ego problems and competitiveness and primal things going on beneath these facades all guys wear.
JR: The first time I read this play, I thought "How interesting to see what happens to two men behind closed doors when they're allowed to talk to each other in ways they would never let a woman see." And it's not just men behaving badly. It's men behaving humanely and men allowing themselves to be vulnerable and that's something that I don't think you necessarily get to see a lot. We're not comfortable turning the looking glass on ourselves, like "Oh yeah, I have that kind of relationship with my bud." Guys don't do that kind of stuff.
MW: You don't want to talk about it.
JR: You're dudes.
MW: You know, when I read EXTINCTION the first time, I did not really like my character 'Max.' It was hard for me, grappling with what I could bring to him. I didn't want to expose myself - it was hard for me to think of myself being that guy in any way. There was something that was pushing me away from it and because of that I knew that there was a real challenge in the material to flush out the truth of the real friendship between these guys, even though the stuff that they're doing to each other and the stuff that they say can be really crass and harsh sometimes. There is this sort of bluntness about who guys really are without embellishing it with too much. I appreciate that kind of writing.
Have you noticed the women in the production having a decidedly different reaction to the play than you guys?
MW: I think girls have really different reaction than dudes' because I think women have encountered these kinds of relationships with men more often, so there is less surprise. Men tend to be more open in their relationships with women. I also think the writing of the girls in this reflects that and was really well done, really well executed. The kind of energy and femininity that they bring into the play is so important to its overall finish.
JR: They both sort of found a way to exist above what's happening, as if they had "seen it all before" even though they are very much a part of the drama.
I found their acting almost cinematic with all the nuances that they played...
You both seem to have very diverse interests in entertainment. You work in multiple mediums and genres - producing, writing acting, film, television etc. How do you choose your roles and your projects?
JR: Well, my goal is to work with tall, attractive women.
MW: (laughs) Them and bearded men. If I have those two things, I'm in. Seriously, though, for me it's all about the writing - I mean, the writing's always where you start. And working with great people. In the end what really got me in this was wanting to work with James and all these other guys and wonderful girls. Working with friends is an ultimate goal in this business because it makes the work better. It also makes it fun.
JR: You know what, it's funny. In a perfect world every time you took a role it would represent a new challenge and would work a muscle that you've never worked before. But you know the truth is, they don't come along that often and when they do a lot of times other people get them. You sort of learn to recognize the stuff that you want to seize up really quickly because you find yourself used to doing a lot of stuff that doesn't necessarily warrant that passion. As an actor you don't run away from roles like this. You do them and you don't know when you'll get to do them again. I love my day job with the TV show, I love all the people I work with, but the truth is for me it's been four years of essentially kicking the same balls and catching the same balls. And this was an opportunity to work with something that wasn't round, so to speak (laughter).
This is not your first collaboration.
MW: Oh no...no it's not!
JR: This is our third foray. The first time was on the masterpiece known as "The Dukes of Hazzard"...
MW: Where we both wore a mustache...Mine was much bigger than yours.
JR: We had never met before that movie and we sort of immediately gravitated towards one another, because we were these guys who couldn't quite believe that they were doing this movie, as fun as it was...
MW: I did not anticipate making a lifelong friend on the set of "Dukes of Hazzard." I will tell you that much. (laughs)
JR: And then I forced him to come up to Vancouver and do an episode of "Psych" which remains one of my favorite episodes on the whole show. We sort of turned each other loose and got away with murder. (laughs) Mike's hair deserves a mention...
MW: I have like a history of weird hair.
JR: Oh. We're forgetting our 40 hours in New Mexico too, on that movie...
MW: Oh yeah, yeah. "The Gamer." We went up there and shot that movie for a day.
JR: Did we have mustaches for that too?
MW: I don't know, but my hair was weird, I remember that.
JR: So basically after that we decided that it was a time to take our working relationship to the next level with this project.
Why do you think you work so well together?
JR: I marvel when I watch Mike when he's really in the groove because he's got so much heart as a person and he's got access to it on stage and on film. He's able find the humanity in a role that is really, really difficult. In this show, for example, your heart aches for ‘Max' and it's all because of Mike. He's far more methodical than I could ever dream of being and that's also an interesting experience. He's got a method and it's kind of been like a classroom situation for me.
MW: It's the same with James. He's a consummate pro and I think we bring the best out of each other, because we can relax around each other. James is generous in life and also generous as an actor. And he gives you so much to work with. He so naturally picks up on the jokes, the way to say lines and rhythms of the script. And he has a great sense of humor, even in the tragic moments. When I started on this role I got really hung up on the sort of darker areas of it. And it was hard for me to hold my head up. And James helped me focus on the friendship, and develop that. The kind of actor like James who is that giving and generous is the greatest actor to work with. And that's the bottom line. It makes you better and it makes everyone around you better. This whole group brought the best out of each other because of the generosity on stage. Actors aren't necessarily known for that and when they give it, it's a jewel, it's a rare thing.
What was the most difficult part in putting this production together?
JR: We were ridiculously short on rehearsal time both in Los Angeles and in New York. So it was actually crucial that this cast be who it was, I feel. It was one of those sort of serendipitous things, like in order to pull this off, it kind of had to be everybody that it was.
MW: We had two weeks in LA, right? Literally. He just got back from the series and we had two weeks from our first reading to putting it up on stage. I mean, just to get the lines down...the day we walked out on opening night I still was thumbing through my script for lines. The first half of that run in LA was still basically rehearsal.
JR: And then because of the snowstorm before we opened in New York, we basically had 16 hours or so in the theater here before the first preview last week.
MW: It was crazy, and yet while it doesn't give you enough time to hammer out all the little things, it also doesn't give you enough time to really think about all the stuff that could go wrong.
How did Wayne become involved as the director?
JR: Wayne is another NYU guy. He got his MFA so he acts, as well. But he was kind of the perfect choice for this because he sort of recognized how to handle all of the elements, along with the time constraint we were under. He really allowed us to find things on our own, even though he was gently pushing us in the right direction. He recognized that there simply wasn't time or room for another huge cook in the kitchen and just kind of massaged and added nuance.
MW: Even though he had very explicit ideas about what he wanted done, he would guide us so we felt like we owned it. And that's something that we really needed in that short amount of time because it gave us confidence. And that light hand as a director I think is an incredible skill that very, very few people that I've ever worked with have. That's the kind of director you want to work with. It's amazing how rare it is, when a director can take his or her own ego out of it...
James, talk a bit about your production company, Red Dog Squadron. A lot of people don't' know you as a producer since you're always in front. How did it start?
JR: Well, I always wanted to have access to theater, especially when I realized I was probably going to be rooted in LA for awhile. I wasn't going stop doing theater with all of my screen work. I felt that would be a really poor choice. So Brad Raider - who's another guy I went to NYU with - moved out to LA around the same time and we started a little company to sort of keep our acting muscles in shape. And the first couple of shows that we did were these small passion projects that we threw up. We were hammering nails and building sets and we would only run for like 4 days and that was it, one-weekend runs. And then two years ago we took our first major step and produced a play called GRAND DELUSION, which was a world premiere of this really raucous period farce by a playwright named David Rock. And that was our first attempt at really hiring and entrusting other people with a production. We moved to a much larger theater. And it kind of gave us the confidence that "Hey, with a little bit of planning, we can do this, we can pull this off." And EXTINCTION was the next one. And now I kind of feel like we've got some momentum and we should probably at least do a show a year.
MW: It's a great company. I just started working with them for this and there were many hands on deck and many people down the line deserve a lot of credit for keeping this up in LA, getting it there.
JR: It's really fortuitous when you know lots of talented people.
What made you decide to produce EXTINCTION under the banner of your own company?
JR: You know, initially I wasn't going to come on or produce because I couldn't imagine putting up a show with only two weeks of rehearsal. Regardless of how interested I was in this role, I thought I couldn't take responsibility for actually getting it on its feet. But then we sat down with Gabe and Wayne to discuss how crazy we were being and Gabe said, "We can do it. We remember what this is, we went to college, we know how to do this." And he was right. So we all decided "All right, screw it." After that, Amanda was a quick call. This is her fourth show with us and she basically said "Tell me where to show up, I'm in." And Stefanie happens to be the playwright's girlfriend so she's been very close to this material for a long time. So there were enough pieces in place that once I looked at it and got everyone's thumbs up, it was like "all right." Once my heart is in the right place and I know why I'm doing something, I want to solve the problems that come up too. I want to work in a way that will make the project be as good as it can possibly be.
MW: I have to give James props here because it takes a lot to put on a play in LA and to get people on the same page. There's a certain kind of respect and a love for theater here in New York that really isn't out there. It has many other personalities, but it's very dispersed over a mass of suburbs. To actually get people to come to the theater is not as easy as it is here.
James, was this the first show that you both starred in and produced at the same time?
JR: Yes. I directed one of our other shows but I've actually never acted in one of Red Squadron's show before.
JR: Luckily I have a little bit of experience from the TV show. I'm at least used to wearing multiple hats and sort of helping to refine my multi-tasking skills. Also, in the directing of this play Wayne shouldered a great deal of the producing responsibilities so that I could split my time and focus on my performance, especially nearing the opening.
After this New York run, what kind of life do you think the show will have? Are there aspirations to take the show elsewhere hereafter?
JR: I don't know, it's a good question. I think the two of us have decided to check in with each other at the end of this run and see if there's anything that we feel like we left on the table, or if by the end it was in our bones and we gave it everything we had and we're good. But for Gabe's sake, I would love to see the play to go on no matter what, even if it's not with us. I'd love for as many people to see this play as humanly possible. Like I said, it's got great honesty and I think it speaks to you whether you're a woman or a man.
A lot of people, especially in New York, are trying to do what you do. They have their own companies, while wanting to direct or star in their own shows, straddle mediums, and diversify in the field. How have you been able to establish your careers in this way.
JR: My advice is start with good material and don't let your eyes get bigger than your stomach. Don't go produce HENRY V. Find a piece of material that fits whoever you have in your company like a glove. And start small.
MW: And start with good, like-minded people. I find that so many theater companies are their own worst enemy because they let their egos compete. You have to be careful to surround yourself with people that actually really want to do something together. You actually have to care about the work more than being into the idea that you have a gig, or how this might help you land your next.
JR: I think the key to being a successful theater company is that there are no egos and nobody has their own agenda. It's not about a showcase. You have to care about the final product, you have to care about everyone around you because if the show's good, everybody wins. So in sum, find good material and do what you know and grow it into something bigger.
MW: And make friends with as many wealthy people as you can.
JR: Yes. Know rich people.
After EXTINCTION closes, what comes next? Michael, any truth to the rumor that you may be getting your own "House" spin-off?
MW: No, I don't think that's going to happen. I think that it sort of found its way onto the "House" studio radar and it lives and maybe dies there. I haven't heard a final word on it, but I have a feeling that it's not going to materialize. I don't know what my next thing is. I've written a movie that I'm working on producing and directing and hopefully that is coming next. I'm looking for the next gig after this.
JR: I'm headed back to Vancouver for another ride on the "Psych" train...It is a great job. It's beautiful up there and we have a great, happy crew that appreciates coming to work every day and we're very blessed. So that'll be me for most of 2010. He'll be back this season (points to Michael).
(To Michael) Oh there you go - your next gig. You just got a job.
Gabe McKinley's EXTINCTION is being presented Off-Broadway by Red Dog Squadron in association with the Cherry Lane Theatre. "Psych" co-star Dule Hill, co-produces, and Wayne Kasserman directs.
James Roday stars as 'Shawn Spencer' in the upcoming fifth season of the USA Network original series "Psych." His New York stage credits include "The Three Sisters (Off-Broadway)," "Twelfth Night," "A Respectable Wedding," and "Severity's Mistress". Mr. Roday studied theater at New York University's Experimental Theatre Wing and graduated with a degree in Fine Arts. He has also starred in several feature film roles including, "Beerfest," "Don't Come Knocking," "Rolling Kansas," and "The Dukes of Hazzard."
Michael Weston has appeared Off-Broadway in "Snakebit" and in Kenneth Lonnergan's "The Waverly Gallery" (Pasadena Playhouse) and several plays at Williamstown Theatre Festival. Film credits include: "The Last Kiss," "State of Play," "Pathology," "Garden State," "Dukes of Hazzard," "Hart's War," "Lucky Numbers," "Looking For Sunday," "Wedding Daze," and "Coyote Ugly." He's had recurring roles on "Six Feet Under," "Scrubs," "Law and Order: SVU," and currently "House" on Fox-TV.
EXTINCTION has scenic design by Steven C. Kemp, lighting design by Mike Durst and costume design by Gali Noy.
Celebrating its tenth anniversary, Red Dog Squadron is a non-profit theatre company founded in 1999 by Brad Raider and James Roday, who met while studying at The Experimental Theatre Wing at NYU and have been frequent collaborators since. Red Dog has produced, Henry V (NY-Mazer Theater), David Mamet's "Sexual Perversity in Chicago," two original one-acts, "sustenance" and "Chickens and A**holes," and the critically-acclaimed "Grand Delusion" by David Rock in 2007.
Scheduled through March 14, EXTINCTION will perform Tuesdays at 7 pm, Wednesdays thru Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 7 pm. Tickets are $45 and can be reserved by calling Tele-charge at 212 239 6200 or online at www.telecharge.com.
Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg