Interview: DEBRIS & Broadway Star Norbert Leo Butz Doesn't Think We're Alone in the Universe

Watch DEBRIS Mondays on NBC at 10 p.m. EST.

By: Mar. 25, 2021
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Interview: DEBRIS & Broadway Star Norbert Leo Butz Doesn't Think We're Alone in the Universe

Two-time Tony winning actor Norbert Leo Butz is taking on the role of government agent for the second time in his long career - the "Catch Me if You Can" star pivots from FBI to CIA to play agent Craig Maddox on the NBC series "Debris."

Watch "Debris" Mondays on NBC at 10 p.m. EST.

When mysterious wreckage starts falling from the sky, a secretive international agency is tasked with figuring out what it is, where it came from, and most importantly... what it can do. British agent Finola Jones and American agent Bryan Beneventi are partners who have very different styles - she's warm, intuitive and detail-oriented, and he's charming, confident and guarded. But they have no choice but to trust each other as they track down the debris scattered across the Western Hemisphere. Each fragment has unpredictable, powerful and sometimes dangerous effects on the everyday people who find it. Every discovery is also a race against time, because shadowy outside forces seek these objects for nefarious purposes.

The cast includes Jonathan Tucker, Riann Steele, Norbert Leo Butz and Scroobius Pip.

BroadwayWorld had the opportunity to hop on Zoom with Norbert and discuss his new role, filming in Vancouver, his hope for the future of Broadway, and whether or not he thinks we're alone in the universe.

Read the full interview below!

Thank you so much for talking to me today! I'm Sarah, and I'm from BroadwayWorld TV and film.

Of course! Are you in New York?

Philadelphia, actually. And you're in Vancouver?

Yeah! It's a beautiful, beautiful part of the country. I've been separated from my wife and three daughters for almost seven months, which has been really, really hard, because the border has not been open and I haven't been able to travel back and forth. So it's been tough. Really, really difficult. But I guess if you have to be stranded somewhere, Vancouver is the best place to be.

I'm very happy to be done with the winter. We had to shoot all during the winter, so the rain was intense. One stretch we had eight days of rain! But now the sun is coming back, so I'm very happy.

Have you been filming for that whole seven-month period?

Yeah. I got here in September. There was a really strict two-week quarantine, and then fittings and some rehearsals, and I guess I started the second week of October. And we have another month to go. All said and done, it'll be about seven months.

That's so exciting, and also hard.

It is! You're right, it's both. And oddly, the isolation of it and kind of the loneliness of it I think has enhanced the performances in the show. All of the actors in the show - we talk about this a lot - everyone lives, obviously, apart from each other. We don't really have our meals together on set. We all stay in our own trailers, we're all masked up. So it's unlike a regular film set, but, oddly, we're all kind of covered up and sequestered. It oddly feels like - the show is about the Intelligence Agency, and special ops, and this highly secretive paramilitary work. And the isolation we all feel up here is, I think, kind of akin to what they'd feel. They have to pick up and move quickly, they're always in isolating situations. They really can't give away whole parts of themselves. They have to stay guarded almost all the time, looking for datas, intelligence.

I feel like there's a consistent current of uncertainty, too.

Yeah. That vibe, I think, has really gotten into the show, as these scientists try to put together this really baffling mystery.

Can you tell me a little about your character?

I play Craig Maddox, who's a CIA intelligence officer. He's been tasked with heading this division tracking this alien debris that's been falling toward Earth. So he's an extremely brilliant guy who can really compartmentalize things. A part of the job is spying, a part of the job is diplomacy and politics, a part of the job is tech and science. And he can kinda do it all.

But he's been doing it for a long time. As the show goes on, you begin to see a bit of his home life, and his marriage, and the thing I thought was most significant was not how super smarty-pants he was, but how somebody with that kind of a brain and that kind of power, self-regulation, and self control, how a person like that has to deal with the messiness of real life, and marriage, and raising a son who's special needs. You finally find out that he has this son with special needs.

I think that was really, really interesting. Like, a guy who is super controlled, and looks at life as a puzzle that just needs a strategy and then you can fix it. There are certain things as human beings that we just can't fix, and just can't figure out. So, I like that he lives in this space between those two things.

I've been thinking a lot about Catch Me if You Can recently.

Yeah, it just had its anniversary! I think it opened ten years ago last week or something. I saw it on Instagram - it's been ten years!

It's crazy! So, in your experience of playing different government agents, how is Craig Maddox similar to Carl Hanratty?

That's right! You know, I had never, ever put Carl Hanratty together - and they're both K sounds! Craig and Carl.

First of all, Carl was based on a couple of real guys, but he worked for a division of the FBI. The FBI would be, let's say, American crime, and usually not crime of a military nature, or a weapon of mass destruction. CIA would be more global intelligence.

But, having said that, CIA and FBI often overlap and work together on some domestic things. But they're wildly different guys. Carl Hanratty would have come up through slow, trudging work in the offices, doing number work and tax work and all this stuff. He's a guy who wasn't very physical - a real pencil pusher. And Craig Maddox, on the other hand, does have experience in the military. He would have that military training in his background. He's actually served in special ops and different things, and he would have come up through MIT or a huge tech program somewhere. They're kinda different guys!

But I had never put that together until you said that! They're almost opposites of each other. Carl Hanratty was very emotional, and he just fell in love with Frank Abagnale as a son. And Craig Maddox is not as emotionally intelligent as Carl Hanratty. I'd never put that together! You gave me a really fun game to play - compare Carl and Craig.

Hard to imagine Carl dealing with an extraterrestrial threat!

Yeah! I think he would have a heart attack.

Along that same line of thought. It's a big question, but do you think we're alone in the universe?

Oh! That is a big question.

I don't think we are, and that's kind of all I really want to say! It's such a huge, huge conversation. I guess what I mean by that - I was actually listening to a podcast yesterday with Marc Maron and Mandy Patinkin, and they were talking about this, and I liked what Mandy Patinkin said when they were talking about the existence of God. It really moved me what he said, and I think a part of it I really connected to - Mandy was saying he doesn't believe in a God - a God-God, or any theistic God or anything like that. But he accepts that there are mysteries in the universe that we can't understand.

His belief, or his faith, lives there. I suppose that's the definition of being an agnostic, but allowing for there to be higher intelligence. Because science has not proven that there is no higher intelligence. They have not proven the negative. So, the heavens remain anybody's guess. Right?

Has working on "Debris" made you think about that more?

You know, it's not made me think about space or higher intelligence or alien life. What it has done - it has so mirrored our experience with COVID that what it's made me believe in is the secret energy between human beings. Even between you and I - I've never met you before, and yet we're talking to each other as if we've known each other forever.

I think that's what's really cool about the show. It wants to talk about what's happening molecularly when emotions happen - when human connection happens between people. Can you quantify that? Is there energy in that that can be broken down like science can break down energy?

I like that a lot about the show. Where is connection? What's that space that they live in? It's made me think about that a lot. We've become so interdependent on each other, and on tech. I mean, you and I are doing our jobs today through, I don't know - the mystery of these algorithms. It's interesting. It's a lot to think about, but it's been fun! (laughs)

There's a really interesting connection to draw, I think, between that level of molecular connection you're talking about and the experience of working on live theatre. What do you miss about that?

I miss my friends! Yes, I miss an audience. I miss working close to home, and all of those things, but when you do a play - something that runs for a long time, like Catch Me if You Can or My Fair Lady - those interconnections we make with our crew and our cast backstage, that just carries you through. It's carried me through my whole life. I've been in the theatre since I was 20 years old.

I go to work to play. That's my fun. It's as much about what happens onstage in the story you're telling as what's happening offstage - connecting, and the joy you're working with. I miss fellow actors, you know. I miss all the crew guys, I miss the stage door guy! I miss everybody.

I don't know if I miss the audience that much! I've always had terrible stage fright. No one believes me when I say that, but I suffer terribly from it. The audience always makes me want to have diarrhea. But doing the show with my friends, and people I love and who crack me up and make me weep, and who I love singing and making harmony with, and figuring out a scene with. That's what I miss.

What, in an ideal world, do you hope for the future of Broadway?

I guess just that it gets open ASAP. A friend of mine sent me this article called The Three-Quarters Conundrum, and it's this idea that three-quarters of the way through any really hard time is the hardest part of it. He was talking about marathon runners - in that last quarter is when they really begin to suffer. Or doctoral students who are three-fourths of the way through their dissertation is when they fall apart.

Some people say we're about three-quarters of the way through the pandemic, and it's just like, (frustrated screams). It's the most difficult time. It's like, enough already, where's the end zone? I'm ready to have that feeling be done.

My hope is just for it to start again, and that when it does start it's safe. I hope there's a way to do it where it's safe and is not prohibitive to the writer, the director, or the actors. We'll have to wait and see.

Yeah. Everyone's gotta be there for it to feel the same.

It's building! People are getting really excited about the idea of what's going to be the first audience? And that's good! That collective - because we've really been depleted. We've been depressed, as it were, as a theatre culture. So that anticipation is good. It builds energy.

You've worked so adeptly across so many genres. What kinds of TV shows and plays and musicals did you grow up on?

Not a lot! I grew up in a really conservative, working class household. We had one TV, there was not a lot of money. We didn't get to watch a lot. Plus, my parents were super strict. Most of our time was spent in church. The only plays I saw were the school plays that my brothers and sisters were in. We're from St. Louis, Missouri, so maybe in the summer we went to the MUNY and sat in the free seats.

In terms of movies, there was nothing except what came on TV on Saturdays or Sundays. So I think, for me, what happened was - music was my thing. I could sing from a young age, and we all played and sang in choir, and I was sort of distinguished for that. Teachers let me do solos, and I got into lessons and all that kind of stuff. Music is what I was centered on.

And then, when I was a teenager in high school, I did see a couple of films that really made me want to be an actor. I remember the movies of Jimmy Cagney were really big again on Saturday afternoons - I remember seeing Yankee Doodle Dandy, or one of his FBI movies or one of his crime movies. He was the first actor that I fell in love with, because he could do a musical, he could sing and dance and be so charming and light-footed in Yankee Doodle Dandy, or in a romantic comedy. And then you'd see him in another part and he was just so terrifying and vicious. In Angels With Dirty Faces and G Men. I couldn't believe it was the same person.

I think something in my mind started to connect there. And then I think I was about 14, and a film called Ordinary People was released. Robert Redford directed this film, and this young actor - Timothy Hutton, who's now a little bit older than me. He was only 19 when he played that role. And I remember going to see it after it had been in two-dollar release at the theater. This is in the '80s. And I saw it, like, two or three times in a week. And I remembered, because he was only a few years older than me, and I could relate to everything he was going through. I think that was the first time in my life I was like, wait. I got that acting could be some kind of an expression of something going on inside you. As naïve as it sounds, those experiences, I think, really just got me super, super into theatre.

And in terms of music, I have all these older siblings. So it was church music, and gospel music, and country music. But my older brothers were like, really getting into rock and roll. The Beatles, and Led Zeppelin, and Bob Dylan. I loved all of that. I had a lot of musical influences for sure.

I think something that's so cool about your career is you've had the opportunity to originate so many incredible MT songs, and you've also written and released music of your own. Do you have a song of yours that runs through your head more than the others?

I can't say that I do. I'm always working on song ideas and writing things - you can see my piano in the background, and my guitar is always somewhere by. I play a lot of music to myself between things.

In terms of stuff I've done for theatre, they're all like yearbooks. You know, lately, I've been listening to Rent again. It was my first Broadway show. It just had this great 25th anniversary benefit, and that's not a show that - well, it always comes up in my mind, it was my first Broadway show, and I have such special memories and I made such dear friends in that cast. But I hadn't listened to any music from Rent in, my God - maybe 20 years. And I've got a couple of old bootlegs that I'm on, but I listened to some of that old music again and I just cried and cried and cried. Just like you do when you look at an old photo album of a time you loved!

Most recently for me, it's been Rent, oddly enough. I'm gonna do a couple songs from The Last 5 Years as part of a livestream! I'm gonna sing with Lauren Kennedy, who I originally did it with in Chicago, and Jason Robert Brown is gonna play piano. We're all gonna record separately and then do it as a stream. So I've been thinking about that too.

It's so exciting to hear that's coming! Can't wait to hear it.

Let's hope I can still sing it! I don't know. Those notes are really high, so we'll see what happens!

Debris airs Monday nights on NBC. Watch the official trailer here: