GYPSY OF THE MONTH: Kevin Bernard of 'Billy Elliot'

Billy Elliot is all about precocious talent—the title character as well as all the real young boys and girls in the cast. Ensemble member Kevin Bernard, on the other hand, was more of a late bloomer. Though he’s been involved in the performing arts since childhood and has worked steadily in theater most of his adult life, it took him 10 years of living and auditioning in New York to land a Broadway show.

“It always felt like I was getting close,” Bernard says of his years of fruitless Broadway auditions. “I seemed to make it to the end of a lot of stuff; I just never closed anything. I started looking around and going, ‘What the heck—what’s holding me back? What do I not have?’”

Yet once he broke through, he broke through but good. In the seven years since Bernard made his Broadway debut in Trevor Nunn’s Oklahoma revival, he’s been in three more Broadway shows, filmed scenes in three major motion pictures and had several principal roles in regional productions. And even after so many years in the business and all the shows he’s done, he’s found a unique experience in Billy Elliot.

“I’ve never seen a creative crew like this,” Bernard says. “They were on a never-ending quest to make the perfect show. The rehearsal process was so incredible and so demanding of us, psychologically and emotionally and physically. And we spent a lot more time in this theater than I ever have during tech. Tech is always killer—10- or 12-hour days—but normally when you hit previews the hours back off a little. But we were here all day every day through the six weeks of previews.”

On October 13, two weeks into previews, Bernard’s wife, dancer/actress Heather McFadden, gave birth to their son, Henderson. So he was going through the intense schedule on little sleep. And had to attend Billy’s opening night party without his wife (who did go to the performance that evening). When I interviewed him three weeks after opening, he told me: “Yesterday I came to the theater feeling kinda okay. I got almost four hours [of sleep] in a row!”

Being in a show full of kids when he’s just become a father for the second time has also made Billy special for Bernard, 41. “I look at all the kids and think of my children growing up at each of those stages,” he says. “They’re all super-talented and considerate and passionate about theater, but they don’t seem to be really over-the-top theater kids. They all seem like you could just plop ’em down in a playground at any moment and they’d be just as happy as being on stage, which is what I think makes their performances so refreshing. They just look and behave like ‘normal’ kids, and it’s a testament to the creative team for nurturing that in them.”

As for the miners—rather than the minors—in Billy Elliot, Bernard plays one of them in several scenes. In the big Act 1 number “Solidarity” and other scenes between miners and strike-busting police, he’s a policeman. And when Billy and his best friend Michael burst into song and dance while rifling through a closet full of women’s clothes, Bernard is inside one of the giant “dancing dress” costumes (the one with slouchy socks instead of stockings) that join them in “Expressing Yourself.”

Not unlike Billy Elliot himself, Bernard first performed professionally on stage in a ballet at age 11, when he played Peter in a regional tour of the ballet Peter and the Wolf produced by Theatre for Young Audiences. Growing up in Houston, Bernard was taken to Theatre Under the Stars and the Alley by his theater-loving parents. He attended the private Kinkaid School, which had a strong arts curriculum, and then in his public high school was active in the drama club (and captain of the soccer team).

As an adult, Kevin’s favorite show has been A Wonderful Life, the Sheldon Harnick/Joe Raposo musicalization of It’s a Wonderful Life, in which he starred as George Bailey at Mill Mountain Theatre in Roanoke, Va., in 2005. “I finished that production and said, ‘I could walk away from theater and be happy,’ because it was the most fulfilling work I had done on stage,” says Bernard, whose daughter, Billie, was born two months before Wonderful opened. “You could say it was because it was the lead, but it also was the nature of that role. To do that arc of that guy’s story was so fulfilling, just because he’s a father struggling to provide for his family and trying to do the right thing. To take that journey night after night emotionally was massive.”

Bernard was on Broadway the last two seasons in Curtains. Earlier, he’d been a swing in Thoroughly Modern Millie, which he joined after Oklahoma closed (Millie had bested Oklahoma for best choreography at the ’02 Tony Awards). Between Millie and Curtains, Bernard performed off-Broadway in Lone Star Love, which received Best Musical nominations from the Outer Critics Circle and Lucille Lortel Awards for its 2004-05 run on Theatre Row. Bernard had also been in the show—a musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor—when it was staged at Cleveland’s Great Lakes Theater Festival in fall 2001, as well as the workshops and readings where it was developed. He was even in the cast that was assembled for a Broadway bow circa 1999—until star Jim Belushi quit to launch his TV sitcom According to Jim. “That was supposed to be my Broadway debut,” Bernard says, “but they pulled the plug on it about two weeks before rehearsals.” (He was not in Lone Star when it prepped for another eventually aborted Broadway run last season.)

It would have been very fitting for Bernard, a Texas native and University of Houston grad, to make his Broadway debut in a show set in and named for his home state. Instead, it happened with a Texas neighbor. Oklahoma has “been a very big part of my life,” Bernard says. “It was the first professional job I booked out of New York.” That was for a 1991 production at the Jupiter Theatre in Florida, where he played Will Parker. And “it was the job where I met my wife.” That was on a European tour in 1992, where he again was Will and McFadden was Dream Laurey.

He and McFadden—who made her Broadway debut in the 1994 revival of Carousel and has played Meg Giry in Phantom of the Opera—married in 1997, and have worked together on tours of Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita, a Lincoln Center Lab production called Black Water and a 2000 Fringe Festival show, Babes and Dudes. Regionally, Bernard costarred as Billy in Anything Goes at Maryland’s Olney Theatre Center in 2006 and portrayed guitar-playing brother Caleb in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers at Connecticut’s Goodspeed Opera House in 2005.

In the 1990s, he twice starred as Bobby in Crazy for You, at the Royal Palm in Boca Raton, Fla., and Allenberry Playhouse near Carlisle, Pa. By 2001, however, a frustrated Bernard was ready to give up on his Broadway dream, and began planning a cross-country move. “I decided I was done,” he recalls. “I said: At the end of the year, if I don’t have a Broadway show, let’s go to L.A. Heather was game, she was like, ‘Fine, let’s go.’” And then, as his self-set deadline loomed, “I booked Oklahoma—right under the wire.”

His Broadway role as cowboy Slim (he also understudied Will) nullified his L.A. plans. It wasn’t the first time his sights had been set on southern California only to be diverted. All through college, Bernard intended to move to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career. He even considered doing it before graduating: Around the time he transferred from the University of Texas-Austin to the University of Houston, “I almost just picked up and jumped in my car and moved to L.A. I was about to run away from Texas completely.” His then-girlfriend’s mother talked him into staying to get his degree, and he figured as soon as he had it, he’d be on his way west. “I made fun of everyone that wanted to go to New York. I was like, ‘Why would you ever go to New York when you could go to L.A.?’ Concrete or beach—I just didn’t get it. What the hell is wrong with you people? I mocked them.”

He was cast in a tour of Mame, starring Juliet Prowse, that started soon after he graduated, but still planned to go to L.A. after the tour. Then the show hit Connecticut, and he took a side trip to New York to visit friends. It was his very first time in the city. “I was forever changed,” he says. “I came in and spent that one night and it was incredible. I was like, I think I’m moving to New York! It seemed full of artists and like this ‘primordial ooze’ of unrest and artistic desires. I’d been to L.A. so many times during college, and it just seemed like a means to an end: That’s where you go if you want to get into TV and film.”

He returned to NYC for a week’s stay later that year. “I’ll never forget when I came back for the holidays, my buddy took me down to the Village. We came up out of the subway, and it was snowing. And you’re down there in the Village with all those crisscrossy streets and some of the older lamps still and this big, thick snow falling out of the sky. I’d never seen anything like it. It was magic. It was walking into a movie set for me. I went to a few auditions, I sat in on some acting classes at HB Studios, and I was like, ‘God, I’ve got to move here.’”

But he didn’t move here to perform in musicals. Bernard had received a B.A. in acting and originally sought roles in straight plays. “I hooked up with some really inventive, experimental downtown theater scenes,” he says. Among those credits were Circus of the Damned, an acclaimed entry in the 1998 New York Fringe Festival, and off-off-Broadway revivals of Waiting for Godot and Detective Story. Since he was working pretty regularly, he didn’t quickly start agonizing over not getting a Broadway role. “The first five or six years I didn’t really care, ’cause I didn’t even know why I’d come to New York,” he says. “I’d just come because the city thrilled me.”

Bernard had another talent to market besides acting, singing and dancing: He’s a songwriter and musician. He describes his sound as “the love child of Burt Bacharach and Tracy Chapman—on crack,” then elaborates: “I’m sort of a lyrical guitarist. I like pretty melodies, but I play harder, edgier.” Bernard, who has played at CBGB, had his own band back in high school, and his biggest musical influence growing up was Elton John, composer of Billy Elliot. “The way he and Bernie Taupin composed together really inspired a lot of my early writing,” Bernard says. “What a joy to work for him and to meet him. I didn’t really get a chance to tell him [whispering] he’s my idol.” (Click here to listen to and purchase Kevin’s CD Hepnosis.)

Recently, Bernard’s taken his songwriting in another direction and composed a rock opera, Private Eddie, about Eddie Slovik, an American soldier executed for desertion during World War II. Years ago he’d discovered Slovik’s story (also the subject of a 1974 Martin Sheen movie) in a book about capital punishment that was left behind in an apartment he sublet. “Coming from Texas, which is a pretty capital-punishment-happy place, I really didn’t have any strong feelings about it. I guess I lived with it as a necessary evil,” Bernard recalls. “And then I read this history…and by the end of it I was so confused and tormented. You can look at some terrible people and say, If anyone is going to get killed, it should be this guy. But, man, you take one step away from the easy people and then it’s all gray, the people we decide to kill. And it all seems incredibly unfair.”

The book referred to a book specifically about Slovik’s case, which was by then out of print. “I spent years on the road looking in used bookstores,” recounts Bernard. “It became sort of this treasure hunt. I finally found it out in Seattle. I read it and was really blown away.” At first he tried to dramatize it as a one-man play, but it turned out “terrible,” so his wife suggested he write it as a musical. He has recorded a demo of the score and last September performed selections at Dillion’s Reprise Room in Manhattan.

Bernard has also worked in film, assisting choreographer Patricia Birch—who knows him from Lone Star Love—on The Stepford Wives and The Nanny Diaries. He had a bit part in both those movies, as well as in Little Manhattan, but except for the square dance in Stepford, his scenes didn’t make the final cut. Shooting that movie was highly memorable for Kevin. “Oh, my God, I wanted to kiss Pat’s feet for that opportunity,” he says. “This was the first time I’d been on a major motion picture set, and to be on a closed set with Frank Oz, Nicole Kidman, Bette Midler, Glenn Close, Christopher Walken… One day Nicole Kidman came up behind me and put her hand on my shoulder and said, ‘Kevin, what are we doing today, darling?’ I’m like, [obsequiously] ‘Whatever you want to do, Nicole.’”

One screen credit that has eluded him—unusual for an actor who’s been in New York 15-plus years—is any of the Law & Orders. Not that he hasn’t tried repeatedly to be seen for a role. And if you Google “Kevin Bernard” and “Law & Order,” you’ll get thousands of links, because that’s the name of the detective played by Anthony Anderson, who joined the cast (replacing Jesse L. Martin) last year. “It’s like a smack in the face!” the real Kevin Bernard says facetiously. “I’ve sent them [résumé] postcards and stuff. They’re like, ‘Who’s that guy who’s always trying to get on our show? We’re never gonna give him a chance, but let’s steal his name!’”

Photos of Kevin, from top: as a striking English miner (in the middle) in Billy Elliot; as George Bailey in A Wonderful Life; on an autumn outing with his wife Heather, 3-year-old daughter Billie and newborn son Henderson; playing Will Parker in Oklahoma for the first time, in Florida in 1991; with Laura Schutter in Olney’s Anything Goes; with Jacquelyn Piro in Goodspeed’s Seven Brides for Seven Brothers; performing excerpts from his rock opera Private Eddie at Dillion’s Reprise Room in September. [Photo credits: David Scheinmann; Clinton McLaughlin; courtesy of Kevin and Heather Bernard (2); Stan Barouh; Diane Sobolewski; courtesy of Todd France]

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