BWW Interview: From Understudy to Lead, Brandon J. Ellis Can't Go WRONG
The U.S. tour of the Olivier Award-winning THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG lands at the Ahmanson Theatre for its Los Angeles stop beginning July 9, 2019. This madcap play-within-a-play also won, among other laurels, the Tony for Best Scenic Design in 2017. I 'rightfully' got a chance to ask a few questions of WRONG's Brandon J. Ellis. Brandon's the U.S. tour's original Trevor, the sound and lighting tech handling the play-within-a-play THE MURDER AT HAVERSHAM MANOR, a 1920's murder mystery.
Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Brandon!
How did you first become involved with this national tour that began September last year?
I became involved through a normal audition process. My agents submitted me, I went through several callbacks, and I booked the job.
Have you worked with any of the cast or creatives before?
I haven't worked with anyone involved in the show before, but I have known of some of the people involved for a while.
If you were to describe Trevor's qualities on a dating site, what would you list as his likes and wants for a perfect match?
I'll let Trevor answer this.
Trevor: "I enjoy wood working, steak, and silence. Looking for someone into the same who will interrupt my life in no way at all. I don't like change."
What character flaws of Trevor's would you hide or tweak?
Trevor: "It would have been cool to be born a rich guy."
What city were you most excited to perform in?
I was looking forward to two cities. First, Greenville, South Carolina because my family comes from there. My mom's side are all legacies at Furman University. Heck, even the guy I am named after is buried in the cemetery next to the hotel we stayed in. And secondly, L.A.! I haven't really spent much time here, and there are so many of my peers that live and work in L.A. I'm excited to see the city and explore.
In the cities you've already played in, have you had the opportunity to discover the respective city?
Yeah, one of the best things about touring is getting to explore cities you may have otherwise never visited. For instance, I really like Omaha, Nebraska and Des Moines, Iowa. When would I ever have cause to go there? But now I know how awesome those towns are.
Of the Broadway shows you've understudied or stood-by for, did you get to go on? Describe that performance for yourself onstage.
Yeah, I've been on in every show in which I was an understudy. My Broadway debut was as an understudy in a show called COMPANY. I covered two roles and five instruments. (It was an actor/musician show). My first time on, I had about 30 minutes notice. I was terrified. Ha! Ha! In the audience that night was Sondheim, George Furth, the producers, my agents, and some celebrities that I could VERY clearly see from stage. I can really only remember before and after. It was a total blur. My second Broadway show was called ONCE, and I was an understudy for five roles and fifteen instruments. Thank god, I had done it before. I learned so many lessons from COMPANY. I knew all the things I needed to do to be comfortable this time around. I ended up going on over 200-300 times in my three years on Broadway with ONCE. Every time was an absolute joy. I miss it every day. When the Broadway production closed, I took over for one of the roles I covered in the West End production; dream come true.
For the uninitiated, would you define the difference between an understudy and a standby?
They are very similar. An understudy is technically playing a role in the show, and covering a principal role as well. A stand-by is offstage and covers principal roles. Technically, I was a stand by for the roles I covered in ONCE and COMPANY, and I am an understudy in TPTGW, because I play Trevor and cover Robert, as well. A third distinction would be a swing, which could be on stage or off, and covers ensemble roles.
Now that you've had the experience of being an understudy, a standby and the primary actor cast in a role; would you find it at all easier to have to learn just the one role you're cast for; as opposed to learning all the possible roles you might have to step into at last minute?
Oh, my god, yes! Being a principal actor is SO MUCH easier than covering. Covers get 1/10th the rehearsal time and are expected to deliver a Broadway-caliber performance with ten-minute notice. There should be a Tony Award for covers and swings. It is, hands down, the hardest job in the building. Covers deserve so much respect for the amount of work it takes to be good at that job.
Do you readily find workout places in each city to maintain your brawny physicality?
Hahaha! Yes, I did! Fitness is very important to me. Jose, our company manager, is also a fitness enthusiast, so he makes sure we have a good gym in every city. Sometimes I do get funny looks from people because I lift pretty heavy.
Who gave you the best advice on staying healthy touring?
My buddy, Matt DeAngelis, gave me some great advice and that was to take advantage of the time to explore. It's good for your mind and soul to learn about the places you are working and visiting.
Do you have a pre-show ritual?
My pre-show ritual varies greatly from show to show, depending on what the character requires. Trevor doesn't require as much "dropping in" as other characters I have played in the past because I have a 15-minute preshow where I am improvising with the audience and other characters. That helps get me where I need to be by the time the show starts, since I have already been in character for 25 minutes or more. Also I go to the gym, come to the theatre, stretch and warm up for the show, and listen to some metal and hip hop.
Any particular audience reaction so far take you by surprise?
Oh, there has been so much. To give you a great idea of what can happen - the Trevor in the West End once approached a young boy to say, "Hey, our dog is missing. Have you seen him?" and the young boy said, "Kill yourself." And that is what we are working with at least once every show. Also, during the show in Canada, a lady laughed so hard she developed a hiccup attack, and couldn't stop for the entire second half of the first act. That was great, as well.
What emotions would make you the happiest for the Ahmanson audiences to leave with after your curtain call?
Honestly, this show is all about spreading joy. It is pure escapism at its finest. Just come in and have a good laugh for two hours. We all really need that right now.
Thank you again, Brandon! I look forward to the hilarity you get right in WRONG!
For ticket availability and show schedule at the Ahmanson through August 11, 2019; log onto www.centertheatregroup.org
For other tour dates and ticket availability through May, 2020, log onto broadwaygoeswrong.com