BWW Interview: Meet Michael Williams
Next week, the Memphis Orpheum will teem with gun-toting lugs in pinstripes and dazzling Jazz Age chorines, as the National Tour of BULLETS OVER BROADWAY takes the stage. This roaring twenties crime comedy, based on Woody Allen's 1994 film by the same title, was adapted for theatre with Susan Stroman's guidance. In Allen's film, the lead character, David Shayne, was played by John Cusack. In this national tour, that role will be played by a young actor named Michael Williams.
I was surprised to learn that Williams was cast at the end of his final year at Webster Conservatory of Theatre Arts in Saint Louis--a time when most new Theatre grads are grateful to land a part in summer stock, a cruise ship gig, or a ensemble role on a tour. First thing I did was Google him.
That search called up a website that included this brief clip which shows craft, charisma and connection aka star quality. Put simply, Williams is someone other people like to watch.
I caught up with this twenty three year-old actor by phone in Chicago. He was courteous, engaging, and fun. Here's some of what was said:
CS: You went from school to a coveted role. How did this happen so quickly?
MW: Near the end of our last semester, I performed in a showcase in New York City. Through that I met an employee of Don Buchwald & Associates, Inc. who told me to come in. When I got there, nobody was available to see me, and so they sent me to into one of their studios. I performed a monologue and an acappella song in front of a camera. Within a few days they sent that tape out to several casting directors in New York -- one of them was casting BULLETS OVER BROADWAY. I then got a call specifically for the role of David Shayne.
CS: What happened after that?
MW: It was a very condensed audition process. I Read for the Director, Jeff Whiting, on Tuesday. I had a dance audition Wednesday. I read for Woody Allen's Writing Team and Susan Stroman on Thursday. Friday, I was back in St. Louis and got the call telling me I had the part.
CS: You had yet to graduate. Did you leave school and go right into rehearsal?
MW: No. Fortunately graduation was in May, and rehearsal started the last day of August.
CS: How long was the rehearsal process?
MW: My rehearsal schedule was three weeks. The chorus got four. We then had tech for a week in Utica, and we opened in Cleveland, Ohio.
CS: Three weeks isn't much time from start to finish. Did you feel a lot of pressure?
MW: Well. . . it was a short time, but the director, Jeff Whiting, created a very nurturing and creative environment. Beyond that, I have appreciated this show as a trial by fire experience. Being thrown out into the world and having to do it, you have no choice but to rise to the occasion, and do whatever you've been tasked with.
CS: What did you do independently to prepare before rehearsals started?
MW: My first priority was making sure I had my own part as solid as possible beforehand. In addition. we got a pretty solid dramaturgy packet from Susan Stroman. She had researched the 1920's very well. As we progressed, I also independently studied the music and culture of that era, and the style of Woody Allen's writing. I wanted to understand the truth of that world as well as the individual truth of the character.
CS: What can you say about the individual truth of the character David Shayne?
MW: I like to bring a lot of myself to every character I'm playing. I can identify with David Shayne, particularly with his need for things to be ideal. When they're not ideal, he is troubled a bit. I don't agree with all of this character's choices. He makes a lot of mistakes, but I relate to his sense of wanting everything to be just right very, very much.
CS: What do you find most challenging about this role?
MW: David is a zero to 100 kind of guy, which is fun to play, but it can be a exhausting to go back and forth between the two extremes.
CS: Do you find comedy a challenging?
MW: The main challenge playing David Shayne isn't to make him funny. He is funny. Even though he contains every single one of those iconic Woody Allen neuroses. He is a foil to every one of the other crazy characters in the show. Even though he has his own meltdowns, he has to interact with bold characters. The challenge is maintaining that middle ground and being a straight man.
CS: How has your performance evolved?
MW: My performance has evolved during the tour in terms of my ownership of it. It's very hard for me as a performer to be happy with the work that I put out. Mostly because it can always be better. Even thought my performance has solidified, I would like to think it continues to evolve show by show.
CS: How would you describe that evolution?
MW: I think a performance evolves mostly by listening to what everyone is saying and observing the minutiae of what everyone is doing. The comedic things we practiced don't always keep working if the dynamic becomes predictable, so I change them just to keep them fresh. I try to come at the show from a slightly new angle every time. I can do this because the drive and commitment of my cast mates are there in spades. They value the solidity of the show.
CS: When I hear about drive and commitment, I always think of the understudy who commits to a part they may not perform. Tell us about yours.
MW: I have had two great understudies who have learned the entire role: Patrick Graver and Ian Saunders. There have been only two occasions when I had to call for one: A day in New Brunswick I remember pretty vividly when I was not vocally where I had to be. Also, in January when my grandmother passed away.
CS: Being apart from family--particularly at a time like that--can be difficult. Is this your first tour?
MW: Yes. This is my very first time on tour.
CS: Are you enjoying it?
MW: Very much! I have appreciated and loved exploring every single city we've been in, because most of them are places I would never have thought to go.
CS: What has the experience taught you so far?
MW: I've picked up a lot more practical world knowledge just by being on the road and having to do the work. In addition to the tour being a good trial by fire experience as a performer, it has been a good trial by fire experience for me as a person.
CS: Can you give me an example of this?
MW: (Laughs) Yes. Here's a simple example: I learned that I should have accounted for all types of weather. Since it's spring in Texas and Saint Louis, I packed light by way of winter clothing and neglected to bring a heavier jacket. I also learned throughout the first couple of legs of the trip that you can pack lighter clothing-wise than you think--except for the jacket.
CS: Apart from packing the right clothes, how do you keep yourself together on the road?
MW: The crux of it is making sure I've had adequate amount of rest as well as adequate time spent all by myself. I try, depending on the locale, to work out every day, and also to do some touristy things and explore every city.
C.S.: Do you read on the road?
CS: Before that?
CS: If we can assume that Steve Martin was "Born Standing Up," can we assume that you were born performing?
MW: (Laughs) That wouldn't be too much of a departure. If I hadn't been an actor, I would have been concert singer. I like to write music in my spare time as well.
CS: Where did you develop your love of music?
MW: I grew up in the church back home in Houston. I think my parents' love of worship and gospel music is what really got me into music as well.
CS: What about dance?
MW: I didn't start studying dance formally until my senior year of high school.
CS: I understand this show has a lot of dancing.
MW: It's a very heavy dance show, but my role isn't a heavy dance role. A lot of my rehearsal time was spent with them telling me to rein myself in.
CS: Do you remember the first time you were ever on stage?
MW: The first performance I specifically remember--though there may have been others--was when I was the narrator of my Thanksgiving play in first grade. I thought I had an intuition for how the lines should be said. In first grade that just meant loud, so I was very loud. I'm sure some of the parents have it on video somewhere.
CS: Speaking of parents, were your parents in support of your career choice?
MW: I'm the oldest of three children. My parents were concerned about my choice simply because it's financially risky. My dad's an Engineer. My parents stressed the importance of education, so academia was always very important to me. Once my career choice was clear, though, my parents wanted to make sure I was properly prepared every step of the way.
CS: How do your parents feel about your career now?
MW: (Laughs) I think my parents were more excited about me getting the tour than I was.
CS: Any words of wisdom for other young or aspiring actors?
MW: As actors our self worth is always in question because the work is us. You can't really hold it against an actor for being insecure at any time. Whether they work or don't work often depends on whether or not somebody likes them. Every day I have to remind myself that the work I'm doing is good, that I have a place within this cast, and that I don't have to justify my work or my approach to it. I have to approach the work with a grounded sense of self worth. Otherwise I'm not going to enjoy it. Nothing else really matters. You have to believe in what you're doing and be happy about what it. Otherwise you shouldn't be doing it.
Michael's headshot by Lance Tilford
Production photos by Matthew Murphy