100 Reasons (More or Less) You Should Know Jeremy Shamos

I knew I wanted to interview Jeremy Shamos when I felt a lump in my throat for the second time while watching 100 Saints You Should Know at Playwrights Horizons last September. The first lump came during the monologue in which Shamos' character, Matthew, a priest who's been suspended for possessing pictures of naked men, explains how he was drawn to the photos because he's lonely. Then, two scenes later, there was the tender moment in a hospital waiting room when Theresa (Janel Moloney), the cleaning woman at Matthew's church, offers to comfort him the way she does her young daughter: by massaging his scalp as he sits on the floor in front of her. Unlike all the real-life stories about misbehaving priests and the fictional material they've inspired, these depicted a priest in a sexual crisis without hysteria, without mockery. Shamos' Father McNally was not a pervert; he was a man who'd been forced to feel alienated from his own body and was longing for a human touch, and Shamos played him with pitch-perfect sensitivity.

100 Reasons (More or Less) You Should Know Jeremy ShamosThis actor who nearly moved me to tears was the same actor I had last seen cavorting in the meta-silliness of Gutenberg! The Musical! I'd also seen him on Broadway—in the Restoration comedy The Rivals at Lincoln Center. That's Jeremy Shamos for you: He works a lot, and in almost every genre. This season he's starred in two new plays, 100 Saints and the current Hunting and Gathering (running through March 1 at Primary Stages). But he's also played Rosencrantz in Hamlet at the Public Theater and Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream at Williamstown. And he's done some classical roles rife with physical comedy—in, for example, The Bungler at New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre and Scapin at the Court Theatre in Chicago (both by Molière) and in The Alchemist by Ben Jonson at Classic Stage Company here in New York. Then he returned to CSC for the Nazi drama Race. He's been in whacked-out comedies like Christopher Durang's Miss Witherspoon and The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged) and deadly serious fare like Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, about a doomed Irish platoon in World War I, and The Grey Zone, which is set in Auschwitz.

After Hunting and Gathering, Shamos will be in the new musical play Paris Commune, produced by the Civilians at the Public Lab. It's scheduled to run April 5-20 and will also feature actress Nina Hellman, Shamos' girlfriend. They're both Obie winners: Shamos for the 19th-century farce Engaged, which was staged by Theatre for a New Audience in 2004, and Hellman for last season's Trouble in Paradise, in which Shamos also appeared. They're also the parents of 8-month-old Lena and new homeowners, getting ready to move from a Manhattan apartment to their house in Brooklyn later this year.

Shamos, who's also been seen on Broadway in the 2004 revival of Reckless, won a Connecticut Critics Circle Award in 2001 for his multiple roles in the world premiere of Baptiste: The Life of Molière, by William Luce, at Hartford Stage. He was honored by the New York Musical Theatre Festival with an award for Outstanding Individual Performance, for Gutenberg!'s original run at NYMF in 2006. More recently, he's had a recurring role on the Glenn Close TV series Damages. Playing an associate of attorney Zeljko Ivanek, Shamos was supposed to be in several episodes but had to be cut out of all but one or two episodes due to his theater commitments (another character may be created for him to play in the future). This in-demand and versatile actor took time to speak with me about his craft and his enviable career.

100 Reasons (More or Less) You Should Know Jeremy ShamosYou do new plays, classics, comedy and drama. Is there a certain type of character you prefer to play?
One thing I've been lucky about is that I haven't really been locked in to playing any particular type of character, or even a particular genre. Typecasting is such an easy thing to have happen, to anyone. Especially if you do well in something and people like what you do, they want to use you in a similar way. I think that happened to me a lot [earlier]. I do a lot of physical comedy, and there was sort of a time when I was always being called in to be, like, the comic guy that plays a bunch of different characters. It's hard to maintain flexibility in the business and have people see you in different ways. One day in [Hunting and Gathering] rehearsal, I was joking around and I jumped over a prop or something—did like a goofy, clownish physical move. And Leigh Silverman, the director, was like, "Uh, I didn't know you could do that." Meanwhile, in my mind, I thought that's all people thought I could do.
I was really happy to have gotten cast in 100 Saints You Should Know because it didn't have an incredible amount of comedy—it was a sad character, a fairly sad play, although there were funny parts of it. At Playwrights Horizons two years before, I'd been in Christopher Durang's play [Miss Witherspoon] and I didn't do anything particularly serious in that play. It's a tribute to Playwrights Horizons that they're willing to see people for all kinds of roles, but it also excites me to be able to do as many different types of things as I can.
I wish there were a rep company in the city. That would fit what I would love to do: one night do something, and then the next night do something completely different. That would be the best. But there isn't such a thing.

Have you thought about starting one?
[Sighs] It's so hard to start a theater company in New York. When I first got out of college, I was in a group of people who tried to start a theater company. We workshopped The Three Sisters for a long time, so you can imagine what that was like.

100 Reasons (More or Less) You Should Know Jeremy ShamosYou seemed perfectly cast in 100 Saints. Did you just happen to audition for that, or did someone have you in mind for the role?
I was called in to audition. I'm not sure that they really thought I had much of a chance of getting it, only because most of the people involved think of me as a comic actor. It's funny that you say I was perfect for it: It was an Irish-American priest and I'm, like, a Russian Jew. So I don't know that I'm "genetically" perfect for it, but I understood it and so I was really drawn to it when I read it and I was excited to audition. It took a long time to cast that role, so it wasn't like a thing where I walked in and they were like "This is the guy." I think it was hard for them to be convinced that I could do it. I had a callback 24 hours after my daughter was born. I hadn't slept in 50-something hours, I was just sort of...out of my mind. But I really loved the play, so I went. I still had my hospital band on my wrist. I'm really glad that I got the opportunity to do it. It was a great cast, and it was a great experience.

In 100 Saints, you played a priest; in Hunting and Gathering, you play a philandering husband, a professor who's having an affair with a student. Do you feel there are similarities between the two characters?
I think they have a lot in common. There's a sadness and a loneliness in both of them. But also in both of them there's kind of a hope and a reaching out and trying to make the best of a situation. Both of them have a lot in common in terms of the guilt that they feel. The priest in 100 Saints had an incredible amount of guilt about what he had done—and he was also hiding from his mother the real circumstances of him leaving the church—and the character in Hunting and Gathering has the same sort of guilt. It's like: how you deal with the choices that you make. In both cases, a lot of the struggle of the character is to try to feel comfortable with themselves, with the choices that they've made, and to try and be in a relationship with other people as the person that they've accepted that they are.

100 Reasons (More or Less) You Should Know Jeremy ShamosAt the end of Hunting and Gathering, do you want the audience to feel sorry for your character, Jesse, or should we be thinking "Ha ha, that's what you get"?
Well, I hope not "ha ha"! I don't think I would ever intentionally play a character so that people felt sorry for him. It's probably not responsible of me as an actor, but some nights I feel like I leave that last scene somewhat hopeful and some nights it hits me in a different way and I don't feel hopeful. I don't know if that makes the audience feel a certain way. Brooke [Berman], who wrote the play, feels like all the plays that she writes are meant to raise questions and not to give an opinion about how people should feel or think. With that as a model, I definitely don't feel it's my responsibility, and I wouldn't even know how to make people go away thinking "This is what you should feel about the character."

Have you turned down jobs?
I've turned down things I've been offered, but mostly because they were either out of town or I have something else that I'm more excited about. Those are the only times I've turned down other offers. But I have turned down auditions just because I think "I basically just did that," at a very similar theater or something, and I didn't want to keep doing that.
I wish that I had so much control of my choices and my career as being able to handpick the next thing that I do. There have been times for sure where I've said "I have been doing that a lot lately." One example is there was a time where I was playing a lot of multiple characters. I was sort of being the guy who played five different funny guys. And then I auditioned to do a similar thing in Is He Dead?, [the parts] that David Pittu ended up doing. So it's not like I think I am the master of playing many different characters and I want to master something else. I actually wanted to do that.
It's a crazy business that way. The majority of the time—or all the time—I find that if I want to do something and I don't get it, I end up doing something else that I really love and I think: Wow, if I had gotten that other thing, I wouldn't have even tried out for this. It's not Pollyanna-ish; it actually is the way that it ends up being. There's such a great creative community in New York, so if one thing doesn't work out, there's usually something else.

Where did you develop your flair for physical comedy?
It's kind of in my bones. I'm kind of a goofball, although I can be dry and more serious. But if I'm given the right role, it [the physical comedy] just sort of comes out naturally. I did a commedia show with a great teacher named Chris Bayes, and then after graduate school we did it again. So I have been trained in it, but it's sort of a natural part of me. I don't know why.

100 Reasons (More or Less) You Should Know Jeremy ShamosDid you always want to be an actor?
I did. I was born in New York, but I was raised in Colorado. I was in shows at the Denver Center when I was young. My parents were very supportive, 'cause my parents were native New Yorkers who always loved going to theater. I don't know what else I would have done—which is sort of a disturbing thought.
It's worked out, but there was a time after I graduated from undergrad, I was doing a ton of shows downtown—I was always in one show, and sometimes I was in two, and a lot of times I was rehearsing one and then doing a show at 8 o'clock and then doing a show at 11 o'clock. This was all on the Lower East Side, before it was like Soho, and I was actually a little bit scared to go to rehearsal. I wasn't really getting paid much and my parents were helping me. It was a great experience, but it was a hard life and I started to wonder—or I started to know that I couldn't do this as an adult unless I started to actually get paid. After two years, I applied to NYU graduate acting because when I started going to see shows uptown, or where I assumed people were actually getting paid money, I noticed that everyone who was working had gone to graduate school. I didn't apply anywhere else, and I thought: If I don't get in, then I really might take some time off and try to be a documentary filmmaker. As if there's money in that! It was like: I'm not making money acting, so I think I'll be a poet.

100 Reasons (More or Less) You Should Know Jeremy ShamosWhat would you say has been your most challenging role?
I found 100 Saints challenging when I first was approaching it. Because I'd been doing so many comic roles, there were moments inside of myself that I was not positive that I would be able to deliver some of those emotional moments, or really allow myself to live in those moments. What I'm talking about with this typecasting thing, you also kind of typecast yourself. You read something and you're like, "I can't do that!" One thing that we learned at NYU, and also that most actors that I've talked to feel, is that you can do anything. People will always tell you that you can't, but there's a vast amount of characters in you. When I first started rehearsing 100 Saints, I was questioning: Maybe I just don't do this.
Another thing that comes to my mind is in my last year of graduate school, Barry Edelstein came to NYU to direct Othello and I got cast as Iago. I was honestly not sure that I was going to be able to memorize it and make sense of it. It's such a huge role, and challenging. It turned out to be by far the most satisfying thing I had done in graduate school.

Since getting your MFA, you've worked almost nonstop.
The first job I got out of school, I was in the park in Andrei Serban's production of Cymbeline. I was, literally, a spear carrier. Before that even ended, I was in Corpus Christi at Manhattan Theatre Club. Thankfully, ever since I haven't really been unemployed for more than a month or two at a time here or there.

You're one of those actors who shatter the stereotype of chronic unemployment. What's that like?
It's a really hard thing, even when you know what you're going into next, to let one go. Especially when you love it. And even when you don't love the play, you—I'll speak for myself, I tend to really love the people that I'm working with. I know it's a cliché that they're like little families, but it's true. That's the hard part of going from job to job, it's really like leaving little families behind. That's what I mean by a rep company. I know that it's probably not economically feasible, but it would be great: I think about shows that I've done in the past, and it would be great if someone was like, "Next Wednesday, we're doing that play again." There's certain shows that I would love to be on stage with those people again, I would love to be doing those plays again.

100 Reasons (More or Less) You Should Know Jeremy ShamosWhat's one of those shows?
Engaged was such a special show. John Christopher Jones, who's working on The Seagull right now at CSC, just came to see Hunting and Gathering and I saw him afterward. He was in Engaged, and when I see him I always think about that play. And I said something to him like "I really miss Engaged." He looked at me really seriously and said, "Those kinds of things only come around once in a lifetime." Which sent a chill through my spine, 'cause I was like, "That was it?!"

Why was Engaged so special?
It's an incredible play that W.S. Gilbert—of Gilbert and Sullivan—wrote. Nobody really knows about it except for theater scholars. Oscar Wilde ripped a lot of it off, and he probably admitted it, because he was a big fan of the play. It's like the grandfather of Importance of Being Earnest and all those kinds of plays. It was a great role, a great company. It was directed by Doug Hughes—I just love him. I've done three or four plays with him. All the designers won Obie Awards. It was just a magical sort of perfect storm—a special thing.
I did a play at the Huntington [Theatre in Boston] called Springtime for Henry that Ben Hecht wrote in the '30s. Edward Everett Horton had played the role that Chris Fitzgerald was playing. Doing research about the play, it turns out that Edward Everett Horton had done the show for 30 years. He would go and tour it, and he would direct it too. I talked to Marian Seldes and she said that she did it when she was young, with, I think, Christopher Plummer and Edward Everett Horton in the Bahamas or Bermuda or something. Edward Everett Horton was in his mid-60s and he was still doing it. It was supposed to be a guy in his 30s. That's not the way that I intend to be with a play like Engaged. But there are things that would be fun to revisit—the people, the text and the productions.100 Reasons (More or Less) You Should Know Jeremy Shamos

You've worked repeatedly with certain directors—Doug Hughes, Mark Brokaw, Barry Edelstein, Nicholas Martin, Andrei Serban. What's it like doing a play with people you've already worked with, as opposed to one where everybody is new to you?
I really like collaborating with directors, and if they like collaborating with me, it just makes the process so much faster and easier. It seems like a huge part of directing, after casting, is interpersonal. I've observed in my time in the theater that people can sometimes have personal issues with their own egos or things that can get in the way of communication. If you've already established that you can get along and collaborate, it saves a lot of energy. There's a certain amount in the first weeks of rehearsal of "If I give you this note, or if I have this thought, is that going to offend the way that you work?" People have a way that they approach a role, and if the director says something, it might not even be an ego thing, it might be just "I don't work that way, I don't think of my character that way." I tend to be pretty flexible about the way that I work because I like smart people who want to collaborate. I think it's an advantage because you start on day one knowing that you can say whatever you want to each other and you know how you work, so you can actually get more work done. It's the same with other actors too. There's no feeling like "Am I going to step on your toes if I ask you about this moment?" or "Am I going to hurt your feelings if I say 'this moment isn't working' or 'let's do this...'?"

100 Reasons (More or Less) You Should Know Jeremy ShamosAre there any actors you look to as idols or role models?
I tend to really admire the actors that I'm working with. When I'm in a play, I love working with actors who are older than me and just watching them—like Lois Smith [who played his mother in 100 Saints]. When I go to see a play, I'm still usually able to feel like just an audience member. I loved August: Osage County. I saw it twice, within five days. I admired all those people. When I go to see good actors in plays, I'm not in on their craft. When I'm working with them, I can actually see how they work. So I'm a huge Christopher Fitzgerald fan, because I've worked with him so much and I've been there from the beginning and I've seen what he can do. I feel the same way about Nina.
I'm a Marian Seldes fan because I've known her for a long time and she's always been so supportive of me. I think she's just a treasure. She went to school from 1st through 12th grade with my aunt, so I met her when I first came to New York and wanted to be an actor. I love watching Cherry Jones. We've done a ton of readings together and we speak, but she's a person who I've always wanted to work with but I've never had the chance to.

You've done two Broadway shows that had limited runs. Are you trying to get more Broadway credits onto your résumé?
Is He Dead? is a play I auditioned for. They cast those two guys in The 39 Steps who are a little older than me—I auditioned for that. And for Mike Nichols' Country Girl coming up—I auditioned to play the writer; Remy Auberjonois got the part.
It seems there are more and more straight plays on Broadway, but a lot of times if they don't come from England, they come with as many stars as they can bring. So a lot of times there's just one or two roles that are available to the "common man" like myself. Although I said earlier that I feel like I can do anything, I'm not so stupid to think that if there's a male role, then I could do it. There are things that I'm not right for all the time. So the chances of there being a Broadway show that there's a role for me in are small. If I branched more into musicals, there'd obviously be more opportunities. Maybe that's my next move, if I don't start a rep company.

Photos of Jeremy, from top: in a poignant scene in 100 Saints You Should Know, with Janel Moloney; with Michael Chernus (left) in Hunting and Gathering; being upstaged by his baby daughter, Lena; with Mamie Gummer in Hunting and Gathering; acting opposite girlfriend Nina Hellman in Trouble in Paradise; with Kristine Nielsen in Miss Witherspoon; in his Obie-winning role in Engaged, with Caitlin Muelder (left) and Nicole Lowrance; with Lois Smith in 100 Saints; with Christopher Fitzgerald in Gutenberg! The Musical! [Photo credits: 100 Saints You Should Know and Miss Witherspoon, Joan Marcus; Hunting and Gathering, James Leynse; Engaged, Gerry Goodstein; Gutenberg!, James Ambler]

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