BWW Interview: Keith Pinto of THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW at San Jose Stage Company Unleashes His Inner Vaudevillian
Keith Pinto is one of those fortunate stage actors who seems to work almost constantly. If you attend Bay Area theater with any regularity, chances are you've seen him, most likely in a role that showcases his energetic performance style and talent for movement. His latest role is the iconic "sweet transvestite" Frank-N-Furter in San Jose Stage Company's new production of "The Rocky Horror Show." This is quite a far cry from the mild-mannered Harry Bright he played most recently in SJ Stage Co's "Mamma Mia." Mr. Pinto recently chatted with BroadwayWorld about his process while he was between rehearsals. In conversation, he is very chatty, unguarded and quick to laugh. The following has been edited for length.
Like a lot of folks, I'm super familiar with the "Rocky Horror Picture Show" but I've actually never seen the stage version, which preceded the film by a couple of years. How similar or different are they?
I also have not seen the stage version or even the movie in a movie theater - I've only seen it on DVD or on TV. So I'm aware of differences, but I don't know them viscerally. The main thing, if you've only listened to the soundtrack over and over like I have, is that you don't get all the callbacks, all the things that the audience screams at you while you are performing. And that's kind of huge, truly as important as any aspect of the show, and something that makes it a cult classic. So it's definitely going to be interesting when we get our first audience! We have a number of people in the cast who have done the show before, and so they are communicating with the rest of us about things that people could possibly say at any given moment, or talking about lines where you need to pause in a specific place because there could be a callback.
That's got to be tricky.
Yeah, to a certain extent all theater is like that, especially if you're doing comedy because when the audience laughs you need to let them laugh or you could squash their feeling and they could stop laughing. But you can't assume they're gonna laugh. But this is a way more intense version of that so we'll see how it goes! [laughs]
It's hard to believe, but this show was written 46 years ago. In that time, the world at large has thankfully learned a lot about gender and sexual orientation. What do you hope audiences will take away from this show in 2019?
I think unfortunately as far as we've come, we still have a lot farther to go, and sometimes it feels like one step forward and two steps back. It is about being your authentic self, but it's through the lens of like 50's/60's sci-fi monsters, people on the fringe of society and aliens. And all of those classic monster movies are about social fears. I don't know if the message is fully understood in the story, [so much as] in the aesthetic of what's happening - a celebration of letting yourself be whatever you want to be. But when everyone has their breakthrough that leads to like a weird orgy, it's because they're under a spell and they're forced to do it. So it's funny how the story works, and I don't even know if I can fully wrap my head around it until we're doing it with people in the audience.
Tim Curry's performance in the film is so iconic. How you put that behind you and create your own Frank-N-Furter?
Well, to be perfectly frank (ha-ha!) - partly you don't. I mean with a piece like this, whether you're doing it in the show where there's no movie, or you're doing the "Picture Show" and it's in front of the movie, there is this feeling that you are acting out what it WAS more specifically than, say, doing Romeo & Juliet, right? Where you're like playing this character that everyone has played, but you're really just doing your own thing. Of course, I want to bring my own qualities to it, and there's definitely aspects of the character that I'm enjoying that I don't think Tim really did, but at its heart - I mean I hesitate to say it, but I'll say it anyway - it's definitely a love letter to him. I've listened to the Roxy [original LA] cast recording for like for 20-plus years, and so I can't really get that out of my head. There are many choices that I'm like - you know what, I'm just doin' it like Tim because I just want to! I guess it's a slippery slope and hopefully people won't feel like all I'm doing is just copying, but on a certain level I don't really care [laughs]. I just love it so much I want to do it the way I do it, you know? And vocally, his quality of singing, I'm definitely trying to find that resonance that he had. As far as certain lines that he would speak and others he would sing, some of 'em - yeah I'm gonna do my own thing.
The character of Frank-N-Furter is so outrageous and over the top. How do you know when you've taken him too far? Is that even possible?
I don't know if it's possible. For sure, the director Allison Rich, who's also in the show, has been working with me on the nuance of the character. I'm definitely someone who likes high theatrics and style, and I have a lot of energy with my movement, with my vocal quality. I'm definitely into the mad scientist side of the character. In those moments I guess if I was channeling someone I would say Gene Wilder. But it is a fine line and you have to know how to really get into the peaks and valleys of what the story is. Something Allison was talking to me about the other day was "We have to like him at first and almost think that he's the hero." So that's something that's kind of interesting. I want to like scream everything and just bellow and have super-erratic movements, you know. I'm really enjoying the idea that he's not human; he's an alien.
Frank-N-Furter is a dream role for many actors. This may be a touchy question to ask you when you're still in the middle of the rehearsal process, but is there any aspect of the character that just like terrifies you?
You know the thing that terrifies me the most - and it's not really an aspect of the character, it's more just a technical thing - is the shoes, walking in the heels. I'd never done heel work like this before. I was in the [San Jose] Stage's production of "Hedwig" two summers ago, but I didn't have a real drag platform heel. They gave me a sneaker wedge, which was a really nice thing they did for me. I had a heel, but it was also really cushiony so I could jump around the stage like a punk rocker. But for this they have me in a real drag performer platform with a giant heel. They're chunky, they're not stilettos, but still it's crazy. My calves and my hamstrings are like "What is happening?!" So that truly is the thing that keeps me up at night for the show. I don't want to look like I've never worn heels, so it's been an interesting learning curve, let's just put it that way. [laughs]
You won a Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle Award last year for your performance as 1930's Cockney song and dance man Bill Snibson in "Me & My Girl." You've also, as you mentioned, played the title role in "Hedwig" - and you perform and teach Hip Hop. How do you manage to pull off such disparate styles of movement? How do you develop a specific physicality for each role that is tailored to the style of that particular piece?
Well, I trained dancewise in jazz, tap, ballet, & hip-hop. And I love vaudeville, I'm definitely a student of the game as that goes. I love the Marx Brothers, I grew up on Laurel & Hardy, I love Looney Tunes so those types of things I can't get enough of. For someone like Bill Snibson, it's character work and I really do think of myself as a character actor even if I'm playing more of an ingenue-type character, which I really don't do much anymore because I'm a bit "long in the tooth." I do try to approach all my [roles] as real character acting. I think about where's their center of gravity? Where does the movement come from? What part of their personality is leading that? And that's just fun! I love doing that kind of thing. Last year I played Sweeney Todd at Hillbarn, and it's like how does a broken serial killer move?
For roles like Sweeney, Starbuck in "110 in the Shade" or The Baker in "Into the Woods," which aren't really dance roles, do you approach them in the same way physically as you would, say, Don Lockwood in "Singin' in the Rain" - which you've also played?
I mean in a certain way, yes! You want that movement quality to be as effortless and muscle-memorized as a dance combination. If you're thinking about the choreography then you're not where you need to be. It's gotta be in your body so you can do all the other 10 million things that you need to do. Maybe it's whether your hips are back or whether they're tucked under. Do you hunch your shoulders? If someone calls your name, how do you look to the side? It's just all that kind of stuff.
I would assume your dancer's training teaches you how to be aware of all the different parts of your body, have a sense of where they are, and then know how to manipulate them.
Exactly! And you know, acting is about specificity. So just as you need to specifically learn the words you need to specifically learn the language of the movement. It's all part of it and it all fits together. And, yeah, it's super fun! I could get super nerdy about it.
One last question - Sweeney Todd, Frank-N-Furter, Bill Snibson, Starbuck, Hedwig, Don Lockwood and the Baker. Which one is closest to your authentic self?
Because I don't see a through-line.
You know what's closest to my authentic self? It was Snoopy [in "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown"], When I played Snoopy at 42nd Street Moon years ago, I played him more like Bugs Bunny - he's always a step ahead of you and setting you up. But truthfully, I don't think that's my authentic self. I don't know what my authentic self is. Maybe my authentic self is like playing a video game on the couch with a bourbon. [laughs] You know, I'm just such a performer and to a certain extent feel like I was born in the wrong era because really I should be a vaudeville actor. But yeah, it's kind of hard to know what my authentic self is in that way, how it relates to characters I've played.
Looking at that list of characters again, I'm thinking maybe the through-line is that they all need a real performer. These are not shy retiring characters that just sit in the background.
I played Bobby in "Company" at SF Playhouse years ago, and that was a really interesting character because he kind of does, like not sit in the background, but almost. Each scene is him observing his friends and listening a lot, and that was interesting trying to figure out what that physicality was. I actually was very specific and purposeful with it, and it's one of those things I don't even know if anyone really got it, you know? But I was really very into that physicality of the person that's just watching.
(photo provided by Mr. Pinto)
"The Rocky Horror Show" runs from Wednesday, October 2nd through Sunday, November 3rd at San Jose Stage Company, 490 S. 1st Street, San Jose, CA. Tickets can be purchased through the Box Office at (408) 283-7142 or online at www.thestage.org.