Gets Into Character
Raúl Esparza is one of Broadway’s brightest major stars, an actor unafraid to take on a plethora of roles. The 39 year-old Miami native started in community theatre in his Florida hometown before studying at NYU. He then migrated to Chicago, where he worked with the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, and later joined the national tour of Evita in 1999 before landing at the Great White Way. He soon was snaring choice parts, including leads in Sunday In The Park With George and Merrily We Roll Along (at the Kennedy Center’s Sondheim Celebration), along with starring roles in Taboo, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Company, The Homecoming and Speed-the-Plow. He also recently co-starred with Anne Hathaway in Twelfth Night as part of the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in Central Park.
Raúl Esparza: I didn’t see the original. The last three shows I've done I haven't done any research. Having come from an English major’s background, one of my favorite things about doing plays is always doing dramaturgical work and research and thinking about the world you’re playing in. I spent 10 days in London before Taboo. I went to France for a week and spent days with the man I was playing in Taboo. I went to those clubs, met those people, walked around SoHo with the prostitutes and the cops and the nightclubs and all of the things that were part of the world in the play.
With Company, John Doyle was such a great director. He goes from a different place where it's very clear that he’s not making it up as it goes along but he has a sense of where he wants to head and we’ll figure it out together. It's like performing without a net in a wonderful way because a lot of those books you carry around and the research you do can't put off the inevitable—that eventually I’m going to have to write this piece and say these lines. You can read all the books that you want about it, but you’re still going have to say those lines. It won't stop you from sucking, and it also won’t make you a better actor. There are talismans you carry around, and for me it was trying to ward off a lack of talent. I assumed that if I only paid more attention in acting class and read Stanislavski that maybe I would be a better actor, so every project I do I go back and pick up some acting tome, assuming that maybe there's a chapter I've missed. Then halfway through I decide that this is nonsense and throw it over my shoulder. And that's it.
I need to go through the process, although I didn't do it on The Homecoming, Company, or Speed-the-Plow. These writers are so great that you know who the character is and know the world simply by the way they speak and behave. One of the things people would say to me at the stage door for Speed-the-Plow, but I never thought of, I would be asked repeatedly, "Do you do a lot of cocaine before you do the show? You must do lots of coke." I would laugh, as if anybody could do that because they would drop dead on stage. But I realized that this guy Charlie is probably a total cokehead, but that wasn't anything I was conscious of. It's entirely in the way David wrote him. You do that language and do it at a certain speed, and of course he is. The switches in subject and the speed he's going at it. Of course he is. Why was he up all night? But you don’t think about that. You're just delivering the performance, and don't worry about the background, and the language just takes care of itself. I think you can do that with great writers.
Laura Bauer did the costumes and put me in this outfit for the first act that I actually didn’t like because I didn’t like the way it made me feel, but she was totally right. She put me in these shoes and no socks and these pleated pants, stripped Armani shirt, loose blazer, these weird sunglasses, and this spiky hair. I looked at myself in the mirror and I knew that guy. He lives in Westwood but says its Beverly Hills. If it's 1988 he’s driving a 1987 Porsche convertible he can't afford. He has one of those giant cellphones and does so many drugs to stay up all night that he can barely think straight. He's into debt up to his eyeballs and can't get into the nightclubs but has to get into the nightclubs to meet people. So he must pay people to get in through the door. He's this loser who’s terrible with women but comes on really hard. All of this from the lines and just looking at myself in the mirror. I didn’t like it. I felt uncomfortable and kept wanting to change the costume. It made me feel like this guy's a creep, and I don't want to be a creep. I don't want to be that guy. I never had such a strong reaction to it. I don't know what it was. I wanted him to be cool. He’s not cool.
I seem to have made a career out of a lot of revivals here in New York. The only original role I’ve created on Broadway was in Taboo, and that had been done previously in London. Revivals in a way are safe but also more challenging. They’re safe because it’s been done before so you know the show works, otherwise they wouldn't be doing it again. You have a template you can go off of, and I kind of like that because it's a little bit like having a cookbook. You know the way the recipe should turn out, but you're going to make some adjustments. That's comforting. It’s the closest you can come to feeling any sort of structure in the way you might create a show. But then you also have to throw that all away because the other side of it is a revival get scary because the only good revivals are the ones that make you feel like you’re seeing something that’s never been done before.
In the case of something like Chitty, which I guess was an original role that I created here for the New York stage, I was very aware of Dick Van Dyke because it was the one element for me that was most missing from the stage production. There’s that kind of great, old vaudeville style exuberance, that kind of classic performance quality that Dick Van Dyke embodies for me. He's a real showman. There are skills that certain people have that were nurtured in the mid 20th-century that disappeared from the stage in New York. Dick Van Dyke started on stage. What it really means to be a triple threat, and we have very few of them, to be able to sing and act and dance, is very rare and is just not required of you anymore.
Except when you're doing Company or Sweeney Todd.
In the case of Rocky Horror, there was no way I was going to be Richard O'Brien and no way I was going to recreate the movie. I was even terrified to audition for it. I didn't think I belonged in it. It was my first show in New York. I had only been six months in New York, I got my first job in a Broadway show playing a lead, what am I going to complain about? You take it for those reasons. It was a great opportunity—and you worry about the fear later.
What was it like working with Stephen Sondheim on Company?
That's the third time I've worked with Sondheim. I've done Sunday In The Park With George and Merrily We Roll Along with him. I was hired to do Assassins, but that was cancelled due to September 11th. By the time they produced it I was on to another show.
He's been one of the biggest influences in my life. The best thing about working with Sondheim is he expects so much of himself and won’t expect anything less from you if he believes you have the talent to deliver. His standards are ridiculously, impossibly high. He will never be satisfied, and once you crack that, once you figure out that it's not about getting it right, then it starts to become really wonderful.
He is no-nonsense, and we have a very warm, witty and sarcastic relationship. He's very fast and funny, and if he sees nonsense he will call it out, and you can call it out back. His collaborators are extraordinary. He entrusted John implicitly, which is great to see, and when he give you notes he writes from an actor's point of view. This sounds so pathetically sycophantic, but he's the closest we have to Chekov or Shakespeare writing in the 20th-century, certainly in musical theatre. If Chekov introduced subtext to the modern drama, Sondheim introduced to the musical. He put subtext onstage in song, and he wrote ambivalence and modern emotional life and modern intellectual life better than anyone has ever done.
What has been the most humbling moment of your career?
That's interesting. [long pause] There was something very humbling about not winning the Tony for Company.
I think I was. I would have lied and said that I wasn't expecting it, and I tried to convince myself that it didn't matter. There’s a treadmill you get on where everyone's telling you you're it, and then you’re not. You begin to believe that the award is in some way satisfaction for or a reward for the work done, and it's not. I had won everything else. You dream of it when you work in the theatre, that that might in some way be a validation. Ultimately it's not. It was embarrassing and also humbling in that it made me realize that I was hanging my expectations on something without even admitting it to myself and thinking that if I had only won that award that the show would have stayed open and would have run longer. Somehow it would have made me a bigger star, better looking, more talented, I don’t know, something that would keep the show going. I felt responsible for it because my name was over the title. So my dream came true of starring in a Sondheim show on Broadway with my name over the title at the Ethel Barrymore Theater, but no one's coming to see it. And everybody says it's the greatest performance they’ve ever seen of the role, and I’ve won every award, but they don't give me the Tony.
A couple of things come to mind. I would say my first day of rehearsals for Sunday In The Park With George at the Kennedy Center for the Sondheim Celebration. On that day I won an Obie Award for tick, tick...BOOM! On that day I was nominated for a Drama Desk for tick, tick...BOOM! On that day I stepped into the Kennedy Center for the first time since I was a teenager. When I was there as a teenager with my parents, I remember asking the usher at the Opera House to look in to see what it looked like while nothing was going on, and she said no. She kept saying no. I tried to get away with being a kid, but it didn't work. I said to my Mom, as we walked away from that hateful, evil usher, "I'm going to work here someday.”
The first day of rehearsals was a celebration. Sunday In The Park With George. I'm playing George. It's a show I used to listen to in the car on the way to rehearsals for community theatre shows in Miami. I came full circle. I was overwhelmed and started to weep. I felt so grateful and lucky and couldn't believe I was there. I had only done three shows in New York and suddenly I'm playing this massive lead.
The other thing that comes to mind is the first time I was cast in my first show in Steppenwolf in Chicago. They’re my favorite theatre company and the best actors I’ve ever met or seen on stage as a company in America. I always dreamt of working with them, and when I got hired I seriously felt like I was 10 feet tall. I was 25. People always ask me about my big break, and I think it's that. It had nothing to do with New York or money. Those people taught me how to act.
What advice would you give to up and coming actors?
Be yourself. Don’t try to be what they want or what you think they want. There’s a lot in that. That’s easier said than done. They’re always going to come at you with versions of what is most popular and ask you to be that. You can’t be anything but who you are, and to know that is a lifetime of figuring out. I still don’t know. But own your faults and own your idiosyncrasies. They may say they want a Chevette, but you’re a Porsche or whatever you are that you’re selling. You have to be most truly yourself. People may hate it and some people may like it, but it’s all you’ve got.
And I know that we should be really wonderful ensemble members, but I like the idea of being a star. It doesn’t mean I have to be famous, but it means there’s a little extra something, a little extra fire, a little conversation that’s happening that’s really damn sexy, and it’s hot and messy and alive. There’s a little something else that makes people aware that they’re seeing something happening live and that anything can happen. The stars are the ones who have that “it” thing that you can’t put your finger on. They’re not faceless zombies and not very good ensemble members and maybe their egos occupy the whole building, and maybe mine does too, but I like that aspect of it. It’s a little bit of the rock star thing.
What was that like for you, and what did you learn from that?
At first I thought we were fucked. Jeremy was very good in the part, and we built it with him. It's a three-person play. You change one actor and you change the whole scope of the play. Norbert, in a fit of insanity, decided to take the role a day after Jeremy took off. So we were rehearsing with him during the day, and Jordan was doing it at night. Jordan really knows his Mamet and is a fantastic actor, but people were coming to see Jeremy, so they were walking out. That was frustrating because he was really good.
It wasn't the same show but you were trying to figure out your show with Jordan, and then during the day you were trying to figure it out with Norbert. Norbert was being very practical and said he could not learn it in two days. So he was going to do it on book, and that is what he did. Norbert did the show for three weeks and slowly got off book in front of the audience. I've never seen anything like it.
Where were his lines?
He was holding the script for the first part of the first act. The first time he did it off book he was off book for the first part of the first act, and then he had to get on book for the rest of the play. The next night he was off book for the first act and then on for acts two and three, and so on and so forth until by the end of the week he was ready to go and do the play off book. He was rehearsing in front of the audience. So we were doing the show with Jordan at night, rehearsing with Norbert during the day, and then when Norbert came on we were re-rehearsing during the day and during the performance at night.
How did the audience react to that?
They were great with it. I was really surprised. They were really, really supportive. The first time that Norbert went on there was a lot of cheering and yelling. I think Norbert was a perfect fit because he’s a theatre actor, so he knows how to work it, and he's fearless. And he's a really, really good guy and a fun guy to have around. I thought there was no I way was going to be able to get back into the play and find a new way to do it. I thought we had figured it out with Jeremy—his pace was perfect and his energy was right—but I was wrong.
Norbert's performance was more like a frat kid, like we were two frat brothers who got a lot of money and had this huge position and suddenly we realized we had to stop partying. We were also the same age basically, and that was right for the show. His enthusiasm and his experience on stage make him fearless, and his ability and joy is kind of contagious. I'm an actor who tries to do a lot of stuff and really do like to fuck around with the way things are played, and there’s nothing that I threw at him that he didn't throw back. That's really exciting. Three weeks into it I actually thought, "If we were living in a different world on Broadway, Norbert should have opened this show,” because the audiences were there and we were selling the tickets.
Then Macy came in, and I thought, “I can’t go back into rehearsals. We can’t do this again.” Bill is a more considered actor and is very careful about the way he breaks down the role. He's been doing Mamet for 30 years and has experience at this that none of us had, and he has very strong opinions about how to play this material. We had issues over speed and how we were going to do the play and also ways to read the scenes as we did them. Bill was playing a game of catch-up with us because we had now done it with three different actors, so we were starting to understand this play from the inside out.
The great thing about Bill Macy is what I thought was going to be a hindrance, which was our age difference, turned out to make it a richer play. It made it more of a father-son relationship or a protege-mentor thing, which isn’t exactly what David wrote, but I think it made a very rich play. I was so aware from his performance of how good the play was. It's not just a series of brilliant collection of speeches and one-liners and a quick joke. David is really trying to write about work and friendship and loyalty, but particularly work—doing your work, and what it means to be a hard worker in this life, what we expect from that, and what we don’t get sometimes, which is where the title comes from.
I was wrong in each case. I thought I couldn't get under it, but each actor would bring something so specific to it that I did. And because I like to change things up so much there was no way I could get the same performance with each guy, so that changed me. And it changed Lizzy, too. I know she became much more comfortable with Norbert, Jordan, and Bill than she had been. I saw her blossom. I'm not saying that as an insult about Jeremy. Jeremy is a very good actor and was very good in the show.
You seemed very pissed off when he left.
Of course I was pissed off! He left his job, and he didn't call.
Did you ever hear from him?
Never. Not once. I don't care if you’re sick as a dog, you call. If he actually is sick, and he says he is, pick up the phone. Show up. No play is going to kill you, but any one of us would like to walk out of our jobs at any time. Nobody wants to sit in their cubicles. Doing a show eight times a week can feel like sitting in a cubicle, but we have to do our jobs and you have to keep your word. And if you are so sick that you are on death's door and you are poisoned, and all of these things that he supposedly is, then the least you can do is say, “This is a three-person play that opened on the strength of my name. I am not going to let my co-stars down. I will at least say I'm sorry.” He's a good guy, he’s a good actor. He's not bad people. He was good in the show, and we built this together. It sucks. But I knew our producer Jeffrey Richards was not going to close the show, because I worked with him on The Homecoming, which didn't make a penny but was one of the greatest experience have I ever had professionally. He believes in the piece.
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