|Tony winning actor Michael Cerveris (Photo courtesy In The Wings Promotions)|
Playbill calls legendary American actor Michael Cerveris “arguably the most versatile leading man on Broadway.” And for good reason: Cerveris has played everything from Shakespeare’s Romeo to the homicidal title character in Sweeney Todd, to trans rock diva Hedwig in the landmark rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Along the way he has won Tony Awards for Best Featured Actor in a Musical in 2004 for his portrayal of John Wilkes Booth in Assassins, and Best Leading Actor in a Musical in 2015 for his portrayal of Bruce Bechdel in Fun Home.
On the eve of his Nov. 11 acting masterclass in Montreal – during which participants will have the opportunity to work one-on-one with Cerveris – I sat down with Michael for a candid Q&A about his spectacular career. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Three Dollar Bill: Laurence Olivier once said acting on screen is all about the eyes, and onstage it’s all about your hands. What do you think?
|Cerveris in Fun Home (Photo by Joan Marcus)|
Michael Cerveris: I see what he says that, and it’s not necessarily wrong. From a sheer physics standpoint, it’s a little hard to track somebody’s eyes from the back row. Buy it does speak to something that I learned more from Olivier than I realized: I do feel like I am a physical actor. I want every part of my body communicating something to the audience, and not just be a talking head. I tend to find physical gestures for my characters onstage and tend not to think about that for my on-camera work.
How thrilling is it to star in a big-budget blockbuster on Broadway? Does the glamour and romance of it fade after a while?
The noise and shininess of it might fade, but the things I care most about don’t fade: the connection with the audience, the opportunity to tell a story you believe in and care about. To be honest, as fun as the glitter and glamour is, I find a lot of it distracting and exhausting. After opening night is done, and after the awards season is done – no matter how it goes – that’s when I feel really comfortable and like to get back to the actual job, which is going to work at the theatre eight times a week. The real joy is working with other actors and connecting with the audience.
What is your routine settling into each new dressing room?
I tend to really move in. I know actors who won’t even put up a postcard until the reviews are in. But I’m the opposite. I go in trying to will the show to have a long life. I know I will be spending more time in my dressing room than I do in my apartment. I also like to compose a dressing room that makes sense with the show. So my dressing room for Evita had a little turntable and tango records from the 40s and 50s. My dressing room for Fun home was much more 70s oriented – I even had Partridge Family records! I like to continue the world of the play in the dressing room so it’s not a jarring thing to go back and forth, one to the other.
What is it like to win a Tony Award? I’m thinking the first time in 2004, for Assassins.
I had already lost once before, which was a great thing in retrospect. It had all the excitement, the rush of attention. Then all of sudden it’s gone and you’re left with just the job. That really helped me appreciate what the enduring thing is, which is the job itself.
Did you feel the same way the second time in 2015, for Fun Home?
The first win was such a dizzying surprise. I felt overwhelmed during my acceptance speech. The second time it felt more meaningful, like an acknowledgement not just of my work in Fun home, but a recogition of a couple decades of work. It felt more earned, whereas the first felt more like a gift.
I love that you have played two incredible queer roles, Hedwig, and Bruce Bechdel in Fun Home. Let’s start with Hedwig. Do you have a special memory from playing that role, off-Broadway or in the West End?
John Cameron Mitchell was a friend of mine, we came up in the off-Broadway scene together. I was so floored by Hedwig that I went back to see it four times never thinking that anybody but John would play that role. Then when he was tired and wanted to take a month off, he called me to take over and I was thrilled and terrified. But it was such a liberating experience – in many ways the most personal performance I did before Fun Home – because Hedwig is such a larger-than-life character and there is something about drag and the whole persona that you create that is really freeing and liberating and allows you to show very vulnerable parts of yourself with the protection of this huge mask.
|Cerveris with Miriam Hor off-Broadway in|
Hedwig and the Angry Inch
(Photo by Carol Rosegg)
How did playing Bruce Bechdel in Fun Home take an emotional toll on you?
Carrying around the pain, fear and self-regret that Bruce had to carry around for his whole life – doing that eight times a week – takes a toll. You walk around in character all day. There is a residual effect from carrying dark and troubled emotions around with you and then live them out every night onstage. You try to shake it off when you leave the theatre at night, but it doesn’t go away. I played other roles like Sweeney Todd that were dark and troubled, but in most other plays you get some kind of catharsis or purging that makes it is little easier to let go. With Bruce, you never really do.
What is the difference between Broadway and West End audiences?
When we first arrived in London to perform Hedwig, we realized – especially in the spoken sections – we needed to pick up the tempo a bit because British audiences, at least at that time, listened more quickly and processed information more quickly than American audiences. We guessed that it had something to do with the tradition of Shakespeare and complicated verse plays, whereas the bulk of what American audiences see is more visually oriented and linear-action oriented. We found British audiences were getting a little ahead of us when we performed it at our leisurely pace we sometimes did in New York. So we speeded it up.
What can participants expect from your acting masterclass?
As with most things I’m involved with, expecting the unexpected is probably a good idea. My teachers all had a similar kind of idea of what good truthful performing was, but all had different ways of getting you there. I left my schooling with a really great tool bag with lots of different tools I could use depending on what the task was, and it has stood me in good stead over the years. I don’t have just one method or technique that I try to indoctrinate people in. What I like to do mostly is to see what someone brings to the masterclass and respond to that.
In The Wings Promotions presents the Michael Cerveris masterclass in Montreal on Nov. 11. During the workshop, participants will have the opportunity to work on musical theatre or pop selections, monologues or on-camera scene work. Enrollment in the masterclass is extremely limited and open to participants who will each have one-on-one time with Cerveris, as well as auditors who can observe and learn from the audience. The masterclass will conclude with a Q&A with Michael and time to grab a selfie or autograph. To participate, the fee is $195 and to audit the class, the fee is $75. For more info or to register, click here or email email@example.com.
Click here to read classic Three Dollar Bill interview with Alison Bechdel
Click here to read vintage Three Dollar Bill interview with John Cameron Mitchell