For Stephen Kunken, Tony announcement meant triumph and loss
Stephen Kunken has been riding an emotional roller coaster. The day after he wrapped his run as the Stage Manager in the Barrow Street Theatre’s Our Town this winter, he and his wife flew to Ethiopia to bring home their adopted eight-month daughter. Three days later, the ebullient family was back in New York and Kunken began rehearsals for Enron. Two months later, Kunken received his first Tony nomination and was informed that the play was closing all within the same day.
Despite the head-spinning timing, Kunken is well versed in the nature of theater. He has appeared in numerous acclaimed Broadway productions like Proof, Rock ‘n’ Roll, and Frost/Nixon, in addition to roles in Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock, Gossip Girl, and Law & Order. His portrayal of Enron’s Andy Fastow, the wormy brainiac who concocts the illegal plan that draws the company into historical scandal, has earned him a Tony nomination for Best Featured Actor.
Kunken sat down with Stage Rush to talk about the unpredictability of theater, Tony night fake outs, and watching raptors cackle off stage.
What was your reaction when you found out you were nominated?
My immediate reaction was I had to pick my jaw up off the floor. It’s the pinnacle of an industry you’ve gotten into. It’s just amazing to even step onto a Broadway stage. When I took my first step on a Broadway stage, I realized it was a threshold that I’d crossed. The first time anybody mentions your name in a review, it’s “Wow.” At that moment when you’re nominated and you’re embraced by the community, it’s hard to put a word to it. I truly believe the nomination is the win.
What nominee are you most excited for?
Stephen McKinley Henderson from Fences. Stephen has been in this for so long and is such a fantastic actor. It’s going to be hard, because if he wins, the presenter is going to announce, “Stephen…” and I’ll be like, (gasp). And my middle name is Michael, so they’ll say, “Stephen M…” I’ll have to wait till they get to the “Henderson” to know. Then I’ll have to put my ass back in the chair.
Andy Fastow is such a juicy role. You get to be weasely, hang with the raptors, and cook up the infamous Enron scheme.
Fastow is the guy that really has the arc. He goes from being this really sycophantic guy, who has all of the ambition and the drive in him, but he doesn’t have a channel to let it out. It’s amazing to go from that to the overflow of confidence and nastiness that he shows, to when he has failed, and then see him slink through the next section. And of course there are all the bizarre facets of the play, like the raptors. It’s an incredible gift to get to do. I always felt like, “Oh, I didn’t go far enough” or “Oh, I went too far.” But in this show, you keep going and going until you end up with a tie around your head.
Did you ever get to try on one of the raptor heads [the play’s metaphorical representation of Fastow’s debt-consuming scheme]?
Yeah, I did. They’re amazing and uncomfortable. In order to talk in them if you were on a break off stage, you’d have to open the mouth really wide and it would rest on your chin. Sitting backstage watching two guys talking through the open mouths of the mask, if you caught their profile, it just looked like two raptors laughing hysterically. It was just too funny.
What was it like working with Norbert Leo Butz?
I love his sense of play, his exuberance. He puts on the gas whenever you work with him. We built our characters’ relationship together. We were both cast pretty early, so we were in sessions with the playwright and developed the relationship from the start. He’s an awesome scene partner. There’s no matinee in that guy—he’s locked into doing it.
There’s a lot of complicated blocking in the play. Ever run into those hanging lights that are so low on the stage during a rehearsal or show?
During rehearsals, the director had set up all these toilet plungers and they marked wherever the lights would be on the grid. The sticks would be up in the air so that your body was trained. And we were warned during rehearsals that if any actor knocks into those lights, that’s all the audience was going to watch.
The run ended quickly, but have you heard from the people who really loved the show?
I did. I think there were tons of people who loved this play. The people who came may have had problems with the style or found faults in the play, but they were still thrilled that they came. I never got any feedback that was like, “That was two hours I’ll never get back.” It was always, “That was wild.” The problem wasn’t the people in the theater; it had a tough time finding the people outside the theater to buy the ticket.
What do you think was the show’s biggest obstacle?
So many shows are straight plays that are financed by doing a 20-week limited run. This came in with a sort of Enron-ian scope, saying we’re going to run until the wheels fall off [being that the run was open ended]. It’s ballsy and the economics of Broadway are tough. Opening at this time of year when there are all these mile markers that tell you how to perceive a play, with all these awards, it’s hard to battle finding an audience and trying to change perception. I did this show called Festen a few years back that closed very quickly. The thing I took away from that, which is what I think is exciting about Enron, is that whenever I go into an audition or rehearsal room, the people who saw it say, “Wow, that was classic.” And it was sort of dismissed at the time.
Tell me about the day of the Tony nominations, when you also found out Enron was closing. It must have been the absolutely most bittersweet day for you.
To be completely honest, I knew we were on borrowed time when I saw the nominations and we weren’t nominated for Best Play. I don’t think any of us thought it would close that quickly. It’s a very strange juxtaposition and sadness. The cast got a text message in the afternoon from the stage manager saying we were going to meet a half hour before the half-hour call. The truth is, in an insular way, getting a Tony nomination is such a humungous honor. That’s way rarer for me than being a part of a play that closes. So I’m going to live in all those amazing things. I think it got the better of us that first night, with all the press. Then there was this flip of a switch, and we all said, “We’ll blow these last eight shows out with reckless abandon.” We were all so proud of that show. Strangely, [the nomination] is the greatest parting gift. The hardest part is you build the thing you love and then you don’t get to do the thing you love. But if we wanted that kind of constancy in our lives, none of us would be in the arts.
You’ve done some Law & Order. What are your thoughts on the show’s cancellation?
I’m very sad. I think it’s a right of passage for New York actors. It’s a lot of people’s first job in TV. Those residual checks are really nice. It’s also an amazing tribute to New York’s rich crop of actors. You watch that show and you see your friends within seconds of it being on. Hopefully something will take its place, like The Good Wife. We need a show with 30 characters an episode.
Tell me about the upcoming film All Good Things. You’re reuniting you’re your Frost/Nixon castmate Frank Langella, and fellow Broadway actor Michael Esper (American Idiot) is in it as well.
I love Michael. I did another movie with Michael [Light and the Sufferer]—it was one of our first movies for both of us. Paul Danos and Michael play brothers. There are aliens. It was so bad. It was made on a shoestring budget and they kept telling us the CG effects were going to be amazing. When I saw it, I was like, “Really? I don’t know.” It was the most embarrassing. I was like, “No one can ever see this movie.”
Ryan Gosling is fantastic in All Good Things. I play one of Ryan’s coked-up best friends. It takes place in the 70s. My wife in that movie is Kristen Wiig. That movie has been through a lot. I hope it lives up to the hype.