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May 7, 2012

Clybourne Park makes Tony nominee Jeremy Shamos racist proof

by Jesse North

jeremy shamos headshot clybourne park broadwayIn two acts each taking place in different eras, the new play Clybourne Park demonstrates how race issues haven’t changed much in 50 years. Jeremy Shamos plays Karl in Act I during 1959 and Steve in Act II in the present day—two of the most foot-in-mouth characters to hit Broadway in years. Shamos’ hilarity has been recognized with a Tony Award nomination for Best Featured Actor in a Play, along with three other nominations for Bruce Norris’ Pulitzer Prize-winning drama. This is quite a triumph for a play that nearly got the plug pulled on it when mega producer Scott Rudin abruptly withdrew from the production last February, due to a conflict with Norris. Stage Rush sat down with Shamos, before the Tony nominations were announced, to discuss breaking dozens of social norms on stage, Clybourne’s press-shy playwright, and almost not making it to Broadway.

Your Act I character, Karl Lindner, has stepped out of A Raisin in the Sun and into Clybourne Park. What’s it like to play that unique aspect?
I’ve made some effort to not over think the Raisin in the Sun connection. I haven’t poured over Karl Lindner’s part in that play. For Bruce Norris, it was a jumping-off point, and it’s the same for me. I’ve never seen the movie; Bruce told me that I shouldn’t. [laughs] When I first walk on stage in Act I, my character resonates with people and a lot of the work is done for me. Pretty late in the first act when I say “The community association made an offer to these people,” the people who are familiar with [A Raisin in the Sun] know what that means, because they’ve been in that living room and saw him make an offer to the Youngers. I get the advantage of my first act being the second act of something else.

How does it feel to play a character that breaks social norms and is hilariously bad?
That’s the pleasure of doing Bruce’s plays in general. He allows his characters to say things that we have probably all thought, but would never say. That’s a complete pleasure, especially within the context of a very smart theatrical event. I’ve been asked if it’s hard to say the things that my characters say. There are certain things that are offensive that would be hard to say if the play itself was offensive. Then yeah, I’d just be offensive in an irresponsible way. But because things are contextualized so well, I feel like it’s thrilling and the audience gets a real vicarious thrill.

Is it freeing for you to speak so freely on stage without the red tape of political correctness?
Being an actor, you get credit sometimes for being smart just because you’re in a smart play. To be able to say some of these things in the context of this larger play is incredibly freeing and exciting. People are surprised that I say I relate to the character I play, particularly in the second act. First, it’s my job as an actor. But also, I feel like the guy has some points. I think he goes way too far all the time and you wish he would just shut up and listen. He doesn’t listen well, but he probably has some decent things to say if he was able to put his thought out there and hear the response.

When the cast first joined together for this play, how did you all break the ice?
We all knew it was a special play, so there was no feeling of these awkward, difficult topics are a part of a play that’s potentially making us look racist or like fools. We knew that in the context of this amazing play, we were taken care of. We just jumped full force into it.

VIDEO: Jeremy Shamos talks about moving Clybourne Park from off-Broadway and the transfer’s near cancellation.

To have a straight play on Broadway without any of the lead roles going to Hollywood names is a rarity. Here you are, leading this play! How does it feel?
We’ve always felt privileged to be a part of it. As we’ve moved from off-Broadway to Broadway and the journey of those two years, we’ve only gotten closer. It’s unique to have this group on Broadway. We call ourselves the starless ensemble. It’s rare in the business of Broadway and I understand why it’s tough. We all feel like the little engine that could, as a team.

Bruce Norris is known to be reclusive to the media, so we don’t get to hear from him much. How was he in rehearsals? What did you learn from him?
He’s incredibly respectful of actors’ processes, because he is an actor. He doesn’t get in your business, but if you ask him a question, he has very smart and direct answers. I think he’s reclusive from the press because he doesn’t want to be self-promotional and he feels his work speaks for itself. He has an allergy to having an interview with him be written as, ‘Bruce Norris is eating a salad and talked this way to the waiter.’ He likes being an outsider and it’s becoming harder and harder for him, because he won the Pulitzer Prize.

jeremy shamos clybourne park broadwayHow did you get through that period during the LA production when the Broadway transfer was up in the air?
The show had ups and down and potential interest from producers before. I felt like we had already been on a bit of a roller coaster. Scott Rudin did a ton for the show; he’s hugely responsible for us being on Broadway. He got us the Kerr Theatre and got us involved with Jujamcyn [the show's lead producer] in the first place. He’s one of those producers that will just get a Broadway theater. He helped arrange the dates of the LA run so that we could come to Broadway before the Tony Awards deadline. He did a lot of the power lifting that got it going. When he decided to not move forward with the show, it had a lot of momentum that he had actually given it. Had we not had a theater yet, I think it might have been dead in the water, which would have been sad. Jordan Roth and everyone at Jujamcyn already believed in the show. They believed in it enough to allow us to have this theater. Jordan in particular really believes in the play and that it’s an important piece of work. Scott Rudin put out a statement that he wanted his investors to stay with it. At the time, I wasn’t sure if that was a sincere statement or if it was just for the press. But he was sincere. I think most of his investors stayed with the show. I’d be lying if I didn’t say there were two days where I was disappointed. I don’t think any of us allowed ourselves to be incredibly disappointed, because we felt there was momentum that had already occurred. We knew it was a great play that would find its footing.

Sometimes audiences have trouble separating actors from their characters. Has anyone mistaken you for a racist or given you the cold shoulder?
Not really. Although people who I do know will bring a guest to the show, and they’ve told me that they’ve leaned over to their friend in the middle of it and said something like, ‘He’s totally not like this at all; he’s a really nice guy!’ People do say to me though, ‘You play a racist, so you couldn’t possibly be.’ But you know, maybe I am racist. I don’t think I am. I feel like you get credit for being super-duper liberal and smart when you’re in a play like this.

What would winning a Tony mean to you?
That’s a scary thought. I have always been a team player. Anytime I’ve been the lead in a play, I’ve never felt, ‘This is my play, get out of my way!’ I’ve always liked the concept of an ensemble. I think awards are a little bit weird and potentially alienating. I don’t see that happening with his group. The ensemble itself is just too tight. The play itself depends too much on people working together and sharing. The play fundamentally wouldn’t work if someone hogged the ball. But I think it’s an exciting time for everyone to be in the spotlight, where they belong.

Do you think Jeremy Shamos has a good chance of nabbing that Tony, Rushers? What recognition do you think the ensemble of Clybourne Park deserves? Are you surprised by how at ease Shamos is with the script? Do you know anyone in your own life similar to Shamos’ characters? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

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