Gregory Jbara’s happy career of paper towels, pills, and pirouettes
Gregory Jbara might not be cold and stubborn like Jackie Elliot, the role he won a Tony for in Billy Elliot, but they both have families that are separated by work and dreams. In the musical, Jackie’s son Billy yearns to enroll in the Royal Ballet School in London, while conversely, Jbara’s Billy commitments keep him in New York while his wife and two sons reside year-round in Los Angeles. After a three-month sabbatical from the show in LA where he spent time with his family, Jbara returned to Billy in April with renewed energy and new plans for his Billy future. The film and commercial actor sat down with Stage Rush to discuss balancing work and family, morphing Billy actors, and being mobbed by Robert Pattinson’s groupies.
Do you get to go back to Los Angeles and see your family often?
I don’t. We iChat every night. When they’re on vacation from school, they come to New York. Although, my producers have been very generous. I just extended for another nine months, which will be announced soon I imagine. They’ve given me almost one week off every month to go back home. Being away from my family—it’s lousy. It’s absolutely lousy.
Being that you live so far from your kids and you play a father in Billy Elliot, does that affect your performance at all, make it more emotional? Does it become an advantage?
On a daily basis, it doesn’t really influence what I do. There are some nights, like the day before my family arrives or the evening I say goodbye to them, I find that my own personal reality kind of creeps into the performance at times, especially around Dad’s song. But for the most part, the reality of the characters and the show is based on imagination and fiction.
Your job in Billy has become a long run, and it’s only going to be longer. You’ve talked about going on tour with it in San Francisco and LA. Won’t you get sick of it? How do you keep your work fresh?
Having started in the theater as a stage-trained actor at the Julliard School, I just assume that’s part of the craft. There are people who burn out. This is probably the easiest job I’ve had. In the early months of the show, I learned what it took to achieve what I need to in terms of storytelling and creating an emotional investment. And now it’s really easy to do. There’s no risk of me breaking bones or getting injured in the show, because I don’t have the physical demands like other people do. It’s like a dream gig. Plus, I’m shooting an episode of Nurse Jackie next week, I’m going to go off and do a week on a film. I’m not limited to this job. The producers are willing to let me go and do other projects so I can stay connected to the show. When I left for that three-month hiatus, the director Stephen Daldry said, “How much time do you need to be home? Because we want to keep you.” I have no reason to walk away from this job. This is an extraordinary show. I’ve been a part of many great Broadway shows before. This is the greatest evening and emotional roller coaster the audience has ever gone through. It’s really gratifying to do that with 1,400 people in the audience eight times a week.
Video: Gregory Jbara on lessons learned in showbiz, the dish on Elton John, and his best day working.
This is a very complicated show, production wise. You must see crazy things happen all the time.
There’s always a backup Billy waiting backstage. Our actors always try to go through with the show, even when they’re feeling sick. Midway through Act II, there’s a big fight between Dad, Tony, and the townsmen get involved. In the middle of this fight, I’ve been on stage since the beginning of Act II and I won’t even know that one particular Billy is vomiting in the dressing room and won’t be finishing the show. The entire cast knows except for maybe four of us who haven’t left the stage. Tony and I will grapple and that’s when Billy’s supposed to jump in and we’ll realize suddenly—it’s a whole different Billy! That’s occasionally been jarring. I always think, What’s the audience thinking now?
You’ve worked with so many Broadway and screen stars, many of which have been in shows while Billy has been running. Do you keep up with their work and try to see their shows?
I did go see [Dirty Rotten Scoundrels co-star] Sheri Rene Scott’s Everyday Rapture and I made a point of seeing [Scoundrels co-star] John Lithgow in All My Sons when it was across the street. I still haven’t seen him in Dexter. I’m always aware of what’s going on with everybody. The time we spend outside of the theater mostly involves getting a drink or having a meal. [Scoundrels co-star] Jonathan Pryce absolutely blew me away a few weekends ago. He left a note at the stage door that said, “Jbara, I’m in town, let’s get together. So we got a bite to eat and it was great to catch up. I’m kind of going, Hey that’s neat that Jonathan Pryce would be like that. Because I don’t consider myself in the same league, in terms of the work he’s accomplished and who he is as a star. It just reminded me why he’s a great guy, that he would take the time to do things like that. It made me feel very special.
You’re the consummate working actor. You’ve been in all mediums. Some actors want fame and some just want to earn a living doing what they love. What’s it about for you?
I just want to keep providing for my kids and my wife so that we can do the things we like to do. My wife has helped me keep my priorities straight that family is the most important thing, and work is the gift that we have to allow us to do the things we want to do. I’ve never made fame a priority because that’s not something I’m going to make happen. May I have that issue to wrestle with at some point. I’m just grateful that in this economy I’m in such an amazing show and that I can live, pay my bills, and pay my mortgage.
Tell us what it’s like being a commercial, voiceover, and TV guest spot actor.
I think that’s what makes me so optimistic. Because I’m so diversified, I don’t have to depend on one medium. I know there’s always some way of making a buck that will allow me to sleep at night. I started out as a commercial actor. That was the first thing I did when I was a student at Julliard. I did many commercials. It wasn’t until probably Victor/Victoria, four or five Broadway shows in, that I was making more money annually as a stage actor than I was doing commercials. It’s always been a very wonderful opportunity to pay my bills. And it’s fun work and easy. Especially voiceovers—I don’t have to even bathe or shave. The crazy thing is I have hundreds of relatives back in Detroit. They say, “Hey, we just saw your Caduet commercial, that’s fantastic!” And they have no idea I just won a Tony Award in a Broadway show.
You’re sitting at home watching TV with your family and one of your commercials comes on. It’s not the first time you’ve seen it, by a long shot. What’s the reaction?
A month ago we were out to dinner and there was a television playing in the restaurant. I look up and there’s the Viva [paper towel] commercial. All my kids care about is the food and my wife’s back at the buffet line. I say, “Hey guys, look! There’s daddy!” And they just kind of go, “Eh, whatever,” and went right back to eating.
I heard you were contacted specifically for your role in the film Remember Me.
It was the first straight offer for a movie I’ve ever gotten that didn’t involve some sort of nepotism. It’s a dream event and you always hope it happens. You win a Tony Award and then suddenly you’re put in a different list of people.
Was it overwhelming being in a Robert Pattinson movie?
The set was insane, but not in the workplace. Outside where the trailers were, hundreds of people would show up. The first day I worked, the production crew would tell people who asked what they were filming that it was just a commercial. The filming permits are in the windows and nowhere did it say what the actual film was. Because he’s such an unusual phenomenon, it didn’t matter how secretive we were; by lunchtime there were hundreds of psycho moms and daughters screaming outside his trailer. I thought for sure some of these moms were going to kill their kids, running through New York City traffic just to get a glance. He’s in the middle of six bodyguards and he’s got a hood over his head; you can’t even see him. It was like nothing I’ve ever seen. He may have been a little embarrassed by it.