He may be a doppelganger for Harry Connick Jr., and he may portray Jerry Lee Lewis with great zeal in Broadway’s Million Dollar Quartet, but Levi Kreis is a musician and artist with a persona all his own.
His music has been featured on Sons of Anarchy, The Apprentice, and Days of Our Lives, and thus has shared the stage with Cyndi Lauper, Collective Soul and Melissa Etheridge.
With three successful albums under his belt and a 2010 Tony award for his brilliant performance in Quartet, Kreis has already built a career at the age of 28 about which many artists can only dream.
The fun-loving performer chatted with TheImproper about his career, his upbringing, and his unique Oprah experience.
Improper: What is your earliest memory of yourself as a performer?
Kreis: My first performance was at Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church in Oliver Springs, Tennessee. I was a tiny little guy, about eight years old, holding a really big guitar in my hand and singing a gospel song.
IM: Did you always want to be a musician when you grew up?
Kreis: It just seems like music’s always been the instinctual thing for me. I remember coming back from Kindergarten graduation and picking out Pomp and Circumstance with both hands and having my brother work the pedals of the piano. I always had a really good ear for music. I could hear music one time through, and then be able to play it. It was just like breathing to me, I can’t imagine doing anything else.
IM: Why did you choose to play the piano over other instruments?
Kreis: Piano was just the main instrument that was around the house. It was just kind of the first thing I found that made tones.
IM: Was Broadway always a goal of yours?
Kreis: I have to be honest with you. As a kid, you never would have heard me talking about musical theater or Broadway. I had an instinct for acting, and once I went to L.A. I did some acting stuff, which is how they found me for Million Dollar Quartet. But I started writing my own songs at 12. I honestly thought that I was going to be a gospel music recording artist.
By the time I was 12, I was travelling to a different church every weekend. Through the age of 19 I was going to the Christian Music Awards and songwriting seminars in Nashville every year. I was groomed by my family to be a gospel recording artist. That’s what they exposed me to. Now I can do whatever songs that I want, and as a songwriter I’m grateful that I’ve had so much education on how to craft a good pop song or a gospel song.
IM: How did your experience with gospel music influence your acting skills?
Kreis: The acting comes in because there is just such an obvious similarity between conveying the soul of an individual through song, and how that process is sort of the same as creating a character. I have to credit the church, because you look at people who come out of the church and I believe that the way they cut their teeth musically is when they sing. It is out of such a deep spiritual conviction, whatever they believe, it is because they believe what they are singing, it’s not about a show.
They think, “I have got to speak to your spirit because I want you to receive healing from the hurt that you are going through in your life.” That’s the motivation. And that’s what motivates me about music, to make a difference in someone’s life. If I am able to do that, I think I kind of accomplished what feeds my soul the most. When you take that into acting, I think the experience is the same. That’s why I am now so much in love with acting, every bit as much as I am in love with doing my own music. It’s the same experience to me, this something that transports me.
IM: In which performers have you observed the same characteristics?
Kreis: James Brown is a great example. The spirit of what he was doing took him over, and I love seeing performers that become so immersed in the character that they’re creating that you can’t really even see who they are anymore. You know that it’s happening to them, it’s not happening by them.
IM: How has the Million Dollar Quartet experience changed for you now that you’re a Tony winner?
Kreis: While being a singer and a piano player felt very instinctual for me, and while I feel confident in my acting now, its really only been in the last few months that I’ve even been able to feel a little bit confident as an actor. All of a sudden I was thrown into a world of people who have educated themselves in the craft of acting ever since they were child actors.
This is not me! (laughs) Upon winning [the Tony Award] I almost felt like I didn’t belong, and I felt like, ‘How did I pull the wool over everyone’s eyes, because I honestly don’t feel like I fit into this highbrow educated group?’ I just know that there’s a lot of very well-educated, crafted actors that I am in the company of. So at first when I won I felt like everyone must be crazy. What it did is it made me acknowledge that there is a gift as an actor that I have to admit to, embrace, and hone it, and honor it, and give it the nurturing that it deserves. The Tony win woke me up to a part of myself that I now realize is such an important part of who I am. I must be an actor.
IM: Explain how you had to give up both of your kneecaps to play Jerry Lee Lewis in Million Dollar Quartet.
Kreis: The encore of the show used to be a lot wilder than it is at this point! (laughs) I used to vault over the piano, and I tore an ACL that way. And then I used to do flying monumental leaps off the piano, and broke my other ACL that way. I just stopped physical therapy in January. These new knees have not belonged to me long enough for me to even be really, fully active again! I still wore knee braces up until a month ago.
IM: Jerry Lee Lewis stopped by to perform with the Quartet recently. Did you tell him about your new knees?
Kreis: I did, and he said, “Well, thank you. I appreciate that.”
IM: What did he think of your Tony Award?
Kreis: I didn’t show it to him, I don’t know what he would think about it. I think he’s just glad that he’s got somebody playing him that’s truly a musician and that can play his stuff that’s not faking it, that’s genuinely laying down a musical foundation to hopefully honor him with. I doubt he’s thought much about that Tony, but maybe he has, I don’t know. (laughs)
IM: Your music seems to be so optimistic. Where does that aspect of your persona come from?
Kreis: Pain pushes until vision pulls. I believe that at the end of the day we all end up dealing with the same kind of personal challenges in our lives. I’ve had a good share of mine already, and I think that that pain has pushed me to a place of understanding that regardless of wherever we are in life, that it really does always work out. There is a power that is working and always supporting us in every step of the way if we just allow it to. And that has been my saving grace. When it came to being a very sincere boy with a passion for God, but at the same time being told I was an abomination to God because of having been born a gay man, it drove me to redefine my spirituality and know so thoroughly a God that held no distinctions that was all inclusive that loves everyone just as we are.
If I have ever said a prayer in the name of Jesus, its happened. If I have ever done a spell, its happened. So what’s the commonality there? The intention of thought. Change your thinking, change your life. If we believe everything comes down to perception, and we believe that there is some sort of perfect plan orchestrating itself to expand us to our greater good, then so it is.
IM: If you were going to write a memoir, what would be its title?
Kreis: “I Am”. Regardless of whatever completes that sentence, the first two words make it so. I love that there is no living in the past or the future when you say, “I am.” “I am” brings us straight to the now, which is the only thing that we have.
IM: What is the funniest thing someone has said to you about your uncanny resemblance to Harry Connick, Jr.?
Kreis: I was walking down the street like any day, and could hear someone running furiously up behind me. She literally grabbed my right arm, and there was this sheet of all this Harry Connick, Jr. paraphernalia, and she said, “Oh my God, I am such a big fan of yours, can you please sign these?” And it was stuff from his show and albums of his. And I looked at her and said, “Um, I’m not Harry Connick, Jr., I’m so sorry to disappoint you!” (laughs)
IM: You must get that sort of thing a lot!
Kreis: Hey, I’ve been a great fan of his for years. Love him. That initially came up on The Oprah Winfrey Show. My partner knows I’m a big fan of the show, and he decided to surprise me and take me to a taping of it. Well, we didn’t know who the guests were going to be. We went in, and everyone’s sort of looking funny at me. Finally, a woman came up to me and let me know that Harry Connick, Jr. was a guest today and that there was a weird resemblance to him. Anyway, then I was finally sitting in the audience. Oprah is interviewing Chynna Phillips, and Chynna keeps interrupting herself and looking over at me until finally there’s a commercial break, and she looks at me and looks at Oprah and says, “Why is Harry Connick, Jr. sitting in the audience? Shouldn’t he be backstage?”
Oprah looks at me kind of funny, and I think, “Does she need a response from me?” because she’s looking at me kind of familiarly. This continued to happen with her next guest, so finally Harry Connick, Jr. came out and Oprah says, “Sir, can you please stand up? I need to show you to Harry Connick, Jr. Harry, could this not be your brother?” And he was setback, and thus began this whole back and forth for the rest of the show, him singing his song to me on stage, and all of this crazy stuff. So apparently Harry and Oprah also think I look like Harry. (laughs)
IM: Tell The Improper readers something strange about yourself that no one else would know.
Kreis: I’m extremely claustrophobic. Elevators with more than three people make me crazy. I’m also a huge fan of Joey Lawrence’s album that he released back in the day. No one else would know that, would I ever admit that? (laughs) You can laugh about that one all day. I revisit a couple of his singles from time to time when I’m feeling in a silly mood. But it’s not without a sense of humor, okay?
See Levi Kreis give an amazing performance in Million Dollar Quartet by visiting www.TicketMaster.com.