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Justin Kirk Plays Society’s Underdog in ‘The Understudy’

Justin-Kirk1Being an understudy is not the most thankless job in theater anymore, thanks to Theresa Rebeck and her cast of hysterical characters in The Understudy. The Roundabout’s new production at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre stars Justin Kirk, who brings the same lovingly sarcastic bite to his role as he does to Andy Botwin on the Showtime hit “Weeds.”

As Harry, Kirk plays foil to Mark-Paul Gosselaar’s pompous Jake, as the two run through the course of a dress rehearsal under the tired eye of Julie White’s impeccable Roxanne.

Kirk is the rare person who truly makes one feel at ease in any situation. Both his audiences and acquaintances immediately feel as if they have known him for years, as he emanates thoughtful humor and warmth without even making an effort.

In addition to his starring role on “Weeds,” the Golden Globe nominee is also known for his work opposite Al Pacino and Meryl Streep in the award-winning mini-series “Angels in America.” No stranger to the New York stage, Kirk won the Obie Award for Distinguished Performance in the ensemble in Love! Valour! Compassion! and went on to star in the feature film adaptation.

In 2001, Kirk co-starred with Julianna Margulies and Donald Sutherland in Ten Unknowns at Lincoln Center. When he’s not breaking down the fourth wall with his wit and charm in the Big Apple, Kirk is shooting independent films such as “The Presence” with Mira Sorvino and “Puccini for Beginners” with Elizabeth Reaser and Gretchen Mol.

He recently caught up with TheImproper about growing up Jewish on a Native American reservation, his first time “sort of” being an understudy, and sharing a stage with the infamous Zach Morris.

TheImproper: How does it feel to be back in New York after taking Los Angeles by storm over the past few years?

It feels like it has been a long time. I move a lot slower around the stage now, in my advanced age [Kirk is 40]. Laughs. The last time I did a play in New York was in 2002, it was called The World Over at Playwrights Horizons.

IM: Tell us about The Understudy. What made you take it on?

JK: It’s pretty fun. Well, [director] Scott Ellis, who I work with at my day job on Weeds, said ‘Do you want to come do this play?’ Then he said, ‘I won’t give you a close-up in this shot,’ and then I said, ‘Alright I’ll come do the play.’ And so here we are! There have been a couple of opportunities over the last seven years, but this one was just one that I really felt like I had to do. Theresa Rebeck writes really good parts for actors. And you know, it’s an early curtain and there’s no intermission, so I can start drinking fairly early…I realize that’s the second time I’ve used that joke, I better stop. You can’t repeat jokes or people would be like, ‘I felt like I have read that joke in another interview.’

IM: We forgive you. Besides, readers can chalk your repeated jokes up to you being Improper.

JK: I sort of half-assed that one, I would have normally sold it much harder.

IM: Thank you for explaining.

JK: You noticed! Anyway, the show just seemed like it would be fun. I really like my costars in the play.

IM: Speaking of your costars, how much ribbing do you get from your friends because you’re working opposite Zach Morris?

JK: Well, since I only have a few 13 year-old girlfriends, not a lot.

IM: Hey, many of us who grew up in the eighties and nineties watched “Saved by the Bell” religiously!

JK: That’s true, I guess those kids are all grown up now, aren’t they? No, I only get swoons and sighs of lust about that. I’ve actually talked to a friend or two who are actors who have worked with him. I mean, Mark-Paul has been the lead on a TV show for the last twenty years on one show or another. However, this is his first time getting anywhere near a theater, but he’s certainly a veteran actor. We’ve been having a good time, both at rehearsal, and occasionally afterwards.

Mark-Paul Gosselaar and Justin Kirk face off in The Understudy. Photo by Carol Rosegg

Mark-Paul Gosselaar and Justin Kirk face off in The Understudy. Photo by Carol Rosegg

IM: So he goes out drinking with you?

JK: Yes, I’m happy to report that all three members of this cast drink. Hopefully, not until the show’s over. But I remember reading that Richard Burton needed a little bit to go on stage, and I feel like that day is just around the corner for me. And then I’ll be the Richard Burton of my generation.

IM: That’s how you’ll become even more famous.

JK: At least the drinking part.

IM:Tell me more about Harry, your role in The Understudy.

JK: Harry is a perpetually underemployed actor, I would say in comparison with his talent, I believe is what we’re supposed to think. He has a history of sorts with one of the other characters on the stage. And in this particular scenario he is the titular role of the understudy in this lost Kafka play that’s being mounted on Broadway. The play has two action movie stars, one of them an off-stage character named Bruce, and the other one a character named Jake, played by Mark-Paul. Julie White is our stage manager, and off we go!

IM: How difficult was it for you to prepare for the role of an actor, of all professions?

JK: He’s sort of a bundle of all my neuroses writ large. So it’s really great to work out all of these feelings of insecurity and lack of worth in front of the Roundabout subscription audience every night.

IM: What are some of your neuroses?

JK: Just standard actor neuroses I think. Why didn’t I get this job? Why can’t I keep or maintain a steady relationship, blah blah…

IM: Have you ever been the understudy in a production?

JK: Boy, not really, maybe when I was a kid, but that didn’t really count. I remember finding out that I was the understudy in a play when I went to see it and it was listed in the program. I won’t say that counts. I’ve been a replacement, which is a really crazy experience as an actor. I replaced Geoffrey Nauffts in a play called June Moon at the Variety Arts, which is a Drama Department production. So that’s pretty tricky, it’s a similar thing, except suddenly you’re on, and you’re on all the time, but in the sense that you’re sort of working on it on your own, going to see the show, and then all of a sudden there you are. And I’ve also certainly gone on with understudies.

IM: Maybe that will be the sequel to The Understudy- The Replacement.

JK: Well, I would hope that would be a bio play regarding my favorite rock ‘n roll band as a teenager.

IM: Your background is so unique to that of many actors. So many people know you from Weeds, but you have so much theater experience prior to that. Is that ever frustrating?

JK: No, I would hope that everyone’s forgotten about that, and just think that I’m a fancy TV star. I feel very fortunate to be one of a fairly small group that has been a part of this community, which is why I knew that I better get my ass back here. I feel like if you stay away too long they won’t ask you to do it anymore. It’s a fairly small community. Actually, that’s not true, pretty much all you’ve got to do is go to L.A., be on a TV show, and then they’ll bring you back to do a play in New York!

Julie White, Justin Kirk and Mark-Paul Gosselaar in The Understudy. Photo by Carol Rosegg

Julie White, Justin Kirk and Mark-Paul Gosselaar in The Understudy. Photo by Carol Rosegg

IM: What is the best theater role you’ve ever taken on?

JK: Well, this one’s pretty good.

IM: That’s cheating, you can’t say ‘This one.’

JK: Isn’t that really the only answer to that question? I liked June Moon too, that was a lot of fun. I liked Ten Unknowns, Jon Robin Baitz’s play at Lincoln Center. The first play I was in that was a big hit was Love! Valour! Compassion! See, now I’m just going to start listing them. The last one I did, The World Over, written by my friend Keith Bunin, was a lot of fun. But I’m going to go with this one, because I’m still figuring it out, and boy, there’s a lot of talking.

IM: Was it difficult to memorize so many lines?

JK: You find that the memorization muscle in theater is a different memorization muscle. When you do it for TV or movies, there’s really something in your brain that knows it only has to hold on to it for a couple of hours and then it’s immediately gone as soon as you move on to the next scene. It was a real challenge at the beginning of this. It’s also a slow process, you want to figure your part out slowly because you have rehearsal time. There was a time in which I thought, ‘Man, I’m never going to be able to do this.’ And then all of a sudden, it’s mostly in my body, which is good, and then you just have to remember that it’s going to be there.

IM: You grew up being schooled on an American Indian reservation, and somehow made your way to New York from there. How in the world does that happen?

JK: That was a bit of a leap! There was some stuff in the middle. I lived in a very small town in the state of Washington. My mother still lives in Olympia. The res was a couple of miles down the road, and that’s where the school was. The student body was like half and half. I’d like to say that it gave me some sort of rich, cultural experience, but to me it was really just living in the sticks. I lived in a small town, and wanted to move to a city and be an actor. And I did, I moved to Minneapolis when I was 12, and went to high school at the children’s theater there, so that really was the beginning of my life in that respect. And then when I was 20 I moved to New York to come to school, and then I lived here for ten years, and then I moved to L.A. when I did a TV pilot that got picked up, and now I’ve been there for ten years.

IM: What’s your very first memory of yourself as a performer?

JK: I did my first play when I was seven at Evergreen State College in Olympia, and it was Brecht, so I was really precocious. My stepfather at the time was a drama student at that college, and they were doing The Caucasian Chalk Circle, and I had already wanted to be an actor at that point for a couple of years, and I guess they needed a kid.

IM: Did you ever find yourself performing for family at Thanksgiving…

JK: I wasn’t going to give them anything for free! Sorry, I don’t have any stories of dancing around the living room. I was pretty stoic as a child, that may be why. My mother always describes me as stoic.

IM: The way you just told that story was very ‘Andy from Weeds.’

JK: Oh yeah, well you know, I’ve been doing it for ten years, I really can’t be bothered to get into character anymore at this point. I just act like myself now. So no, I don’t remember any sketches around the house, which is probably why it took me awhile to really figure out how to act correctly, because I was kind of a quiet little freak as a child.

IM: Quiet and freaky? That would be quiet disturbing!

JK: Oh, you can be freaky and quiet, it’s scary. I’m sure I’ve got a lot of horror movies in my future. But I love them! I just saw the “Nightmare on Elm Street” trailer today with Jackie Earle Haley as the new Freddy Krueger, it looks pretty good.

IM: What would be your ideal horror movie in which to star?

JK: I’ve actually been in several indie thrillers, but I’d like a good old-fashioned slashing thing with cheerleaders and stuff. I may have to play the janitor now, I never got to do that teen slasher that I always wanted to do. But I would be the killer janitor.

IM: You’re so fantastic with comedy on Weeds. That dry, sarcastic humor seems to come naturally to you.

JK: It’s fun now. Before “Weeds,” I was always playing a lot of like sick or handicapped, or crying people in dramas, so it’s nice now because people think of me in a comedic way too. I certainly enjoy doing that sort of comedy. It’s fun to do a flat-out comedy like this play, and think of beats and begging for laughs and things like that.

IM: What is the funniest thing people come up to you on the streets and say to you about Andy or Weeds?

JK: ‘Can you introduce me to Mark-Paul Gosselaar?’ I don’t know.

IM: They don’t ask you if you want to get high?

Justin Kirk in a scene with Mary Louise Parker in Showtime's hit 'Weeds.'

Justin Kirk in a scene with Mary Louise Parker in Showtime's hit 'Weeds.'

JK: Well that’s not that funny, that’s just welcome! They do do that a lot. It took a little while, I expected when the show first started that I’d get that a lot, but I didn’t. It’s amazing to me that I guess we’ve sort of become marijuana iconic figures in the sense that people get excited by the idea of smoking pot with us- not that I, or any of the other cast members of Weeds, would or have ever done anything like that…

IM: That’s funny, because it’s not even a big part of the show anymore.

JK: It is in the background of the show, it’s not Cheech and Chong. All due props to Cheech and Chong, but on “Weeds,” especially now, we rarely even smoke, it’s sort of just become a telenovela at this point- with comedy. I like the tone that the show has become. Season five was super fun. It was the richest season they gave me. Alanis came and joined us, we had fun.

IM: Do you have any Alanis anecdotes you want to share? What did she tell you that you oughta know?

JK: I did find myself occasionally humming the little intro into the chorus of “You Learn,” [sings] ‘Wait until the dust settles…’ I don’t think she ever heard me doing that. We had work to do, there was no time for any goofing around! (laughs) She was an unadulterated delight, a really cool person to be around, and did a pretty great job on the show.

IM: Do you have hints you can give us about what will happen in season six?

JK: I am here to tell you in all honesty that the writers have no idea. What they do every year is they write us into a corner, and then they come back in January and write their way out of it. Everything that people have seen is all that anyone knows. I’m sure that there are some TV makers that have some sort of huge plan or thought, but that ain’t our show. I don’t think that they would be upset about me saying that, because they’ve said it before.

IM: If you could take on any role on Broadway, what would it be?

JK: I guess I would be standing by for Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman. No that’s not (cough cough), I take that back! How about Elphaba?

IM: You would look good in green.

JK: I think so too. And a hat, a big pointy hat.

IM: Besides the fact that you secretly want to be a green witch, tell me something that no one else would know about you.

JK: Absolutely not!

IM: Come on, you’ve bared it all on Weeds, there can’t be much left to tell!

JK: That’s easy, that’s nothing! Well, sometimes I pee two streams. I mean, I can’t believe I ‘A’, thought of that just now because it is true, and then ‘B’, I’m telling you. It sort of looks like there is a hair in the urethra, so two streams will come out.

IM: On a very much needed different note, tell us about the movies you have coming out.

JK: One that I actually like a lot is called Against the Current, which I did with my dear friend Elizabeth Reaser and Joseph Fiennes. The other one I like a lot is this thing called Four Boxes that I went back and did with my childhood friend who wrote and directed it. I always had a lot of respect and admiration for his work, and this is his first feature. We did it for a nickel, and then he just got distribution for it. So this is a great success story for this tiny little micro indie that we did that will be available for people to see and it’s called Four Boxes. Look for it, that and Against the Current. Both are movies that I like that I think are pretty good. It’s a blessed life.

IM: Are you very religious?

JK: I’m sort of a half-assed Jew. I’m ethnically Jewish on my mother’s side, but I don’t have any sense of Judaism. We did Christmas and all that, so…

IM: How does it work, going to school on a Native American reservation and being Jewish? You must have been tortured.

JK: A lot of confusion, I guess! Yeah, that’s all that pain that comes out on stage eight times a week in The Understudy!

To learn more about The Understudy or to purchase tickets visit www.roundabouttheatre.org.

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