Hair pulled up its roots and set off on a US tour this past fall. Leading the way is actor Steel Burkhardt, who plays Berger, the loin cloth wearing third of the show’s central love triangle and general class clown. It’s no secret we here at The Craptacular love Diane Paulus’ revival of the 1967 Tribal Love Rock Musical and Steel Burkhardt, too. Recently, Steel took some time out to chat with us and, you know, make The Mick fall even more in love with him. Below, see what he had to say about the show, his tree-hugging tendencies and his Hot Rod High School years. But be forewarned: you’ll probably fall in love with him too.
M: So, we have to ask. One critic saw the show in Seattle and he seemed pretty convinced that your hair was a weave. I was wondering if you’d like to take this opportunity to set the record straight.
Steel: I do not wear a weave. I do not wear extensions in my hair. I did cut my hair, but only because it was getting too long. It was below my nipples and I was having trouble dealing with it on stage and they wanted it to be fluffier and bigger, so I cut about 4 inches off. But I do not wear anything during the show to make it look longer. That is just my hair.
M: Do you have to do a lot of upkeep on your hair?
Steel: I actually don’t. I wash it once a week, after we’re done with the show week—just wash it and condition it and that’s about it.
M: That’s supposed to be very good for your hair.
Steel: Yeah, your hair actually creates natural oils, I’m told, that are very good for you.
M: Has your relationship with your character changed now that you’re playing it full time and not just understudying?
Steel: Oh yeah, sure. When you’re understudying, you’re trying to recreate another person’s vision of what that character is. Of course you have your own ideas, but they’re the ones who created the character. Luckily, Will [Swenson] had a really good idea and Diane Paulus and I kind of stuck with what she and Will had created at first. But we put some new spin on it and made it a little more towards the way I am—goofier and more intense at the same time.
M: Famous nude scene aside, you spend a lot of time running around the stage in a tiny loin cloth with the lights up. What’s that like?
Steel: The loin cloth was really no big deal. I think it’s more interesting, actually, because it lets your imagination run. When you’re naked, you’re just naked. There’s no imagination. I think that’s why when I watch a movie or a scene, and it’s supposed to be sexy, I prefer it to be where the person is, of course, revealing some skin, but is still covered, because then it lets your imagination run wild and you create what is underneath those clothes. When a person is naked, there’s nothing for your imagination, you’re just like “Oh, they’re naked.”
M: Do you have any crazy audience interaction stories?
Steel: In Portland, when I pulled a woman up to tell the audience she was my mother, she basically started telling everyone how she birthed me. She started doing this… downward motion, from, uh…from where, you know, where the babies come from. She’s just making this downward motion and it was just so funny that the cast and I, we just lost it.
M: You mentioned before that you’ve brought some of yourself to the character of Berger. Were you always a little bit of a hippie, or has playing Berger made you one?
Steel: I definitely have some hippie in me. Both of my parents are, I would say, kind of hippies as well. Maybe bohemian is more the word for it.
I’m not as much of a hippie as Berger would be, or as most of the characters of the show would be. I’m a big outdoors-y person, so that’s pretty hippie. And I would say I love trees so I guess you could call me a tree hugger.
M: Where did you grow up? And what was it like?
Steel: I grew up in Union, New Jersey. It’s a suburban town outside of New York City. I think it’s pretty cool. It’s right outside the city, so you’re really close. A lot of people live there and commute to New York for work. It’s also close to the Delaware Water Gap, and to areas where you can hike or camp.
M: Did you have an opportunity to see a lot of theater growing up? What was the first Broadway show you ever saw?
Steel: I saw the revival of Damn Yankees with Jerry Lewis. I saw The Who’s Tommy, and I saw The Phantom of the Opera. The first Broadway show that I really remember was Phantom of the Opera. I saw that on my birthday.
M: Did you always want to act?
Steel: No. No, I wanted to be a chef. I used to have one of those chef’s hats, you know? And I always used to help my grandmother and my mom cook in the kitchen. But then I took a cooking class in middle school and I got a C. My mom said if I didn’t pull my grade up in cooking, I’d never be a chef. And I never did.
M: Wow! Dreams dashed at such a young age. When did you get into acting, then?
Steel: I just always kind of did it. My brother Meridoc started acting when he was 11 or 12. I’m five years younger, and I started watching him. I was one of those kids who wanted to be just like their brother. So I started doing everything he did. And I just stuck with it, and just kept doing it all through high school and figured ‘Well, I might as well go to school for it.’ So I did, and then I luckily hit with this show and was able to run with it. It just kind of happened.
M: So, what is your dream role in another musical?
Steel: For a long time I wanted to sing Phantom. Maybe that’s still a goal. But really, I don’t know. At this juncture, I’m content with doing this show and this role.
M: It sounds like you have a pretty laid back approach to your career.
Steel: Yeah, I may be too laid back. [Laughs.]
M: We love your tattoo at The Craptacular. Is there a story behind it?
Steel: I was 18 and I was in a rock band with a bunch of guys and we were really into ‘50s Hot Rods. I used to own a ’57 Oldsmobile two-tone Super 88. A bunch of my guys had cars like that too; they all had tattoos and were really big into the Stray Cats and that kind of music.
I’d always wanted to get a tattoo of Superman, because, you know, I’m the ‘Man of Steel’ or whatever. [Laughs] But I wanted it to be something that was mine. So I came up with this idea that I wanted it to be engulfed in these 1950s-style flames, like my car had at the time. So I brought my idea to the tattoo artist and he drew it up for me. We went through two or three different version, so I was almost 19 when I got it.
M: Okay, a couple quick questions that we ask everyone we interview. Just say whatever comes to mind first. What are some words that you use too often?
S: “Awesome” or “Cool.” I use those words to express myself all the time.
M: What are some words that you don’t use often enough?
Steel: Uhm. The right ones. [Laughs] I’m always like, ‘I’m looking for a word that means this.’ And I come up with 5 different words that kind of mean what I’m trying to say but I’m never able to find the perfect word. And then two days later I’m like ‘That was it! That was the word!’ You know, you always remember.
M: What was the last book that you read?
Steel: I’m really bad about reading books. I only get halfway through them. Right now I’m reading The Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. Before that, I read his book about how he had moved back to America after living in London for 20 years [A Walk in the Woods]. A friend gave it to me, which was fitting because I was just in London.
M: What is your favorite mid-to-late-90s pop song?
Steel: I can’t even think of—I’m a melody person. I know songs but I never remember the names of them. My favorite album in the 90s was Michael Jackson’s “Dangerous.” And I used to love listening to the song that’s in “Free Willy.” I used to play it all the time.
M: In honor of your name we have prepared a series of Steel related questions. They’re either/or questions, so just go with your gut instinct, okay?
M: Blue Steel or Stainless Steel?
Steel: Stainless Steel.
M: Steel Magnolias or Steel Pier?
Steel: Ooooh. Steel Pier.
M: Steely Dan or Stealer’s Wheels?
Steel: I would say Steely Dan.
M: Remington Steele or Man of Steel?
S: Man of Steel.
M: Last one. Danielle Steel or the Pittsburgh Steelers?
S: Pittsburgh Steelers, all the way.
Credit: Francyne Carr Photography