How cute is Andrew Keenan-Bolger, you guys? We took some time recently to chat with him about being in a crazy Broadway hit (Newsies, natch), what it’s like to be a famous online auteur, and of course, his favorite stuffed animal as kid…
L: We were at that first preview of Newsies where there was a standing ovation in the middle of the show. Have you ever had an experience like that before?
AKB: Absolutely not. I’ve never been in an audience where I gave a standing ovation mid-show. I’ve never been on stage when that’s happened. So it’s not lost on me how momentous an occasion that was. And what blew my mind was that it happened almost every single night that week.
L: What was it like in that moment?
AKB: It was crazy. Like, all of us had tears in our eyes. We just kind of waited like… “They’re still going! Oh my God, they’re standing!” It was out of this world.
L: It seems like the whole success of this production is kind of a surprise.
AKB: I started working on this two years ago when they were having the first reading. And at the time [Disney] told us that they weren’t even planning a production. They were just going to license it and sell it to community theaters and high schools. If they knew something was going to happen on Broadway, they were keeping it really under wraps. We found out that we were going to Broadway the same day the rest of the world did.
L: Was there a single moment where you realized that the show was going to be really big?
AKB: Yes, at our first dress rehearsal at Paper Mill. It was an invited audience, so it’s always sort of hard to gauge because obviously they were there to support us. But it was a charged, electric theater. I came out after the show and people were literally completely wide-eyed, jaws-dropped, like ‘You are in a huge monster hit.’
L: The fan reaction to this show is really intense. What’s that been like?
AKB: Every time I come out of the stage door, there are so many people that I feel like I’m at a Justin Bieber concert. And it’s so cool, because we don’t have a star in our show. I saw crowds like that when Hugh Jackman was on Broadway or for big movie stars, but we’re like, a bunch of boys who are all in our twenties or younger. People wait to see every single ensemble person and take pictures. I think it’s so cool. And it’s really interesting seeing the generations of fans. There are people who are in their mid-thirties who grew up on Newsies, and then there’s also teenagers who discovered it later and were obsessed with it, and then you have those thirty-year-olds’ kids who have been indoctrinated on the world of Newsies. It’s wild to see a thirteen-year-old girl, an eight-year-old kid, and a thirty-five-year-old mom screaming with the same kind of voracity.
L: With all those boys around, there must be some serious backstage antics. Give us a story.
AKB: Every day there’s something hilarious. Tommy Bracco, who plays Spot Conlon was like, ‘I never get any fan mail.’ [L: Andrew Keenan-Bolger said this in his best Tommy Bracco voice, it must be noted.] And we were like, let’s write him a fake fan letter from someone. It started out really sweet like, ‘Spot’s my favorite character! You’re amazing!’ and then it went into creepy stalker stuff like, ‘I send you pictures of myself…’ It was awesome watching him, because he’s so gullible. He was such an easy target.
L: Is there a single stand-out joker in the cast?
AKB: No. Actually… Garrett Hawe has been sort of the ringleader as far as practical jokes go.
L: What was your audition process like?
AKB: I had done two of the readings, but I still had to come in and audition because Jeff Calhoun and Chris Gattelli hadn’t seen those readings. I even had to do a dance call, which was one of the most terrifying things. Because I am not a dancer, and the dancing in this show is very technical. But they saw my dance call and realized that I was good enough to dance as a crippled person, so I didn’t go to the big final call.
L: You grew up in Detroit. Did you like growing up there, or were you one of those kids who was like, get me out of here. I need to go live in New York.
AKB: I don’t think I was, actually. I was totally happy growing up in Michigan. Our parents were very involved in the arts scene there, so I felt like I had a lot of culture growing up. And both of my sisters also do theater, so I was always doing theater and shows. When I was eight years old, I did move to New York and got an agent there, and spent a lot of my childhood and teenage years working in New York as an actor, which was so incredible. I started it in a place where working a job didn’t mean the end of the world to me. Because it wasn’t really a financial thing. It was something I just wanted to do as a hobby. So approaching it in that way, and thinking of it as something I’m lucky to be doing, rather than something I need to pay my rent was a good introduction into the business. And I think it’s grounded me as an adult.
L: Working in NYC as a kid, what was your path through school?
AKB: I think working in the theater teaches you a great discipline and my parents made it very clear that school was most important. And if I wasn’t doing well in school, then I wouldn’t get to go on auditions. So I always did really well in school. And it was always instilled in me that school was of greater importance than theater. So I would leave [school] to go to auditions sometimes, or fly out to New York to go rehearse for something. But I feel like I had a normal childhood as far as school goes.
L: You and your sister Celia seem to have a really cool relationship. Is there any remote sense of rivalry or needing to keep up with each other?
AKB: I can honestly say that there’s no rivalry. I think it might be harder for siblings who are the same sex or the same age. But I could not be more proud of her. I think my proudest moment to date was that, the day that the Newsies cast was announced for Broadway was the same day that Peter and the Starcatcher was announced for Broadway. So on all the theater web sites, the first two things were like, a picture of me and a picture of Celia. I can’t explain how proud our family was that day.
L: What was your initial spark of inspiration that led you to create Submissions Only?
AKB: I was doing a show with my co-creator, Kate Wetherhead, in Dallas. We were both moving back to the city, and neither of us had a job. So I think in that in-between time you can either sit back and enjoy your time off. Or you can see it as an opportunity to create something that is truly your own. When we got back to the city, we did a table read with some of our friends. I don’t think either of us realized that it would be part of a web series. We just thought it would be fun for our friends in the community.
L: You’re on YouTube and you’ve been blogging forever and you tweet. Do you consider yourself a kind of early-adopter with this stuff?
AKB: Yeah. I feel like a lot of it has to do with the year that I was born. YouTube and Facebook came about when I was in college, so I feel like my group of friends were among the first people to get a handle on how to market yourself in that way, before the masses figured it out. So I think I had an early presence on YouTube, back when there weren’t a lot of people putting musical theater content up.
L: And you can put it up yourself.
AKB: Before, if you were in the theater and you wanted to get something produced, you would do a cabaret. And at most, a hundred people would see it. Now, if you put out something good online, it can go completely viral. It’s an incredible platform. And people can watch it as much as they watch television, which is pretty wild.
L: On the flip side of that, do you think there’s a negative side to that? Have you ever read anything about yourself online where you were like… Ugh.
AKB: Oh, completely. I don’t think there’s a person who escapes criticism online. Also, we live in a world where you can be anonymous online. So people would say things that they probably wouldn’t say in person. And of course, I’ve totally had my feelings hurt. And you just have to realize that no one escapes it. And you just have to keep creating the stuff that you know in your heart is important and meaningful. And there are going to be people that resent you for it, and people that it’s going to resonate with. At the end of the day, it’s about being able to go home and say, I created something myself. And I feel artistically fulfilled in that way.
L: Are you interested in directing as a full-time career?
AKB: I want to do it all, honestly. Big executives are starting to take big risks on people who are less famous, and people who have unique voices. I’m so excited for Lena Dunham, who just aired her first episodes of Girls on HBO. She’s about my age. She’s only ever done one movie before. She’s the writer and creator and star of it, so if I could base my career on anything, I’d sort of choose that paradigm of doing it from all angles. That’s definitely what inspires me the most as an artist. So I’ll hopefully be able to create from in front of, and behind the camera.
L: Who is your dream Submissions Only guest star? Of course, you guys have had some amazing people already…
AKB: Audra McDonald. It would love to work with her. I think she’s so incredible as a performer, but also as a human being.
L: OK, let’s do our lightning round. What’s your favorite kind of cookie?
AKB: Peanut butter.
L: Did you have a favorite stuffed animal growing up, and what was it?
AKB: I still have that stuffed animal. It was Oatmeal. He’s a bear.
L: Your favorite mid-to-late nineties pop song?
AKB: “No Scrubs” by TLC.
L: What are some words you use too often?
AKB: I use the word ‘like’ way too much.
L: What are words you don’t use enough?
AKB: Words that are not abbreviated.
L: What was the last book you read?
AKB: In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson
L: What was your biggest onstage mishap?
AKB: When I did Aladdin out of town, I went onstage and didn’t realize that I was not wearing a microphone. And I had the first line of the show. The sound people picked up on it really quickly, and the stage manager gave my mike to a girl who ran onstage with a silk scarf, and she like, did a dance and clipped it onto my hat, and ran off stage. So some quick thinking made it all right.
L: Most important question: Who would win a three-legged race, the Keenan-Bolgers or the Fosters?
AKB: The Fosters. Us Keenan-Bolgers, we have very tiny limbs.