Last month Clybourne Park star Jeremy Shamos nabbed himself a well-deserved Tony Nomination for Best Featured Actor in a Play for his no-holds-barred performance as Karl Lindner/Steve. Between playing two characters every night and attending a gazillion awards ceremonies, Shamos took some time out to chat with us. Topics covered include: explaining acting to his children, growing up in Denver and attempting to tweet at The Fonz.
Mick: We wanted to kick this off with a question that, I think, the ladies get all the time. But we’re very curious. What are you going to wear to the Tonys?
Jeremy: Marc Jacobs is designing a dress for me.
M: Great! That’s fantastic.
J: I’m going to go with a tuxedo. From, uhm… what’s the guy’s name… I’m not actually trying to make a joke, I’m actually trying to remember the person… Oh! Kenneth Cole. Yeah. So I’ll be wearing a Kenneth Cole tuxedo.
M: As a dude, is there etiquette about how you choose your suit or your tux? Like, do you have to worry about what other guys are wearing?
J: Well I, look, I just hope that no one else is wearing a black tuxedo because that would be embarrassing.
M: Are your kids really excited about your nomination? Do they even understand?
J: I don’t think that they understand and I think that’s probably really good. My son just turned three and my daughter is going to turn five on June 18th, the week after the Tonys, so I think it’s actually nice that they don’t understand it. I think it would be a little creepy if I gave them tutorials every night, like “Daddy is nominated for a Tony Award. Antoinette Perry was a wonderful…”
M: Do your children understand what you do for a living? How do you explain that to them?
J: I think they do. But the whole idea of characters and stuff is a little vague to them. Because my wife is an actress too, I wonder sometimes if we ruin things for them. Like, you know, when we did Clybourne Park out in LA we went to Disneyland and there was this Star Wars Jedi Training thing and Darth Vader actually came out, live, like 20 feet away from us and was like “Children, come join the dark side” and everything. My kids were pretty freaked out, so I was trying to explain it to them so they wouldn’t be scared. I was like, ‘That’s just a guy named Bruce. Who just came to Disneyland and parked, actually, probably farther away than we parked, and he’s inside that suit and when he disappears, he’s probably with the guys that play the Storm Troopers, who are named like, Paul and Anthony, and they’re down there just hanging out and drinking Gatorade and making jokes with each other.’ And that made them feel better, but someone told me that I was ruining their experience.
M: OK, let’s talk about Clybourne Park. Your character Karl, in the first act, is about as close to a bad guy as this play gets. But, how do you see Karl? Do you see him as a bad guy?
J: No, not at all. I don’t see him as a bad guy at all. I mean, I know that through a modern-day lens, he’s really backwards and confused about the way things are,he’s backwards about the way that he’s trying to affect change. I see him as someone who cares about his community and is frightened and trying to protect what he knows. And as [playwright] Bruce Norris said, 50 years from now, in 2059 when this play is done, the characters from 2009 will seem super backwards. I think that it’s only with the lens of looking back that you can see just how confused people are.
I think, for the sake of simple storytelling, people do want a villain and a hero and I think Bruce is a good enough writer that I don’t think he gives people that. And I think that’s what makes the play so compelling and interesting.
M: So every night you play two characters, Karl and Steve – one in 1959, one in 2009. Do you see them as essentially the same guy in different decades, do you see them as two sides of the same coin? Both? Neither?
J: I genuinely see Act I and Act II as two completely different plays. And I feel like we let the audience make any kind of inferences about how they’re the same or different. We don’t go out of our way to make anything resonate specifically. We’ve backed off of giving the audience the chance to congratulate themselves for recognizing that something is resonating from both acts.
I have an advantage, because I’m playing Karl Lindner from A Raisin in the Sun, so I’m already kind of doing the second act of another play, in a weird way. So some things that I say resonate with people who are aware of A Raisin in the Sun. But I think, in general, it’s two different plays. Which is kind of an actor’s dream. We all kind of feel like we’re getting to do two plays on Broadway instead of one, which is great.
M: So this play is obviously very much about race, and about what we do and don’t say about race. How did you handle that conversation offstage? Or did you?
J: We talked about it a lot less than people think that we talked about it. The play takes care of talking about it in such an interesting way that a lot of times we just talked about the play as if we were talking about any play. I remember we had a few discussions about race and, based on personal experiences and things like that.
M: Where did you grow up?
J: I grew up in Denver. I was actually born here in Manhattan. My parents were both born and raised in Manhattan and had me and my sister here. And when I was very little they decided to move to Colorado.
M: What was it like growing up there?
J: I went to a small school where I was actually a pretty serious athlete. I played soccer and lacrosse. I was like, an All State lacrosse player and I was on a travelling soccer team. But because I went to such a small school, I also was always in plays and musicals. It was just that kind of school where everybody got to do everything, which I really feel lucky about. By the time I was a sophomore or junior in high school I was involved in the local theater in Denver and played Eugene in Brighton Beach Memoirs. And I just always wanted to be an actor. I always felt very comfortable on stage and sometimes more comfortable on stage than I do not on stage, so…
M: We noticed that you just recently joined Twitter. How is that going for you?
J: I really, genuinely don’t know what I’m doing. I just don’t fully get it.
Last year, I did an event at Symphony Space hosted by Jay McIenerny about stories that are written in bars. I read the story that he ended up turning into Bright Lights, Big City. Afterwards, Jay was like ‘That was amazing. I just tweeted about how great that reading was.’ I knew what Twitter was, so I joined with my name, @JeremyShamos, just to read what he said.
That was like a year ago, so I had a Twitter account that was… let’s say, dormant. And then when I got nominated for the Tony I got all these emails saying “So and so said congratulations on your Tony Nomination, it’s so well deserved!” and like, all these nice things. So then I did my first tweet thanking everyone who congratulated me, and now I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing. Like, Henry Winkler came to the show the other day and I just thought that was amazing. My stage manager sent me a picture of me with The Fonz and I tried to tweet it and I don’t know if I tweeted it, and then I tried to look him up to try and say thanks for coming. And I don’t really understand it. Maybe you can explain it to me. It’s probably a longer discussion. Is Twitter a good thing or an evil thing?
M: Well, I think it’s a little bit of both. I think it would be a little scarier if I were an actor just because it’s probably difficult to block or filter feedback.
J: You mean if someone wants to say something shitty about you?
M: Yeah, if someone wants to say something shitty to you, you can’t block them. Well, you can, but you’ll probably see it first.
J: Like, if someone says “@JeremyShamos is a total douchebag and that guy doesn’t deserve a Tony Nomination. He’s an asshole!” Then I would have to read that?
M: Yeah, it would show up in your replies.
J: But that’s okay, because that would confirm my psychological feelings about myself and I would be like “Oh, you’re right. I’m a fraud. I wanna follow that guy, he’s smart!”
M: So what’s your favorite play, ever?
J: My favorite play ever? I know the answer to that, but it’s maybe a little bit boring. My favorite play ever is The Three Sisters. And having said that, I don’t know that I‘ve ever seen a really good production of it. To me there’s something about it. It’s a Holy Grail thing. I know that it’s a great play and I love it but I’ve never seen a great, great, great production of that play. And there’s something about that that makes it even more my favorite play. Because it feels to me like sort of… unfinished… in this way.
M: Do you have a dream role?
J: There’s a couple of roles that I’ve played that I would love to play again. There’s a play called Engaged by W.S. Gilbert of Gilbert & Sullivan and it’s one of the most tremendous comedies ever written and it’s totally unrecognized. And in grad school at NYU, I played Iago in my third year, and I would love to do that again. That was one of the best acting experiences of my life. Barry Edelstein directed the production and Daniel Sunjata played Othello and I played Iago. We were, you know, third year graduate acting students but it felt really special. It’s an amazing play, it’s like a Ferrari. You just give it a lot of gas and you can’t even believe how amazing it drives… if that makes any sense at all.
M: What is the last book that you read?
J: The last good book I read? Or the last book that I read?
J: I think, I was on a real roll when I read Freedom [by Jonathan Franzen] and A Visit From the Goon Squad. I think A Visit From the Good Squad by Jennifer Egan was the last really good book that I read. Now I’m reading How to Raise the Perfect Dog by Cesar Milan, the Dog Whisperer because we’re about to get a puppy. Our dog died—we had a 16 year old miniature daschund—who died last Thanksgiving and so we are going to see a litter of puppies this afternoon.
M: What are some words you use too often?
J: Listening to myself in interviews lately, I think I use the word ‘like’ too much. I thought I had gotten over that in the Valley Girl days. And I think I sort of glommed onto a few words, like ’disparity.’ I think I talk about the disparity between things a little too much. I can’t stand when people use the word ‘literally’ when they don’t need to. So I try not to do that. And I think maybe it bothers me because I used to do that.
M: Do you have a favorite mid to late nineties pop song?
J: Mid-to-late nineties. Wow. That’s challenging. I guess… “Creep.” That was it for me. I never really went back. I’m a big Radiohead fan now.
M: Last question, and then you are home free! On a night out, what is your signature, go-to beverage?
J: I used to go with the Makers Mark Manhattan on the rocks, perfect. But lately I haven’t been drinking. With the show there’s just a lot going on and I haven’t been really feeling like having cocktails and so I’ve been having club soda with bitters. It’s a little bit boring compared to the Makers Mark Manhattan on the rocks, perfect. But it’s a good after-show, when people want to go out for a drink, it’s a good cozy non-cocktail-cocktail. I’m also a huge fan of water. I just really like water. I think water is the shit.