Thursday, June 16, 2011

A conversation with Wesley Taylor of the American Conservatory Theater’s “Tales of the City: A New Musical" by Armistead Maupin

"Before I was really focused on being an actor on my own terms, I wasn’t really interested in being a role model or helping other people’s lives. I was just interested in doing good art, but the older I get I realize, what’s the point of that?"

I have had the good fortune of having gone to school with some fabulously talented people. Many of these people have fabulously talented friends. And it was with pure glee that I emailed former classmate Lauren Molina whom I have written about here and here when I saw her friend and Rock of Ages co-star Wesley Taylor appear on the stage of A.C.T. a couple weeks ago.

Starring in Armistead Maupin’s staged production of Tales of the City: A New Musical" at the American Conservatory Theater has changed Wesley. He is 24 and has been out of college for three years. During that time he has worked continuously on Broadway, landing central roles in a handful of enormously successful shows including Rock of Ages and The Addams Family alongside Nathan Lane. He has also become known through his satire YouTube series Billy Green.

But it wasn’t until being cast as a Michael “Mouse” Tolliver, a young hopeless romantic gay man in San Francisco during the early 70s, that Wesley really began to feel a greater responsibility than to just the art of theater itself. Not only does he feel a connection to an older generation of men who have come to love and identify with Mouse, but also responsibility to the next generations that continue to struggle for gay rights.

Below is part of an interview I conducted with Wes yesterday about three weeks into the run. We talk about the magic of San Francisco (even today), the responsibility of playing Mouse, where the show might go from here, Armistead Maupin, Jake Shears, the process of being part of a new production, marriage equality, mustaches and on-stage nudity.

To see a shorter version of the interview, click on the article here. I am also hoping to eventually post an audio file of the interview, so check back.

Tales of the City is now running through July 24th. Buy tickets here.

Jamie: First things first, so I see that the ‘stache is real. You could walk down Mission Street and no one would know the difference.

Wes: I went to New York for twenty-four hours last weekend which was crazy, and for the first time I was a little embarrassed about the mustache and was noticing people looking at me funny. It’s interesting because San Francisco is so embracing of every kind of oddball. Like that’s what this city kind of stands for, it doesn’t matter what you look like, it doesn’t matter what you wear. And that’s why there’s so much personality in this city. It’s really a sanctuary of people who are different. Which is really special, it makes this city so magical.

And yeah, my friends at home keep making fun of my mustache in all the pictures. But I love it. For the last three years I’ve been playing eighteen-year-old characters and I’ve been shaving my face every single day and it sort of sucks. So I’m really jazzed about the fact that I can do something different.

Best friends Mona Ramsey (Mary Birdsong) and Michael “Mouse” Tolliver (Wesley Taylor) move back in together at 28 Barbary Lane. Photo by Kevin Berne.

JF: Yeah, you look normal to me, but I live in the Mission.

WT: Exactly! When we first started the rehearsals, (director) Jason Moore wanted us to grow facial hair. And I didn’t know if Mouse should have a mustache. Marcus D'amico in the miniseries didn’t have one and I wanted him to stay twinkie and innocent. Sometimes when I grow facial hair I have the tendency to look sinister or edgy.

But Armistead said, “Mouse has a mustache. I had a mustache in the 70s, Mouse has a mustache.” And it was at that moment that I realized Mouse was Armistead. And I actually didn’t know that before. I had read the books and watched the miniseries, but it just hadn’t dawned on me that he was telling his story mostly through Michael. It was pretty surreal when I figured that out, and it was very intimidating.

I was also really intimidated when I first got the part because I didn’t know what a huge deal थे books were। But when I started telling people that I got it, every middle-aged gay man in New York freaked out. It really scared the hell out of me that so many people identified with this character. But what made me feel really comfortable was that Armistead had the final say on the casting. He gave us his blessing. JF: I love how involved he's been in making this production; I mean how often does that happen? WT: It doesn’t। I mean on the first day of rehearsal, he said that this is one of the happiest days of his life. He was so excited and such a part of it. But, still kept his distance respectfully to the writer Jeff Witty who made Armistead’s books into a musical. He couldn’t have been better to me through this whole process.

JF: Did he offer up any other words of wisdom that you can share?

WT: He told me once that there’s something about Mouse that’s hard for some people to get: which is this quirk that he is both light and dark. He said that I was really embodying that. And because as an actor you can really get neurotic about getting into a character, it was really comforting to hear from its creator that you’re on the right track.

JF: You’ve said before that playing reserved characters, like the one you played in The Addams Family, is more difficult for you than playing really crazy characters, like Franz in Rock of Ages. What was it like to play Mouse then, who is definitely on the more reserved side?

Mouse runs into the handsome Jon Fielding (Josh Breckenridge) at the roller rink. Photo by Kevin Berne.

WT: The thing I love about Michael is that he’s a little of everything. He’s very much like who I am, which can sometimes be the hardest thing to play on stage because it’s the most exposing. You can feel naked and horrified because at the end of the day it’s about telling the truth. And telling the truth can be the hardest thing in the world.

But yeah, Michael is a lot like me: we’re both from Orlando, Florida, we both have conservative parents, I grew up very religious in the Baptist world just like him, it took us both a while to come out to our parents, we’re both hopeless romantics and we both like our vices.

JF: My brother, who’s straight, said he got really emotional during Michael’s coming out scene. It’s a really amazing number.

WT: I like how simple and subtle that scene is. I kept wanting to make it more dramatic, but the director kept telling me to stop and just read the letter. Just love your mother. I was also playing the scene kind of defensive, you know, ACCEPT ME GODDAMIT! And he kept saying, no, you love your mother. You feel for her and you get it. It’s more, Thank you for making me who I am, which is more heartbreaking because it’s killing them with kindness. I feel like that song is a gift and the character has been a gift. I’ve been so lucky to stumble across it.

Mouse is shocked to learn that his parents have joined Anita Bryant’s anti-homosexual Save Our Children campaign. Photo by Kevin Berne.

JF: And I’d imagine people have been reacting very strongly to your performance?

WT: Yeah, it feels really great. I’ve never been in that position before. I mean Franz was super gay but I’ve never been in the position of having gay men telling me how I’ve helped and affected them. That’s been very special to me and it means a lot. And I didn’t care about that stuff before. I don’t want to say I was selfish, but I was really focused on being an actor on my own terms. I wasn’t really interested in being a role model or helping other people’s lives. I was just interested in doing good art, but the older I get I realize what’s the point of that ?

Like when I first moved to New York my agents told me that it’s probably better off that you don’t come out for television and film. But I think that’s changing dramatically; you know with people like Neil Patrick Harris, I mean things are changing in a great way.

JF: That couldn’t have even been that long ago, what 3, 4 years?

WT: Yeah, I got out of school three years ago. But they did say that they would be completely open to it if I wanted to.

JF: But they were just recommending…

WT: Yeah, and they’re all gay too. It’s just one of those hard decisions to make as an actor, deciding weather or not you want to sacrifice the possibility of putting you into a box as a gay guy. But I think it’s getting easier to be a gay man and being able to do it all. But I started to realize that if I wasn’t going to get cast in something because I’m gay, I don’t want to be part of that project. You start growing up and you start seeing these things. And now I’m trying to be as active as I can in the gay agenda. I mean we are so close in New York to getting marriage equality right now. This is such a big deal! It’s made me really passionate, it has to get done! So yeah, it’s affected me. I love how it’s affected other people. I love that it’s made a difference, I think this piece is really special in that way. Even though it’s dated, it takes place in the 70s, but we’re still dealing with the same issues.

Mary Ann Singleton (Betsy Wolfe) consoles Mouse, who is struggling with coming out to his parents. Photo by Kevin Berne.

JF: It’s from the 70s, but I think the San Francisco in this show is still here. Have you felt that?

WT: Yeah, you can feel it. And everywhere you go in this city is research for the show! All of these locations are all over the books and the lyrics. Even the street names, it’s everywhere. I love working on a show and being in the world of the show while you’re working on it. I’ve never had that experience before.

JF: Everyone is talking about if they’ll be able to take this show out of San Francisco and on the road. What do you think?

WT: Because of all the inside jokes? I think that the show has the heart and I think it’s good enough to be able to transfer anywhere and work. Sure, you might have to tweak some of the lines and jokes. I actually think it would go over really well in London it would be super successful. The books are huge; Armistead is very popular over there. And the Scissor Sisters are everything in the UK! They’re way more known there than they are here. The demographic in London is right up our alley. But we won’t know what’s going to happen for a while. I mean, we got extended here until July, and it might even get extended until August. We just don’t know and as an actor is a little scary. Do you look for more work? Can you rely on the show?

JF: It’s like dating two people at once, and geez! Everyone should have these problems!

WT: It’s exactly like that! It’s awful! And yet exhilarating and great.

JF: What was it like working with Jake Shears (Jason Sellards)?

WT: He sort of became my big brother while he was here. We got along really well. We partied like rockstars, The Scissor Sisters don’t fuck around! They had a concert here and the whole cast went, it was really fun. He’s never written a musical before, but he’s such a natural at it. And he was so not precious about anything. He was cutting songs left and right. He probably wrote over fifty songs for the show and there are only nineteen or twenty in it. There are so many great songs that got the chopping blog. There was a song that Mona and I sing together called “Who’s your Mama?”, and after one week of previews, it wasn’t working for them, so he wrote another one called “Everything Gets Better” in twenty-four hours and put it in. I mean, that’s previews. It’s pretty stressful.

JF: They should make a B-sides album.

WT: Yeah, like bonus tracks. There was another song called “Show Me How to Love You” and it was so gorgeous. My verse was my favorite thing that I got to sing in the show, and they cut it! People need to hear this stuff!

JF: So this was all in two months? You guys learned double the amount of material?

WT: When we started previews, the show was something like four hours long. I mean it’s three hours right now, which is also too long for a musical comedy. But they’ve taken a lot out and changed even more.

I remember the first time Mary and I sang our new song for an audience, we were shaking because there were people sitting there hearing a song you had only sung three times. It’s terrifying. I think putting up a new musical is one of the most terrifying things you could ever do.

JF: Earlier you mentioned that playing the role of Mouse is “revealing” makes you feel “naked”. You like getting naked don’t you?

WT: As soon as they made us sign that nudity clause…

JF: There was a nudity clause?

WT: There was a nudity clause that all of the men signed. There was supposed to be a lot more nudity in the show. But, I mean, obviously you have to show flesh in the show, it’s Tales of the City, it’s a big component of the show. But Jason didn’t want it to look like an excuse to please to the gay community.

JF: So all we get it is your butt.

WT: Yup, that’s it. I’ve never gotten to even take off my shirt in a show, I love it. As soon as I signed that clause I stopped eating fried food and starting hitting the gym every day and doing five hundred sit-ups. It’s a fun challenge to be working on something outside of the show, whether it is growing out a mustache or going to the gym more! It’s a cool experience to have to change something about your appearance for a show, it really makes you feel like you’re earning your paycheck.

1 comment:

GaygeekSF said...

Great interview. Say the show and it rocked. And yes I cried during the Michael's letter to his Mom part.

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