He stutters; his voice cracks a little. He says things like "neat" and "super." He seems so perfectly healthy and well-adjusted that he makes you feel a little warped beside him. You might have to remind yourself a few times that you are not talking to Kevin Arnold.
One would imagine that, as an actor, it would be hard to cope with the shadow (halo?) of the Wonder Years role following you around. Everywhere. Yet Savage's way of dealing with the possibility of being typecast has been—well, healthy and well-adjusted. He hasn't made a panicked effort to seek out the most risqué roles around, nor has he shied away from nice-boy roles simply because of what it might "do" to his career. "Once you stop thinking about the minutiae of what each part might mean for your career," said Savage in a recent interview with Back Stage West, "you learn that if you do a good performance, it's going to be good for you. The work is what matters." Put simply, he seems to have faith.
This is not to say that Savage has yet to prove himself capable of difficult and varied roles. This year, the recent Stanford grad has concentrated his efforts on the L.A. theatre scene, taking on roles that have ranged from a character quite close to his personality to a young man imprisoned for gunning down his classmates. Theatre itself is a new frontier for Savage, who made an early career in film and TV (The Boy Who Could Fly, The Princess Bride), playing such diverse roles as an abusive boyfriend in the 1996 made for TV movie No One Would Tell, and a teen with muscular dystrophy in 1990's When You Remember Me.
Yet his current role in the Falcon Theatre's production of A.R. Gurney's Ancestral Voices is certainly not what you'd call a stretch for Savage. He's Eddie, the wholesome suburbanite narrator who looks back on his grandparents' divorce to recall various coming-of-age moments fondly and wistfully. The part, however, is decidedly complex, with Savage portraying the character at ages 8, 9, 10, 12, and 30, attempting to color each stage of his character's development with subtle gradations of maturity—all from aperch a stool. (The production is a concert-style reading.)
"There's not a lot you can do when you're stuck up on a stool, so everything counts," said Savage. "Every little look, or gesture, or body shift resonates a lot more than it would in a full production."
While his current performance in Ancestral Voices may be a pleasure to watch, his most compelling stage performance this year was in the role of Robert, an imprisoned teenager, in the Blank Theatre Company's production of 19-year-old Victor Kaufold's The Why. Throughout the course of the play, Savage's character is examined by a psychiatrist (Steve Lipinsky), who attempts to make him come to terms with his motivations in gunning down four fellow students. Savage was convincing, perfectly cast as a tragically confused youth, capable of atrocities of the bleakest kind yet given to metaphysical musings.
Though he admits he has never had formal training, Savage explained that, because of his lack of training, he feels it is essential to work more in theatre to help strengthen his skills. Thus far, his best, most formative experience as an actor has been, not surprisingly, his role on the Wonder Years.
Said Savage, "I think if you have a series for a long time, it's in some ways like being in a play with a long run—in that the character stays the same, and so you are constantly posed with the challenge of making it interesting and unique week after week, year after year. Looking back at the Wonder Years, I see things I did well, and I see things I did very, very badly."
One of those things, Savage candidly admitted, was a tendency to fall back on what felt comfortable. "When you do something for that long, you tend to fall into bad habits that you can use to fake your way through things and coast a bit. When I recognize that, it horrifies me. I got a lot from that role because I was able to see what works and what doesn't, what I tend to do when I'm lazy, and what I'm capable of doing when I'm not."
This year, Savage also plans to build his TV directing career, which was launched several years ago when he directed episodes of the show Working, in which he starred as corporate climber Matt Peyser. Savage will soon begin directing a new Saturday morning sitcom called Alicia, about a teen who comes to grips with being at a new high school.
He will also, no doubt, be kept busy as a newly elected SAG board officer during what promises to be a critical time in the union's history. A close friend of both current SAG president William Daniels and former SAG president Richard Masur, Savage will be on the wages and working conditions board that will help to negotiate the new theatrical contract. "I know that the Guild has done a lot for me," said Savage, who has attended the union's Young Performers Committee meetings with his mother for years. "I've worked for years under [the union's] protection, and I'd like to do my part and help out." If he sounds ridiculously upright and good-natured, it's only because, well—he is.