"Amazing," "perfect," and "life-changing" are adjectives John Stamos uses to describe his experience starring in “Gore Vidal’s The Best Man” on Broadway.
The actor decided to take on his first Broadway play and stepped into the role of right-wing presidential candidate Joseph Cantwell on July 10.
“It’s been the most exciting time in my career,” Stamos says. “It’s a great show and it’s a very challenging character for me to try to play eight times a week. This will definitely go down as one of the highlights of my life.”
Stamos chatted with Backstage about playing the bad guy, working with James Earl Jones, and his future in musical theater.
What made you want to do this show?
John Stamos: I did a pilot and I thought I wasn’t going to have the time. I was actually in New York when I found out the pilot wasn’t going to go, and literally my next call was, “Can you get me two seats to see ‘The Best Man’?” When I saw it, I didn’t even get halfway through the show before I was texting my agent saying, “Get me in this show!” It’s clearly something that’s so far from anything I’ve ever done. I’ve played a couple bad guys here and there, but this guy is his own kind of bad guy. It’s different when you’re doing it in a movie versus for three hours, eight times a week in front of people. Since the first couple of weeks, I’ve been afraid of it but I knew that it was the only way to be truthful to the show. I’ve thrown myself into a sink or swim situation, which I’ve done a few times in my career. Whenever those times come up, they scare the shit out of you but I go, “I’ve got to do it.” And this was one that I feel has paid off.
How do you approach playing a “bad guy”?
Stamos: I think deep down inside, they think they’re doing the right thing. He thinks that he really is saving the country from this lunatic, Bill Russell. He gets dirt on him. His sort of motto is to do whatever he can to win, but again he thinks that him winning is the right thing and the best thing for the country. So you never approach a bad guy saying, “I’m a bad guy. I’m going to do bad things." He thinks he’s doing the right thing.
What have you learned as an actor working with this cast, particularly John Larroquette and James Earl Jones?
Stamos: They’re both so alive and so in the moment where you never know how they’re going to do something, how they’re going to say it. That’s the kind of actor that I like to be. The first week it was difficult because I could barely remember my lines let alone do them differently every night. But once I got under it, to watch these guys really bring to the stage what they’re feeling at that moment. John could do a completely different show eight times a week. If he’s doing that, you have to be listening and you have to be able to play ball with him in that way. James has been doing the show six months, and last night we went over to the stage manager and talked about some new things we want to try today. The overall lesson is to keep digging and digging.
The show is about an election and two candidates competing for a nomination Do you find any inspiration in real-life when you’re thinking about your character?
Stamos: I started out with John Edwards because I like his public veneer. And then I started listening to Rick Perry a lot because I liked his accent a little. I hadn’t listened to him a lot but Rick Perry sort of sounds like Bush and they sort of look at you like, “No you’re wrong, not me.” They’re so pompous and incredulous about what they’re saying. Those are the guys I looked at.
How do you think the play relates to the election going on in our country right now?
Stamos: It’s amazing how nothing’s changed really. Gore Vidal wrote this 50 years ago, but he did predict a lot of this stuff. And I think people connect with it. From the beginning, this show was always promoted as a satire, but I’m finding it more about human nature and the way we treat one another. That’s what I take away from it really.
You’ve starred in a few musicals on Broadway, but this is your first play. How is doing a play different than doing a musical?
Stamos: It’s just not as regimented. It’s a more wobbly playing ground because everything doesn’t happen on a specific beat. Every night I get on the train and it really does have a beginning, middle, and end. Most of the time I’m into the show as much as I can be, but some days you’re not. Yesterday I wasn’t completely there, and then halfway through, I was the most connected and emotional I’d been with the show in a long time. You can really get into. Musicals, they have their own difficulties obviously. This is definitely a little more emotional. And it’s just not as set beat-by-beat.
Any chance we’ll see you in another musical soon?
Stamos: I have to be honest, the whole “Bye Bye Birdie” experience was a bit heartbreaking. It just didn’t turn out the way that I had hoped. I just had a lot of hope and energy for it. We had a group of really great kids who were involved. It was their first Broadway experience and it was just a family. It just could have been so much better and it wasn’t for whatever reasons. After I did that I said, “I’m done for a while. I just can’t come back.” And then this turned me around. And now I’ve got the bug again so I would like to come back and do something. You just have to wait around for the right thing.
Gore Vidal passed away at the end of July. What does it mean to you to be in this show at this time when people are mourning the loss?
Stamos: I’m a guy who has really never talked about politics or religion. It’s not that I don’t have strong opinions about them. It’s a gray area for me. I do think that people should stand up for what they believe and help when the can. But I also get tired of seeing actors on these soap boxes and shoving their opinions down people’s throat. It’s a fine line. But Gore Vidal was different. There’s a lot of things I disagree with him on, but I admired him for being able to just be honest and speak the way he feels.
"Gore Vidal's The Best Man" continues performances at the Gerald Shoenfeld Theatre through Sep. 9. For tickets and more information, visit http://thebestmanonbroadway.com/.