Joshua Malina Is Still Winging It

The “Leopoldstadt” actor on his return to Broadway and how Aaron Sorkin is still helping him land roles

Joshua Malina has spent the span of his career—more than three decades—winging it. West Winging it,” he quips over Zoom from the apartment where he’s staying in New York. It’s half true. The self-described comedic actor got his start on Broadway and rose to fame in the role of deputy White House communications director Will Bailey on Aaron Sorkin’s “The West Wing” and, later, as Attorney General David Rosen on Shonda Rhimes’ “Scandal.” Though he graduated from Yale with a B.A. in theater studies, he favors an “experiential” approach when it comes to acting. He believes it’s his humor, charm, and ease with dialogue that has carried him this far. 

Thirty-four years after he made his Broadway debut in Sorkin’s “A Few Good Men,” Malina has returned to his theater roots in Tom Stoppard’s “Leopoldstadt.” Playing at the Longacre Theatre through July 2, the story follows a Viennese Jewish family from 1899 to 1955. Last month, Malina took over for David Krumholtz as Hermann Merz, a wealthy factory owner and baptized Jew. The 57-year-old actor was drawn to Stoppard’s vibrant story of family and faith because of how much he relates to the material as someone who identifies strongly with his own Jewish identity.

A week after making his “Leopoldstadt” debut, Malina reflects on the career trajectory that led him here.

Joshua Malina photoshoot

When did you begin training as an actor?

I knew I wanted to be an actor from a very young age, and I would consider my first informal training doing tons of plays. I joined a local theater group for young people in New Rochelle, [New York,] called CRC [Children’s Repertory Company]. We did acting and movement classes. That was my first exposure to any kind of training. In high school, I went to Horace Mann in the Bronx, and they had a very thriving artistic community there. 

To make sure that I didn’t really have anything to fall back on, I decided to major
in theater studies at Yale as an undergraduate. It ended up being a mixed liberal arts curriculum with an emphasis on acting. There, we did movement classes and scene work with great people. Because of the drama school [at Yale], we had some opportunities to be taught by drama school professors or to have some drama school students work on undergraduate productions. 

To the extent that I have any formal training, that’s kind of the sum total of it. I considered applying to drama schools, but I was so desperate to get out of college and start pursuing a career in acting, that I decided not to…. I learned how to act on film by acting on film.

Did you study any specific methods or techniques?

I know we did the Alexander Technique—[which involves paying attention to] breathing—at Yale. I’m remembering now, I’ve actually studied more than I realized. I graduated from Yale in 1988 and moved to New York immediately, and I studied with the wonderful teacher and actor Suzanne Shepherd. I don’t feel that I ever subscribed or was taught formally or focused on a specific method; digging into great material and just doing scene work was always my favorite thing. Acting is such a weird, amorphous thing that anybody can try—and, to some extent, do. But I’ve never really bought that there’s a specific approach that will train anybody.

Joshua Malina photoshoot

Aaron Sorkin has played such an integral part in your career. What’s the most important lesson you’ve taken away from working with him?

The No. 1 thing I’ve taken from Aaron, to this day, [which I’m] constantly aware of—especially as I now do a play by Tom Stoppard—is that when the material is really good, it does most of the work for you. Working for Aaron, I was always like, If my primary goal is just to put these words forth, it ends up making me look good. His writing is so good and Tom Stoppard’s writing is so good that you don’t worry about trying to gild the lily too much. For me, it’s always text first.

What does your character development process look like?

If I’m really honest, most of the time I just jump in, deep-dive on the text, and start playing the role. Sometimes, there’s no opportunity [for that]. You get cast in “The West Wing,” and you don’t have weeks to prepare. You’ve missed when they were doing the pilot and they were meeting with their counterparts in the White House and having all these opportunities to do research. I was given the script and was like, OK, you’re Will Bailey, and you’re shooting in three days. Just go do it. I read, I do a little research. It’s not like I don’t try to learn about what it is I’m doing, but I feel like I’m often in a situation where I don’t have a tremendous amount of time or resources given to me. Especially in TV, there’s not a lot of lead time between getting a job and: “You’re shooting tomorrow, and now you’re a U.S. Attorney [General].”

You began your career in theater. What brought you back to the stage? 

This [past] summer, I did my first play in about 30 years—the world premiere of Nathan Englander’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” at the Old Globe in San Diego, directed by Barry Edelstein. I read it immediately because I’m a huge fan of Nathan Englander’s novels and short stories. 

I started to feel a little bit of what we Jews like to say, “bashert”—like, this is meant to be. A great writer has written a play, and there’s some interest in you. And then I read it, and it felt like an Aaron Sorkin moment where a great writer has written a part for me. Nathan did not, in fact, write it for me. I didn’t know him previously. He wrote it based on his Pulitzer Prize–finalist short story—or the title short story of that book. But it felt to me like I must play this role. 

They did offer it to me. And then it became two years of the pandemic and the show getting postponed again and again. That specific play is an incredibly funny, deep piece that, in a way, shared some DNA with “Leopoldstadt”—because it’s a substantively Jewish play that has universal appeal. You didn’t need to be Jewish to enjoy it as an audience member; but it spoke to me deeply. And similar also to “Leopoldstadt,” [it explores] things like identity, faith, friendship and family, and our relationship with history. 

So I finished that run in October and just felt bereft. I wanted to do that play so much longer, and I also just wanted to do another. [“Leopoldstadt”] is the one job I feel I willed [into existence] somehow. 

I read that Sorkin had a hand in you landing your role in “Leopoldstadt.” How so?

Patrick Marber, the director of the play, spoke of his love of “The West Wing,” and I thought, I know why I am here. He felt that if one had a facility for Aaron’s dialogue that one might also have a facility for Tom Stoppard’s dialogue. I haven’t worked for Aaron in 20 years, even though I think there’s a perception among many that I only worked for Aaron. I haven’t actually worked for him since “The West Wing,” but he remains a good friend. When I was finally offered the role, I wrote to him and I said, “I know I haven’t worked for you in a while, but you’re still getting me work. I appreciate it, and I’ve just been cast in a plum role in a play by Tom Stoppard.”

Joshua Malina photoshoot

Shonda Rhimes and Sorkin are both known for writing snappy, fast-paced dialogue. What has performing their work taught you?

Well, I feel like the Aaron Sorkin school of acting prepared me very well for the Shondaland world of acting. I’m very proud to be a member of those two troupes. I know that Shonda is a fan of Aaron’s, and Aaron is a fan of Shonda’s; and it certainly didn’t hurt my standing in Shondaland to have been on “The West Wing” and “Sports Night.” It’s why I feel like, in addition to all the jobs Aaron has directly given me, he has indirectly given me a lot of work, too. An Aaron Sorkin script and a Shonda Rhimes script are both dialogue-forward. You get these 70- to 80-page scripts, whereas normally you’d be looking at a 60-page script.

How has that impacted the way you handle dialogue onstage?

It’s funny—now working on the Stoppard play, and the similarities to the previous two writers’ work that we’ve discussed, often I’m being told, “You can slow down.” Because I’ve worked for Shonda and Aaron so much, pace is built into my delivery and the way I speak. There are moments in this play where they’ve been on me: “Slow down; you’re not in a race. We don’t have to film a certain amount of material in a certain amount of time.” I try to breathe and grab myself when I’m doing the play. I’ve had to slow down my Sorkin and Rhimes approach.

How did you find your way into the character of Hermann in “Leopoldstadt”?

I had a wonderful opportunity with this play, which was to be…given the offer in December and not to start rehearsals until February. Patrick Marber, the director of the play, wanted us to get this book of photos of Vienna in the 19th century and read “Last Waltz in Vienna” by George Clare. So I read books, I threw myself into the time period, and I read Stoppard’s play over and over. 

I flew to New York and I saw it. I’m not above watching someone else’s great performance. David Krumholtz was awesome, and it was very helpful to watch his performance multiple times. He and I texted. He was very generous. He told me his take on Hermann and it was very helpful, and the discussions like that were great. And then, working with Patrick, I got three weeks in rehearsal before I had to dive in and start performances. We were blessed with enough time to sit down and discuss any line, any piece of dialogue, any situation that was unclear, because there’s a lot of politics [in the story]. 

How did your lived experience as a Jew and your Hebrew school education help you approach the role?

Hermann is a well-to-do Viennese textile factory owner who was born Jewish and who converted to Catholicism prior to the opening [scene] of the play, as a way to move upward in Viennese society. You could say that on the surface of it, he’s somebody who has completely denied and moved on from his Jewish identity. But I think what’s really interesting about the character is that he has a very deep Jewish identity that he’s wrestling with. Other Jewish characters in Austria will make [it] very clear in certain scenes that whatever you think you’re presenting to the world or whatever you think your identity is, certain people are going to see you as a Jew, and it’s inescapable. 

So I feel like my own deep Jewish identity fuels the character’s struggle with his Jewish identity. It also makes me very happy as a Jew to be part of this play. And it is universal; I would never say I’m doing a “Holocaust play.” I’ve heard the play described that way, and I think that is reducing it to something that it isn’t. It’s much more universal than that. I would say it’s a family play before it’s a Holocaust play. 

What types of projects are you eyeing after “Leopoldstadt” closes?

What next job am I going to try to will into existence? I don’t really know. The fact is, I definitely want to do more theater. One of the reasons I stopped doing theater, after my first job in “A Few Good Men” in 1989, [is that] I found it hard [to get] a second job. I moved to L.A. and started to get work in TV, so I just went where the work was. 

I would like to continue to do exciting stage work. I would like to do a balls-out comedy onstage or a sitcom. I still feel like my career has taken me to places I didn’t expect to go and has steered me away from places I did expect to go. I really thought my bread and butter would be as a comic actor. And I do try to find humor in every role I play, including in “Leopoldstadt,” but it would be fun to do an out-and-out comedy.

This story originally appeared in the Apr. 6 issue of Backstage Magazine.