Interview with Craig Bierko
by John Garcia
Actors strive, hope, and dream of working on Broadway. They also dream of working in the other entertainment media, such as film and television. Very few actors today have succeeded in all three performance arenas. Craig Bierko is one of those actors who has worked in all three and has racked up successful credits in each.
Craig is currently making his Lincoln Center Theater debut in the David Thompson & Harry Connick, Jr. dark musical Thou Shalt Not in the starring role of Laurent LeClairé. He made his Broadway debut in 2000 in the musical revival of Meredith Willson's The Music Man as Professor Harold Hill. The critically acclaimed musical was directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman. The role earned Bierko nominations for a Tony, a Drama Desk, and an Outer Critics Circle Award. He also earned a Theatre World award for "Outstanding Broadway Debut."
Craig has been seen in such films as I'm With Lucy, Renny Harlin's The Long Kiss Goodnight with Geena Davis and Samuel L. Jackson, Larry David's Sour Grapes, the sci-fi thriller The 13th Floor, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Suburbans, Till There Was You, and his most recent film project, Kate and Leopold starring Meg Ryan and Hugh Jackman, which is being released this month. He has appeared in various TV shows and series, most recently Ally McBeal and Sex and the City.
On a cold, windy, and very rainy Saturday Craig met with me at the Plymouth Theatre before an evening performance of Thou Shalt Not. The first thing that caught my attention was how tall he is. He must be 6"4 or 6"5, a towering, and quite handsome man. He has gone from the clean shaven face of Harold Hill to a very closely cropped beard and longer hair for his current role.
John Garcia: This is your second production with Susan Stroman. What made you go from a light-hearted, family musical to a much darker piece?
Craig Bierko: I wasn't looking specifically to make any sort of choice in terms of tone or even venue. I really only did it because of Susan Stroman's involvement, and I met and liked Harry and the music, so I was on board.
JG: Would you say that a darker theater piece is a harder sell on Broadway?
CB: Well, certainly right now, in light of recent events it is. We knew from the beginning, even before Sept 11, that this was not going to be for everybody. This is a very particular, specific piece. In my opinion Stroman has earned the right to experiment, stretch, and try to paint on a different palette.
JG: From what I have read, there is a lot of dance in Thou Shalt Not.
CB: I don't know how you define this, but I think it's more of a play with music and dance. A lot of the emotion is underscored with dance, and there's music that fits within the reality of the play ... as music being performed by the characters in the play. I think it's just a story told with all these different mediums.
JG: Was the vocal score written with you specifically in mind?
CB: Harry wrote a lot songs before I was involved. There was a workshop production of it that I was not involved in. But, as I got involved, keys were changed certainly to fit me. Numbers were put in, then taken out and re-arranged.
JG: What would you say is the hardest challenge for you in the piece?
CB: Well, it's just different than anything I've ever done before, tonally it's different. But, the biggest challenge for me continues to be the sheer endurance somebody needs to do to perform eight shows a week. It's not nearly as physically taxing or even vocally taxing for me as The Music Man was. But ... doing such a heavy emotional piece three hours a night, it just takes its toll. So, making sure that you're centered and ready to go, despite the fact that you might have two performances that day or whatever, that's the biggest challenge for me. As for the material itself, its pretty tough stuff.
JG: I've only read bits and pieces, but what did happen to you on opening night of the show?
CB: There's a fight scene at the end of act one ... and it's really nobody's fault, we - Norbert Butz, who is my co-star and I - were in sort of close quarters and I just hit my larynx against his shoulder as we were struggling with each other. I guess something swelled because it was difficult for me to swallow. Then later in the second act I have to yell and (snaps his fingers) I just felt my voice go! So I was out for two weeks.
You were nominated for a Tony Award for The Music Man. What went through your mind as you sat in Radio City Music Hall hearing your named called out as one of the nominees, and what was the whole award season like?
CB: You know, I have worked so hard in my career, and everybody says its so nice to be recognized by your peers and all that kind of stuff, and it was truly exciting. But my main objective was to remain standing and do the best job I could possibly do. That all happened so quickly, it happened right at the beginning of our run, because when we opened [in April] all the theater awards were about to happen.
Really, honestly, that night was about the fact that I was sitting next to my mother and I was seeing it through her eyes. She was on cloud nine and that made it worth it because she always stood by me. I honestly felt almost like what I think a parent feels for a child - sometimes they just want them to have this moment and I was proud for her in a way. I know a lot of people who are successful whose parents are not around to see them have success and it's always going to be something that will never quite register for them because their folks didn't see it or whatever. So that's important to me, that I got to be sitting there with her and experience that with her, which was sort of like the best part of it.
JG: When word came out that The Music Man was going to be revived on Broadway, the name that came up frequently for Harold Hill was Matthew Broderick ... and you came out of no where and were announced to play Hill. How did that come about?
CB: (laughs) It's a boring story - I went in and auditioned. I walked in very prepared and I knew what I wanted to do with this role from having worked with a vocal coach in Los Angeles named Eric Vetro, who's wonderful, and also having worked with a coach named Gordon Hunt ...
JG: Isn't he Helen Hunt's father?
CB: ... right. I just went in having a very strong idea of what I would do with this and knowing that Susan Stroman was somebody I wanted to present a good audition for.
JG: What's it like working with Stroman?
CB: Its amazing, because she's a genius! You'll see things in the show dance-wise - little, tiny movements that say volumes or create a mood. I'm not a dancer, and I don't speak that language at all, but there are things in this show that I've never seen a dancer do before. There's one movement in particular that occurs throughout the show and it says volumes about primitive lust; it actually looks almost like an ape moving and yet there's this kind of a zoot suit quality to it. I see things like that and its just amazing to be in the room while she's creating it. That's maybe not even a once in a lifetime experience, and I've seen that twice.
The other thing is that - and I think this is probably something that she carries on from her husband [the late Mike Ockrent] who I never met - she's just great to work with as an actor. She's a wonderful, wonderful director, but I think like most any great artist, they're just as hungry as they are ready to teach. If you have an idea, she absorbs it and works it through her system to see if it feels right in terms of the vision of the show she wants to create. That's one of the reasons why I think we like to work with each other, because we sort of inspire each other. She brings out the best in me and she said that I bring out the best in her, and that's one of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me.
JG: What has your experience been working on Broadway?
CB: I just feel incredibly lucky. I think people earn their position here. I was talking to, if I can quote him, Robert Sean Leonard, a friend of mine who is doing The Music Man now who's an excellent actor. We were talking about this the other night, that there are certain actors who are young and have this sense of entitlement ... you just want to hit them and just go, 'You're so lucky to be here. Don't be fooled because the first time out it was great. You could be up for ten years of not being able to feed yourself, and there are plenty of people in that position'. Robert just said something great. He went to see some regional theatre somewhere and said, 'My god, if this production were in New York, this guy would win a Tony!' It scared him in a healthy way. He's a very confident and great actor - but I totally get that! I'll go see a play somewhere and I'll think,'There's no reason I should be doing something and this guy isn't doing something.'
It's timing, and a lot of it has to do with talent and ability, But so much of it has to with, um ...
CB: Oh sure, but also being at the right place at the right time. Politics is a part of it, I think equally as large as luck and placement. And then certainly talent. But you can't have just the one, because there are just so many talented people out there who aren't getting the opportunities that they should rightly have.
JG: Who do you play in the upcoming film Kate and Leopold?
CB: I have a cameo. Meg Ryan plays a focus group/market research executive and at the beginning of the movie they're looking at a movie and I'm in that movie, so it's sort of a silly little wink.
JG: A final question ... were you and the company already in rehearsal when the tragedy of Sept 11 happened?
CB: Yea. Actually I flew in on Sept 11. I landed at 6:00 that morning ... came in from Los Angeles and went right to bed because we were in the middle of rehearsals. We just moved into the theater, and the phone rang around 9:30 a.m.. It was our stage manager and he said, 'um, rehearsal's canceled.' I asked why, and he said, 'oh', and he told me. I went downstairs and looked out my window and I saw one of the towers standing with a huge plume of smoke next to it. I couldn't believe what I was looking at. I turn on the television and I see videotape of the tower falling ... only it wasn't videotape, it was a live shot, and I turn around and I watch that second tower come down from my own window.
(Craig takes a few seconds of silence before going on.) My reason for being here, doing this play, just suddenly seemed obviously silly in comparison. I didn't know where to be, you know? The fact that we might have rehearsal the next day just seemed ludicrous to me and we all felt that way.
We came in here [the Plymouth Theater] and Stroman got up in front of everybody, immediately started crying ... and she said, 'I know how a lot of you feel, I feel the same way. We're telling a story here and we're in the midst of this atrocity. But these people don't want our buildings, and they don't even want our lives, they want our spirit. And you can't take someone's spirit, they have to give it to you. We're here today because our President said we have to go to work and do what we do. We're here today in this theater to reclaim our spirit. This is what we do, and if we installed bathroom lighting, that's what we'd be doing today. But we're not, we work in the theater, so we're reclaiming our country's spirit here today.' And it was beautiful. From that moment on it felt correct, and that's the kind of person she is. She's just this giant heart.
There are also moments in this play that came out of things that she wasn't able to express in The Music Man and in The Producers. To me it feels like a bold brush stroke of experiment across the canvas. It's an artist opening up their wingspan a little bit wider to try and find a new method of expressing themselves, and I'm proud to be a part of that.
With that we ended our conversation. Craig also said that he has a deal with Warner Bros. and is now developing his own television series with them. Special thanks to Rex Bierko, Publicist Jill Tillerman, and Chris Hawthorne. Finally, a big 'thank you' to Craig Bierko for taking the time to talk with me.
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