A Man of Many Smiles and Talents
by Pati Buehler
I don't think I've ever seen Norm Lewis without a giant smile. Then again, he's got a lot to smile about. I know he made me smile when he agreed to a chat after this weekend's Chess Concert in Nyack, NY.
Pati Buehler: Norm, it's so nice to see you up there on stage again.
Norm Lewis: Thank you! and I'm wearing my poofy shirt from "Seinfeld" (laughs).
PB: We all know you were called in with little notice to prepare, and yet you played it as if you had rehearsed right along with everyone. How tough was that?
Norm: God bless you (laughing). It was a little pressure, you know, when you're thrown something and they want you here and they want you there and specifics and stuff.
But Philip Hoffman and Rob Evan were like "Here are the basics," and they just let me be me. I just got out there and started playing around. They both said, "Yeah we like that, let's keep it."
PB: It helps when you're a natural at playing around and being yourself and making it look good (both laughing). Any prior Chess experience?
NL: Never, never ever. I heard the CDs, both London and US, and I saw it when Steven Blanchard did it. I have friends who've done it, but other than that - no, nothing.
I almost learned the song "Anthem" when I first moved here because it was a great audition song. I had no idea what it meant or was all about. It just sounded great and showed some high notes for a baritone. I would like to do it maybe in a concert.
PB: Many New Yorkers are enjoying your talent and wit on "New York Central." Tell us about that.
NL: Aw thanks. I have a friend who is a broadcast agent and she said "your personality would be so great on TV," but I wasn't sure if I wanted to do that. Then this opportunity came up and Metro really wanted to see me and we had an interview, we talked, we came to some terms and it looked good.
It's interesting being on the other side of a camera as the broadcaster or news person. You're here talking with your peers, people that you've worked with . It's fun and it's taught me a lot about reading a prompter, making the camera my friend . I've met a whole new group of great people and we're having some fun.
PB: One thing that has been sorely missed in the show is hearing you sing. Some have said, and here's your chance to blush, "Norm has a voice to die for - quick, someone please give this guy another Broadway show!" (both laughing) What role would you jump at?
NL: There are some roles that I would love to play ... just to set a precedent. The very first one I would say would be the "Phantom". I tell people this and they say, "well yeah there's only been one black guy, Robert Guillaume" and to me, not to be on a soap box or to be a militant, but that's sad that you only know one black man or Asian or otherwise when really any one person could fit the bill and do the job in so many roles. So I would like to play that and the Beast in Beauty and the Beast.
Recently they've come to me and asked what my interest was in playing "Mufasa" in Lion King. I would love to play Nathan Lane's part in The Producers (laughing) I don't think I could quite pull it off.
PB: Who has been your inspiration as an actor?
NL: Wow! There are so many for different reasons. Of course Denzel Washington and especially Sidney Poitier. Growing up he was someone to look up to and say I can do that maybe someday. I love Tom Hanks. Some people onstage, Robert Sean Leonard - he's going into Music Man right now. I just love his style and love of theater. I love Matthew Broderick. He's so comedic and so constant in staying in theater and movies and always working. Ah... that's a hard question.
Oh! Brian D'arcy James. He's such a nice man and to know him personally ... he steps on stage and metamorphoses into his role. Like being the jerk as Freddie, you could feel his soul. He's not out there just singing. You feel him act. You know just what he's thinking and one thing I love about him is he doesn't try to make you like him, but he makes you understand why he's this way.
PB: The upcomming Dreamgirls concert is looking very good. You've got some powerful stars to work with.
NL: Yeah! People have been curious to know can certain people do these things? They were wondering can Audra do this, can Heather Headley do that? I was in rehearsal the first day and said "Ahhh ... yeah! Next question." (laughing)
I know people see you in one thing and you get pigeonholed into that thing. Like Heather Headley, she's amazingly funny and her timing and everything ... she is this wonderful little girl that becomes this star. And Lillias White! I can't even say anything about her. She does it for herself. She's amazing!
PB: It should be great! Now that you've wowed audiences on stage, proven yourself to be a very good serious TV actor and a comedic TV co-host, what's next?
NL: I'm just gonna try to continue to do good work in theater and television and I think there might be an album in the very near future. I'd love to start doing concert work and performing with symphonies or a band. Who knows, a little jazz or pop.
PB: So that director's bug hasn't bit you yet ?
NL: No, not really. I think I'm too much of a ham. I love to perform too much. I see things that I would change about things at times. But as far as doing a production or something , no.
PB: And we're content to enjoy you on stage for as long as we can.
NL: I hope so!
PB: It's been a lot of fun chatting with you. Thanks for all you did today and this weekend !
NL: You're welcome. It's been fun.
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