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Interview with Stark Sands

American Idiot

By Beth Herstein

Also see recent interviews with Diana DeGarmo and Ace Young of Hair and Sean Dugan of Next Fall


Stark Sands and Cast
American Idiot

American Idiot, an exhilarating new musical inspired by the Green Day CD of the same name, is the closest thing to a shot of adrenaline you can get on Broadway these days. The story—co-written by director Michael Mayer and Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong—follows three young men (John Gallagher Jr., Michael Esper and Stark Sands) searching for meaning in middle-class Middle America during the post-9/11 era.

After getting a quick start in film and television in 2002, snagging his first professional acting job (in HBO's "Six Feet Under") just months after graduating from the University of Southern California, Stark Sands made his professional theater debut in 2007 in the acclaimed Broadway revival of Journey's End. Sands received a Tony nomination for that performance. Since then, he's focused primarily on his stage work. Most recently, he starred as Clyde in the musical Bonnie & Clyde (Frank Wildhorn-Don Black-Ivan Menchell), which may head to Broadway after its upcoming Florida run.

A week after American Idiot opened to widespread acclaim, I interviewed Sands by phone. During our conversation, the extremely likeable and talented actor spoke not only about the show but about his family, his career and his creative process.

Beth Herstein:  You are from Dallas, from a prominent Texas family. It sounds like you were raised in a very tight knit family as well.

Stark Sands:  I have a very supportive family. It's also a big family. My father was one of five kids and all of them had at least three kids. I have twenty-something cousins. Now all my cousins are having kids ... It's a special feeling to come home to Dallas and have so many family members who are supportive of my doing this. And it's exciting for them, because I'm the only one who happens to do this.

BH:  I read that your mother and aunt encouraged you to try acting in high school.

SS:  My mom, more than anyone, was the most supportive. She has always pushed me, and I think noticed the performer in me at a very young age. Her sister worked at my high school, and she noticed that the performing arts gifted and talented class had students of every age. I was new to the school, and she was trying to help me assimilate. Mom was really the one who encouraged me to pursue theater.

BH:  What did she notice in you that made her think you would enjoy it?

SS:  When I was around five, we had books that are still popular today. The "Little Miss" and "Mister Men" series ... They had audio tapes so you could read the words as they read the story. I have a twin brother and a sister who's a year older. We used to make videos [of the stories]. My dad would film, and my brother and sister and I would stage them. I was the one who always seemed to know all my lines, and was really into it as a five-year-old, when my sister and brother were just little kids playing along. I was really passionate about it.

BH:  That was insightful of your mom to realize that was more than a five-year-old's phase, that it was something you might really latch onto.

SS:  Absolutely. Also, I've been singing since high school—I had a band in high school ... and my mom has always told me, as soon as my acting career started after college, "Stark, you have to do musicals someday. Do they know you can sing?" I thought, well, she's my mother, she loves the way I sing no matter how I sound. [laughter]

BH:  You started working just six months after your graduation from University of Southern California.

SS:  I graduated with my BFA from USC and six months later I got a job on "Six Feet Under." Which was great. It was my favorite show. Even at the audition I was excited ... Also, it put me on the map, at least in Los Angeles in the world of television specifically. The episode I was on aired just after the show won a Golden Globe for best drama. So everybody tuned in just in time for my episode.

BH:  Shortly after that you worked on the movie Die Mommie Die with Charles Busch, which gained you a loyal new audience.

SS:  It was a wonderful way for me to segue from working in theater to working in film because Charles is a theater person and Mark Rucker who directed it is a theater person. We all spoke the same language ... We shot that little movie in fourteen days, and it's lasted so long. I still get wonderful little compliments [about the film] ... It's neat to be a part of something that's gaining underground cult status.

BH:  During the filming of that movie you lost your father, and I know you were very close.

SS:  On the first day of work my dad was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. He hung on for nine months and for the first seven months he was perfectly able to get around and live his life. The first day of work, though, was the day he told me. It was tough. Anthony Edwards [a producer of the film] is an incredible man. The day that I found out I was unable to work [at first]. By the end of the day, Anthony Edwards handed me two tickets, basically round trip to Dallas, so I could go home and see him. It's not every day that you work with people who are that generous, especially when you're shooting an independent film on a tight budget.

BH:  That's what should matter, but sometimes people lose perspective. In preparing to talk to you, I started watching the television series "Generation Kill" and I love it. Can you talk a little about that show?

SS:  It was shot in 2007. That was the busiest year I've ever had and one of the most satisfying. I did Journey's End from January until June. That was my theater debut, and it really set me up in a way I never imagined that it would. My dream was always to make my name in the world of film and then maybe be lucky enough to transfer over and do something on Broadway. It happened so much sooner than I ever thought it would. The final performance of Journey's End was the afternoon of the Tony Awards. So we closed the show that we'd been running for five months. It was a very emotional moment. Then we all went to our dressing rooms, changed into our tuxedos and went straight from the theater to the Tonys. For me it was an amazing experience to go, but I also was going as a nominee. That was something I never imagined would happen. Maybe in my wildest dreams, but not with my first job.

BH:  You've also talked about your friendship with the whole ensemble.

SS:  Everyone's been great. We all go see each other's shows—as a group. We still get together to support our Journey's End friends, and it's neat. It's great when I walk out of a show I'm doing and there's my old cast members, who all came together to show their support.

So we went to the Tonys and the show won the Tony for best revival. It was a great celebration but it was also goodbye. The next morning I got on a plane and flew to Africa for seven months to shoot "Generation Kill" ... I had a big part, a very good part, and that required a lot of work for me. But it was another wonderful job. And it was another military job. [laughs] Which is something I'm becoming very familiar with. It's a great show, and I really am proud to be a part of it. So many soldiers of different branches of the military, of different countries, have approached me in the streets, the subways, you name it, and said, "I just want to let you know, that was legit." That's the word that I hear a lot from soldiers. I think there are war movies that come out that are not realistic to the guys who've actually been there. They are Hollywood versions of what it's really like. "Generation Kill" is a close-to-true account of what it's like over there. It's not always exciting, it's not always explosions and guns going off. There's a lot of down time, and that's what the series is. There are only two episodes in the [seven show] series that have big fire fights in them. Most of the time you're on the road, you're moving. It's boring. There's bureaucracy and frustration. It was just really neat to have that experience and to continue to have that experience, because people are continuing to buy it on DVD and catch up.

BH:  How was it to work with David Simon?

SS:  He was great. Also, "Generation Kill" is another show where I am still very close with all of those guys. That was like being sent off to summer camp for seven months with a bunch of guys. There were very few girls in that series, so it was like a fraternity almost. We stayed in a hotel during the shoot, and there were so many of us that we took up the whole hotel. There was nobody in the hotel but us, so we were running around the halls and horsing around and it was a blast. They are still some of my best friends, all of them. But David is great. He is very smart and he is very particular. He has a very particular style. You know you're watching a David Simon show if you see the first episode and you are lost for the first half hour ... He doesn't waste your time doing a lot of exposition or introducing the characters. He just says, "Here's the beginning of the story. Pay attention because it will pay off."

BH:  You were in an excellent production of Twelfth Night in Central Park last summer. What was that like?

SS:  That was great on so many levels. It was a great place to work. It was great just to get paid to hang out in Central Park every day. [laughs]. I've never had an audience like that. The vast majority of those people paid with their time, waited around all day. Sometimes waited through the rain because they wanted to see this show. If they were lucky enough to get tickets, they already were rooting for you, they already were on your side. Just on paper Twelfth Night is a fantastic play. But the cast that [director] Daniel Sullivan assembled was amazing, people I was lucky enough to work with and have basically an acting lesson from every day.


Stark Sands, John Gallagher, Jr.
and Michael Esper

BH:  Just before you started working on American Idiot you were in the new musical Bonnie & Clyde at La Jolla Playhouse with Laura Osnes. That may head to Broadway.

SS:  I was involved in Bonnie & Clyde from the beginning. We did two readings in New York about six months apart, and then we took the show to La Jolla. I built the character and I love all the people I got to work with. The creative team is just fantastic. What happened was a timing issue. When we finished at La Jolla, the future of the show wasn't concrete. We knew there was a good chance it would live again but nothing was in stone. I'm in the position as an actor that I have to continue searching for work. With my fingers crossed for Bonnie & Clyde I went on an audition for American Idiot. Two weeks after I got American Idiot we found out that Bonnie & Clyde was going to Florida. Hopefully from Florida it will go to Broadway. I will not be part of the Florida cast and it guts me but it's just the way things are.

I'm so excited for them. It's such a wonderful production and it's a really strong piece. [Director] Jeff Calhoun and [composer] Frank Wildhorn and [book author] Ivan Menchell and [lyricist] Don Black, that whole team is outstanding. But there's a give and take. I created that role and though I will not be able to continue with it at least on the next phase, on the flip side, I've taken a job that I did not create. I didn't originate this role in the Berkeley Rep production and I have weird feelings about taking this job, because I know what it's like. There's a bittersweetness about the whole thing.

BH:  I was reading an article about Bonnie & Clyde which mentioned that the story taps into the populist anger of our time. It occurred to me that American Idiot does the same thing, although in a very different way. Any thoughts?

SS:  With Bonnie & Clyde I was playing a real guy, so I had a lot of research material. I got to read a lot of books and interviews and watch specials from the Discovery Channel and build my version of who Clyde Barrow was. He was an angry guy. He was angry at society and the police and the culture—the banks and the poverty and people who wouldn't give him a chance.

In American Idiot, the character I'm playing is more fluid. I sat down with Michael Mayer to talk about the character and together we got to create him. Michael's idea was, "I want you to be the angriest guy on the stage at the beginning. Over the course of the show I have a very specific arc and there's something very satisfying as an actor and I think as an audience member about starting in one place and having a journey so that you end in another. It's kind of essential to a story. So, he let me run with it. I created all this back story which is useless for anyone but me. There's no dialogue in this show to explain why I have twelve tattoos all over my body, or why I'm angry, but as long as I know why that's fine. I've got my made up stories from this kid's childhood and stories involving his father and mother which help me connect the dots from song to song in the show. But he is angry at the world, he is angry at himself, and he's angry at the time that he has wasted. He's angry at the crappy little town that he's stuck in. I do see some similarities, now that you bring it up. It's funny. I switched off from Clyde and switched onto Tunny once I got this job, but you've made me realize that there are some connections there.

BH:  You come to your parts very well prepared. I read that by the first rehearsal for Journey's End you already knew all of your lines. You did a lot of reading in preparation for Bonnie & Clyde and for Journey's End as well. Here, you were a big fan of Green Day, coming into this show, and of course you were around during the time period in which the show is set. What additional research did you do to prepare for this part?

SS:  It made sense to me to start with the music. I asked the band and others what kind of music this kid would have listened to during his teenage years. [Then I immersed] myself in hard core music and early punk music, like Black Flag and Minor Threat and Bad Brains. Seventies punk all the way through to Fugazi and bands that I avoided when I was a kid. I [preferred] Green Day, Pearl Jam, more melodic music. It's been really enlightening because what I thought was just angry music is so much more than that. If you sit down and listen to the lyrics of some of these songs, they are really intelligent. It helped me tap into the frustration that somebody like this would have.

Also, this is the first time I've played a character who joins the military. I've played military a lot, but always somebody who's already in. This time I'm a guy who's actually been anti-military his whole life, but something happens during the show that makes him join. Those are some of the feelings that I explored, just in my head walking around and thinking about it. What would make somebody want to join up? I know that when September 11 happened I went through the typical emotions of a lot of young men at the time, to the point where I almost went, "Where do I sign? What can I do to make this stop?" It was a scary time.

BH:  What else do you do to bring the character to life on stage?

SS:  There's an album by Iggy Pop called "Raw Power" that I wasn't aware of until we started performances. My castmate Theo Stockman asked me if I'd heard it, and he said, "This is going to change your life. This is going to be your thing for what you've created." If I'm ever in a different place and if I'm ever distracted, I put on my headphones and listen to a song from that album called "Search and Destroy." That's all I need. There's something magical about that song, its pure rage and power. It will always get me into the right mind set. The lyrics are "I am the world's forgotten boy." That right there will get me in the right mind place.

BH:  The show has been described as being about disaffected youth who were disgusted with Bush, the news media and authority figures. It struck me that the reaction of the characters is more visceral. They are barraged with images, frustrated with the world that they're given, but I don't know if they've articulated or defined their anger so precisely.

SS:  I've been asked the question, "Which character in the story is the American Idiot?" You just listen to the lyrics of the title song, which starts with the line, "I don't want to be an American Idiot" [and you realize that's not what the title means.] The first thing you see in our show before the music starts is a bunch of people laying around looking at TV. People in my generation grew up with so much technology. There are things that I couldn't even imagine having when I was a kid. A cell phone? Text messaging? Now an iPad? My kids will not know what it's like to not be connected at all times. The direction we're moving is this immediate satisfaction and media saturation, where it's very easy to get sucked into it and get distracted by it and not do anything. So disaffected—maybe that's what they used to be, and these three guys finally get the impetus ... to get away from being disaffected. They challenge themselves to find out what the point is, why they're around and what they're meant for.

BH:  Here, you tried to get in touch with Tunny's anger. You also talked about trying to understand Clyde when you did press for Bonnie & Clyde. I interviewed Frederick Weller when he did Glengarry Glen Ross, and he said he always had to find something with which to sympathize in his characters. Do you feel the same way?

SS:  The last two shows, with Bonnie & Clyde and American Idiot, are the parts I've played that are farthest from myself. Most of my career has been built upon playing those earnest, innocent, nice guys. And that's sort of who I am in real life. That's how I carry myself. I'm laid back and not really angry. I don't have twelve tattoos. I'm not that guy. But at the end of the day I can't play a character unless I can find a shade of myself inside it. Specifically, the way I've been able to find the rage in this guy is, well, in reality I did lose my dad. I loved my dad, my dad and I had a great relationship. But I know what's it's like to lose your dad. I know that sometimes I get angry about it and I think it's unfair. But always I can say it's alright because I had time with him and I was able to tell him everything I ever wanted. I have no regrets about not saying something.

But, what if I hadn't? And that's where I got this character. What if my dad had wanted me to be something else and I was never good enough ... if he kept pushing and pushing, and I could not give him what he wanted, I decided to do everything the opposite of that, and get twelve tattoos and hang with the wrong guys, and drink and do drugs and do everything to push his buttons and shove it in his face. What if it ruined my relationship with him, and I was stubborn about it, and we stopped speaking ... because he's stubborn too, and then one day he died? And my attitude was all a front, all of it was a mask just to make him angry and it was a complete waste of time. Now, I don't even know who I am because I've done all of this for years, and we've never had the chance to apologize to each other. That's sort of where I'm coming from with this guy. Built upon the fact that I know what it's like to lose my dad.

I will say again, just so it's clear, this is not my story. Both my mom, who is still around, and my dad were always supportive. I love my parents and my family. I know my dad would be proud of me and I have no regrets. Also, it's not Michael's story. I created this back story for myself and he signed off on it.

BH:  You've said you love the repetition of performing the same show night after night. What helps you keep the performances fresh?

SS:  I do, I still do. What makes it fresh for me is that, especially in a show like this, there always is something new. The audience, without fail, is new every night. Sometimes there are good audiences, sometimes they are quiet, sometimes they are raucous. But they're never quite the same. Another thing is that in a show like this there are so many moments that are intentionally random. There's a moment toward the beginning of the show, when Mary Faber, who plays Heather, is looking at a home pregnancy tests and all the guys in the cast start moving around her. They never set that scene, they just said, "Don't bump into each other, but do it however you want." So that's different every night. In the flying [where Tunny is suspended in the air], it's always different because I don't have control. However I prep for that jump, for that flight—that's what's gonna happen. Also, as an actor and a singer, sometimes my voice feels different and I have to adapt to it. Sometimes there's more emotion in my body than I thought I would have, other times less. It just doesn't get old. That's one of the reasons I love it.

BH:  What else should people know about American Idiot?

SS:  I don't read reviews and I try to stay away from blogging and user reviews about my shows. But my understanding is that there are Green Day purists who are against the idea of a Green Day musical, and theater purists who think a Green Day musical is not a legitimate thing. I want to encourage people who are skeptical about the show to come see it. I'm not saying they're all going to be convinced, but don't make up your mind yet. See the show. There are $32 seats in the balcony so you can give it a try.

BH:  You've said that you enjoy screen and stage work but since Journey's End have felt pulled toward theater.

SS:  I studied theater in high school and my degree is a BFA for acting in theater. I got into film and television because I was in Los Angeles. And I was really lucky. I worked a lot. But once I started doing this—I'm drawn to it. On the flip side, it seems to be pulling me here. Since Journey's End, the momentum has been here, and it's hard to walk away from it. I'm certainly not going to give up on my pursuits as a film and television actor. Still, it's a scary thing to walk away and say, "Everything's going great in the world of theater, but I want to go to LA and start over."

I live in Los Angeles and I keep an apartment in New York, ever since Journey's End, but I've spent probably 75% of my time since Journey's End living in New York working on plays. This is my second Broadway job, but I did The Tempest at the Classic Stage Company [in 2009]. I went to the McCarter for The Seagull in the Hamptons [in 2008]. I did Twelfth Night. Then I went to La Jolla for Bonnie & Clyde. There's something immediately satisfying about theater. It feels like home.


Photos: Paul Kolnik


American Idiot at the St. James Theatre, 246 West 44th Street (Between Broadway and 8th Avenue). For performance and ticket information, visit Telecharge.com.


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