Spotlight on Bryan Batt
by Nancy Rosati     

Photo: Tess Steinkolk
It's quite a challenge to put an interview with Bryan Batt into print, because Bryan is much too animated for a two dimensional medium. He should be interviewed on video, or audio at the very least. He slips into flawless accents at will, likes to emphasize his words in order to make a point, and rarely sits still - think of Robin Williams with a southern accent. I've tried to capture his vibrancy as best as I could, but I have a feeling my attempts will fall short.

Born and raised in New Orleans, Bryan is the younger son of two boys. His family owned the renowned Pontchartrain Beach Amusement Park and that's where Bryan spent a good deal of his childhood. He visited New York City as a teenager, and realized that was the place he had to be. Although he still keeps very close ties to New Orleans, he's made his home in New York since his graduation from Tulane University.

Bryan began his Broadway career working for Andrew Lloyd Webber. He was a cast member of Starlight Express, Cats, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and understudied and played Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard opposite Betty Buckley. Joseph turned out to be the first of his four consecutive shows in the Minskoff Theatre, followed by Sunset Boulevard, standing by for Percy Blakeney in The Scarlet Pimpernel, and his current role as Monty the DJ in Saturday Night Fever.

In between Broadway roles, Bryan received rave reviews and a Drama Desk nomination for his performances in two versions of Forbidden Broadway and created the role of Darius in Paul Rudnick's Jeffrey - Off Broadway, in Los Angeles and on film opposite Patrick Stewart.

Nancy Rosati:  First of all, I want you to tell me what it was like growing up with an amusement park in the family. Were you the most popular kid in town because you could bring everybody on a roller coaster?

Bryan Batt:  Yeah, but I learned quickly who my friends were. There were kids who would come over and just play because I would make up my own games. Then there were the ones that would come over and say, "Let's go to Pontchartrain Beach." (laughs) That's when I knew who my real friends were. There was one friend named Chuck, who's still my friend today. When I asked him if he wanted to go to The Beach, he would say, "No, let's just play here. I'm not your friend because of The Beach. I'm you're friend because you're funny."

NR:  I believe you worked there as a teenager?

BB:  I did work there. I worked the Ragin' Cajun, which was one of the first loop-de-loop roller coasters. My grandfather started The Beach. Back in the late 20s he was an ice man delivering ice. He was on St. Charles Avenue, driving a horse-drawn carriage with ice in the back and he saw on the other side of the street a Model-T truck go by with an electric refrigerator on the back. He immediately said, "I've got to get out of this business. I've got to figure out something else to do." It's true. He built a better mousetrap. There was no form of family entertainment in New Orleans at the time. He really wanted to go on the stage but my grandmother said, "No. You've got to support the family" and he did. He was a self-taught business man, very savvy and very well-read. He did not graduate high school, yet by the time he died he had received quite a few honorary degrees from the colleges in the city.

NR:  And you wanted to be the next Walt Disney.

BB:  I remember my first trip to Disneyland when I was in the second grade and I was blown away. It was this entire world that was a world of fantasy, and I guess that's what the theater is too. You can really escape. When I have any kind of problems and I come to the theater, and I put on the make-up and I go on stage, they're gone. That's what I hope the audience feels too. When you're in the character, your troubles go away. Your thoughts go away, no matter how painful they are. When you come off stage, they're back! From an early age I loved entertaining people, but I did want to be the next Walt Disney. I used to draw little cartoons. He had a mouse, so I thought, "I've gotta come up with a cat!"

NR:  (laughing) Little did you know that you'd end up playing a cat!

BB:  (laughs) Little did I know. His name was "Claude the Cat" and I tried to animate him. I had this great design for a haunted house too because I used to put on haunted houses at home for Halloween. I couldn't wait to get home on Halloween because it was all planned out. I'm not kidding. I would put up walls and ask my mom how much it would cost to get dry ice. I went to town. I had all these designs and it would all fit in the carport.

NR:  When did you switch from that to wanting to be in show business?

BB:  When I got out of high school and they sold The Beach. My father was ill and it was a smart move because that form of entertainment was dying out. The big theme parks were becoming more prominent and unfortunately there was no way to get any more land in that area so it was time.

NR:  Did you start performing right away?

BB:  I was very lucky. I did a lot of community theater in this wonderful theater in New Orleans when I was in college. The theater was called Le Petit Theatre Du Vieux Carre, which means "the little theater of the old square." It's a beautiful 500-seat theater right in the French Quarter. It used to be the governor's mansion and it was converted. It's one of the longest continuing producing community theaters in the country and it's been around eighty years or something. That's where I got to have a lot of stage time. I did my first lead there in The Robber Bridegroom.

I do believe that experience is a great teacher, just as much as studying in a classroom, or in a scene study class with a teacher. I believe there is something that happens between you and an audience that just cannot be taught - the commanding of a stage. I think that just comes from within you, in your soul, and you have to let it out. I've seen so many actors, and I know they're doing great work. I know they're phenomenally intelligent and gifted, and I'll say to myself, "I know they're doing great work. I wish they'd let me in on it as an audience member." I always try to open up completely and try to give everything.

NR:  Are you saying that they're not feeling it?

BB:  I think they're feeling it but for some reason it's not going across the footlights. There's a definite knack and talent for getting it across the footlights. I don't know if I have it or not, but I do go to the wall.

NR:  Did anyone in particular inspire you?

BB:  Yes. When I was working in the community theater, they did a big benefit and they honored Helen Hayes. I was doing Godspell at the time and she came to see the show. She liked me and she liked what I was doing. My parents and I met her after the show and we were talking. I told her I wanted to be an actor in New York and my parents said, "We're trying to discourage him" but she said, "No. He's really good. You should encourage him." She was so kind. She told us, "If you'd like to talk, I'm free for brunch tomorrow." So, my parents went to brunch with her. I had a matinee and I couldn't go. I think I made it for coffee at the end. I was really upset, but I was doing that show and a children's show during the day and they didn't have understudies. I wrote her a thank you note and she was so gracious and so kind. When I was studying at Circle in the Square, she invited me to her house, so my mom came to visit and we went up to her house in Nyack. We kept in touch through Christmas cards and stuff like that. Two years later, when I opened in Starlight Express, I got a telegram from Helen Hayes, saying, "Welcome to Broadway. May you have a triumphant stay." I have that telegram framed on my wall at home.

NR:  What a wonderful story.

BB:  She was a very gracious and giving lady.

NR:  Now, when you were dreaming about originating a Broadway role ...

Bryan Batt as Monty in SNF
As Monty in
Saturday Night Fever
BB:  (laughing) This was not the one I thought I was going to do!

NR:  I was just going to say that. That dream didn't include singing "Disco Duck," did it?

BB:  No, it did not. When you're studying theater and you're first getting your feet wet you dream about originating a role and it's always some great romantic character. I always had that in the back of my head and I never would get cast as that. I was never cast as "the boy next door." But, originating a role in New York? Your dreams are different than your reality. But the reality is that I did get to originate a good role on Broadway.

NR:  He's as different from you as you can get.

BB:  Yes, and I LOVE that!

NR:  Does that make it more fun?

BB:  Oh, yeah. Someone was asking me, "How do you come up with some of the stuff you do?" and it's so freeing as an actor because it's so different than me. I do believe you have to take every chance you can when creating a character and trust that the director has the vision. As an actor, if you're doing your job, coming up with a character, trying everything you can possibly do to make it work, you can't be worried about the entire vision of the show. The director has his vision and then hones you in to fit it. After you're in performance you can see what's going on, but in rehearsal process, it's different. I was trying everything and what came about, what it was whittled down to, is what you see. I tried everything, and I think that's what you have to do. Our director, Arlene (Phillips) was very good about saying, "No, Bryan, that's not what I want. Try this here." At one point I had to trust her and trust what I was doing.

NR:  As sleazy as he is, Monty is very funny.

BB:  My favorite style of humor, the humor I respect the most is when people make themselves funny. It's self deprecating, it's not putting someone else down. It's like you can laugh at me, and laugh with me all you want, but I don't want it to be at the expense of someone else. Because we've had enough of that in our lives.


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