THEATER TALK: Full Interview With Jake Epstein
Jake Epstein: It's been great. The nice thing about "American Idiot" is that there hasn't been as much pressure, because it hasn't been the central role, like in "Spring Awakening," but it's still a great part that I'm in love with. But yeah, it's been great! We've also hit a whole bunch of cities that I didn't get to go to doing "Spring Awakening," like for example, here in Los Angeles has been really cool.
NT: "Spring Awakening" and "American Idiot" are both shows that are radically different from most of the other shows in any given tour venue's season. What has the audience response been like?
JE: It's been amazing. Because of the music, the fact that the music is based on Green Day, it's punk rock, a lot of normal theater-goers, I can see them not knowing what the hell to expect for the first little bit, but getting into it. I'm always amazed at who is at the show, and who is on their feet, loving the show by the end. It's not just the typical Green Day fans, who I think would appreciate it no matter what. Again, like "Spring Awakening," doing a tour, you don't know what the audience reaction is going to be like state to state, city to city, based on the politics of that area, or based on the theater community that's in that area, so we've had some cities we thought would be crazy that weren't, some cities that we were like, they may not like us here, that loved the show more than anywhere else, so it's been interesting.
NT: I remember, with "Spring Awakening," they were saying, like Des Moines, Iowa they were totally expecting to be entirely scared of it, and they ended up being one of the most enthusiastic cities.
JE: Yeah, exactly.
NT: American Idiot is a pretty stressful show on a physical level, and you guys do it 8 times a week. What do you do to keep healthy?
JE: That's been a huge part of this show, is how to maintain yourself physically. They talk about keeping yourself healthy like an Olympic athlete. So in rehearsal, we have long core training sessions, and before every show, we do a half an hour warm-up and work out as a company to prevent injury because it's all headbanging. But yeah, you get really sore, there's a lot of ice packs going around. There's a lot of Tylenol being passed backstage. It's definitely really hard on your body.
NT: The first time I saw it, I was like, how do they do it eight shows a week?
JE: When I saw it, in Berkeley, when I first saw the show, that was my first thought. I got to meet John Gallagher, Jr [who originated the role of Johnny] after the show, and I was like, how the hell do you not hurt yourself?
NT: Especially with the head banging at the end of the show in "Whatsername," where it's like 100 head-bangs in a row or something.
JE: We had a whole session on how to do that, like what is the correct way to head-bang kind of thing.
NT: I feel like you're almost asking for a concussion.
JE: Or whiplash, has been my thing.
NT: Have you actually gotten whiplash, or is your neck ok?
JE: Probably! Yeah, people go for physiotherapy and stuff, and there was one who mentioned that I might have given myself whiplash once.
NT: Well I'm glad you seem to be ok!
JE: Yeah, I mean, I find the show really physical, and I have one of the least physical roles in the show, cause I'm sitting down for most of it.
NT: Going off of that, for most of the show, your character, Will, is almost literally stuck on a sofa. How do you keep yourself engaged as an actor?
JE: It's a great problem to have, as an actor. It's like something out of theater school. You have a whole show, your problem is you don't want to face the outside world or take responsibility for what's happened to you. At the same time, you want to get off and make something with your life. Therein lies your problem, you have a piece of furniture, go! I mean, a lot of it is in the story and the music, of what happens, but there's definitely some moments where there's sort of nothing happening, and I'm just there, and the director, Michael Mayer, talked to me about how someone will be watching you at every point in the show, so we worked out an arc, and it changes night to night, but whether it's really thinking about what's happening with the character, or a moment like, when was the last time this blanket has ever been cleaned, and figuring that out, or not being able to find your weed, or just smoking or watching TV, a lot of it's mundane. But a lot of it, is when you do that for an hour and a half, the mundane becomes very important.
NT: I have to commend you on that, cause every moment you were onstage, I was just drawn to following you, and I don't know if it's because I've seen you in other stuff, but it's like, he is living in that world up there.
JE: Yeah, but at the same time, I'm not doing anything—I'm not trying to get anyone's attention. It is a bit of an art piece, like watching an animal in a zoo, like trapped on a couch. And I feel like that a little bit, it's quasi-not performing, it's not like, look at me, I'm smoking now, I'm just being.
NT: It's like the couch is your personal island that you can't get off, or something.
JE: Yeah, totally.
NT: What was the rehearsal process for the show like? Did you get to work with Green Day?
JE: No, I haven't met them. But yeah, rehearsal was great. It was in New York, which was exciting for me, because I've never lived in New York before, and it's a weird show, so it's a strange thing to jump into, a show with no speaking and all music. One of the most interesting things about rehearsal was the process of figuring out the choreography, because Stephen Hoggett, who's the choreographer, a lot of it was based on the actors that he originally cast. So when they cast the national tour, they didn't want to just take what was already in the last one. So we spent the first week, he would say, go off and choreograph 16 counts like you were in a club on ecstasy and it's right at that height of going crazy, and so we'd all be in our world and figure that out, and we taught everyone our own routine, and that slowly became "[She's a] Rebel," where you see everyone in a nightclub dancing, that's all those improvs. There was a lot of that, this is the intention of the movement, now let's figure out how your body does that.
NT: For "Spring Awakening," you came in when the rest of the cast had already had the rest of the show gelled, so what's it like starting with the cast with almost everyone being brand new?
JE: It's so much easier, and so much better. For "Spring Awakening," it was hard. Not only coming into this group that had been together for a year, but to step into a leading role like that, where people are like, "who the hell are you?" It was really hard in the beginning. And this, the cast is wonderful, they're great. And one of the things I was most excited about was being there from the beginning, to build relationships with everyone.
NT: How is it working with Michael Mayer again?
JE: It's great! He's a really different kind of director than anyone else I've worked with. He really wants to let you find it, there's really no agenda—once he's cast you and you're in the realm of it. He probably demands, more than anyone else, just a lot more of you bringing yourself and your own personality into it, he doesn't want you to be "acting," which I find so interesting and challenging, and I think that's why a lot of his stuff is so cool, and it feels so personal, cause he gets people to bring their own inner shit to the stories. And he's crazy, and really funny.
NT: Los Angeles aside, a lot of your tour stops are just for a few days. What has it been like moving around the country so often?
JE: It's definitely one of the most challenging parts of being on tour. I love the job, but the traveling is really hard. It's exhausting. I'm also someone who loves routine, I love getting to know a place, and knowing the people, and performing for them, and obviously touring goes totally, against that, so I definitely find it a challenge, but it's a cool way to see the country. And I'm Canadian, so it's exciting to be in the States.
NT: And obviously, you're a week and a half into your run in LA, how has it been having a longer sit-down here?
JE: It's so nice. So awesome. Monday was our first actual day off, without traveling, in like 6 weeks. So it was awesome.
NT: Travel days aren't really days off, are they?
JE: No, not for me.
NT: What has been your favorite experience on tour so far?
JE: My favorite experience on tour… probably opening the show in Toronto, which is my home town. Having all my friends come to opening. We all grew up as Green Day fans, so that was pretty cool. I was given a few tickets for opening, and probably should have brought important people, but I was like no no no, I need my best friends, who will love this music, so that was super cool.
NT: What's the funniest mishap that has happened during the show?
JE: The funniest mishap… I don't know, off the top of my head. I'm trying to think of something hilarious that's happened. Oh, this is kind of funny. Not really for me, but for other people I guess. My couch has an air pump, and it's filled with air, that's how it glides, and it's pushed off and spun around, and then it's got a lock on it, and there's been a few shows when Oke, who plays the Rock 'N Roll boyfriend, and Leslie, who plays Heather, are on the couch, and I'm supposed to push the couch off and yell "Hey!" and then run off, and for whatever reason, something happened, the air went out of the couch, and I'm there, and Oke is probably the biggest guy in the show, so I'm sitting there, trying to push this couch off, with this big strong dude and Leslie, like slowly, cause I know I have to get it off, so the thing can continue, and everyone's watching me struggle.
NT: It's character building, at least?
JE: It's tragic, so tragic, you couldn't even push the couch off stage. There's been other funny stuff, but that's off the top of my head.
NT: Flipping through the show's program, I saw that a lot of people in the cast studied acting and/or musical theater at university. Do you think that helped them prepare for the realities of the acting world?
JE: Mmhmm. Yeah. To be an actor, you can have no training and be brilliant, and just be naturally talented, and learn on the job, but personally, because I went to school, it didn't just train me how to be an actor, but trained me how to take care of myself, and take care of my speaking voice and my singing voice and my physical body, and sort of prepared me for all the other stuff that becomes such an important reality of being an actor. It's not just actually doing it, it's all the other crap, unfortunately. So yeah, I think the people that I've looked up to that have gone on to really great careers, got some training beforehand.
NT: Did you get to do the experience of crewing a show and building a set and all that?
JE: I've been on crews for shows in high school, but I went to school for acting, so there was the tech crew, who were on the crew, we kinda stuck to what we did. But yeah, we built sets, and we built costumes. We had units on lighting, you get a sense of what happens.
NT: I think it gives you so much more appreciation not just for the work you bring to the show, but the work everyone else brings to the show.
JE: Yeah, for sure. I mean, I also took writing classes and got really into writing, and I found that really amazing, that was really interesting to see that side of everything. It just makes you realize the whole story. As an actor, you can get really in your own head, and you can sometimes forget the full story you're telling, it's not just about you and your character, it's about the whole thing.
NT: You obviously got started in the business at a pretty young age, joining "Degrassi" when you were 15 and "The Zack Files" when you were 13. How have you managed to stay grounded and avoid the more negative aspects of "child stardom"?
JE: I haven't really thought about it. I think you surround yourself with other really grounded people, and the longer that I've been doing this, the more you have ups and the more you have downs, and when you have downs, you realize how lucky you are when you're up, so I think there's no room to be conceited at the same time.
NT: You and Lindsay Lohan started about the same time.
JE: (laughs) Yeah, we've had very similar careers, me and Lindsay. I bumped into her, actually, when I first got to Los Angeles. Last year, I came here, and literally, I bumped into her, at this piano bar. I thought that was amazing.
NT: You're best known for your acting, but recently, you've taken on more projects that integrate both singing and acting. Are you looking to make singing a bigger part of your future plans?
JE: I just want to work, and I want to do great work. Because I'd been cast in "Spring Awakening," it kind of opened up a lot of musical theater doors for me that weren't open before, and so I think if you've got an opportunity, if people want to see you sing, and they like your voice, then I'll be like, sure, I'll do that! But I haven't gone out to pursue musical theater.
NT: So you're not like, "I'm releasing an EP in a year," or whatever?
JE: No, I've recorded lots of music, and in Toronto I play a lot of music, and used to go play at a bar like once a month, but I'm not planning on doing it professionally.
NT: It seems like both TV and theater have similarly grueling schedules. What keeps bringing you back to both?
JE: I don't know! I suppose a love of doing it, as cheesy as that sounds. I don't know, it can be such a stupid job, and the hours can be so stupid, but then you'll become unemployed, and you'll crave anything, and it's a very strange business. So I think it's the love of doing it that keeps you coming back.
NT: Some of your first projects were the Disney Channel Original Movies "Quints" and "Mom's Got a Date With a Vampire." DCOMs were a sort of formative experience for the 90s kids. How does it feel to have been a part of that?
JE: Incredible. Part of history. Those movies will go down as defining a generation. (laughs) Yeah, I love those movies, it was awesome, it's like totally embarrassing to see them now. I'm terrible in those, I don't know what I'm doing, but I had a good time.
NT: Did they film those in Toronto, or did you come down to America?
JE: No, they filmed them all in Toronto, so normally, if you notice, the leads in all of those shows are all Los Angeles-based, and the friends are all Toronto-based.
NT: Both as Melchior and Will, you have had some outstanding and natural flinches (e.g. in the hayloft scene, when Wendla touched you, you flinched, or when Heather touches you when you're playing guitar) on stage. How do you do it?
JE: I suppose years of practice. (laughs) Years of flinching practice, hours of social awkwardness, and people touching you, and just not knowing what to do but to turn away and flinch.
NT: Well, thank you!
Reach Katie here.