Sunday, October 26, 2014

Interview: Versatility is Jeff Skowron's Middle Name

Jeff Skowron is a chameleon. The versatile actor has appeared on Southern California stages playing everything from Thénardier in Les Misérables at La Mirada Theatre to Leo Bloom in The Producers at 3-D Theatricals -- roles for which he is currently nominated for an Ovation Award -- to The Baker in Into the Woods. He previously won the Ovation Award for his moving performance of Leo Frank in 3DT’s award-winning revival of Parade, and that’s in addition to his work on Broadway and in television & film. Next he steps into the traveling salesman shoes of Edward Bloom for the west coast premiere of Big Fish at Musical Theatre West. It’s a role that continues to show his range in a production that will enchant audiences beginning October 31st.

Jeff, I've seen you do a wide variety of roles in the past couple of years and you make them all look easy. Do you consider yourself a versatile actor?

Thank you, yes. I’m not such a specific type which is really good.

The first time I saw you on stage was at The Old Globe in How the Grinch Stole Christmas. You were quirkier than any Grinch I’d seen before, and you’re still my favorite Grinch today.

Thanks, I did it originally in New York on Broadway. I understudied the Grinch so that’s the only reference point I had and then, when they asked me if I’d be interested in doing it at the Globe, they said they wanted me to reinvent it. I had free reign to do whatever I wanted with it. That’s really rare when it’s a show that has been running that long on Broadway, or even at the Globe, because it’s such a tradition there. Usually in those instances they don’t want you to change what’s already been set but they gave me full permission to do that, which was fun. I guess I made him slimier and kind of brattier.

Well he certainly was a brat. It showed that you have an ability to be fearless.

Totally. I like that word.

Your characters always have a unique spin. A lot of that comes from training but I also think its either in you or it isn’t. Did you study acting?

I went to Penn State for acting and I also started working professionally in theatre when I was thirteen so I learned a lot through practical experience. The older I get the more confidence it gives me to be fearless, and the positive reinforcement I’ve been getting lately helps too. When I was younger I needed a lot of permission to do things but I got a lot of good reinforcement along the way from directors and actors I admired. Because my ideas weren’t shot down all the time it gave me more confidence to be that way. 

Who were your role models early on?

I’m from a semi-rural area in Pennsylvania and, growing up, I worked at a place called the Mountain Playhouse. I was the kid they’d hire for a lot of different things each summer and all the other actors were from New York. They were the people I looked up to. It was great getting to meet them and work with them. There were certain actors I really admired and those were the ones I watched a lot. And I also had some really good acting teachers at Penn State. I was an undergrad when Ty Burrell and Keegan-Michael Key were grads. We had the same acting professors. One professor in particular changed the way I thought about acting in profound ways.

What brought you to LA?

It was writing, which I never thought I’d be doing. I was living in New York and my writing partner, Matt Yeager, and I wrote a web series called “Greg and Donnie.” We submitted a 9-minute pilot to the New York TV Festival in 2010 and IFC saw it and bought it and gave us a development deal. That’s what brought me to LA and started the ball rolling. It got me new representation and it opened a lot of doors for me.

Also, I had never been to Southern California before and when I was doing The Grinch in San Diego I loved it. San Diego is my favorite city. It gave me a taste of what it would be like living in Southern California and made it easier for me to move…because it was a little scary to move away from New York after being there for so long. 

Is the idea to stay out here and continue to do theatre and also do television and film as well?

Yes, Matt and I are developing two other shows that we hope to sell. It’s been great being on stage out here too because I had all of these new opportunities in television and film but I missed doing theatre. I did a lot of it in New York and when I moved to LA my friends there told me I couldn’t do theatre in LA, there’s no theatre in LA. But they were wrong. I saw that TJ Dawson and 3-D Theatricals were doing Parade. Beth Malone is a friend of mine and she had just worked there in 9 to 5 so I asked her if she would mind giving my picture and resume to them and they ended up casting me. It was such a successful show and I got an Ovation Award for it. It was pretty crazy. It introduced me to a lot of theatre people here and, honestly, I’ve done some of my proudest theatre in LA. It keeps me satisfied while I’m writing and it’s allowed me to keep growing as an actor.

Do you prefer doing comedy or drama?

I like both. I love writing comedy but honestly I think I like doing dramatic roles more. With comedy you do depend upon being able to ride the wave of what the audience gives back to you and if the audience is tired or if, for whatever reason, they aren’t very responsive, that does affect what you do. Their laughs are part of your own rhythm and when that’s not there, or if there aren’t many people in the house, it’s almost like they’re not holding up their end of the relationship. It makes it harder to do whereas with drama you don’t have to depend on all that interaction. They react as they will but with drama it’s more contained in the world onstage.

How do you work on making something funny?

I visualize how it will be executed. When Matt and I are writing, we decide what the episode or pilot will be about and then we outline it. He and I are from the same home town in Pennsylvania and we have the same sense of humor so that makes it easier too. He lives in New York and I’m in LA now so we write over skype or Google hangouts. We bounce ideas around and figure out what would make us laugh. A lot of our comedy comes from the specific dialogue and the details.

Do you consider yourself primarily an actor or a writer or both?

Now I consider myself both but my writing is all so recent that I still consider myself an actor first. I feel like I know much more about acting and the business of acting. Writing is so new to me but people seem to be interested in what we write.

Let’s talk about Big Fish. How did that role come about for you?

Musical Theatre West does their Broadway in the Park fundraiser benefit every summer and this year they asked if I was interested in singing some songs from Big Fish or South Pacific, which I did up at Sacramento Music Circus this summer. They were arranging the program and I ended up singing with Rebecca Johnson who is playing Sandra in Big Fish.

Did you know the show before that? 

I had a lot of friends in Big Fish in New York and I knew the movie but I didn’t know the stage version at all. I knew MTW was doing it but it wasn’t really on my radar until I sang with Rebecca. That got me legitimately interested in it. I usually pursue material that I know and that I like, and once I sang those songs I realized I was really interested in reading for it. That’s when I expressed my interest in coming in and reading for the director. 

Does it follow the film or is it entirely different in the stage version?

It does follow the film pretty closely. John August, who wrote the screenplay, also wrote the book for the musical. One change is that Ewan McGregor and Albert Finney played the younger and older versions of Edward Bloom but in the musical it’s just one actor. I play Edward at all the ages.

What intrigues you about the character?

I think he is somebody who at the core feels not important enough, not big enough, not legendary enough, while also blurring the lines of reality and fantasy in creating stories, myths and fantasies about himself that he truly believes.  Plus he has a son who sees through it all and calls him out on it. There’s a little bit of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman in him.  It’s not easy to verbalize what I understand about this character so I’ll stop there.

What kind of prep work do you do ahead of time?

I go through the script and figure out what I’m doing, the large arc and the through-line. Usually I have a notebook with the script so I can write down things the character says and does, as well as things other characters say about my character. You get all these clues as to who the person is. It’s almost like a math equation to me. I get the same the sort of satisfaction dissecting a character that I used to get doing math in high school. It’s really fun for me to go through and pick it all apart. Then, once I figure that all out, memorizing it is easy because it all makes sense to me.

How are rehearsals going?

I love that I get to work opposite Rebecca Johnson.  She is a beautiful, poised, brilliant actress with a gorgeous voice. I wouldnt want to be playing this role opposite anyone but her.

Do you already know what you’ll be doing after Big Fish?

I do! I’m going back to the Baker. Amanda Dehnert is a director I’ve wanted to work with for years but it never worked out before. She’s bringing her production of Into the Woods from Oregon Shakespeare Festival to the Wallis Annenberg Center in Beverly Hills this December. Their Baker wasn’t available and she asked me. She didn’t even know I just played the role. I’m psyched because I know the music, which was the hardest I’d ever had to learn.

What else is on your short list of roles you’d like to do?

Some of the roles I’d really love to do aren’t musical, like Biff in Death of a Salesman, Tom in The Glass Menagerie, Mozart in Amadeus, one of the sons in Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Those are the kind of characters that interest me right now.


You can see Jeff as Edward Bloom in Big Fish at Musical Theatre West, Oct. 31 - Nov. 16, 2014. Performances take place at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 East Atherton Street in Long Beach. For tickets call (562) 856-1999 x 4 or visit www.musical.org.

Photo credits from top:
Skowron as the Grinch in How the Grinch Stole Christmas, The Old Globe. Craig Schwartz
Skowron as Leo Frank with Caitlin Humphreys in Parade, 3-D Theatricals: Isaac James Creative
Skowron as Leo Bloom with Hilary Michael Thompson and Jay Brian Winnick, The Producers, 3-D Theatricals: Isaac James Creative
Skowron as 
Thénardier with James Barbour in Les Misérables, La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts: Jason Niedle
Skowron as the Baker with Viva Carr in Into the Woods, La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts: Isaac James Creative

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