HIS BRILLIANT CAREER (SO FAR)
Still in his twenties, Santino Fontana has performed in quite a respectable number of productions that many actors would hope to accomplish in a life time: most recently The Importance of Being Earnest (Clarence Derwent Award), the short lived Brighton Beach Memoirs (Drama Desk Award for Best Featured Actor), Billy Elliot, Sunday in the Park with George, and the original revival cast of The Fantasticks. Among his regional credits, he was also the youngest American actor to professionally play the title role of Hamlet. Now, on stage at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre, Santino is playing Joseph in Sons of the Prophet by Stephen Karam. At the end of his third week of previews, we discussed his latest role that will, no doubt, earn him rave reviews and national attention.
Quite frankly, I haven’t been this excited about a new play since Speech and Debate in 2007, also written by Stephen Karam and produced by Roundabout Theatre Company. Your performance in Sons of the Prophet, along with the playwriting, is subtle, moving, funny, and human–all at the same time. Your character is dealing with a physical pain that nobody can name, understand, or heal. In addition, your character rarely leaves the stage in the intermissionless one-hour and forty-five minute performance. How does the physical pain of your character (along with the marathon performance) affect you as an actor performing Joseph eight times a week? Is it physically and mentally exhausting?
The good thing about never being off-stage is I don’t have time to think. So from the opening moment to the closing moment, I just do what’s in front of me. Each moment leads to the next, which just carries me through ‘til the end. Also, despite the pain Joseph is feeling, he never wallows in the suffering, so I don’t really feel like I’m suffering at all. I feel like I’m getting things done. That’s a testament to the writing [by Stephen Karam] and direction [by Peter DuBois] that I’m not feeling too tired. At least that’s how I feel now. Check in with me in a couple months and I could be dying.
Can you give an example of moment-to-moment working?
Well…I’m standing at places, watching the opening lighting effect, and as soon as it goes to black, I walk out, hit my mark, and do a nerve-glide exercise. Then when I feel pain in my arm, I want to figure out exactly where it is. Then my boss comes in, and I don’t want her to see that I’m doing the nerve-glide exercise, so I make myself busy. I need to get out of the office, so I pack my bag and get a signature on an insurance form I need. I don’t have to think about any of this beforehand, off-stage; it’s literally happening on-stage in the moment. I just have to be present and honest and want what Joseph wants. Which means, I don’t have to do any prep to get ready for the show; I just have to step on-stage.
This moment-to-moment process is exactly what is so compelling about your performance, because you are so present tense throughout. On top of which, you listen so well and are as present even when you are silent. I noticed it, too, with your work as Algernon in The Importance of Being Earnest.
I’m one of those actors who believes that whatever is actually happening in the moment is going to be more interesting than what I’ve planned. I hate performances when I can see how it’s choreographed and planned out. I can respect the craft in plotting it, but if I can see the work, I don’t care as much. But when it just happens, as if sharing an organic moment with everybody, this brings everyone on-stage and off together. The bus station scene, when I meet Timothy [played by Charles Socarides], has never gone the same. It’s two people who don’t know each other. Of course, I know the dialogue and what I want, but everything else is up for grabs. Luckily, it’s been directed to allow for such freedom, which is great. I’ve done long runs where actors stop listening and go into autopilot, and it’s not great. Listening isn’t focusing on someone while they’re speaking; it’s asking questions of what you’re hearing, asking questions of yourself, of who you’re in the scene with. In the second scene with my uncle and brother, [played by Yusef Bulos and Chris Perfetti], when my uncle keeps talking incessantly about stuff that has nothing to do with the present situation I’m in, the questions I’m asking myself are: what are you talking about? Why are you talking about this? What did you just say? Listening is a constant set of questions. The danger is that over a long run, actors stop listening–meaning they stop asking those questions. There are always more questions to be asked. The other day, I noticed a small stain on my brother’s shirt, and I looked at it and asked myself, why is he wearing that shirt with a dirty spot on it? And what is that, food? Where did he get that shirt? I don’t know if anybody in the audience notices my interior questions, but it brings me in the present moment.
Which keeps you actively involved.
Exactly, because listening can sound so passive, but it’s actually not. My character, at so many points, is emotionally constipated, because he doesn’t have the courage or the opportunity to really create change, so I’m always starting and stopping within scenes. Hamlet, on the other hand, will go through a scene and make a big change, then go in the exact opposite direction in the very next scene. But Joseph never gets to the next big change. He wants to, but he keeps stopping in the middle.
What’s the longest run you’ve ever done?
I did Billy Elliot for a year.
I take it you have brothers of your own?
Only an older sister.
Yet your qualities as an older brother are so true to life and full of humanity. I’ve seen you play the older brother in Brighton Beach Memoirs, Billy Elliot, and now in this play.
Yes, I’m always the older brother; I don’t know what that’s about. Earnest, too, because we behaved like brothers and, in fact, in the end, were brothers.
In Sons of the Prophet, more than ever, the relationship with your little brother, played to perfection and pure delight by Chris Perfetti, [in his New York debut performance], is incredibly special and original. And as unique and touching as it is, it’s also as familiar as any siblings I’ve ever seen.
I guess it’s finding the balance between knowing someone so well that you care about him and knowing him so well you don’t care about him at all.
Was the tickling between the two of you written into the script or discovered?
It was definitely written that the fighting is getting me nowhere and Joseph realizes he’s got to do something to get Charles to snap out of it. I don’t remember what was written exactly, but I do think tickling was mentioned. Often, those are the moments that can feel so stagy, and so far we’ve felt incredibly free and spontaneous there. Now that I’ve mentioned it, it’ll probably never work again.
It’s a delightful moment. Not only does the play deal with physical suffering, but also it deals with mental and spiritual suffering. And yet at the same time, there are so many laughs. Since you’re playing a drama, do you try to check out from hearing the audience laugh, or are you attuned to it the same as in a comedy?
We had a house a couple days ago that wanted it to be a full out comedy, and I had to make the decision really quickly. You know…how do I handle this? If I were playing Algernon, I would’ve gone with the audience…expanded into it almost. Algernon lives for excess and he’s very outgoing. But Joseph doesn’t want to be public in any way. He doesn’t want to bring any kind of attention to himself in the least. So I had to let the audience laugh but also I had to give them a signal that I’m not a comedian and that this play has very real dramatic stakes that need to be recognized for the play to work in the end. There are a couple spots where I can lay that in and actually feel the audience shift and go–like, “Oh.” I hate to be a Debbie Downer, but I also have to think of the last scene. It’s an instinctual thing. There’s actor timing knowing how to land a laugh, but I also know my character doesn’t have comedic timing. I can’t land a laugh in a way that signals that my character knows how to land a joke. Because he’s not that funny. There’s a reason why my brother gives the speech at the board meeting, because Joseph isn’t a public speaker or comfortable in the limelight.
I love how you are so versatile and able to go from plays to musicals and from classics to new plays. Which do you prefer?
I always want to do something new. I don’t want to limit myself. That, at times, can feel like the world’s job. I want to keep doing as many different things as possible. My training at the Guthrie Theatre/University of Minnesota Actor Training Program was very big on teaching us the classics of the past in order to do the classics of the present and future. Great stories, great characters, in a myriad of styles, whether speaking in verse, wearing masks, being in a musical, or doing a new drama. Playing a different range of people, that’s when I’m the happiest. One of the ways I can feel proud of what I’m doing is if I keep playing different characters.
Well, you’ve certainly accomplished that again with this role.
Thanks. This is the first play I’ve done in New York that hasn’t required an accent, aside from The Fantasticks.
Has TV or film come calling yet?
I had to turn down a small role in a big movie to do this play, but that was the right decision. I’ve tested for some pilots and I’ve done some guest spots on TV. I just did an indie film that’s coming out in the next couple months called Nancy, Please. When you think of theater and its many genres from classics to new plays and musicals–then when you add TV and film to the mix, it multiplies. 30 Rock and The Office are both comedies on NBC, but they’re nothing alike. The skills in playing those are different, and I get excited in figuring out the recipe of skills that are needed for each piece. So I have a lot of interests, but I have to remind myself that what I want to do is to play compelling characters in great pieces. If that’s my through line, I’ll be happy. If I start getting worried about where it is or who’s watching it, I think I’ll go crazy, because I can’t control those things.
Do you have any interest outside of acting? Writing or directing perhaps?
Totally. I directed a production of Hamlet with high school students and some of my classmates in college, and it was a great experience and went very well. After that, Joe Dowling [the artistic director at the Guthrie], asked me if I wanted to direct Two Gentlemen From Verona that would travel as a young company around the mid-west in rep with a compilation of Greek scenes. Then I was cast in Hamlet at the Guthrie, and it fell through and lost its funding. Besides directing, I wrote a little bit through college, music mostly, and wrote some showcase scenes for friends. Both writing and directing are things I’d like to be involved in at some point. It goes back to, I don’t want to limit myself, and I don’t know what I want to end up doing.
In doing all those things, do you see yourself being based in New York?
Or I could move to Montana. As soon as the crazy gets too high in this city, and there’s a lot of ways the crazy can get high, I honestly think I could be happy teaching P.E. in Montana.
No, I’m sure it’s too late for that.
I might not be as happy, but I think there’s a part of me that refuses to be sucked into the rat race part of the business, which is to not look out for anybody. And I’m close to my family, and I have really great friends, and people I’ve worked with who really know me, which hopefully will carry me through no matter where I am. I love New York City and I’m having a great time living here. But my whole family is on the west coast in Washington State and in California, so I don’t see myself living in New York forever.
When were you first involved with Sons of the Prophet?
I did a reading in February or March of 2010. It was the first thing I did after getting hurt in A View From the Bridge, one of the first things I did leaving my house, actually. And I didn’t even read the script completely. What I did know was that it was a new play, a drama, and I was playing a great part. I sent it to a friend of mine to read and break down for me, because due to my injury I could only read for short periods of time. So I had this friend break down the scenes for me, and I went to the reading. We read the whole thing, and when I got to the last scene and came to my line: “I’m not doing good; it’s been a bad year”–which, at that point in my life, it had been a terrible year–I just lost it. There was a women who was at the reading, a board member at the Roundabout who helps raise money, and she was sobbing and came up to me afterwards, saying, “This is about all of us,” and she thanked me. I just had an undeniable connection to this story about a man playing by the rules without getting a break, then finally acknowledging his pain. And I got it. I totally got that. Then we did a reading of the play at New York Stage and Film that summer.
Why didn’t you do it in Boston last spring?
I was planning to, but the Roundabout and Brian Bedford [director of ] asked me to stay in Earnest on Broadway.
You mentioned A View From the Bridge, and yet in the playbill, it’s not listed in your bio.
Because I didn’t open it. Morgan Spector, who’s a great actor, ended up playing that part longer than I did, and I feel like it’s his.
But you rehearsed it and did the first two weeks of previews. And despite the fact that the production opened without you, due to the onstage injury, it had to have been influenced by your collaboration and contributions, no? You were even mentioned in the Times review.
I just feel like it was an incredibly complicated experience. What’s weird about being injured in something so public is that, on one hand, you want to tell the truth of what happened, but you also don’t want to burden people with the truth. And at the same time, you don’t want to appear like you’re fine, because then when you feel a migraine coming on, you don’t want people thinking, “Oh no, he’s really hurt.” So it’s a terrible position to be in, and this is what’s perfect about playing this character of Joseph. Like in the first scene, Joseph can’t acknowledge that an MS pamphlet is his, because his boss may think, “I can’ t have a sick person around; I need to hire someone new.” At the same time, he can’t say everything is totally fine either, because then if he starts having problems in the office, he doesn’t want her to think he’s slacking. It’s a terrible position to be put in, and I have nothing but compassion for people who fall ill due to no fault of their own.
What were your doctor’s orders?
I won’t bore you with the details but it was…a scary time. I had to stay in a dark room for three weeks. No TV, no computer, no reading. You learn a lot about yourself when that happens.
Which is bad timing, I guess, when a play is opening. Lucky for me, I saw you perform Rodolpho, and you were terrific–so innocent, out-going, and a breath of fresh air. Also, it was the first time I saw you deal with sexuality on-stage.
And with Scarlett Johansson at that!
And now, with Sons of the Prophet, there’s an even more complicated sexual side of you that I’ve never seen before.
Rodolpho in A View From the Bridge was more about sex than this character, Joseph, who is more about need. Yes, he’s flirting with Timothy in the bus station, but he doesn’t know what he’s doing. That’s what I think is so fun about playing that scene. He has no idea where to go. There are sexual undertones, of course, but when I go to his hotel room, the first thing I do is hug him. It’s not about sex. Rodolpho didn’t hug Catherine the first thing; he goes for the kiss. But with Joseph, it’s about needing comfort.
It’s a beautiful moment that tears at the heart. Was the embrace written in the script or discovered?
In the very first reading, the hotel room scene didn’t even exist–only the scene at the bus station, where you see who Joseph used to be with his sense of humor, his laughing about his family, and the problems he’s going through but continually deflecting the stakes, which is great. Then in the next to last scene, we have a big fight, but there was nothing in between. So I remember asking if we could see something more. The hotel scene, at that point, happened off-stage, so he opened it up and brought the hotel room on-stage. I don’t think it even existed as it is now when they did it in Boston. It shows a man who’s not getting something, and really what he needs is simply a connection.
I saw the playwright in a post-show discussion, and he was dressed similarly to your character.
Like a lumberjack? Let me guess, a plaid flannel red and black shirt?
Is he the protagonist? He said this was not his family play.
But the reason this play has been talked about so much is because it’s obviously deeply personal. I don’t know where the fact and fiction diverge, but no one writes a play like this without it being personal.
I noticed some familiar physicality on your part.
Good observation. I’ve had a habit of playing writers before. In The Fantasticks, I was basically playing Tom Jones, and I was copying the physicality of Tom Jones because he was directing it, too. At the Guthrie, I played Bernard in Death of a Salesman who, according to Arthur Miller, is closer to him than any other character in the play. And Algernon is probably the closest to Oscar Wilde, which is a great honor and opportunity to step into these writers’ shoes, which of course aren’t really them. But I think Stephen Karam is definitely present in my characterization of Joseph. But don’t tell him.
I won’t say a word.
I had a great acting teacher, Becky Guy, who’d say, “What are you doing?” It meant more than the larger actions of what I’m doing in a scene; it also meant, what am I doing so I’m not just playing myself? To inhabit someone else’s experience. Stealing one little physical tic is a great way to free yourself, like wearing a mask, and hopefully in this show, it’s not too big, it’s subtle, very small. But with Stephen Karam, we’re friends, and I’ve known him a long time, so a lot has seeped inside. Also, there’s so much in his writing and how he talks.
What a great way to help transform yourself as an actor and use your physical instrument. Otherwise, you’re not truly an actor but just a personality being real and entertaining.
And I hate my personality. I really do. There’s a line in the play where my brother shouts at me, “You have a terrible personality!”
I’m pretty sure he’s talking to your character, not to you.
I know, and I don’t think I have a terrible personality, but I will never feel like I’m as interesting as my imagination or a writer’s can create. And I’m not interested in putting my personality out there, because then I may want to change and I don’t want people to get hooked on a certain image. I’d love it if no one knew anything about me.
Yeah, you’re probably right; it’s hard to do.
But I love that you are a transformer from role to role. You’re never the same; it’s my favorite kind of actor.
Which also has drawbacks because it’s harder for people to figure out what you do. I’ve had to deal with it many times in casting. No one would’ve ever cast me as the brother in Billy Elliot if they had seen me in Earnest. It can be tricky to want to do a variety of characters, because it becomes harder to sell yourself when people view you as a product. If you’re shifting all the time, it’s harder for them to identify who you are.
If you could play anything or anyone on-stage after Sons of the Prophet, and forget about your branding, whom would you choose?
I haven’t played a really sexual aggressive darker character yet. That’s a goal, believe it or not. There’s a buddy of mine who directs avant-garde theater, and we’ve been talking about Richard III. And it’s so crazy to me, but at the same time, I’m excited about it–that scene with Anne. I don’t know if that’s going to happen, but I haven’t done that yet.
Another quality I admire about your performance is your subtext being so crystal clear.
Stephen doesn’t overwrite anything here, which creates a bit of a mystery, which is also the core of this play. We don’t know what’s wrong with me. So I think it’s really smart thematically to lay that in. In an earlier version, there was a lot more writing, almost an hour more. I had huge speeches, which were very exciting, great speeches about class–I felt like Louis in Angels In America. By Boston, he got rid of all of them. Because Joseph wouldn’t talk like that. I was worried at first, but he and Peter were right. And now I play a lot of what was in those speeches with a simple look, as if I was on a TV or film set. I just have to make sure the audience can see my eyes, and then I have to be present and thinking. The good thing is, I know what all that text was so, in a way, he wrote out all my subtext and now I’m playing it without saying any of it. Which is a great gift. It took a lot of the work out of my hands, and I just have to inhabit it instead of create it.
And no other actor after you will have that luxury.
Yeah, that’s true, which is why I’ll have to keep playing it, I guess.
After an hour and forty-five minutes of trying to deal with all the suffering–physically, mentally, and spiritually–the play ends with a very subtle ending. I love that.
Yes, we still don’t know what’s wrong with Joseph, and, for the first time, he’s unconditionally giving himself to someone he trusts. He reverts to his five year old self.
With his kindergarden teacher, played so lovely by Lizbeth Mackay. It’s a beautiful scene. Especially considering the crazy scene prior to it.
After standing up for himself, ending things with two people who had been hurting him, then he goes into the last scene and, finally, someone gives him something he can move towards. And for the first time, he admits that he’s not doing well, which becomes the first step towards change. I think it’s great.
Which then gives him a turning point so that in the last moment, there’s a glimmer of hope.
It’s exactly what he needs. What he has been waiting for. When someone goes through an illness that is life threatening, even when you’re cleared and everyone thinks you’re fine, you still have to go back for tests every so often. You’re never out of the woods. There’s no ending. I think that’s what is great about this play. It’s not saying, we figured out what it is and Joseph is going to be fine. We still don’t know what it is, but you’re going to be fine.
Because you’re going to learn to live with it. Which is so touching.
When I hurt my head, it was really a scary thing. Doctors didn’t have answers, they kept monitoring it, but no one’s going to guarantee that you’re going to be okay. They don’t know. No one does. It’s the same for Joseph, which is why it’s a great ending because it isn’t one.
And yet it is. The perfect ending.
Sons of the Prophet, The Fantasticks, The Importance of Being Earnest and A View from the Bridge photos by Joan Marcus
Hamlet photo by Michal Daniel
Billy Elliot photo by Carol Rosegg
Sons of the Prophet
scheduled to end on December 23
for tickets, visit http://www.roundabouttheatre.org/offbroadway/sonsoftheprophet/
To see more stars like Santino, book your Off-Broadway and Broadway theater tickets today.