Aaron Tveit: “Speak Out in the US and You’re Seen as Un-American”

Source: The Times
Date: November 29, 2014
By: Sam Marlowe

The American star of “Gossip Girl” and Les Misérables explains the challenge of doing a killer musical in London.

Aaron Tveit is nothing like a Londoner. He was the smooth young politico Tripp Van Der Bilt in the Manhattan-set hit teen TV series “Gossip Girl”; and lately much of his working life has been spent in sunny Florida, filming “Graceland,” in which he stars as a rookie FBI agent. With glowing skin, gleaming teeth, and buff bod, he’s wholesome, preppy, all-American. And though he remarks with amusement on our capital’s penchant for beards (“London is the beardiest city I’ve ever seen!”), the neat little whiskers he’s currently sporting would scarcely help him blend in amend the Hoxton hipsters. Yet here he is, about to make his UK stage debut at the Menier Chocolate Factory in Southwark. Why?

“Yeah, what am I doing here?” he laughs genially, as we huddle in an empty rehearsal room next to a portable gas heater. “Well, I like it — the fact that it’s not polished or pristine is kind of nice.” More specifically, he’s here for Jamie Lloyd’s highly anticipated production of the Stephen Sondheim musical Assassins — a darkly glittering, penetrating, and sardine work about 9 of the 13 men and women who attempted to murder US presidents, and in four cases, succeeded. Tveit (pronounced Ta-VATE) plays John Wilkes Booth, who shot Abraham Lincoln on that fateful night at the theater. The role – the reason, incidentally, for that dapper beard – will his mark his return to the musical-theater stage after an absence of three years. “The Menier has a great rep in the States, and Jamie is someone you want to work with,” he says. “And I’ve always wanted to do theater in London.” Tveit, now 31, was just seven when Assassins premiered off-Broadway, and has never seen a production; among the Menier cast, only one (Mike McShane, playing Samuel Byck, the would-be killer of Nixon) is a US compatriot. What’s it like performing a show that’s so intrinsically American with a bunch of Brits?

“I feel like because we’re not in America, we can have a more objective view on it,” Tveit says. “The way things are in the States, especially since 9/11, anytime you speak out against certain things it can be viewed as un-American. They say that history’s written by the victor, but this show asks you to look at the other side, and try to empathize with these crazy people.”

Booth, who was a successful actor and part of a Maryland theatrical dynasty, is, Tveit says, something of a hate figure in America. Confederate and fiercely pro-slavery, onstage he was reportedly mesmerizing: a raven-haired, scenery-chewing scene-stealer. “Yah, he’s viewed in the States as a terrible, terrible person,” Tveit explains. “Yet he’s from theater royalty. He lived in the shadow of his brother, Edwin, who had the real craft and intelligence, but apparently John was this very physical figure who would force the audience to fall in love with him and command the stage. I’ve been having a lot of fun with that.”

Tveit allows himself just a hint of a knowing twinkle — maybe because he’s used to making is own audience swoon. His fans – mostly female – are deeply devoted, calling themselves the Tveiter Tots (after Tater Tots, an American side-dish of deep-fried grated potato).

He also has a track record of much-admired performances in musicals that deal both with troubling subject matter (Next To Normal, a show about schizophrenia, which coincidentally played at Broadway’s Booth Theatre, named after Edwin), and with the power of personal charisma (Catch Me If You Can, for which, in his most recent stage role, he played the brilliant conman Frank Abagnale, previously portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio in the film of the same name).

Tveit got to experience the Abagnale magnetism first-hand. “Frank’s the most fascinating, charming person I’ve ever met. If you’re in a room with a bunch of people, he’s the only person you’re going to look at. He just radiates this… presence. So you kind of get how he was able to pull the wool over people’s eyes for so long. He was such a supporter of our show and so open about his life — how he made his mistakes but he’d served this time and paid every cent back that he ever took. It’s funny, this goes back to Assassins: while that show’s about the American Dream gone sour, Frank believes that he’s proof that the American Dream still exits, because only in America would her have been given a second chance. He works for the FB, and he owns something like 250 US patents for security. I mean, he’s a genius.”

The show itself was grueling – “like being shot out of a cannon” – and to stay in shape, Tveit subjects himself to an ascetic regimen. “It’s not a hard formula; you just have to eat right, drink a lot of water, get a lot of sleep. I live like a monk. I go home, read a lot. And I work out — about six weeks before a stage show.

“In my head, it’s like I’m going into Olympic training. I don’t like to miss shows; I like to be healthy. I mean, you can go out, you can party, and you’d probably just about get through the show; but one of the worst feelings in the world for me is being onstage in front of people, and even if they don’t know different because they’ve never seen it before, if I feel like I’m not giving 100 per cent, I’m mortified with myself. Maybe that’s just my obsessive, perfectionist brain, but I really don’t like to just shuffle through things.”

He is, though, making time for some socializing. The last time Tveit was in London, he was filming Tom Hooper’s epic screen version of Les Misérables, n which he dashingly portrayed the student revolutionary Enjolras; he admits his first weeks in an unfamiliar city were lonely. But he found new buddies on the barricades, one of whom , David Roberts, plays William McKinley’s murderer, Leon Czolgosz, in Assassins; and he’s already popped into the West End shows Memphis and Miss Saigon to catch up with fellow performers Killian Donnelly and Alistsair Brammer.

As for the whole Les Mis experience, “It was incredible. Our barricade was built in almost a quarter-mile long stretch of a five-story Paris street on a Pinewood lot — and then we blew it all up! I hope one day I’ll be able to show my kids, look at this amazing thing I was a part of.”

It couldn’t be much further from the intimacy of the Menier — and Tveit is looking forward to the connection with a live audience, close enough to see the actors “thinking, breathing, and sweating. What’s really neat about the piece is that you can be watching a scene and your heart starts to break for someone, but then you say, ‘Wait a minute — this person is a killer!'” And he flashes a smile so dazzling that, for a split second, I almost believe he could get away with murder.