When Paul Telfer heard his wife Carmen Cusack sing the epic 11-o’clock number “At Long Last,” on Bright Star’s opening night, he felt overwhelmed with emotion. “It really was just this breathing out for both of us,” says the actor, “like, at last it’s finally here.” Cusack had arrived.
Telfer—best known for his roles on Days of Our Lives and Spartacus—met Cusack in 2003, when they were both in the same London acting scene. He has seen Cusack flirt with fame for most of her career, snagging lead roles in West End and touring productions of Les Miz, Wicked and South Pacific, but never quite getting the recognition she deserved. Having played the title Greek hero in the 2005 miniseries Hercules, Telfer has held Cusack back from the ledge, when she threatened to quit the business—taking on the roles of best friend, lover, coach and cheerleader as needed. This spring his support has paid off: Cusack has earned glowing reviews and a Tony nomination for her Broadway debut as Alice, the spunky Southern literary editor with a painful past, in Steve Martin and Edie Brickell’s multiple Tony Award-nominated new musical, Bright Star. Now, Telfer enjoys watching everyone discover what he’s known since he first heard his wife singing Michael Jackson songs in a London nightclub: Cusack is the real thing.
Congratulations Carmen on your smashing Broadway debut! Paul, what was it like being on the arm of the belle of the ball on Bright Star’s opening night?
Paul Telfer: It was just fantastic. I’ve waited for a long time for the whole world to catch up to the way I feel about Carmen, and to see her toasted by New York was really amazing. I could have done that for hours. Unfortunately, it took a little while for her to transition from the theatre over to the [after-party] venue, and I started to get really anxious. I just wanted Carmen to be there to see everything that was happening. When she finally arrived I felt this wave of relief and calm come over me. I was just very ready as I feel Carmen was as well, for all these things to finally be happening. It felt like all was right in the world.
Man, Carmen you got a good one! What was it like to see Paul that night?
Carmen Cusack: I know! I’m so lucky. I was just so proud. He looked so handsome in his gorgeous suit. He cleans up very nicely. We rarely get all dolled up for things. We’re very much homebodies, so [it was great] to see him get all gussied up. It took forever to get ready and get to the venue. Then there was just a big line of press that had clearly been waiting for me, because I was the last one to show up, and all I wanted to do was high five and kiss and hug him. We have both been waiting for this for a really long time.
I know that you met through friends in London, but when did you actually connect?
PT: A couple of our [mutual] friends were trying to get a new musical off the ground, and they put together a reading at Soho House, which wasn’t too far from where Carmen was playing Fantine in Les Miz at the time. She had agreed to come over and read one of the roles during her break on a Saturday. I knew that she was going to be a little bit late, so I made sure that there were enough chairs for everybody, but one less script. Then I saved the seat next to me, so she’d have to share my script. [After the reading] Carmen went back and did her evening show, and I hung out with everybody else who proceeded to get quite drunk, because they thought the reading had gone really well. By the time Carmen came back over, I was the only sober person left to talk to, and we really hit it off. While we were left alone, Carmen and I had a little smooch, which ended up with her biting my ear and I thought, “Woah.”
CC: It wasn’t a smooch. I never kissed you!
PT: Well, I went to kiss you on the cheek and you bit my ear. I thought, “Well this is quite interesting.”
CC: That kind of move is usually for the second or third date, but that was to give you a little glimmer. Luckily you have very sensitive ears, so it all worked out!
It sure did! Paul you had mentioned that you had been ready for Carmen to receive this kind of career recognition for a long time, but how do you deal with these life-changing moments as a couple?
PT: Carmen’s really led the way because you would have never been able to sit her down at any point over the past 20 years and ask her what she wanted to do. She wouldn’t have had a list of like, “I want to go on Broadway. I want to win a Tony. I want to do this and this.” It’s just not the way she’s ever really operated. Carmen just wants to do good. She wants to do good work with good people and be happy and present and in the moment, so the fact that these things are all starting to happen as well, or anyway, is a happy result as to the way she’s conducted her life and career, but not necessarily the culmination of years and years of specific work, or ambition, towards this goal. For me there’s just something so much sweeter about it this way because there’s been no expectation or no pressure on herself by herself, or by me, or by anyone in our families.
CC: Except for that time when I nearly gave up the industry and you wouldn’t let me.
You almost gave up the business? Thank goodness you didn’t! What happened?
CC: I was working on a beautiful production of Sunday in the Park with George [at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater] that was so incredible to me that it was intimidating, and I thought I should just quit. I had a bit of a meltdown.
PT: In my situation, there’s times when you’re a cheerleader, and there’s times where you’re the coach. That was one of the times where I had to be the coach. I was like, “You’re not allowed to quit! You’re too good. I’m not letting you take the easy way out, which is just to say, “This is too hard.’” Then she found another level, or gear. She broke through her own plateau of her own talent doing that show and it turned into an absolute triumph. Over and over again we’ve both remarked about how ready she was for the [Bright Star] opportunity.
CC: It’s been a very natural and constant process, and this is where I should be at this point. I’m not an overnight sensation. I know that no one knows who I am here, but I’ve been working at this diligently. We’ve had our highs and lows and luckily I have had Paul in the midst of all that to be there to bounce off of, and to give me the cheerleading that I need sometimes and also tell me when to cowboy up and deal with what I’ve got. People that have it in them, but just aren’t using it for whatever reason, need those people in their life to shake them from time to time and say, “Get on with it!”
PT: “You’re best. Now go and show everybody.”
CC: Yes, and he’s been that for me the whole time.
PT: You make it sound like it’s difficult, but it’s not at all. It’s the easiest thing in the world for me because I’ve always been convinced of how amazing Carmen is from the first moment I ever saw her perform during a gig at Café de Paris in London. She was singing Michael Jackson songs. She’s just a special performer. It doesn’t matter what she’s doing. She is just so good, and [cheering her on] is very easy task for me. All I’ve ever had to do was support and nurture that undeniable goodness. It makes me feel like I’m so clever.