You'd be hard pressed to find somebody that doesn't know Michael McKean's face. Most recognizable as one of the brilliant ensemble players in Christopher Guest-directed improv comedies like "Best in Show" and "A Mighty Wind," he's also a fixture on TV, having co-starred as the goofy greaser Lenny in "Laverne & Shirley" and as a former performer on "Saturday Night Live." McKean is no stranger to Broadway, either. He's trod the boards in everything from Hairspray to Pinter's The Homecoming. Now McKean is on Broadway once again with Superior Donuts, a new play by Tony and Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy Letts.
On this day, however, McKean is backstage at "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," getting ready to crank up the volume as his alter ego — aging rocker David St. Hubbins of the famed satirical rock band Spinal Tap. First parodied in the 1984 mockumentary "This is Spinal Tap," the hapless trio is about to perform live on "The Daily Show" as part of the 25th anniversary reboot of their act. They recently released a new album, "Back From the Dead," and toured the U.S. and Britain.
"Did I ever imagine that 25 years later, I'd still be doing this act? No way," says McKean. "At this point, really, they [the characters] are not even related to us anymore. They've taken on a complete life of their own."
McKean credits the band's enduring appeal to the affection that he, Christopher Guest (Nigel Tufnel) and Harry Shearer (Derek Smalls) have for their characters. "There's something about them that you always root for," he says. "I think people respond to that and feel the same way about them." Chatting with McKean at dinner after Spinal Tap's raucous performance, the 61-year-old is engaging and sharp-witted. He cheerfully signed autographs for Tap fans waiting outside the stage door. He's also charmingly loquacious. "Like my father used to say, 'I was vaccinated with a phonograph needle.' I can go on and on."
As is customary with McKean, his newest character is unlike any we've seen from this chameleon before. In the dark comedy Superior Donuts, which began life at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre, McKean plays a former Vietnam War activist who has been running his parents' neighborhood doughnut shop since their deaths. A man of few words, Arthur Przybyszewski is set in his ways and essentially sleepwalking through life. "It's like he's locked himself inside a cryogenic chamber — walled himself off from the rest of the world," says McKean. Into this milieu walks a brash young African-American kid from the neighborhood, who tries to coax Arthur out of his stupor.
While Arthur has disengaged from the world, McKean always relishes the opportunity to embark on a new adventure. "One of the great things about being an actor is that you get to play all these different people. As primarily a comic actor for much of my career, I wanted to become a little more swivel-hipped — to be able to change things up. I really like to do something that's totally unlike the last thing I did. And it's thrilling because you're pushing yourself into a new world every time."