Jeremy Shamos has proved himself a reliable New York stage performer over the past decade, investing roles on Broadway (Reckless, The Rivals) and Off-Broadway (Suitcase, Gutenberg! The Musical!, 100 Saints You Should Know) with a mix of comic pathos and naturalistic humanity. With Bruce Norris' searing race drama Clybourne Park (inspired by A Raisin in the Sun), he has arguably received his greatest acting opportunity to date, playing to three-dimensional perfection two socially benighted characters separated by 50 years. The performance brought him his first Tony nomination — an achievement all the more noteworthy for his being the only member in a critically praised cast to win a nod. Shamos talked to Playbill.com about his life playing guys named Karl.
When you first got the role in Clybourne Park, were you overly familiar with A Raisin in the Sun?
Jeremy Shamos: No, I didn't know the play well at all. I knew I had read it at some point and I knew the basic outline of the plot. And maybe I'd seen scenes from it in acting class. But I didn't know the connection of the play to Raisin in the Sun until — embarrassingly — well after I was cast and had helped out with auditions for other people's parts… After a reading, [Playwrights Horizons artistic director Tim Sanford] said, "Now you should play Karl Linder in Raisin in the Sun." I thought he was just saying I should play all guys named Karl.
That you should play all guys named Karl?
JS: I thought he was referring to the fact that in a Melissa James Gibson play many years before, at Soho Rep, I had played a guy name Karl, spelled the same way. For some reason I thought he was referring to that: "Yeah, I could just play all guys name Karl." It never dawned on me. I've only recently begun to admit this. It doesn't make me seem so bright. Enough people have been asking, "What research did you do?" I'm the only crossover character, but I didn't pore over Raisin in the Sun. It's the inciting incident of the play. I understand that. But the main action of the play is what happens in front of the audience, and that's what Bruce wrote. My Karl is very much Bruce Norris' Karl.
You play two characters in the play: Karl in the 1950s, who wants to keep the suburb Clybourne Park all white; and Steve in the 21st century, who is white and is moving into what is now a black neighborhood. Neither of them behave particularly well. Which do you like better?
JS: You mean to have a beer with? I think I would rather be Steve. I think it would be hard to go back that far and live in 1959. The rules and social mores that Karl lived with would be things that would make me uncomfortable. And he's completely comfortable with them. What makes him an interesting character, and what makes people uncomfortable with him, is he is comfortable with the way society is working. And everything's about to change. More and more people are getting hip to the fact that he's backwards. But he isn't close to recognizing that the world is changing. It would be hard to be someone who's so far behind. Steve is sort of a different kind of jack-ass. The challenge of living as Steve is he can't keep his mouth shut a lot of times. He doesn't have a lot of social grace. And he's confrontational.
|photo by Nathan Johnson|
There's a moment in the first act where Karl has been in the house for a while and he's not getting the answer he wants from Frank Wood's character. It's time for him to leave, and yet he doesn't. He just stands there, like he's paralyzed. Most people would admit defeat and leave. What is going through Karl's mind at that moment when he just cannot go out the door without getting the result he wants?
JS: In a strange way, in the play, he's a bit of a Cassandra. He really sees the future. He sees his whole life and Eisenhower neighborhood — everyone is white and they bring each other cookies and pies and stuff like that — he sees that whole thing crumbling. For him, that is a disaster. The Catch-22 for him is his prediction of that happening is what makes it happen. If he was a different kind of guy, and the community association had a meeting and instead of asking, "How can we stop this from happening?," they asked, "How can we make this new black family feel welcome?" — but that just wasn't the case. They created their own white flight. It's like a run on a bank. It's all about the fear. In that moment, his entire world is dependent on him not leaving there until he gets this guy to not sell his house. It feels like he's the last hope. He's a pillar holding up this impossible thing to hold up, because the tide of history is against him. It's sort of the opposite of a "sit-in," the way he's standing there. It's like "The Man" standing.
Many lines in the play are incendiary enough to engender a strong audience reaction. What's the strangest reaction you've experienced so far during any of the play's three runs [Off-Broadway, Los Angeles and now Broadway]?
JS: It's funny. We sometimes get strong reactions and then come offstage and, as a cast, have different interpretations of what's going on. For example, one night I said one of the more racist jokes, and somebody screamed out, "Yeah!" I came off stage and a couple of people were like, "I can't believe how racist that person in the audience was." And I said, "No, I think the guy was saying, 'Now this play is on fire!'" I find it hard to believe that someone who is that racist would buy a ticket to this play, basically this neo-Nazi guy yelling, "Yeah!"
Did you know Bruce Norris when he was an actor?
JS: I vaguely knew Bruce. I lost a couple of parts to him in my day. I've admired him as an actor. My main connection with him in how this turned out is I auditioned for his play The Pain and the Itch at Playwrights Horizons. And I didn't get the part, but he went out of his way to say that I was great and almost got the part. Which is usually cold comfort, but in this case it turned into something exciting. Having a good audition and not getting it can sometimes be a good thing.
Do you have a favorite Bruce Norris story?
JS: I don't. I do love hanging around with him. I think that he's similar to my character in the second act, in that he is provocative and he likes to get people riled up, but not in a mean way. I think he's interested in calling out hypocrisy. I find it exciting to be with him, because I find it interesting and I don't let it bother me.