It seems it was only a few years ago when he first attracted attention as the troubled young son of Bill Pullman and Mercedes Ruehl in Edward Albee's The Goat. Soon after, he was one of the wayward London youths in Boy George's wayward Broadway musical Taboo. Now, here he is playing Hamlet at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, directed by the Washington, D.C.'s artistic director Michael Kahn. It just goes to show you: when Edward Albee says something's going to happen, it's going to happen. Carlson spoke to Playbill.com about the Melancholy Dane and other melancholy types he's played over the years.
Playbill.com: I know it's a cliché that every actor wants to play Hamlet. But, seriously, was this a role you ever wanted to play?
Jeffrey Carlson: Oh, absolutely. When I was back in school, I never thought this was a role I would play. I remember when I was doing The Goat, Edward Albee said, "I can't wait to see your Hamlet." I said, "Do you think I could play that?" He said "Yes." So, when Michael Kahn called me about year and a half ago and asked me to do it, I was extremely flattered.
Playbill.com: Where did he get the idea to cast you?
JC: We were sort of working up to it. We worked together on Lorenzaccio a couple years ago, which is sort of considered the French Hamlet. And he was my teacher at Juilliard. We've known each other about ten years. He said he thought it was time.
Playbill.com: Have you told Edward Albee?
JC: He knows. I have to call him and see if he can actually make it down in time to see it.
Playbill.com: You're a week into rehearsals now. How are things going?
JC: Oh, great. Roles like this are intimidating a bit. Especially a play that is one of the greats in dramatic literature. Some would say it is the greatest in dramatic literature. Many people have opinions about it. The interesting thing is Hamlet is open to much interpretation. Shakespeare has left a lot of doors wide open. I have to remind myself it's my Hamlet, no one else's. Playbill.com: What directorial approach has Kahn taken?
JC: Basically, we're telling the story. It's going to be in modern dress, but there's no angle on it. He just wanted a young-looking cast.
Playbill.com: Is there any particular aspect to the character of Hamlet that you feel is key to playing the part?
JC: I can't say anything definite as far as there being a key. I think my goal in these initial stages of exploration is to find out what's happening. How do these series of moments play on him. What happens when he's considering inaction? What happens when he considering suicide? What happens in his relationship with his mother? There are so many things for this extremely intelligent young man to process. And that's what this journey is: him trying to process.
Playbill.com: Robert Cuccioli is your Claudius
JC: Apparently, we've become a package down here. He played the Duke in Lorenzaccio and the joke right now is I get to kill him again in Hamlet. (Laughs.)
Playbill.com: Most of us in New York theatre first noticed you as the son in The Goat. Doing an Edward Albee premiere on Broadway must have been nerve-wracking.
JC: Yes, it was nerve-wracking. I had just graduated from school. I was doing Romeo and Juliet with Emily Mann at the McCarter. Edward [Albee] had seen my work in Thief River at the Signature Theatre Company Off-Broadway. He asked me to come in and do this reading of his new play. Emily let me out of rehearsal that day to come back to New York and do the reading. Her allowing me to do that changed my life. After that, they said, "Hang on to the kit." I found out I was going to be on Broadway six months after I graduated from school, in an Edward Albee play with Mercedes Reuhl and Bill Pullman. And people didn't know what to think at first of this extraordinary play. It was quite the journey watching the variety of reactions happen. I've been part of a variety of projects that have come under some scrutiny. (Laughs)
Playbill.com: Including Taboo. That was certainly a tumultuous production. What was the experience like for you?
JC: It was absolutely extraordinary, and I still think that musical got the bum end of the stick. It was a beautiful score. And I think it just came down to bad timing because of (producer) Rosie O'Donnell's trial and things like that. I think a lot of the criticism was not necessarily about the play.
Playbill.com: Do you know what you're doing after Hamlet?
JC: No, I do not. Being on the soap opera "All My Children" sort of took me by surprise. I was doing Henry IV at Chicago Shakespeare and I got a phone call saying, "Do you want to do one day on 'All My Children.' You play an eccentric British rock star." I said, "OK, that's fine. I think I can handle that." I had so much fun on that one day. Then they called me six months later and said, "We want to write you onto the show. We also want to make the character the coming out story of a trans-gender woman." I thought, well, if they're telling it with dignity, then I'm absolutely on board. I had no idea it would create that much publicity.
Playbill.com: Do people recognize you a lot now?
JC: Oh, yeah. All the time. It's new for me. I've just been a theatre kid for so long.