STAGE TO SCREENS: A Chat with Steven Pasquale

Stage to Screens   STAGE TO SCREENS: A Chat with Steven Pasquale This month, we chat with Steven Pasquale, a versatile young actor who's currently appearing in his third season as New York firefighter Sean Garrity on the FX cable series "Rescue Me” (Tuesdays, 10 PM ET).
Steven Pasquale in
Steven Pasquale in "Rescue Me" Photo by Larry Riley/FX

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"I've never played comedy before. This is my first crack at it,” claims Steven Pasquale (Pas-QWAHL), of his "Rescue Me” role as the not-too-bright Sean Garrity. "They [behind-the-cameras personnel] seem to be trusting of my instincts. I'm self-conscious, so I always tell myself that you have to be really smart to play a dumb guy really well. [Laughs] You have to be very specific. There's a fine line between playing a dim-witted character and playing a cartoon. Exploring that has been great fun.”

The series shoots in New York. "We only do 13 episodes [a season]. We usually shoot from late February through August, which gives me six months to get back onstage, or to put out feelers for possible other projects. It's kind of a dream situation.” It's no surprise that TV pays a bit more than theatre, or as Pasquale puts it, "It's like another universe. When 'Rescue Me' came along, it was the first time I went out to dinner and was able to pay for it.

"You really can't be a true blue theatre actor and have any quality of life. There's a strange dichotomy happening right now. Television and film stars are coming to theatre. It's tough. If you're just a New York actor, you're going to be poor. The only way to make money in the theatre is if you commit a year or 18 months to a big commercial Broadway run. So, I'm very grateful that I have a television career, which allows me to do a play for 200 bucks a week. I'm not in dire need of a paycheck.”

A down side to having a series is that he can't commit to a run that conflicts with the production schedule. That cost Pasquale the chance to open on Broadway in The Light in the Piazza after having created the role of Fabrizio in the 2003 Seattle world premiere of the Adam Guettel-Craig Lucas musical. "That was the most heartbreaking thing that I've ever experienced professionally. "But I'm so happy for its success, and for Adam. I think he's the most prolific composer of our generation. And I was so thrilled for Kelli [O'Hara] and Vicky [Clark], and everyone involved.”

When he played the young Florentine, his love interest [Clark's daughter] was portrayed by Celia Keenan-Bolger, whom he describes as "one of my favorite human beings on the planet.” She was replaced, prior to the New York premiere, by Kelli O'Hara, who had been playing Fabrizio's sister-in-law. Ironically, both Keenan-Bolger (for Spelling Bee) and O'Hara competed for a 2005 Tony as Best Featured Actress in a Musical.

"Celie was so deserving of her success that year,” continues Pasquale, "particularly with how much class she handled not being able to do [Piazza] in New York after working on it two-and-a-half/three years everywhere else. She's one of the best scene partners I've ever had, and I've been doing this for 14 years. I'm thrilled that she's doing so well. She needs to have a great sitcom or a movie career at some point — she's such a skilled actor!”

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Third of four children, the actor's older brother and sister are "in business,” and his younger sister "is a psychologist and social worker. All of us live on the East Coast. I'm sort of the black-sheep artist, and they're very supportive.” So are his parents — now. "They were thrilled when I started working. When I told my father I wanted to be an actor, he said, 'You better have a back-up plan, 'cause it sounds like a crazy idea.' Pasquale's aware that show business offers no security. "Even though I'm working on a hit television show, it could go away next year -- and my security is done.”

Born in Hershey, PA, he admits to sneaking into the amusement area, Hershey Park, as a kid. "It cost 20 bucks to get in. At 12, where was I going to get 20 bucks? I'd climb over the wall and go to the arcade.”

During his junior year in high school, he hurt his back in a football game and was advised by a doctor to pursue less-strenuous activities. "My buddy, Mike, was in the school play, the musical Fame, so I tried out for it.” He was cast as Tyrone (originally an African-American part), "and they changed the name to Tony. I made a complete ass of myself,” but found a career.

"Something happened to me in that environment. I liked the people and how passionate they were about the theatre. It wasn't a clique-y popularity contest; they really loved being there, and I found that endearing and charming. I fell into the group — and never really fell out.”

Following his freshman year in college, it was an actor's life for Pasquale, who got a role in a touring company of West Side Story. "I was only 18. I played Gee-tar. He's the Tony understudy and the only non-dancing Jet. When the music would come on for 'Cool,' everyone would start snapping and doing the crazy choreography. I would just go hide behind the drug store [set]. I'd come out at the end of the number, as if I was dancing the whole time. That was fun." While on tour, a mutual friend introduced him to Taye Diggs, with whom he later worked in The Wild Party and A Soldier's Play. Of the latter, he says, "That was a blast! Taye and I looked for a long time for something else we could do together.”

After Gee-tar came two-and-a-half years in the role of Chris in a national tour of Miss Saigon. "Between West Side Story and Miss Saigon, I must have played 80 cities. That's really where I learned to sing. I've never had voice lessons, never studied. It was on-the-job training. Singing Chris was difficult —a trial by fire.”

Coming to New York, he was "jobless and miserable for almost a year.” Misery ended with the opportunity to stand by for Brian d'Arcy James (as Burrs) in Andrew Lippa's The Wild Party. "Brian's a great friend, and one of our gems of the theatre. He's so deserving of all the success he's having. He was great in Lieutenant of Inishmore. I wanted so badly to do that play, but I couldn't work it out in terms of my schedule. I think Martin McDonagh is one of the great playwrights of our time.”

He considers Spinning Into Butter (at the Mitzi Newhouse) as "really important to me. It took me out of the general casting pool of actors who only do musicals. It was a highly controversial play; I got a lot of attention from it. I'm very grateful for the experience.”

His television debut occurred in "Six Feet Under.” In two episodes he played Kurt, a square-dance instructor. At the time of 9/11, Pasquale was in rehearsals for a musical version of the 1996 film "The Spitfire Grill.” He played Sheriff Joe Sutter in the Playwrights Horizons production. "It was very strange to be performing two or three nights later. At least, we were telling a positive story during such a traumatic time.”

Light in the Piazza (which was based on a 1962 movie) followed, and, in turn, he was cast in the Lincoln Center production of A Man of No Importance, a Terrence McNally/Lynn Ahrens/Stephen Flaherty musical version of a 1994 picture. Pasquale earned Outer Critics Circle and Drama Desk nominations as Robbie Fay, the object of Roger Rees' character's unrequited affections.

Nicky Silver's Beautiful Child was next in line. He played Isaac, the son of characters played by Penny Fuller and George Grizzard. "How are you going to beat that, with those two guys as your parents? They're fantastic; they up your game big time! Terry Kinney directed, and he's become a great friend.” Pasquale's character was "a gay teacher who returns home to hide from the world because he's been having an affair with an eight-year-old [male] student. It was about the struggle to punish or forgive, and the relationship between him and his parents. [The play] was very disturbing, very difficult, but really rewarding at the end of the day.”

In Neil LaBute's Fat Pig, Pasquale succeeded Jeremy Piven in the role of Tom. It was directed by Jo Bonney, who also directed A Soldier's Play. While playing Captain Taylor in the latter, Pasquale appeared at Joe's Pub in a November 2005 evening of folk and soul music. Does he have any plans to record? "I'd love to do a CD, but I'm a little ignorant about how to get started. I'm thinking about doing an old-fashioned jazz record, with maybe an ode to Chet Baker. It's something I want to pursue when I'm a little more settled in my acting.” As Archibald, Pasquale led a stellar cast in a December 2005 World AIDS Day concert performance of The Secret Garden at the Manhattan Center. "I played opposite Laura Benanti's brilliant Lily. It was a dream cast, with Michael Arden [as Dickon] and Celia Keenan-Bolger [playing Martha]. That's the last time I've been on a stage.”

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"Aurora Borealis” (2004) and "The Last Run” (2003) are two independent movies, in which Pasquale "had a good time working.” His other TV credits include a short-lived series "Platinum.” Currently on "Rescue Me,” his character is again top man in the complicated love life of Maggie (Tatum O'Neal), the sister of series lead Denis Leary (as Tommy Gavin). In the series the firefighters have recently all quit smoking. How does that reflect real life? "Most of [the other actors] smoke; however, I do not.” Susan Sarandon and Marisa Tomei are among this season's guest stars.

Is there a role that, thus far, has given Steven Pasquale the most satisfaction? "Fabrizio in Light in the Piazza was the most rewarding onstage experience that I've had,” he declares. "There's a ton of roles I haven't done that I'd love to do — like Billy Bigelow [Carousel] and [Georges in] Sunday in the Park with George. They're just two of the great roles that I've been listening to my whole life, and I'm finally getting old enough to play them.”

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Michael Buckley also writes for TheaterMania.

Denis Leary and Steven Pasquale in "Rescue Me"
Denis Leary and Steven Pasquale in "Rescue Me" Photo by Larry Riley/FX
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