STAGE TO SCREENS: Chats with "Class" Actors Halston, Ferguson, Goldenhersh and Harris

News   STAGE TO SCREENS: Chats with "Class" Actors Halston, Ferguson, Goldenhersh and Harris
 
"The Class" is a new, very funny Monday-night CBS sitcom, starting Sept. 18 at 8 PM ET. The action revolves around eight characters reunited two decades after they were students in the same third grade. Some also attended high school together, and all accept invitations to a surprise party. Things go awry, but in a wry comic vein.
Julie Hallston (Above) and Sam Harris (Below) on
Julie Hallston (Above) and Sam Harris (Below) on "The Class." Photo by Monty Brinton/CBS

Among its sterling ensemble cast are Julie Halston, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Heather Goldenhersh, and Sam Harris, who have made a transition from stage to soundstage, and hope that, for their "Class," the three R's will be retakes, reruns and residuals.

David Crane (co-creator of "Friends") and partner Jeffrey Klarik (a writer/co-producer for "Mad About You") are the series' co- creators. According to Sam Harris, Crane and Klarik "are both reality show fans, who realized that people were keeping up with 14 or 15 stories every week on 'Survivor' and 'Amazing Race,' and wondered why that couldn't be put into scripted television." In Julie Halston's opinion, "It's kind of 'Friends' meets 'Lost.' It's very episodic. You have to stay on top of it."

All the actors praise the writing, the casting expertise of Meg Simon and Bruce H. Newburg and director James Burrows, a 42-time Emmy nominee and 10-time winner (five as director; five as producer). As many theatregoers know, his father was Tony-winning writer-director Abe Burrows (1910-85).

Ethan (Jason Ritter) throws the party to celebrate the day when he met the girl who, a year ago, became his fiancée. Guests are the not-very-optimistic Richie (Jesse Tyler Ferguson); Nicole (Andrea Anders), now the third wife of former football star Yonk Allen (David Keith); Duncan (Jon Bernthal), who dated Nicole in high school and still lives at home with his mother, Tina (Julie Halston); sweet Lina (Heather Goldenhersh) and her sarcastic twin, Kat (Lizzy Caplan); TV-reporter Holly Ellenbogen (Lucy Punch), who met her husband Perry Pearl (Sam Harris) in college; and Kyle Lendo (Sean Maguire), on whom both Holly and Lina had high-school crushes. Now a teacher, Kyle lives happily with Aaron (Cristian de la Fuente).

*** "I am so happy, Michael," says Julie Halston, who describes her character, Tina Carmello, as "one of those people who likes to control the universe, as well as her son — but with great doses of love. Tina's a working-class woman. I grew up in a very middle-class situation. The people were a little shrill, but very loving. Basically, I'm channeling my mother [Dolly Abatelli], if she was a Hadassah woman, with an Italian twist.

"I'm half-Irish, half-Italian, and I'm reaching back to [an upbringing in] Commack, Long Island. My Mom and Dad [Rudy Abatelli] still live there, and my mother has alerted all of Suffolk County to tune in to 'The Class.' Everyone will be watching — under duress, I'm afraid, because they don't want [to incur] Mrs. Abatelli's wrath."

As we speak, three episodes have been taped, in addition to the pilot (shot in March), and the actors have a week off. Halston's at home in Manhattan "to see my cats and my husband [Ralph Thomas]. He said, 'In that order?'

"It gives me a chance to yak with Charles Busch [a close friend, in many of whose plays she's appeared], and to see my friends in Hairspray, [the show Halston was in when — "out of the blue" — the sitcom offer occurred].

"Around Christmastime [2005], my agent called: 'Meg Simon [the series' casting director] would like to see you.' I said, 'You can't be serious. I'm a middle-aged theatre actress.' Years ago, I wanted to be 'Little Miss Sitcom.' When I was in my early thirties, I had a development deal with CBS. I was going to be the new Teri Garr. [The deal] basically paid for my wedding, but went nowhere. TV was no longer the dream. My dream became a new kitchen, finding a contractor, maybe an upstate New York country house.

"So when the offer came, I was 'Little Miss Broadway.' I loved everybody at Hairspray, and the theatre was three blocks from our co-op. I was more interested in shopping for my husband's present. When you're doing eight [shows] a week, you don't have much time.

"Meg Simon sent over the script, which was very good. I met with David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik, who were so nice, so fun. I held the script, but I had memorized everything — 'Little Miss Catholic School Girl' — and had really, really, really rehearsed, like a crazy person.

"A couple of months went by. They asked to see me again, and put me on tape. Next thing you know, I'm in Macy's shopping — you must think I shop all the time — and my agent calls: 'You got the pilot. You're getting on a plane in 48 hours.' I was so excited. Walking home from 34th Street to 55th, I called all my friends — in a state of Marlo Thomas/'That Girl' glee.

"Everybody in the cast is fantastic! Jesse Tyler Ferguson is going to be a star in about three minutes. I worked with him [Off-Broadway] in Paul Rudnick's The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told, and we had so much fun. It's hard not to love Heather Goldenhersh. She's so adorable, a nice, lovely person; America will gobble her up with a spoon. Sam Harris and I have known each other forever. We've done every benefit ever created. He's the sweetest, most generous actor, and a lovely friend."

Halston's "not yet comfortable with TV. When I did Bitsy von Muffling in 'Sex and the City,' it was only for a couple of episodes. [A memorable one had Bitsy marry a flamboyant singer, played by Nathan Lane.] That was so different. A weekly sitcom with three cameras and an audience is hectic. Sometimes on the day we tape, they'll change the whole script. But they come up with even funnier lines. Jimmy Burrows works very, very fast. You have to be on your toes." (Halston's a prima ballerina, whose brilliant comic turns are a highlight of the show.)

Which role has given her the most satisfaction? "Electra in Gypsy [2003] was a turning point for me. [Director] Sam Mendes allowed me to bring something fresh to the role. Sam told me to take it literally — 'I never have to sweat to get paid.' I did nothing, and people just screamed. And it was great to play Miss Cratchitt, who's not usually played by [the person portraying] Miss Electra. Bernadette Peters is so gracious, so talented, so hard-working. Everyone [in the company] adored each other. We still have Gypsy reunions.

"This [series] is very exciting, Michael," concludes Julie Halston, a two-time Drama Desk nominee (Red Scare on Sunset and White Chocolate). "Regardless of what happens –- and we all hope the show is a hit — I can say I got a chance to work with the best in the business: David Crane, Jeffrey Klarik, Jimmy Burrows, and a great cast!"

***

Jesse Tyler Ferguson tells me that his character, Richie Velch, is "very complex. You meet him at a very desperate time of his life. I'm so happy that the writers were brave enough to write a character who's so sad. It's not the easiest route [for a sitcom]."

After Crane and Klarik saw Ferguson in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, they asked him "to read for Kyle [the gay teacher]. About a week before my audition, they gave me the material for Richie, as well. I tested for both; they responded more to the Richie reading, and asked which one I responded to — which was nice. I said, 'I'm more interested in playing the multi-layered character, rather than someone in a really good relationship.'

"Also, coming out of Spelling Bee, where I played a 12-year-old, Richie had a little more weight to it. Kyle's character is written with a lot of wit; I feel like I know how to play that. It was more of a challenge to try my hand at something more daring. I was drawn to Richie's darker character."

Ferguson's quirky comic manner serves Richie well. Which performers have inspired him? "Like my father, I'm a huge Steve Martin fan. And I'd have to say Madeline Kahn, the master of twisting something in such a way that it's hilarious, even if the line's not funny. I watched 'The Comeback' the other day, and was kind of in awe of Lisa Kudrow; there's such a comic undercurrent to everything she does. Michael Richards and Jason Alexander are very funny. And Steve Carell is a most inspiring actor."

Slowly adjusting to television, Ferguson admits, "It's constantly evolving. You feel you've nailed a script, then have to throw it away. There are new pages every day. We tape on Fridays. On Saturdays, I'm mourning that we don't get to go back and try it a different way. Then we get a new script. It's challenging, but I'm getting to like it more. You also have to not flip out when you see random celebrities. At the commissary, Matthew Perry came up to me and said he loved our pilot. I thought: 'Matthew Perry! They're shooting "Studio 60" [Perry's new series] across from our set.'"

In "The Class," Ferguson and Heather Goldenhersh complement each other like birthday cakes and lighted candles. "Heather and I did a reading of a play about three years ago, and I saw her in several plays. I'm a fan of hers; it's an honor to get to work with her every day. We have a deep respect for each other, and great trust.

"We're sort of the two newbies to television, and we give each other sideway glances: 'Can you believe we're doing this?' We're honored to be part of this group. When [his and Heather's] storyline is done shooting [for an episode], we run over to the next set to watch the storyline of the other characters. We all root for the storylines to go over." Accustomed to a good company, Ferguson shared a Spelling Bee Best Ensemble Drama Desk Award ("a huge honor").

Actually, the actor contributed to the creation of his Spelling Bee character, Leaf Coneybear. "We were all given the opportunity to create our characters and work with Rachel Scheinkin [whose book for the musical won both Drama Desk and Tony awards]. It was a great honor. I think my biggest contribution was the cape that my character wears. I decided that he'd wear a cape, but with no explanation. I also had the honor of naming him. A kid named Leaf had to come from some hippie-dippy parents. [The collaboration] is one of the most gratifying things I've done."

However, his most satisfying stage experience, to date, was as Adam in The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told, in which he appeared for five weeks. "It's something I'd like to revisit. The arc of the character was so broad and challenging, and Paul Rudnick's such a sensitive writer. I had to be nude for a good portion of the time. You're told before you audition. I said, 'Well, first, I'm going to read the script.' Three pages into it, I said, 'I have to find a way for this to work. It's the greatest play I've ever read.' Honestly, every night, the last thing I thought about was being naked. I was just happy to be onstage with those great actors, playing that great role."

Born in Missoula, MT, and raised in Albuquerque, NM, Ferguson has a younger brother and sister. "My parents are excited for me [being cast in 'The Class']. My mom's coming to the taping next Friday night."

Confides Ferguson, "I never imagined being a regular on a series. But they trusted me with this part. I'm taking it and running with it." (And he constantly scores goals. In the pilot, listen as he delivers the line, "Next time, there may be pie.") Jesse Tyler Ferguson sees Richie Velch as "someone that I hope the audience is going to root for. He's a good person. Underneath all of his torment, he has a heart of gold. He just wants to be happy, and he's not. I think he's very representative of a lot of people."

***

For those only familiar with Heather Goldenhersh in her Theatre World-winning and Tony-nominated performance as Sister James in John Patrick Shanley's Doubt — have they got a treat in store.

She's very touching, wonderfully funny and possesses an endearing Judy Holliday quality. (The scene in the pilot where she defends Jason Ritter's actions to his fiancée is very Holliday-esque.) I ask if anyone's ever mentioned the similarity. "Yes, the first was a teacher at Juilliard. In Doubt I had her picture in my dressing room. I've read that she was like a goddam genius. I wish I could channel a thimbleful [of Holliday]."

Casting director Bruce Newberg saw Goldenhersh in Doubt. "He said that he knew Lina [her 'Class' character] was hiding underneath that habit. He said, 'You had me at the first Hail, Mary.' Heather views Lina as "the 'Energizer Bunny.' She finds creative ways to keep moving. They call her 'the optimist.' I like to think of her as that 'Monty Python' guy in 'The Holy Grail' — he keeps having body parts cut off, but keeps dancing.

"My favorite thing about the pilot is . . . [the way Jesse's character is introduced, which we can't reveal]. The writers find the humor in [some dark corners]. One of the episodes involves a hurricane. I love Jesse! And I love working with Jesse, and I love our characters."

Like her cohort, Goldenhersh is "still getting into this environment. You have to lobotomize yourself to the fact that you're trying to be funny. I haven't quite found the playfulness. In theatre, you never go for the laugh; that's a side effect. Here, we put on a mini-play each week, and the goal is to get the laugh. It's a pass-fail. It's like dancing in front of a firing squad: 'Laugh, or else!' I do feel vulnerable.

"Our rehearsals are watched. In theatre, you wouldn't have somebody watch rehearsals until two weeks into it. The first day, you're trying to get the jokes to work, and it's hard not to take [the scrutiny] personally. "Still, it's a great experience." She doesn't have to keep dialogue fresh, as in the theatre. "There's new material every week. It's like a Christmas surprise. 'What's going to be in the box this week?' And I love the yin-yang aspect of the sisterhood. My character's optimistic; Kat [Lizzy Caplan] is pessimistic."

Chicago-born, St. Louis-raised Goldenhersh is "homesick for New York," where she's lived since graduation. She enjoyed her Doubt experience. "There can't be anybody more elegant and gracious than Cherry Jones. She's the most-revered actress on Broadway. There can't be a more down-to-earth, cooler woman. I was so honored to be with her and Brían O'Byrne and Adriane Lenox."

While her "most fun" stage role was as a dominatrix in the 2001 Playwrights Horizons production of Psych ("I got to wear eight-inch heels and mid-thigh, patent-leather boots"), the part, thus far, that has given Goldenhersh the most satisfaction is a 1999 Playwrights Horizons drama, Richard Nelson's Goodnight Children Everywhere. "It was the first role that I felt used my dark side and my funny side." Ben Brantley's New York Times review stated, "Ms. Goldenhersh's vividly realized Vi, an aspiring actress, combines a teen-ager's rambunctiousness with a worldly perspective that is already sliding into weariness."

Coming back to Judy Holliday, I ask which of her films Heather has seen. "After the teacher said I reminded him of her, I watched 'Born Yesterday' and 'Solid Gold Cadillac.' I want to see more." I recommend "Bells Are Ringing," saying that it's the movie version of the musical for which Holliday won the Tony — over Julie Andrews in My Fair Lady and Ethel Merman in Happy Hunting. "Holy sh**! I had no idea. I'm going to rent that movie right now." I suggest that she also rent "Adam's Rib," the film that first drew attention to Holliday.

Her real name, I mention, was Tuvim, the Hebrew word for holiday. An amazed Goldenhersh exclaims, "She was Jewish! No way! Oh, my God! I once thought of changing my last name. There's a girl in our cast, Lucy Punch; it's like the best name in the universe." But it's too late for a name change, I tell her. "No, no, I wear it like a badge of honor. I'm also going to rent 'Adam's Rib.' I wrote down both titles." I wish her mazel tov. Replies Heather Goldenhersh, "Thank you. You made my day, Michael!"

***

Sam Harris claims, "I am the luckiest guy in show business. When I read for this role, it was not a series regular, just someone who popped in and out. After the pilot, they offered me a series-regular contract. I'm working with the best of the best. It sounds corny, Michael, but I can't wait to go to work every day."

What is Harris' take on his character? "Perry Pearl is sort of a male Martha Stewart. He's a completely exuberant, life-loving, high-spirited guy, who loves his wife and daughter. Perry's sexuality is questioned — certainly not from my perspective — because his free spirit and sensibilities are not typically heterosexual.

"So often in television and film, someone plays a gay character and the question is whether or not the actor is gay. In this situation, the actor is gay, and I'm not going to tell whether or not the character is. [Laughs]

"On the other side of the coin, Sean Maguire's character, [the teacher] Kyle, who's gay and in a healthy gay relationship, is a regular Joe. It's possible that I may get flack from the gay community because my character's over the top. He's silly and has totally gay sensibilities. You know what? That's not my problem. My job is doing this great material, and being as invested and as funny as I can be." (Harris succeeds superbly, and steals every scene.)

Grand champion of the 1984 premiere season of "Star Search," the Oklahoma-born Harris followed his TV success with recordings and concert tours. His Broadway debut as Doody in Grease! made Harris a 1994 Drama Desk nominee. He received 1997 Tony and Drama Desk nominations as Jojo in The Life and took over (July-December 2002) as Carmen Ghia in The Producers. "Doing Mel Brooks comedy and working with the great Gary Beach [as Roger DeBris] was really, really an education. Playing that role and having the freedom to make a fool of myself helped when I was reading for this."

Continues Harris, "Every morning about four o'clock, the series fairies deliver new pages. You read them, go in and do the changes. During taping if a line doesn't hit or a situation doesn't get the response they feel it should, 15 writers come in and create new material. It's like guerrilla theatre; however, you're very protected. You do your job, and let the experts do theirs. Everyone there knows more than I do. I get to bring my little flavor; they get to guide it."

Is his approach to the character the same as it would be for a stage role? States Harris, "There's a different technique, but my approach is the same: 'Why am I doing this? What are my circumstances?' For Broadway, you rehearse six weeks; in TV, you have four days."

Al Jolson, Harris notes, is the stage role that's given him the most satisfaction. "The Jazz Singer [which he's done regionally] is a dark, beautiful, complex biography. Sherman Yellen and Will Holt wrote the book and original music, respectively. It's the dream role for me. I love New York, and I miss Broadway. Things work in a wonderful way. If ['The Class'] is a hit, it can make Jolson possible."

Meanwhile, Harris is "thrilled to be in the same room as the creators, director, crew and an incredible ensemble of actors." I tell him that, in my opinion, "The Class" will score high marks. He makes two spitting sounds, followed by a Yiddish expression, which translates as "It should only happen." Observes Sam Harris, "You can say that all day, and it won't bother me. [Laughs.] Thanks, Michael."

***

Michael Buckley also writes for TheaterMania.

Heather Goldenhersh and Jesse Tyler Ferguson in CBS's "The Class."
Heather Goldenhersh and Jesse Tyler Ferguson in CBS's "The Class." Photo by Monty Brinton/CBS
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