Around this time last year, I made my second trip to the immersive Off-Broadway spectacle Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812. I was sitting next to Josh Canfield, who — during intermission — introduced himself and explained that he was in the process of being put into the electro-pop opera by Dave Malloy. He was joining the company as understudy for Anatole, the dashing young man at the heart of the Comet.
A year later, after keeping in touch through email and the Broadway scene — catching each other at various events, including this year's Broadway Backwards, where boyfriend Reed Kelly (whom Canfield was pit against on "Survivor") danced for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS — he was shipped out to the island of San Juan del Sur to compete for the coveted title of "Survivor." Now, back in the city — and 20 lbs. lighter from finding his own food on a deserted island — we catch up. Canfield talks about his experience on the island, the decision to leave New York City when his acting career began to take off and exclusively reveals that he has been cast in the supporting role of Liberius in the upcoming Broadway musical Dr. Zhivago.
Josh! Long time, no see. How was "Survivor" Land?
Josh Canfield: "Survivor" Land. That's a very big and loaded question. It was awesome. It was such an amazing experience. It was actually life changing, honestly, for me and for Reed. If I look at it in a general place, it really has made me more grateful for everything in life because when you're out there, you don't have much food, and you have to go boil your water and do all these things that you would normally take for granted living in the city. Once you come back here, you're like, "Whoa! Everything is awesome!"
Tell me how you and Reed got involved in "Survivor." I find it so brave for an actor to take that plunge and go on reality TV — dedicating such a large portion of your life and leaving the Broadway scene. It's hard to leave for a chunk of time, come back and get your pulse back on the theatre world. What went into the decision making?
JC: That's a great question, actually. That was something that Reed and I were both concerned about. If you leave the city, you do lose that pulse of the city and that momentum that you have in the theatre community a lot of the times. The biggest thing for Reed and I was that we were both huge fans of "Survivor," and we love watching the show, and we always wanted to be on the show. We ended up just being like, "You know what, we should make an audition tape." When you first do it you [think], "Whatever, we're just going to make this audition tape." You're not thinking, "I'm actually doing this." When it finally came down to the fact that they asked us to come for callbacks in L.A., it was so interesting because I was in my final week of Great Comet, as you know, and Reed was in his final week at a gig in Las Vegas, so literally we both were finishing gigs. Neither of us had anything coming up next on our plate, and we were like, "Wait, we're both free for a week to go out to L.A.? Has this ever happened?!" It was one of those things where we were like, "Well, I think this is a hand of God," in the sense that we just need to do this and keep moving forward with this. We moved forward, and still nothing else [in] theatre had come in at that time, and "Survivor" had asked us to be a part of it. It was just one of those moments we [thought], "You know, 'Survivor' has 20,000 people every season who apply for this show, and we got picked. That's a huge honor! This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. We should do this." And, we are fans of this show, and we already have careers in theatre, so we [thought], "We hope the theatre world doesn't look down on us in anyway," but "Survivor" was like the first reality show, and it's still very highly respected. It's not like "The Housewives of Orange County." It's something that's real, and everything "Survivor" does is real. We're starving out there, we're doing all this stuff, it's a competition. So we weighed all the things and said, "We should do this." We both lost 20 lbs. doing the show, so we got back, and we were out of shape, and we need to get back into it. We had to retrain our bodies and get back into the audition circuit and audition scene, which was tough, but in the end I think it was a good decision.
You celebrated your birthday out there? How was that?
JC: I did, yeah! I was actually already out of the game — as far as in the running for the million dollars. At that point I was back at Ponderosa, and Reed got kicked out the night before, so I got Reed back for my birthday, which was awesome. It was awesome getting to spend it in Nicaragua. We were like, "What have we done? We're playing 'Survivor' right now, and they let us go out on this boat back in San Juan del Sur." There's pictures up online on CBS.com now of the Ponderosa time and my birthday party and stuff. They threw me a great party with a Spider-Man piñata — after Reed [who performed in the Broadway company] — and cake and all this amazing stuff. It was awesome. It's definitely going to be the birthday to beat… "Remember that one time I was on 'Survivor' in Nicaragua and I had my birthday?"
Getting back into the game here, what has that been like? Tell us about your Zhivago casting! I'm sure it was tricky to coordinate with you and your agents and casting…
JC: I'd actually never heard of "Doctor Zhivago" before, which is horrible. I didn't know of the film, but it won five Academy Awards, and Julie Christie was in it and Omar Sharif. It was huge. Anybody over 40 that you mention it to, they're like, "Oh, Doctor Zhivago!" When my agent first put me up for it, I was first like, "I don't even know what this is. This probably isn't going to happen." And, I feel like those are always the shows that I end up booking — the ones that you're like, "Oh, this probably isn't going to work out." But, when I went in for Pippin to replace the lead in Pippin, I [thought], "That's my part! I am Pippin. This is me." And, I get down to the finals, and then I don't get it, and I think, "But I'm supposed to get that!" And then this one is like, "Oh, this wasn't even on my radar…"
Tell me about the part that you're playing.
JC: His name is Liberius, and he's a mercenary soldier for the Russian Revolution, and he's a heroine addict. Of course, it's very type-casting. [Laughs.] I had so much fun in the audition. The director, Des McAnuff, who did Jersey Boys as well, was just fantastic in the auditions and working on the scenes together. I felt really great about all the auditions, and when I finally booked it, I was thrilled because this is my Broadway debut. Great Comet was Off-Broadway, so this is my Broadway debut, and it's kind of a dream come true. Since I was a kid, my goal was to be on Broadway, and I've come to learn once I got to New York that Off-Broadway has just as much clout, it's just a different thing… But this is cool because it's a new show, which means probably we're going to do a cast album — that means I'll be singing on an original cast album, which I've always dreamed of — and if the show is good, we might be nominated for Tony Awards, which means we might be doing something at the Tonys next year, and that's just like, "I can't believe that this first show, my debut, may be all of the things I wanted to do on Broadway." And, Liberius is a supporting character. He's got a song and a few scenes, and he's a really cool and fun part to get to play. I haven't seen the entire script, but based off the few things that I did in the auditions, I feel in a very small way [that] he's kind of the comic relief because it's a very serious show, and he has a little bit of a lightheartedness, even though it's a really dark thing that he's going through and dark story that he's a part of. He kind of puts you at ease a little bit more.
Tell me about your 54 Below show coming up.
JC: I'm actually at a rehearsal for it. Reed and I are super excited. 54 Below asked us to do two nights of a cabaret. It's kind of based on our theatre and "Survivor" situation, so it's called From Broadway to "Survivor," and we have some great guests appearing. We have Krysta Rodriguez and Elizabeth Judd, Tess Soltau, and Lauren Zakrin, who is doing Sherrie in Rock of Ages and [was in] Comet. Jonathan Ivie is music directing. He was one of my music directors for Great Comet as well. It's going to follow our careers before "Survivor" and our relationship and how that all came about and how it is to be two guys dating each other who are both actors, both singers, both dancers — but one us is maybe a better dancer, and the other one is a little better singer, and how that plays out when you're dating someone in a field where you're competing against one another, so to speak. We talk about that, and we talk a little bit about our "Survivor" experience, and then we talk a little bit about the things that we're doing in the future.
Talk to me about your relationship with Reed. You went on a competition show and were pit against each other… Is it competitive between you in the theatre industry?
JC: It's really not competitive, to be honest, in our situation…for the most part! Reed, as you know, is one of the best dancers on Broadway…and I am not! [Laughs.] I can move very well… There was one moment where we ended up in the same audition together this year, and it was the most hilarious thing. I was called into a dance call, and so was he — to the same one — and I was like, "There must be a mix up! I can never be in a dance call with Reed!" It was for Finding Neverland. I kept telling my agent, "Please call them, and let them know I think they made a mistake. I don't think I'm supposed to be here." Anyway, I got there, and there were no other movers at the audition. It was Mia Michaels [choreographing] it, and I walked into that room and [thought], "I am going to kill myself." They start and were like, "We're going to start with a ballet combination. Let's go — 1, and 2, and 3…" I was like, "I'm done!" I did it, but I laughed all the way through it. It was laughable, but that's life sometimes.
I'm sure "Survivor" is chock full of challenges, but was it a challenge to be out "Broadway boyfriends" on this show? Even though we're in 2014, not everyone is so accepting. Was it scary to go on national television — and into the wild with people you don't know? Was there pressure?
JC: I did my best before I went on the show to just kind of come to grips with myself and be like, "I want to be an honest individual," and that's how I'm trying to live my life. I had only recently told my family about [my relationship with] Reed, so that was still really fresh, but it was a time where I was just letting everything down — letting all my walls down. [I thought], "I need to be truthful with everyone." I became truthful with my church. I'm a part of Hillsong NYC. I'm one of their choir directors. I also sing on their Worship team. They've been amazing as well. Nothing has changed there now that I'm completely out and with Reed. He sings in the choir as well. I found that being an honest person has actually come with a lot of benefits. People are more sincere with you, and you find out a lot more about other people when you become honest. I think that's what happened on "Survivor." When I went on the show, of course, there are people on that show who've never encountered an out gay person they have to spend their time with. Especially Wes [Nale] and Alec [Christy], who were on my tribe in the beginning — they didn't know any gay people. I was the first gay person they knew, and that came with some challenges, but if you now ask them, their minds have been completely changed. Now that they've met Reed and I, they were like, "I didn't realize this is who gay people were. We love you guys. You're our friends." They don't understand what people's problem with gay people are, and they were [the opposite] just six months ago, so that's really exciting. We both have gotten lots of tweets and messages from teenagers in the Midwest being like, "You guys are such role models. I love seeing you guys every week on my TV. It gives me hope that I can have a relationship like yours." It's been overwhelming in a lot of ways because we didn't set out doing this to be like, "We want to be the poster children for out gay people or the Broadway gays or Christian gays," but we became that whether we wanted to or not because we were just being honest with who we were. I would say that we've gotten about 98 percent positive responses from everything on "Survivor." There's been so little negativity from it. I was actually expecting more. I was prepared for more negativity, and I haven't gotten it, so it's, again, another thing to be thankful for.
(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)