The 2017-2018 Broadway season kicks off with the summer opening of1984, and star Michael Potts is ready. The actor boasts over 30 screen-acting appearances (including principal roles in The Wire and True Detective) and 18 plays and musicals, both on and off Broadway, over the course of his career. Potts most recently appeared onstage as Turnbo, the gossiping driver, in August Wilson’s Jitney. With just a few weeks before he opens as Charrington in the stage adaptation of George Orwell’s dystopian novel (opening June 22), Potts talked with Playbill to discuss all of the “pinch me” moments his career has offered him.
What was your first professional job?
Michael Potts: The America Play at the Public Theater back in 1994.
What was the stage show that has most influenced you?
Probably the original  Broadway production of Fences. I remember watching a scene from that on the Tonys that year and that pretty much solidified for me that I was going to actually go into acting at the moment. I went, “I’m going to do this.” [It solidified] that there was a place for me, basically.
Is there a stage moment you witnessed (from the audience, from the wings, in rehearsal) that stays with you?
During The Book of Mormon [where I played Mafala Hatimbi] I stood onstage and had a moment where I remembered half of my line and the other half I kind of just stood there, kind of doing the statue game while everyone stared at me. [Laughs] I would say that. That sticks in my mind.
What’s been the biggest challenge in your career?
Probably the challenge of marketing myself. I don’t know what that is. I’ve always just felt that if I did roles really, really well they would lead to other really, really great roles and that’s not necessarily the way it works, you know? [Laughs] It doesn’t matter how good it is if no one’s seen it or no one knows that you’re doing, so that’s been a big challenge for me.
What’s been the most rewarding experience for you in your onstage career?
Recently it was Jitney. I’ve had a few. The first production I opened, The America Play, was an extraordinary experience for me—getting to do that at the Public and originate that role was kind of amazing. The Book of Mormon was an incredible experience for me [as was] working on a Tony Kushner play [The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures] at the Guthrie for a role he had written for me.
Who is a collaborator from theatre that made you better?
The answer to that is probably Ruben Santiago-Hudson. I think he’s taken more risks on me as an actor than I think anyone else would and has allowed me to exercise acting muscles that I hadn’t been able to use for a long time. He’s an incredibly collaborative and passionate director and he’s very smart. I’ve worked with him twice. And also I’ve enjoyed working with Michael Greif and also the late Roger Rees. I think they were both wonderfully collaborative, very, very smart men who allowed me to give some of my best work.
How do you balance stage and screen? Do you want to?
Well, I’ve been lucky in the sense that the screen work tends to come in between the theatre work so I don’t have to jump out of one technical element or particular technique. I’ve had the space to live in one particular head at one particular time so it hasn’t been that stressful. If I had my druthers, it would be one at a time. I think the only overlap I’ve had I think was really True Detective; I was finishing The Book of Mormon just as I was about to go up for that.
What has been your favorite part of working on a TV show that’s different from theatre?
Screen requires almost this notion of keeping a secret because the camera can get so close and see what your thoughts are so I always get the sense of keeping a secret. That’s the wonderful thing—in theatre it doesn’t read the same way for obvious reasons—but, on camera, the ability to tell a story in a very small and subtle way. I do like that. I think that the best actors are kind of brilliant at that.
You just finished a run in August Wilson’s Jitney and you’re about to open 1984. How does it feel to originate two roles on Broadway in one season?
It feels like an embarrassment of riches. I feel very, very fortunate. For me, Jitney was a “pinch me” moment. [Laughs] Just getting to do my first August Wilson play and getting to do that role with that cast on Broadway was a “pinch me” moment. So to kind of jump from that to what I think is going to be the most-talked-about show is a big “pinch me” moment. I’m probably the luckiest actor in New York right now.
How has working on 1984 been?
It’s been great. I’m really excited about it. I think it’s going to be really, really cool and really, really creepy. [Laughs] Of course, it’s very timeless. The novel has just been flying off the shelves again so I think it’s a play for our time. People are really going to love it or hate it, but [either way] everyone is going to be affected by it.
1984 begins previews May 18 at the Hudson Theatre with a official opening set for June 22.
Joe Gambino is a writer, designer, performer and Broadway lottery loser who lives in New York. Follow him on Twitter @_joegambino_.