THE LEADING MEN: Jake Epstein and Jarrod Spector, Beautiful's Gerry Goffin and Barry Mann

By Michael Gioia
24 Feb 2014

Epstein and Jessie Mueller
Photo by Joan Marcus

Your character goes from being in high school and meeting Carole King all the way through his adulthood, which is very different from other roles you played in Spring Awakening, Spider-Man, American Idiot and "Degrassi." Your character has a very big arc in Beautiful. Is that gratifying to play as opposed to an angsty teen?
JE: For sure. I mean, I knew when I took this part it was my first sort of "adult role." I wasn't playing a high-school kid anymore. Yeah, I feel like a man on stage! [Laughs.] … For the first time! Is it satisfying to go through that whole arc? I don't think about it. We keep getting encouraged to get lost in the story every night, and for me and Jessie [Mueller] to kind of get lost in each other every night and see where it goes, so night to night, it's always very different, and I love the story. I love the arc of the story. It's difficult, sometimes… You were talking before about [how] the audience likes you or doesn't like you… Night to night, it's a little bit different, and sometimes — when I can feel the audience really rooting for our love story, and I know what's going to happen — you can feel everyone's disappointment. [Laughs.] I used to call it a "Wall of Hate" because it's a very strange thing to be up there on stage — on Broadway — and have like a thousand people in the audience kind of hating you in a moment. It's a lot of energy to take on. And, so that's been a big challenge for me — dealing with that and doing it eight times a week and being as honest to the story as possible without being so concerned about whether you're liked or not liked.

Tell me about leaving "Degrassi" behind to pursue theatre school. You gained quite a following from that show!
JE: I did "Degrassi" for five years in Toronto, and I made the decision to quit the show to go to theatre school, which a lot of people thought I was really crazy to do, but it was one of those major decisions in my life that I haven't regretted — hopefully I won't! I really wanted to go to school. I was almost embarrassed by the kind of attention I was getting from this show, and I wanted to feel proud of the work I was doing, so I made this really scary decision to go to a theatre school, and it was amazing for me. I started writing, and I learned so much. From school, teachers of mine cast me in productions in Toronto, and then from there, I went to an open call for the Spring Awakening [first national] tour and eventually got cast on tour as Melchior. That was my first introduction into the Broadway scene, and then eventually I got my Green Card so that I could go to New York. Literally, the day after I got my Green Card, I bought a plane ticket, flew here and started auditioning… It was five weeks of being in New York before I booked Spider-Man.

Epstein in American Idiot.
photo by Doug Hamilton

The decision to leave "Degrassi" was a bit nerve-wracking?
JE: Yeah, I mean… I was 19 at the time, and I was so unhappy, and I knew that I was too young to be that unhappy. I come from an academic family, [so] if you do something, you go to school for it. It was always encouraged to go to school. I never felt like I was leaving the film world behind. I needed to go and feel good about what I was doing and learn something and kind of come back to it on my own terms. Tons of people thought I was completely nuts, and I didn't know if I was just running away from it. I didn't know if it was the right decision or not, and I just really wanted… One of the things I love about theatre is how raw it is. There's no faking it… I really wanted to have a base in theatre, and that kind of opened up all these doors for me.

Tell me about making your Broadway debut in Spider-Man and flying over an audience.
JE: Terrifying! [Laughs.] I mean, there's just nothing funnier or crazier than that — doing your Broadway debut as Spider-Man in Spider-Man the musical. It was like the last thing I could have ever possibly imagined happening. I mean, I would tell people I was playing Spider-Man, and people would just break out laughing because it was so ridiculous! [Laughs.] But, it was such an amazing gig. To be able to lead a musical like that — of that size…! As a kid, I was a huge comic fan. I related so much to Spider-Man, and I felt like I was an outsider in New York City as a Canadian [and also] as somebody who didn't really do musical theatre… I sang in bands all of my life, and all of a sudden I was starring in this big Broadway musical. It was so scary going into it! I always felt very safe, but all the flying was definitely freaky. I remember my parents came to see my first show, and I didn't know where they were sitting. You know how you fly around the theatre in the end — you land in the first balcony? I, at the end of the show, was just so relieved… I took off and flew around, and I landed in front of my parents, who were sitting in the front row, and my mom started crying, and my dad just started laughing. I kind of high-fived my dad, spun around and kept going. That was just an amazing moment. That was just a thrill! It was such a thrill. It's like a legend in my family now.