PLAYBILL.COM'S CUE & A: High's Stephen Kunken

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19 Apr 2011

Stephen Kunken
Stephen Kunken

Tony Award nominee Stephen Kunken, currently back on Broadway in Matthew Lombardo's High, fills out Playbill.com's questionnaire with random facts, backstage trivia and pop-culture tidbits.

He has previously appeared on Broadway in Proof, Festen, Frost/Nixon, Rock 'n' Roll and Enron, earning a Tony nomination for his performance in the latter.

Kunken's Off-Broadway work includes Lost in the Stars, Our Town, Our House, A Very Common Procedure, Fabulation, The Story, A Dybbuk, Arrangements and Misalliance. He is married to the stage director Jenn Thompson. They live in Brooklyn with their 20-month-old daughter Naomi.



Full given name: Stephen Michael Kunken
Hometown: Upper Brookville, Long Island, New York
Zodiac Sign: Before or after Astrology-gate? You know what?  Forget that 13th sign... I am now and always will be... El Toro.
What your parents do for a living: My father is a pediatric dentist and the founding chair of the North Shore University Hospital Dental Department.  My mom was a grade school teacher and mother... and now has added oil painter to her resume.
Current audition song/monologue: "I Feel Pretty" or "Rose's Turn."  Depends on the day.
Special skills: I'm a professional photographer and sound designer.
Skill/talent you wish you had or were better at: It'd be nice to play piano like Ben Folds or guitar like Lindsey Buckingham.

First Broadway show you ever saw: Pretty sure it was Doug Henning in The Magic Show.  

If you could go back in time and catch any show, what would it be? I’d love to have seen the Group Theatre production of Golden Boy



Luther Adler, Lee J. Cobb, Morris Carnovsky, Frances Farmer, Elia Kazan... and with Harold Clurman directing and a young Sanford Meisner assisting.  Probably would have been worth the $4 or $5 it cost to see Odets' masterpiece back then.

I would have also loved to have seen William Daniels as John Adams in 1776.  When the bells start clanging at the end my innate cynic disappears and for a few moments I’m unabashedly a Patriot.  Perhaps I'd get lucky and get to see my father-in-law Evan Thompson on for Thomas Jefferson, which he covered in that original production.

Finally, the original Jesus Christ Superstar.  That album was a major part of my childhood.  My brother and I used to know every single word of the score and we’d stand at the end of our driveway pre-pubescently screeching out the Pilate/Jesus confrontation while waiting in the snow for the school bus. To see it in its creepy, dirty '70s glory would have been amazing.

Favorite showtunes of all time: My cheeseball favorite:  "Bring Him Home" as sung by Colm Wilkinson

My quotable favorite:  "Epiphany" from Sweeney Todd

Favorite classical plays: Antigone
Julius Caesar
Henry VI parts 2 and 3
Twelfth Night
The Scottish Play       
Favorite modern classics: Uncle Vanya
Our Town
Man and Superman    
Favorite contemporary plays: All My Sons
Night of the Iguana
Proof
Red Noses
A play/musical badly in need of a revival: I'd love to see City of Angels done again.  The jazz overture alone is amazing and the stage magic would only be more fun now with all of the tech advancements.

I'm a huge fan of Laughter on the 23rd Floor.  I think it's one of the funnier plays ever written... and I'd love to be in it. So here's hoping.

Stage or screen star of the past you would most love to have performed with: Pound for pound I think either John Cazale or Jimmy Stewart — two brilliant actors who absolutely elevated the game of those they worked with.
The one performance — attended — that you will never forget: Len Cariou in Sweeney Todd at age 8. I think I only saw about half of it peering through my fingers, but it was pretty fantastic.
Music that makes you cry, any genre: I'm a sucker for any Thomas Newman soundtrack, and I get equally as weepy when I listen to Randy Newman's score to "Avalon."
MAC or PC? MAC.  MAC! MAC!!!  I'm an Apple fanboy and have been a proselytizer since my MAC 512k enhanced.
Most played song on your iPod: Right now: "Reel Me In" by Aqualung
All time:  "Beautiful Day" by U2
Most-visited websites: Playbill.com, of course
TottenhamHotspur.com
NYTimes.com
BBC.co.uk
ThisWeekinTech.com
Last book you read: "Audio Engineering for Sound Reinforcement" by JBL
Must-see TV shows: "Real Time with Bill Maher"
"Oprah"
"Friday Night Lights" 
Last good movie you saw: "The Social Network"
Some films you consider classics: "Avalon"
"Crimes and Misdemeanors"
"Truly, Madly, Deeply"
"Burnt by the Sun"
"The French Connection"
"Fargo"
Performer you would drop everything to go see: Gene Hackman
Ricky Gervais
Bono
Pop culture guilty pleasure: "The Bachelor/ette,"  from start to after the final rose. It's just all good.

Also "Dancing with the Stars"

Three favorite cities: NYC, London, Addis Ababa
Favorite sport/team/player: Football (soccer)/ Tottenham Hotspur/ Benoit Assou-Ekotto
First CD/Tape/LP you owned: First tape I ever owned was Rick Springfield's "Working Class Dog."
First stage kiss: I think it might have been with Melissa Errico in The Matchmaker as Horace Vandergelder to her Dolly Levi back in high school.  I think they smooched.  If not, I don't remember.
Favorite or most memorable onstage role as a child/teenager: I was a freshman in high school when I played Chico Marx in Animal Crackers to my older brother Jeff's Groucho.
Moment you knew you wanted to perform for a living: See later entry about working in a blood gas lab.
How you got your Equity card: Working on Tony Kushner's adaptation of A Dybbuk at the Public Theater.
Favorite pre-/post- show meal: Bison burger deluxe at Westway Diner or curry noodle soup at Zen Palate.
Favorite liquid refreshments: Double tall skim latte
Seltzer with lime
Jamaican soft drink, "Ting"
Favorite vacation spots: Cousin's home in London
Same cousin's home in Bonnieux, Provence
Goldeneye resort, Jamaica
Worst flubbed line/missed cue/onstage mishap: During the recent Our Town, in the soda shop scene, I believe I changed the stage manager's diatribe about horses and automobiles on Main Street from "Used to be a dog could sleep all day in the middle of Main Street and nothing come along to disturb him" to "Used to be a horse could sleep on a dog all day long and nothing would come along to disturb them."

Things had really changed in Grover's Corners.

Pre-show rituals or warm-ups: I'm a pretty superstitious guy and on each new show a bizarre set of rituals will form particular only to that show.  Yeah it borders a little on OCD, but what can you do? You must appease the gods.
Worst costume ever:  I had a bulky beige sweater in A Very Common Procedure that I always felt made me look a little like I had swallowed a donkey for dinner.

Although the sheer white tights catastrophe in Romeo and Juliet somewhere downtown in my youth was probably a lot scarier for the audience.

Worst job you've ever had: My parents, in a last ditch effort to get me to go into medicine, secured me a coveted summer job in a hospital lab doing blood gas tests.  It was without a doubt the worst and most pressure-filled job I ever had.  I think I sweat more on a daily basis in that lab than I did at my Broadway debut.
Who would play you in the movie? Without question... Michael Sheen.
Who have you played on "Law & Order"?  What editions? I've been on all of the "Law & Orders."  I've never been the trigger puller, but I've been an accomplice, a red herring and the victim quite a few times. 

My first and, I think, still favorite role was as a process server.  My entire role was to walk up to Carey Lowell with a folder and say, "Jamie Ross?" 

Favorite screen/commercial gig: I recently got to work with one of my cinema heroes, Barry Levinson on an eco-terror movie called "Isopod."  There was a tremendous amount of improvisation, which I love to do.  Shooting was like being dropped into a catastrophic funhouse and having to find your way out.  It was thrilling and terrifying. 
A show you would love to work on with your wife: She's a pretty fine director.  I'd do whatever she offered... if the pay was right.  
Leading man role you've been dying to play: Cassius or MacB  
Most unlikely role you have played onstage:   Santa Claus
Career you would want if not a performer: Photojournalist, film director or Steve Jobs' official gadget vetter
Something about you that surprises people: I'm terrified of bats and I'm awful at returning phone calls. Typically people find out the latter first.
"I'll never understand why…" ... I get SAG residual checks for less than the price of postage.  Couldn't we all just elect to allocate residuals below $5 or $10 into a healthcare slush fund for other actors?

Think of all the money we'd save and people that could be helped.  But for some reason the goal of our fund is to make it harder and harder to qualify, not easier... guess that's another "I'll never understand why..."

Words of wisdom for aspiring performers? Don’t specialize or become performance myopic so quickly or fully that you narrow your life experience.  Live life.  Travel.  Read.  Throw yourself into the unfamiliar whenever possible. 

I had a teacher at Juilliard once tell us that watching movies or other actors' interpretations as character research was not as valuable as reading the source material those movies and performances are based upon.  It was great advice. 

The fuel for your artist is out there in the world, and there is no substitute for a first person experience.