PLAYBILL.COM'S CUE & A: End of the Rainbow Tony Nominee Michael Cumpsty
By Matthew Blank
May 8, 2012
Stage veteran Michael Cumpsty, a 2012 Tony Award nominee for his performance in End of the Rainbow, fills out Playbill.com's questionnaire of random facts, backstage trivia and pop-culture tidbits.
Cumpsty has previously appeared on Broadway in Sunday in the Park With George, The Constant Wife, Democracy, Enchanted April, 42nd Street, Copenhagen, Electra, 1776, Racing Demon, The Heiress, Translations, Timon of Athens, La Bête and Artist Descending a Staircase.
Other theatrical credits include Hamlet, Richard II, Richard III, Twelfth Night, Timon of Athens, All's Well That Ends Well, Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale and Much Ado About Nothing.
Full given name:
John Michael Cumpsty
Where you were born/where you were raised:
I was born in Wakefield in Yorkshire, England. I lived in Durham in England until I was six, Glasgow in Scotland until I was nine, Cape Town, South Africa until I was 16, back to England for two years, and came to the U.S. when I was 19.
What your parents did/do for a living:
My father took a long time to figure out what he really wanted to do! He started out as a mining engineer, got a law degree, a business degree, went into the church, became a teacher at the seminary where he had studied, then founded the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Cape Town in 1969. That's where he worked until he retired.
My mother was a physiotherapist. She worked with a lot of polio victims, and subsequently with a lot of people suffering cerebral palsy.
Two generations. An elder sister Carolyn and a younger brother David. And MUCH younger sibs from my Dad’s second marriage: Rebekah, 27, Aaron, 24 and Gabriel, 17. I'm 52.
Technically, I guess I'm old enough to be my youngest brother's grandfather!
Interesting point: although my dad was a practicing minister in the Anglican Church when I was born, by the time of his second marriage he had moved away from being so active in the church. His second wife is Jewish, and it was important to her that her kids be raised Jewish. So my dad, who remained a church-goer, raised his second generation of kids Jewish. When I'm with them, I'm part of a Jewish family, and I really enjoy that.
Well, I wouldn't call it special exactly, but I like to think I know how to handle Shakespeare's text. It’s really what I enjoy working on most. Well, that and REALLY shticky comedy. And sometimes both at the same time!
Something you're REALLY bad at:
Dancing. Really. Bad.
First Broadway/West End show you ever saw:
Because I lived in South Africa until I was 16, I got a late start. First West End show was Stoppard's Night and Day starring Maggie Smith.
First Broadway show was the original production of 42nd Street. So it was a particular joy to play Julian Marsh in the Broadway revival.
If you could go back in time and catch any show, what would it be?
I would love to have seen Olivier at his peak. Any of his celebrated productions, really. On Broadway, similarly, I'd have loved to have seen Barrymore live.
Did you have any particular mentors or inspirations as a young actor?
I studied with Cicely Berry when I was in grad school and was fortunate to stay in touch with her for many years. She is one of the best teachers in the world for actors working with poetic text, particularly Shakespeare.
Current show you have been recommending to friends:
Favorite showtune of all time:
"If I Loved You" from Carousel
Some favorite musicals:
Sunday in the Park with George and In This House, a new four-hander musical which just premiered at Two River Theater Company, in Red Bank, NJ. I saw it five times. I found it incredibly moving and beautiful. It’s sure to become a very popular piece.
Some favorite modern plays:
The Norman Conquests
The Dying Gaul
Joe Turner's Come and Gone
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Some favorite modern playwrights:
Michael Frayn, Harold Pinter, Tony Kushner, August Wilson, Martin McDonagh, Lisa Kron, Terrence McNally, Suzan-Lori Parks
Stage or screen stars of the past you would most have loved to perform with:
Marilyn Monroe. I think she's underrated as an actress, and she was a great comedienne.
Ralph Richardson. Apparently he was a blast.
Marlon Brando, just to observe the legendary charisma at work.
The one performance – attended - that you will never forget:
The Boys Next Door at the old Lamb's Theatre over 20 years ago. I have a disabled brother, and seeing that play rocked my world.
Music that makes you cry, any genre:
Some Sondheim really gets me. It's the depth of humanity in the lyrics as much as the music.
You personal acting idols:
Meryl. And Meryl. And Meryl's not bad either.
A relatively unsung hero: Steven Skybell. I've seen him give a couple of performances that were absolutely, definitely great, in the big sense, as in GREAT acting.
Tracie Bennett. I'm working with her now, but this is not a passing fancy. I have never before encountered her level of energy and commitment onstage.
Kristine Nielsen has made me cry from laughing in more than one show. In Chris Durang's Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them, she gave a performance that will go down in myth and legend.
I think Richard Jenkins is one of the finest actors working today.
MAC or PC?
Most played song on your iPod:
Honestly, a song called "The Smell of Rebellion" from the upcoming Broadway show Matilda. I had an audition for it, and I played that song constantly for days.
Last book you read:
Ron Chernow's biography of Alexander Hamilton. An absolutely dazzling book.
Must-see TV show(s):
"I Love Lucy," "Sopranos," "Rome," "AbFab," the old "Brideshead Revisited," "Life on Mars," Ricky Gervais' "Extras." The first season of "Footballers’ Wives." Fabulous trash.
Lisa Kudrow's "The Comeback" on HBO was one of the best satires of showbiz ever. Really great.
The Australian show Summer Heights High, broadcast by HBO, written by and starring the amazing Chris Lilley.
Last good movie you saw:
"Plan B," a lovely indie about two guys falling in love from Argentina.
Some films you consider classics:
All the usual, plus "The Road Warrior." I went nuts for that film and saw it at least 16 times. Mel Gibson plays an angry, violent, isolated man in a post-apocalyptic world. That was before we knew what an angry, violent, isolated man he would become.
Performer you would drop everything to go see:
Meryl Streep. Okay, not very imaginative. But she IS Meryl Streep.
Pop culture guilty pleasure:
New York, Paris, Rome.
Now, actually, I've never been to Rome, but my partner has, several times, and many other friends as well. I've heard so much about it, and have such a strong desire to spend time there, that it does actually feel like a favorite place.
First CD/Tape/LP you owned:
Hmm. Don’t remember, but most likely a Beatles album.
First stage kiss
Probably in college, since I went to two different all-boys high schools, where that sort of thing wasn’t encouraged.
Moment you knew you wanted to perform for a living:
I had been accepted to medical school, but also wanted to act. I overheard a colleague of my father's ask him what I was going to do. My dad said I would either be a doctor or an actor. His friend asked him which he'd prefer, and he said actor. I was astonished and asked him why. He said because I'd be happier.
Favorite pre-/post- show meal:
On this show I'm loving the duck confit salad and some sancerre at Bistro, opposite the Belasco on 44th. When I did Copenhagen, it was steak and fries, and sometimes banana cream pie, at Joe Allen's.
Favorite liquid refreshment:
Amber beers or seltzer water.
Youíve played opposite an incredible list of formidable females. Is there something that all these women have in common that makes them such riveting stage performers?
Well, they're all extremely intelligent and self-determining. But above all, they're funny. Really funny.
I'ím pretty sure that having a sense of humor is one of the most important requirements for good acting, whether you're going for laughs or not. Tragedy requires a sense of irony, at least, if not an outright sense of the ridiculous.
Worst flubbed line/missed cue/onstage mishap:
In the final moments of the final performance of the original Broadway production of La Bete, a play in rhyming couplets, I forgot the last couplet of the play. I pretended to cry until I remembered it.
Worst costume ever:
Naked was the worst. I've done it three times and never liked it.
Worst job you ever had:
I worked on a farm once and had to slaughter some poultry. Yuck.
What drew you to this project?
I really loved Anthony when I first read the play. I saw him as a real, ie not stereotypical, gay man who was devoted to Garland as a person more than as a Diva, and who put himself on the line to protect the human being at the center of her storm.
He's gone through his own hard times, and has had to fight to stay strong. He has great insight and compassion. I like him very much. I'd hope he would be MY friend! Also, I'd heard that Tracie was astonishing playing Garland, which she is.
How did you research for this performance?
I looked at some old Judy Garland materials online. But mostly I studied the piano parts.
Your personal favorite Judy Garland performances/songs?
I prefer her in "Easter Parade" to "The Wizard of Oz." But "Over the Rainbow" is hard to beat. Another favorite of her songs is "I Happen to Like New York."
Most challenging role you have played onstage:
I'd say it's a dead heat between Hamlet and Werner Heisenberg in Copenhagen. Heisenberg is perhaps not as complex a character, but I had to wrap my head around some of the physics.
Favorite screen or commercial gigs:
I very much enjoyed working on "Eat Pray Love" and playing a Russian cellist in the indie movie "Downtown Express" that just finished a run at the Quad.
I loved my character on "L.A. Law," a really decent lawyer who everyone assumed was unprincipled, and a part I played on "Nurse Jackie," a man who's lost his job and his insurance and is ashamed and ultimately suicidal, but who remains as sweet as he can be throughout.
And I enjoyed making a white supremacist I played on "Law & Order" as repellant as possible.
Leading man role you've been dying to play:
Garry Essendine in Noel Coward’s Present Laughter.
Lear. I’m starting to learn it while I still can. :)
Leading lady role you wish you could play:
Something about you that surprises people:
I'm really very shy and quite socially uncomfortable. Onstage, I'm fine. Strange, but not uncommon among actors, I think.
Career you would want if not a performer:
Doctor. Possibly surgery of some kind, possibly pediatrics, maybe psychiatry. But I think you have to be crazier than me to be a shrink.
Three things you can't live without:
Fruit, coffee and my partner of 15 years, John Dias.
"I'll never understand why…"
... it's so hard to remember to be courteous to tourists in Times Square, when I so appreciate courtesy from the locals wherever I travel.
Words of advice for aspiring performers:
Always keep up on something else you can do well. Even successful performers go through long periods without work, and if you can't be self-directed and productive during those times, you can get really very frustrated.
Where were you when you found out about your Tony nomination?
I was still in bed, fast asleep, and there was a gentle nudge and a big smile and my agent was on the phone! I didn’t even have to go through a couple of minutes of anxiety. I woke up happy!