STAGE TO SCREENS: Christian Borle, "Smash" Star and 2012 Tony Nominee for Starcatcher

By Michael Gioia
17 May 2012

Borle on "Smash."
Photo by Will Hart/NBC
How did you first get involved with "Smash"?
CB: Honestly, my agent, Joe Machota, is a miracle worker and an amazing human being. He just kept kicking at that door, and he finally got me an audition — got me in the room with them. They were late in the casting process, so if I may humbly suggest, they were a little bit desperate… [Laughs.] I guess my special brand of mugging… [Laughs.] No...when I got into that room, something clicked — you never know what that thing is going to be — and it all just lined up. It was incredible.

You've played several ingénue-style roles (Legally Blonde, Thoroughly Modern Millie) on Broadway. What excited you about taking on quirky composer Tom Levitt in "Smash"?
CB: I think if one looks at what I've been lucky enough to do over the last ten-or-so years, I fit more into the quirky category than into the true leading-man "ingénue." The ingénues that I've played, [Emmett Forrest] in Legally Blonde for example, could be called the unlikely love interest, which is actually what I was called for two years in that show. It wasn't so much of stretch to play somebody who had a little bit more quirk to him, but I was excited to challenge myself — I don't play the piano, so it was very fun to take on that challenge. And, who wouldn't leap at the opportunity to co-star with Debra Messing in anything?

You have great chemistry with her on the show.
CB: It's so cliché to say, but when I met her for the first time — when she came in for my [screen] test — we clicked instantly. She was at ease, and she put me at ease, and she was fun and generous and funny. We started doing the first scene from the pilot, and there was an instant rapport and trust, and we just liked each other. For me, that's the easiest part of it. There's very little acting required to pretend we're good friends. And, the rest is just watching her work — someone who is that experienced in television. My goal was to just absorb everything from her. She is everything you hope she is going to be.

I was going to ask you about your piano skills. Have you ever played before?
CB: Well, I quit when I was like ten years old, and I could obviously kick myself now. I had one year of piano freshman year at CMU — Carnegie Mellon. In the musical theatre program there, you have to take maybe a semester. But it had been 20 years since I actually had to sit down and make noises on a piano! I had a basic understanding of it, but to say I could sit down and play anything at all would be stretching it, so I tried to take a couple of lessons with a mind towards getting proficient. It became very clear to me that I didn't have the hours in the day to dedicate to becoming great. I'm [given] kind of a blueprint of what the hands need to look like, and I have [executive producer, composer and co-lyricist] Marc Shaiman there, and this amazing guy who has coached me. This [recent] episode, Episode 14, is the first time that I've played live — that's actually me playing for the first time. I was proud of myself.

Adam Chanler-Berat and Christian Borle in Peter and the Starcatcher.
O&M Co.

Getting back to Starcatcher, where did you begin in creating the character of Stache?
CB: Roger and Alex and Rick impressed upon me that this guy should be pathetic, and that he is a lost soul, and that you should actually kind of sympathize with this poor guy. He's not pure evil — he's not the devil incarnate. He's just a buffoon, who is trying to make his way in the world, and he stumbled into being a pirate. So one of the things that I latched onto was that it's all façade — he's an absolute liar, he's made up everything and stolen everything he's ever gotten. With that in mind, I, as an actor, stole from everybody. There's a little bit of everything in Stache. And, a lot of it is a ten-year-old me finally getting to be the villain.

When you were younger, did you have an attachment to the Peter Pan story?
CB: I know this might be bad to say, but I really didn't. The Disney movie was not one of the more popular ones in my household growing up. But, if you were alive and on the planet, you knew something of Peter Pan and Tinker Bell and Captain Hook… What I subconsciously knew about Captain Hook is what I tried to bring to the character.

At any point, did you go back to the J.M. Barrie material or read Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson's [source novel] "Peter and the Starcatchers"? Do you research or do you prefer creating from the text you're given?
CB: [Laughs.] I joke with Jack Davenport, [who plays Derek Wills] on "Smash." He knows all too well, when he watches me, that I am an actor who works from the outside in. Never in my acting work have I done a lot of research. I've found that it gets in my way a little bit. Truly, everybody is different, but for me, I do what comes instinctually until someone tells me that it's wrong. So I started playing around and listening to what Roger and Alex were telling me, [taking] what was on the page from Rick, and I went from there. And, here we are now.

You have an eventful second act — a mermaid musical number, a show-stopping monologue. Do you mentally prepare during intermission?
CB: I will try to describe my mental preparation during intermission for Act Two… Are you ready?: I get dressed up as a mermaid with broccoli steamers on my boobs. I stand in the wings and look at Greg Hildreth, who has mustard dispensers on his boobs and ringlets on his crown, and I beg him to sing "I Think I'm Gonna Like it Here" from Annie, which he does — as a 13-year-old girl with pitch problems — and then we go out on stage. That is my prep, and it works! [Laughs.] Also, what is liberating and fun about this show is that it's such a machine, [and] it requires such focus and precision in each moment — we all have to be on the same page and so focused that there's no time to think about what's coming next. All of a sudden, I'm flying under an umbrella while Adam [Chanler-Berat] and Celia [Keenan-Bolger] have their beautiful scene on the trunk. I take a breath there, stand up, put on my coat, come out, and 15 minutes later, I'm covered in sweat and backstage again. It's kind of a blur.