PLAYBILL.COM'S CUE & A: All the Way's Robert Petkoff

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11 Mar 2014

Robert Petkoff
Robert Petkoff

Stage and screen veteran Robert Petkoff plays Senator Hubert Humphrey in the Broadway production of Robert Schenkkan's All the Way. He fills out Playbill.com's questionnaire of random facts, backstage trivia and pop-culture tidbits.

Past Broadway credits include Lord Evelyn Oakleigh in Anything Goes, Tateh in the revival of Ragtime, Sir Robin the Brave in Spamalot, Perchick in Fiddler on the Roof and Epic Proportions with Kristin Chenoweth.

In London he performed in The Royal Family with Dame Judi Dench and Sir Peter Hall’s production of Tantalus. Off-Broadway he has appeared in The Cradle Will Rock, Happiness, More Stately Mansions and Avow.

Petkoff's TV work includes "The Good Wife," "Chapelle’s Show," "Law and Order: SVU," "Law and Order" and "Hack."





Full given name: Robert Petkoff
Where you were born/where you were raised: I was born Sacramento, CA, but my father was in the Air Force so I grew up all over the U.S. I finished high school and went to college in Illinois so I guess I'm ultimately a midwesterner.
Zodiac Sign:Capricorn
What your parents did/do for a living: My father is a retired Air Force major and retired president of Spartan Tool in Mendota, IL.
Siblings:2 brothers and 3 sisters
Special skills:I have a good ear for dialects, and I just learned to play the tuba for All The Way.
Something you're REALLY bad at:The Jamaican dialect. I've had to do it a couple of times for audio books and well, let's just say it took more than a couple takes.
First Broadway show you ever saw: Crazy For You at the Shubert theatre. It was thrilling to get to play that same theatre when I joined the cast of Spamalot years later. And really special for me to get to work with Stro (who choreographed Crazy For You) when I did Happiness at Lincoln Center.
If you could go back in time and catch any show, what would it be? Does it have to be only one? My choice for a play would be to go back to the 1860's and catch Edmund Kean play Richard III at the Drury Lane for the first time. One legend has it that the house was only a third full when the performance began and members of the audience dashed into the street to grab passersby and tell them they had to see Kean's performance. The house was full by the end. That would be something to witness, I think. For a musical I would have loved to have been in the audience for the first performance of West Side Story.
Current show other than your own you have been recommending to friends: Recently, I recommend Once when friends ask what show they should see. I think it's a brilliant production with beautiful music. Also no one should miss hearing Kelli O'Hara and Steven Pasquale sing together in The Bridges of Madison County. Those voices are as close to perfect as you can hear on Broadway.
Favorite showtune(s) of all time: I'm a sucker for a ballad so I love "Somewhere" and "Maria" from West Side Story, (Bernstein's music is phenomenal). Also "Not A Day Goes By," "I Remember," "Finishing the Hat," "Not While I'm Around." (As you can see, I was raised in the church of Sondheim). Finally: "If Ever I Would Leave You" (Goulet's original cast album version).
Some favorite musicals: Sweeney Todd, West Side Story, Camelot (I know it's a "troubled show" but I love the Arthurian legend and Lerner and Lowe's score)
Some favorite modern plays: Angels in America is a masterpiece. I loved Arcadia.
Some favorite modern playwrights: Tom Stoppard, Quiara Alegria Hudes, Tony Kushner, Martin McDonagh. Robert Schenkkan is also tremendous with his ability to distill history into compelling drama.
Broadway or screen stars of the past you would most have loved to perform with: For an actor: I would have loved to perform with James Cagney. That guy could do anything and do it all well. I imagine I would learn a lot from him. For an actress: I'm sure I could learn a thing or two from Katharine Hepburn. I also wouldn't have minded just being in the same room with Marilyn M. No explanation needed.
The one performance – attended - that you will never forget: I got to see Richard Burton play King Arthur in Camelot and though he was older I was captivated by his stillness and that speaking voice. I went on to play the role many years later and I'm sure I stole a lot from him.
Music that makes you cry, any genre: Henryk Gorecki's Symphony No. 3. The second movement uses the words written by a 15-year-old on a Gestapo prison cell wall. I would listen to the symphony a lot when I played Hamlet to gently lead me to darker places.
You personal acting idols: I loved Philip Seymour Hoffman's work. When I first saw him in "Scent Of a Woman" I kept thinking about how REAL he was. It seemed so effortless. I really admire Mark Rylance's imagination and daring. I got to work with one of my idols, Judi Dench, and she was always so simple and so honest on stage. It forced me to do less as well.
MAC or PC? MAC, but I boot into Windows to play games...
Most-visited websites: NY Times for my news. Sadly too much Facebook to catch up on what friends are doing. I'm really into photography so the Strobist blog and a site called ModelMayhem which lets me connect to other photographers, models, makeup artists, etc.
Most played song on your iPod: "House of Gold" by Twenty One Pilots. (My wife bought me a ukulele for Christmas and I'm trying to learn that song. It's really fun.)
Last book you read: "The Education of a Public Man" by Hubert Humphrey
Must-see TV show(s): "Game Of Thrones," "The Walking Dead," and if you haven't seen all of it, "Breaking Bad." Just starting season 2 of "House of Cards" tonight.
Last good movie you saw: "American Hustle" was a glorious mess. Just watching terrific actors get to play.
Some films you consider classics: "Godfather" I and II, "To Kill a Mockingbird" ("Miss Jean Louise? Stand up. Your father's passing." Gets me every time.)

Also because I'm a nerd: The original Star Wars trilogy. Don't get me started about the prequels.

Performer you would drop everything to go see: I think Norbert Leo Butz can make anything interesting.
Pop culture guilty pleasure: Miley Cyrus singing "Wrecking Ball"
Three favorite cities: New York, Paris, Rome (I love a city where you can walk everywhere)
First CD/Tape/LP you owned: The "Star Wars" soundtrack. (Again, I am a nerd.)
First stage kiss: With Carol Balluff in "Come Blow Your Horn," 10th grade.
Favorite or most memorable onstage role as a child/teenager: In my senior year in high school I got to play King Arthur. I loved it, even though I was 5'7" and 130 pounds and probably not very convincing as King Arthur.
Moment you knew you wanted to perform for a living: In one performance of Camelot during Arthur's "Proposition" speech, right after I said, "And may God have mercy on us all," there was a clap of thunder and the lights went out for a moment in the auditorium. The audience gasped, then applauded. Pardon the pun, but the feeling was electric. I knew I was hooked.
Favorite pre-/post- show meal: (note where) Though it is a ridiculous indulgence late at night, I love Carmine's Shrimp and Garlic Linguine. There's always plenty leftover for lunch the next day
Favorite liquid refreshment: I love unsweetened iced tea. Then I shorten my life by putting a packet of Sweet and Low in it.
Pre-show rituals or warm-ups: It varies from show to show. For All The Way, I listen to Hubert Humphrey's famous line from the 1948 Democratic Convention: "The time has arrived for the Democratic party to get out of the shadows of states rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights." It lets me get his voice and more importantly the spirit of this wonderful man.
Worst flubbed line/missed cue/onstage mishap: I was touring in Tantalus, a ten and a half hour play about the Trojan War and at the end of one section we would finish with a blackout and someone was supposed to give me a guide offstage with a flashlight.

I followed what I thought was the flashlight, but was actually an exit light. I swiftly stepped off of the 5 foot edge of the stage into the audience. I was wearing what we called the Tilt a Whirl costume and a mask. It was a ceremonial dress that had a huge cage attached that looked like a Tilt A Whirl ride.

I flipped onto my back and the "cage" cushioned my fall. I fortunately fell into the aisle and not onto an audience member. I got up awkwardly and made my way to the exit light, hoping to get out of there before the lights came up. I pushed the door open and light flooded in from the hall silhouetting me. I tried to get through the door but the sides of the "cage" were too wide.

After two attempts I finally stopped panicking, turned sideways and edged out only to see that the house lights had come up and the entire audience was looking at me and laughing at my comic attempts at an escape.

Worst costume ever: A thong, a mask and blue body paint. Again: Tantalus
Worst job you've ever had (non-theatrical): I had a job once where I was dressed in a full alligator costume handing out Florida real estate flyers on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. I lasted one day.
Craziest audition story: I was auditioning for Voices In The Dark for George Street at Pat McCorkle casting. The role was a killer with a split personality and in the audition scene the two personalities are fighting each other.

I hurled myself around the room, fighting with myself and finally slamming into a bookcase. I hit it with such force that it started to tumble over on top of me. I caught it as many books and scripts fell on me and pushed it back into place, all while carrying on this crazy dialogue. Pat and the director and assistants all yelped as this happened but I kept going. Not sure how, but I got the job.

Some favorite screen or commercial roles: I enjoyed an episode of "Law & Order" where Mariska Hargitay and I got to fight. I punched her, she kneed me in the groin. It was funny on set because the sound guy had to remind me not to make the sound of the punch with my mouth. I would fake-punch her and then do the sound effect with my lips. Kind of a pshhghhhh. Then he had to tell her the same thing. We were like two little kids. Then later I got to break down and confess. I mean who doesn't want to do that on SVU?
What drew you to this project? Obviously the idea of working with Bryan Cranston was really exciting. Then after reading the script, I just wanted to be a part of the project any way I could.
What sort of research did you put into playing this role? I start with the script always. What does the playwright want me to know? Then I expanded my research and read Humphrey's autobiography and watched documentaries of him and of the period. I'm also fortunate to have so many recordings of not only Humphrey but of LBJ and Humphrey on the phone together.
What has been the biggest challenge so far? Deciding how far is too far. Everyone in this play is playing for the highest stakes possible. Humphrey was a very gentle man, but with lots of energy. I'm always fearful of pushing too hard against LBJ. Is that something Humphrey would do? But Bryan's LBJ is so strong I'm finding it's nearly impossible to push back too much.
What has been the most fun or fulfilling aspect of this show/character? Working with such a strong ensemble of actors. It's a great playground when everyone is at the top of their game. And of course when Bryan Cranston is towering over me yelling in my face, it's so intense and scary and at the same time I'm just giddy inside. What a thrill.
Most challenging role you have played onstage: By far, Hamlet. I loved it but I could play it a thousand times and still discover new things.
Leading man role you've been dying to play: Cyrano
Leading lady role you'd like a shot at: Juliet. She's the brains in that play. She teaches Romeo what love truly is. And she's not teaching from experience, she's teaching from intuition. Her courage is breathtaking.
Something about you that surprises people: I had a scholarship to study art and sculpture and decided to pursue acting instead.
Career you would want if not a performer: I think I would have loved to have been a professional photographer.
Three things you can't live without: My wife, my camera and sugar (though I'm trying to do something about that last one).
"I'll never understand why…" … people try to get on an elevator or a train without letting others out first. Seriously.
Words of advice for aspiring performers: I'm going to steal from Bryan Cranston because he has great advice that I've been trying to follow lately: (and I paraphrase) your job is to create a compelling, interesting character that serves the text and then present that character in the room or office or wherever you are doing your audition. Then your job is done. It's out of your hands. So don't waste any energy thinking about that other stuff. Just focus on doing the best job you can do to prepare and create as an actor or singer or dancer. The rest is uncontrollable.