When Seth Numrich was studying acting at The Juilliard School, his class used Clifford Odets' Golden Boy for a rehearsal project. "I fell in love with it," says Numrich, who had a small role in school but stars on Broadway. "I didn't know much about Odets, but that really opened my eyes — I think he belongs in the same echelon as O'Neill, Miller, and Williams as a great American playwright."
Golden Boy remains his favorite Odets work so when Numrich heard about the new Lincoln Center Theater production he was doubly excited — he wanted a shot at playing the play's protagonist and, fresh off his starring role in LCT's smash hit War Horse, he felt a strong connection there, and that director Bartlett Sher and Lincoln Center — having staged the superb 2006 revival of Odets' Awake and Sing! — "would do the play justice."
Golden Boy tells the story of Joe Bonaparte, who is torn between working to become a concert violinist or gaining money, and maybe fame — at considerable physical risk — as a boxer. The original Group Theatre production was directed by Harold Clurman, starred Luther Adler, and featured Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, John O'Malley, Elia Kazan, Robert Lewis, and Harry Morgan.
Although Numrich already knew the play, he had to "get inside the head of Joe," a character he describes as "beautifully tragic and complex" but a role large and deep enough that he calls it "scary and daunting." Numrich, 25, is poised and thoughtful, someone who throws himself into his roles. For War Horse he not only immersed himself in the history of World War I, he took riding lessons and hung around a stable in Brooklyn to get to know horses better. For Golden Boy, he started taking boxing lessons — a sport he knew nothing about — even before his audition so he "knew what it was like to be inside a boxer's body."
"He was one of the only actors I believed could actually be a concert violinist and a boxer," Sher says, adding that Numrich's "elegant physical skills and his great technical chops with language is a combination of skills that's hard to find."
After landing the part Numrich trained at Church Street Boxing in Manhattan and at Brooklyn's famous Gleason's Gym; even while he was traveling this summer he'd always find a gym to train in and devoured boxing literature by Norman Mailer, Joyce Carol Oates, and A.J. Liebling.
"Boxing is a lot of preparation and then improvising so there are parallels to being an actor," he says.
And while he wouldn't play violin on stage, he asked his friend Kate Pfaffl, the Song Woman from War Horse, to teach him how to hold the instrument like a musician. He also listened to classical violin, especially focusing on Italian composers since he thought Joe would be proud of his heritage.
|Photo by Paul Kolnik|
While boxing was Odets' metaphor for Hollywood — the potential for fame and monetary success — Numrich says he could easily relate to the life of a musician. "There's no job security but you do it because you have a passion for it, like being a stage actor," he says, pointing out that he's had one Off-Broadway role since War Horse ("it paid less than unemployment") and has no role lined up after this show ends its run, which is both "exciting and scary."
Of course, so far Numrich has led a more charmed life than Joe Bonaparte. He grew up in the Twin Cities, where his father worked in theatre, and where by age 12, Numrich was acting at the Guthrie Theater alongside Laila Robins in David Esbjornson's production of Tennessee Williams' Summer and Smoke. "That's when I realized it was possible for me to be a professional actor," he says.
Numrich was home-schooled and graduated high school at 15; on a whim he traveled to Chicago for Juilliard's regional tryouts, figuring it would be a valuable lesson and he'd come back the next year. "I had less invested than most people so I wasn't terribly nervous," he says. "That's what fooled them."
He became the youngest Juilliard drama student ever, which was "scary" at first — "I felt an obligation to prove they hadn't made a mistake," he says, adding that initially "I took myself too seriously."
His first big breaks came back-to-back, and in perfect sequence. After he was cast in War Horse, he had six months to get nervous about starring on Broadway. Then he landed a supporting role as Lorenzo in the Broadway production of The Merchant of Venice. "It was great because I wasn't terribly responsible for how good it was," he says, adding that it was "inspiring" watching the whole ensemble, but especially Al Pacino. "He was constantly exploring the role to keep things fresh. He'd even call occasional rehearsals to work on a particular moment." Now Numrich is establishing his credentials as a leading man, thanks to what Sher calls his "his courage and his piercing intelligence — he takes different strands and connects them together."
But Numrich isn't thinking of Joe Bonaparte as a star turn. Instead he admires the approach of Odets and the Group Theatre, working together to create new works. "I want to live up to the work of the play when it was first performed," he says, praising Sher's approach. "Our work in the rehearsal room feels reflective of the Group. Bart really gives us time to grapple with the big ideas of the play and do it as an ensemble."
(This feature appears in the December 2012 issue of Playbill magazine.)