Max von Essen, currently performing on Broadway in An American in Paris, wasn't happy. He was living in Astoria, and looking for an apartment in Manhattan. "But," he says, "I didn't want to live in the places I could afford." So he stayed in Queens.
Then, one day in 2004, actress Anna McNeely mentioned that she and her husband had a two bedroom they wanted to sell. It was in a co-op, she said, in a 1910 building in Hell's Kitchen.
"I went to look at it," von Essen says. "And it was so beautiful. It was the first place I could maybe afford that felt like a home."
It was a 1,000 square foot duplex with two bedrooms, two baths and an open, eat-in kitchen. What made this home affordable was that the building was income restricted. "That meant," he explains, "that the apartments were meant for people with limited means. There's a cap on how much you can make when you're trying to buy it. And, at the time, I was struggling and fell within the requirements. So I was able to buy it.
"My environment is important to me," von Essen says. "I'd rather give up other things in my life — I might not take vacations or spend a lot of money on clothes — so that I can live in a home I feel really good about."
But it needed some work and he decided to do whatever he could himself. He put up cabinets, renovated one of the bathrooms and did all the painting himself.
"I painted every inch of the apartment," von Essen says. "Three coats on the molding, two coats on the ceiling, two coats on the walls.
"I'd hired contractors to renovate the kitchen and went so over budget. I thought, 'I've got to stop the bleeding.' I wasn't working on a project at the time so I just took my time and painted the entire apartment."
The walls throughout are an elegant, soft grey. "I like a very neutral sort of canvas where I can buy a pillow or add some flowers for things that will pop," he says.
He eventually added a navy blue sectional couch, two leather Ralph Lauren arm chairs that had belonged to his parents, a mirror that was once his grandparents', a rug from ABC Carpet that they actually cut down and altered to fit his living room and the piano from his parents' house that he grew up with. And then there's the art work.
"I've gotten a lot more into art in the last couple of years," von Essen says, "just investing in different things I find interesting — like the work of Paul Richard. He uses black paint that he actually drips. I discovered him because he does these things on the sidewalks all over Brooklyn. I contacted him and found a portrait of a man. And then my boyfriend commissioned him to do one of an owl and another of a fox because I love that.
"And, over the couch, I have a painting of St. Mark's Place as it was in 1983. It was in some friends' apartment and I fell in love with it. They said they were planning on leaving it to me. But then they said, 'We don't want to wait till we're gone. We want you to enjoy this now.'"
More artwork: Some framed pieces over the kitchen table including a (real) dead bat that Neil Patrick Harris gave to von Essen when he was opening in Dance of the Vampires. And, in the bathroom, there's an also-framed Playboy Magazine with a cover of a very young Bernadette Peters. All of this — the apartment and the decorating — might never have happened if von Essen had stuck with his original plans. He'd planned to work in finance and "make lots of money." But something was pulling him into acting.
Still, in his family circumstances, it wasn't easy.
His father, Thomas Von Essen, was New York City's Fire Commissioner during the 9/11 terrorist attack. As a firefighter's son with a firefighter brother, becoming an actor was a difficult choice.
"I stressed about it more than I should have," he admits. "I'm the youngest of four and they were all very into sports. I was the first one to express an interest in the arts. I took piano lessons, and singing lessons, acting lessons. So it was all new to them, but my parents were great."
He realized, when he was about to graduate from college, that he wanted to try acting. "I thought if I didn't give it a shot, I would regret it my whole life," he says. "I was so nervous, but I asked my parents if I could crash at their place while I tried. In my head, I had worked it out to be this big, stressful thing. And they were like, 'Of course.'
"I was really lucky to start working." [Broadway credits: Evita, Les Miserables, Dance of the Vampires and Jesus Christ Superstar.] "My career hadn't rocketed to the top of anything, but I've worked consistently and done things I've loved."
And now there's lots of Tony nomination talk for his performance in An American in Paris. "First I'd auditioned for the role of Adam," von Essen says, "and it just wasn't a good fit. But they asked me if I tap danced and I said, 'No, never.'"
So, at the time, he wasn't considered for the part of Henri. But, months later, they agreed to see him again. "This time," he says, "even though I wasn't a trained tapper, everything clicked. Truthfully, they've given me very simple steps and everyone else is doing the real dancing around me. For me, it really turned into a song and dance number.
"It's a Ziegfeld Follies number, which I love. It's the kind of number I always dreamed that I might get to do one day. Showgirls with feather headdresses and chorus boys in top hat and tails dancing around me. I mean, come on! I've been waiting a lifetime for this. I'm doing something new and exciting and just exactly what I'd hoped for."
As for the talk of Tonys, von Essen almost brushes that aside: "If we get nominations and awards, it would be great," he says, "but I'm living my dream.
"So," he adds with a big smile, "I'm just going to savor this."
See more here: