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Interview with Russell Garrett

Russell is very visible on stage as Elton, but off stage he keeps somewhat to himself. This interview was probably the first real conversation he and I have ever had, so it was a pleasant surprise to me to find out how interesting he is personally.

NR: Where did you grow up?

RG: I grew up in San Diego.

NR: Did you always want to perform?

RG: Oh yeah!

NR: You never wanted to do anything else?

RG: Actually, no. I knew it at a very young age.

NR: Were you a big ham as a little kid?

RG: Not really. I was shy. I wasn't a ham. I didn't perform. I didn't do theater or any kind of performing as a kid. I just always knew when I was young that I would grow up and be an actor. It was just something I always knew. It's nothing that I vocalized or told anybody. I just knew that that was what was going to happen.

NR: Did you start by dancing?

RG: No. I didn't do any dancing until the very end of high school when I was going into college. I only did it because people cast me in shows where I had to dance. I basically learned by doing.

NR: Really?

RG: Well, people have a certain aptitude for things and you don't know that you have it until you have an opportunity to explore it. I would never have known that I could dance except that I was given the opportunity to learn simply by doing it. Then I found out, "Oh, I can do this." I went into the business professionally as a dancer because that's what people hired me to do.

NR: Is there anybody in particular who inspired you, or who you modeled yourself after?

RG: I wouldn't say I modeled myself after anyone but there are people that I've admired my whole life. Probably as an actor, the one person I would say is Jimmy Stewart. I think he was IT. He really was.

NR: And he didn't dance or sing.

RG: No. He was just an amazing actor and a great person. As his career went on, he showed so many sides of what he could do. It was never about just being a pleasant leading man. He did comedy and drama and then as he got older, he did much darker work, and he was never afraid to show the dark side of his personality. It's a great lesson in how to keep your career going by keeping it interesting.

NR: Have you gotten a chance to do a role like that? You're in a pretty fluffy role now with Elton.

RG: Oh, yeah. I've done all kinds of stuff.

NR: What's your favorite before this show?

RG: Favorite? I don't know if I have a favorite role. There were a lot of things that were fun, and a lot of things that were fluffy. Dramatically, the most satisfying thing I ever did was a production of Bent which was here in New York. It was about five years ago. That's very heavy and I played one of the two characters that are the central characters in the second act where they interact in the concentration camp. That, to me, is much more interesting than doing this, just because there's more meat to it, there's more to play.

NR: It must be totally draining by the end of the show.

RG: It seems that way but I would finish and I would be so up, because even though it was heavy and I died at the end, I would leave the theater thinking, "That was great." Because, as an actor, that's what you want to do. You want to have those experiences where you get to explore all those different things. If you can do that within one evening and navigate through tons of different emotions and situations and feelings, that's very satisfying.

NR: Tom Zemon told me that when he was doing Les Miz, it was a very heavy show and that would carry over to backstage too.

RG: Well, that doesn't necessarily have to happen. I think that's just the dynamic of the group. There are happy shows on Broadway, and you would think by watching them that they must have a great time and that they're probably a really tight group, and then you hear stories that they're not. You hear that they're not close, they don't hang out with each other. It doesn't go hand in hand.

NR: It's more the cast than the material then?

RG: Yeah. It's just the group of people that you have and the dynamic that group has which dictates...you can be working on something that's terribly dark and heavy but you don't have to live it. It's a little more interesting not to live it.

NR: (laughs) Don't bring it home.

RG: (laughs) Yeah. Don't bring it home, don't bring it backstage. Just do it on stage and leave it. I'm one of those people who definitely does not believe in living your role or living the thing you're working on. That's exhausting.

NR: It must be, especially if you're working on a really intense character, or a really nasty character.

RG: I think that's just a little extreme. I know a lot of people feel they have to do that to bring it to life, but I don't think it's necessary to bring it home.

NR: When you came here, you came at the end of SP1, and you were about to start rehearsals for SP2. That must have been crazy.

RG: It was a little crazy. I came with the express knowledge that I was being hired to fill in for the last six weeks of the run of Version 1 and that I would immediately begin rehearsing Version 2. And I did. My first weekend, I did four shows starting on Friday and that Monday I was in pre-production with the director and the other creative people starting to work on the next version.

NR: So, you were basically learning two shows at the same time.

RG: I had learned the first show, but I had only just started doing it, so yes, at night I was still trying to find my way in a situation where everyone else had been there for awhile. It was still very new to me even though I knew it. The first version was not difficult to learn. It was very loose, to put it in a word. It was not specific. Basically there were whole scenes and numbers where I was told, "Just be there and they'll look out for you." So, you don't go on in one night and say, "I've got this down" because it was ever changing. There were scenes where people changed their blocking every night so you had to stay on your toes because you never knew who was going to end up where.


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Interview conducted and photographs by Nancy Rosati.




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