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|Steve Frame||Sep 25 2007, 07:36 PM|
A Transformative Career
For `All My Children' Star Jeffrey Carlson, Shakespeare's Robes Are Perfect Fit
By FRANK RIZZO | Courant Staff Writer
Jeffrey Carlson could be the next hot English actor - if it wasn't for the fact that he's an American.
With refined features, perfect diction and manners that would make your mother proud, the young actor has the training, résumé and poise to rival any young ascending Brit who can jump from TV to film to the stage with grace and panache.
A confessed "big Anglophile" ("Ralph Fiennes, Cate Blanchett, Judi Dench, who's not a fan?"), he's certainly paid his Shakespearean dues of late. He played Hamlet this summer at Washington's Shakespeare Theatre, staged by Michael Kahn, artistic director. Carlson previously logged in as Romeo at Princeton's McCarter Theater and Prince Hal in "Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2" at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre (which transferred to the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-Upon-Avon in England).
Now he's set to play Richard II in a production that is now in previews at New Haven's Yale Repertory Theatre and opens Thursday.
But don't pigeonhole him just because he's played works by the Bard and uses consonants in his everyday speech. He's also dazzled as Boy George's bitchy pal Marilyn in the famously ill-fated Broadway musical "Taboo." He's played the sexually confused son in Edward Albee's "The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?" And he became the first character on TV daytime drama to experience a sex change in "All My Children" - the role for which he may be most known.
Sitting in a pub before rehearsals, the 32-year-old Carlson is nursing a cold and sipping a soda. Tall, low-voiced, his spiky short hair blond from his platinum summer of "Hamlet," Carlson is a series of contradictions: both strong-looking and fragile, analytical and instinctive, open-hearted and private.
On a nearby TV set, as if on cue, "All My Children" comes on. Hearing the theme song, Carlson instinctively reaches for his cellphone. (A friend programmed the tune as a ring tone.) He shakes his head at the coincidence, which leads him to talk about the experience as one of soap opera's most compelling characters: the male English rock star Zarf, who becomes Zoe.
It began last year as a one-day role. (His mother told him that he was named after one of the characters on the show - Dr. Jeffrey Martin, one of Erica King's many husbands.)
"It's been an extraordinary experience to do that role," Carlson says.
He also notes that many of his soap fans have followed him to his stage jobs.
"A woman came up to me after `Hamlet' and said she's never seen a play before," he says. "I said, `Well, you've just baptized yourself with a big one.'"
It was also a role that touched him deeply. "Hamlet is wrestling with some huge ideas and happenings around him, and I connected with him personally," he says. "And that's hard for me to talk about. The universe gives you things at the right time, and I had a couple of things that happened in my personal life that allowed me to understand the things in a different way: especially the ideas of loss."
"Hamlet" was a challenge for other reasons, he says, not only because of the complexity of the character but also because it was "a role that audiences come into the theater with an opinion of how it should be played. You're up for a different kind of scrutiny in that role than you would be in another play that people know less about."
Richard II is a royal who believes he was destined to rule and is devastated when he discovers a different reality.
Carlson says he doesn't see him as a loser, whiny or the delicate royal flower.
"I think he is very self aware and extremely intelligent, who believes he is sent by God to be sovereign. But he makes terrible choices and falls hard."
He says he loves playing classical work such as Shakespeare or Shaw's "Candida," Molière's "Tartuffe" and de Musset's "Lorenzaccio," all of which he's played on Broadway or at regional theaters). "That's what I went to school for."
He says the purpose of Juilliard's rigorous training is that the great roles help actors acquire the skills to tackle any role. But the graduate program was unnerving, as documented in a PBS "American Masters" show on the school a few years ago. It included a profile of Carlson going through "the theatrical Darwinism process" at Juilliard.
The oldest of four children from a conservative family (his father is a commercial real estate developer , his mother is an aesthetician), Carson grew up in Long Beach, Calif., just a Frisbee toss from the beach that he loved. Carlson says he was a quiet, normal, insecure kid "with no fashion sense. I was a nice kid - but very sensitive. That's what they would say. I'm the only one who went the artistic route."
Carlson majored in animal science at the University of California at Davis, with the goal of becoming a veterinarian. But his love of acting made him switch his major to theater in his junior year.
When he entered the high-profile, pressure-cooker atmosphere of Juilliard in New York, he was finally able to relate to Shakespeare.
"I just didn't get him prior to Juilliard," he says. "I remember writing in my journal [in college] that I would give up singing, everything, if I could just figure out how to do [Shakespeare]."
"By the time you get to Michael [Kahn, who was one of his teachers], you have the technical ability, but now you are able to make sense of things. What Michael demands is that they be real people and not just a bunch of talking heads."
"I think he's one of the important young actors of his generation," says Kahn, who in the '70s was artistic director of the American Shakespeare Theater in Stratford. "I'm very interested in how he is maturing. He looks so boyish, is immensely sweet, extremely engaging and eminently direct-able, but he is growing up in many ways. I see him growing up physically and growing up emotionally. I see there are huge parts ahead of him. The world is quite open for him now."
After Juilliard, Carlson was cast in the off-Broadway production of the acclaimed "Thief River," staged by Mark Lamos. Later that year, he participated at the National Playwrights Conference at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford; then he played the sensitive son opposite Brian Dennehy and Maureen Anderman in "Long Day's Journey Into Night" at the O'Neill.
After several other high-profile roles in prestige productions, Carlson was cast in the Rosie O'Donnell-produced Broadway musical "Taboo."
"Regardless of all the craziness that was happening around it, it was one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life, and not just because it was a big Broadway musical.
"I had to sit myself down and say to myself, `Just go to the character, just go to the character,' and that seemed to work," he says. "But we were all very sad to go prematurely. ... The cast got so close, despite the madness."
After "Taboo," he felt he was seen as a drag queen by casting agents. "I said, `Well, what happened to everything else I've done?' But people get it in their minds what you did for your last job."
That could be royally good for Carlson after "Richard II."
"I like the shape of my career right now," he says. "Of course, I would like to venture into different things, but I just have to have faith that people will look at my résumé and understand it. People don't. Some go, `Oh, you do a lot of Shakespeare.' And I can't stand it when it gets dismissed. Oh, he's a classical actor.' I just want to keep going."
He says he would love to return to England, perhaps do "Henry V" and go back to "All My Children," "because it was a blast, and I love the sense of family there. I would love to be in a British movie, too - or an American one."
RICHARD II plays through Oct. 13 at the Yale Repertory Theatre, 1120 Chapel St., New Haven. Tickets are $35 to $58. Tickets and information: 203-432-1234 or www.yalerep.org.
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