Michael Cerveris Does What Terrifies Him

The stars of Broadway may look like they have it all figured out, but today’s guest knows there isn’t one straightforward path to success in this industry. Michael joins Justin to chat about versatility, the roles that have changed him, and the necessary evil that is auditioning.

Michael Cerveris is a two time Tony Award-winning actor best known for his roles in Broadway productions of Fun Home, Assassins, The Who’s Tommy, and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Connect with Michael on Twitter at @cerveris and Instagram at @michaelcerveris.

Welcome to the fourteenth episode of Audition Secrets!

What can’t he do?

Playbill.com once called him “the most versatile leading man on Broadway,” and Justin wants to know the secret. Michael believes, first and foremost, that this was the stated intent of his university training program. He was taught that he needed to have as many skills as possible; an actor’s job is to shape-shift. He also attributes his versatility to the many interests he has always had, and his inclination toward new experiences. After his star-making Broadway turn as the title character in The Who’s Tommy, he traveled with the show to Germany instead of capitalizing on his momentum in the states. While not necessarily logical, the decision inadvertently gave Michael a lot to pull from when he would later played Hedwig in Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

Murder He Wrote
The two discuss how to truthfully live in a character whose experiences are different than yours. Even though you (hopefully) have never killed someone, you can tap into your personal experience with rage, impulsiveness, and regret to authentically play an assassin, for instance. It’s about relating to the character in a broader stroke paired with the ability to imagine. That skillset comes from being around all different types of people, cultures, and experiences.

Campus Life
Michael remembers applying to conservatory programs as well as liberal arts programs. He ultimately chose the latter because it allowed him to be around a wide range of individuals with a wide range of interests and experiences, not just actors. That’s what worked for him!

Agony, misery, woe!
Michael says he gets cast in spite of what he does in audition rooms. He admires actors who see auditions as an opportunity to act that day. He sees it as agony — a necessary torture. He even says he’d play a tree in Sherwood Forest if it meant he didn’t have to audition. Michael remembers reaching the point in his career where he no longer auditioned and only took meetings or offers. The downside to this luxury is showing up for a read-thru having never read the script or interacted with the creative team.

Stage fright and panic attacks
While performing in college, Michael struggled with anxiety, stage fright, and panic attacks. What he remembered in those trying times was that nervous energy stems from a hyper self-awareness. A useful way out of that is to place your focus outside of yourself, on someone or something else. Reinvest in the circumstances of your character or scene.

Read it, don’t weep
Michael wholeheartedly believes every actor should be an audition reader early on in their career. You learn that there are far more capable actors than you might suspect. Michael remembers doing this and discovering that very few auditions were terrible or remarkable. Many were fine. Talent is important, but what makes you stand out is your calibration of confidence, preparedness, and overall energy. Help the casting team see that you’d be great to work with during the course of a multi-week contract.

Sage advice from Dr. Niles Crane
The people on the other side of the table have the problem, and you are their (potential) solution. Often, actors enter an audition room thinking that they know what the casting team wants, but casting teams don’t have it all figured out. Sometimes, they might think they do, but then an actor walks in and makes them rethink the character altogether. David Hyde Pierce was two years ahead of Michael in a college. When he came back to visit after graduation, everyone asked him about the real world of auditioning. David had learned to approach the audition material as if he already had the role, because when he tried to guess what the casting team wanted, he ended up doing something unconnected to his own experience. If you get hired to play a role but have to do it in a way that feels bad to you, you’ll be miserable. Michael wants everyone to remember: not every job is your job.

Ring of Keys
What does Michael wish he knew when we was starting out in this industry? That nobody else has the answers. Michael spent a long time believing that there was a key to acting and to unlocking a good performance, a career in the theatre, a deep understanding of the character, and accessibility to emotional depth. He thought his teachers had it. But then, a bit later in his career, he realized everyone’s just making it up and figuring it out along the way.

The Amazing Journey
As his career has gone on, Michael realizes some of the sacrifices one makes to pursue a career in the entertainment business, particularly in terms of personal life. There are certain holidays and birthday parties that one misses when performing eight shows a week. Michael has a lot of respect (and a touch of envy) for people who have managed to balance their family lives with their professional lives. “You’re not encouraged to think that way when you’re younger,” he observes. So often, young, hungry actors have their eyes on the prize, and there’s nothing that can get in their way. But the richer your life is, the more interesting you’ll be as an actor and as a person.

Hindsight is 20/20
Looking back, Michael can map how his career led from one project to another, and it has its own logic. But looking at it from the outside, it makes very little sense. He made so many career choices that should have been “incorrect,” but Michael has always turned his attentions and energies towards what interests or terrifies him.

I love you, Bruce Bechdel
When Justin asks Michael about his favorite role, Michael points to Fun Home. Playing the role of Bruce Bechdel felt like the pinnacle to him. The piece itself was extraordinary, the collaborators were world class, and it was fulfilling to originate and help develop the role. Beyond its artistic merit, Michael says it had a profound impact on audiences. To be doing a show about having compassion — while marriage equality passes — felt incredibly important. Justin saw the show and calls it one of the most moving nights he’s ever spent at the theatre.

People, Places & Things mentioned in this episode:
The Who’s Tommy
David Hyde Pierce
Fun Home

Follow Justin at @justinguarini on all social media!

Justin Guarini