By Robert Simonson
07 Jun 2012
|Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN|
Jeremy Shamos has proved himself a reliable New York stage performer over the past decade, investing roles on Broadway (Reckless, The Rivals) and Off-Broadway (Suitcase, Gutenberg! The Musical!, 100 Saints You Should Know) with a mix of comic pathos and naturalistic humanity. With Bruce Norris' searing race drama Clybourne Park (inspired by A Raisin in the Sun), he has arguably received his greatest acting opportunity to date, playing to three-dimensional perfection two socially benighted characters separated by 50 years. The performance brought him his first Tony nomination — an achievement all the more noteworthy for his being the only member in a critically praised cast to win a nod. Shamos talked to Playbill.com about his life playing guys named Karl.
When you first got the role in Clybourne Park, were you overly familiar with A Raisin in the Sun?
Jeremy Shamos: No, I didn't know the play well at all. I knew I had read it at some point and I knew the basic outline of the plot. And maybe I'd seen scenes from it in acting class. But I didn't know the connection of the play to Raisin in the Sun until — embarrassingly — well after I was cast and had helped out with auditions for other people's parts… After a reading, [Playwrights Horizons artistic director Tim Sanford] said, "Now you should play Karl Linder in Raisin in the Sun." I thought he was just saying I should play all guys named Karl.
JS: I thought he was referring to the fact that in a Melissa James Gibson play many years before, at Soho Rep, I had played a guy name Karl, spelled the same way. For some reason I thought he was referring to that: "Yeah, I could just play all guys name Karl." It never dawned on me. I've only recently begun to admit this. It doesn't make me seem so bright. Enough people have been asking, "What research did you do?" I'm the only crossover character, but I didn't pore over Raisin in the Sun. It's the inciting incident of the play. I understand that. But the main action of the play is what happens in front of the audience, and that's what Bruce wrote. My Karl is very much Bruce Norris' Karl.
You play two characters in the play: Karl in the 1950s, who wants to keep the suburb Clybourne Park all white; and Steve in the 21st century, who is white and is moving into what is now a black neighborhood. Neither of them behave particularly well. Which do you like better?
JS: You mean to have a beer with? I think I would rather be Steve. I think it would be hard to go back that far and live in 1959. The rules and social mores that Karl lived with would be things that would make me uncomfortable. And he's completely comfortable with them. What makes him an interesting character, and what makes people uncomfortable with him, is he is comfortable with the way society is working. And everything's about to change. More and more people are getting hip to the fact that he's backwards. But he isn't close to recognizing that the world is changing. It would be hard to be someone who's so far behind. Steve is sort of a different kind of jack-ass. The challenge of living as Steve is he can't keep his mouth shut a lot of times. He doesn't have a lot of social grace. And he's confrontational.