Graham Phillips Loves to Do the ‘Hard Sh*t’
It’s quickly becoming a yearly tradition that actor, director, deep thinker, etc. Graham Phillips, sits down with Theatrely to discuss his latest project. Last year, the star was blond and tanned, ready to be bullied by Calista Flockhart and Zachary Quinto as Nick in a Geffen Playhouse revival of Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf?. Now, he’s beared and broody, taking hold of the canvas in Sunday in the Park With George as the impressionist painter Georges Seurat.
The Stephen Sondehim musical, which opens February 19 at Pasadena Playhouse, won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama when it originally premiered back in 1985. This production, directed by Sarna Lapine (whose uncle, James Lapine, wrote the book), also features Krystina Alabado as Dot.
Check out an interview between Theatrely Managing Editor Dan Meyer and Graham below, as they explore the pursuit of acting, what George Seurat can teach us all, and what’s lined up for Phillips’ future endeavors.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
I love the thought of you in this role. It feels like a great next step…how are you feeling?
I’m feeling good. I’m in this funny, paradoxical place where I’m both discovering all these different layers of the genius that’s hidden in not just the work of Sondheim and Lapine, but also in Seurat’s work. That’s really exciting, and a part of me wishes I had more time just to be able to swim in it for longer, but I also feel that this material is so ironclad, and the cast is so dedicated and grateful to be working on this material.
That’s pretty good. Most people would be in a blind panic at this point, midway through rehearsals. That just speaks to the material and your mindset.
I’m still petrified that words just aren’t going to come at one point in “Putting It Together.” And there’s these impossible moments of the show like…the fact that there is no orchestral rhythmic anchor throughout “Beautiful.” If you get lost, then suddenly, the harps and the strings, it’s never going to come together. Thankfully, Andy Einhorn, our musical director and conductor, is a wizard. I feel very good being under his wings. But yeah, let there be no mistake: I have my doubts. [Laughs].
I feel like Sondheim creates these characters, like George and Sweeney and Bobby/ie that are very defined in what they do and what their arc is, but every performer is able to put their own spin on it. How are you approaching George?
Well, it’s funny. There are rules of the game, there are the facts of this character. Some of the facts I really relate to. Some of them, I do not.
Give me an example?
I can get very obsessive about things. There’s a part of me that really loses track of time and self care. I won’t go to the bathroom for 10 hours on set. I can completely forget about myself in giving everything to the minutia. I can really get lost in a dot, I guess is what I’m saying.
That makes sense. I mean, it’s literally a song, right? Like in “Color and Light” I think of that staccato “Blue, blue, blue, blue, blue, blue, blue, blue.” He might as well be saying “dot dot dot”, etc. Speaking of Dot, how has it been working with Krystina and what’s your partnership like?
She’s wonderful. Her voice is stunning. She’s so open and yet specific and contained. I think it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that George does not like being around people, and he is so private, that there is not a cost to his privacy. And without the right Dot, he might just stay in his hermitage. It takes some destabilization for his defense mechanisms to start letting the light in, or out, of his soul. Because of that, you need someone who both feels safe to open up to and also someone who can call you on your bullshit and spar with you, who feels like they are your equal. Krystina has that both in her personality and in the way that she’s decided to take Dot.
In terms of having Sarna as your director, do you feel like you’re getting an inside track from her, since her dad wrote the book, or is she trying to be very distinct and separate?
From the very beginning, even in her first company address, she spoke to the elephant in the room, which is her personal connection to this story, and made it very clear that that is something that means a lot to her. She was eight years old when she saw the first production of this and it left a great impression on her. I really valued [that] she knows the material so well. She understands the research; that the most powerful is the most personal. She has given us all room to discover... with the understanding that without structure, this piece falls apart pretty quickly—not unlike Seurat’s paintings.
Have you seen a production of Sunday before, or have you watched the film version with Mandy and Bernadette, or are you going in blind?
I watched the first act of both [Broadway productions]—I went to the archives at Lincoln Center. It’s a testament to how different you can play the roles. I think that every George, on some level—I heard that Jake [Gyllenhaal] had this predicament as well, but the ghost of Mandy’s George is always loud. [Seurat] is such an unusual person, particularly at that time in his life, and Mandy brought so much of himself to this character that it was dynamite. When he talked about playing the role, he wasn’t playing George, he was Mandy in the framework of George. There’s something very liberating about going into a role not knowing what it is supposed to sound like. When he did it, they didn’t know it was going to be musical theatre gospel. Sondheim was about to quit! It was an interesting time. There was no framework to fall back on.
So, I think that part of the challenge has been to recognize what worked really well and to also take a cold shower and look at the material with fresh eyes from the life that I have lived and trust that. My way in was finding where the love [within the show and the characters] resides and showing the desire of... wanting to be somewhere or something else, which I think is a pretty universal predicament. Dot goes through it, “If my waist was thinner / If my hips were flatter.” George is talking about if the head was smaller or if the tail were longer. There’s a lot of if/then fantasizing going on in this. So, there’s a lot of permission in the show to go to your deepest unfulfilled desires. Looking at what I really love, and why I even do this ridiculous job, has been a big part of figuring out who my George. I love that it’s hard shit.
We love hard shit! As a revival, what do you think might make Sunday in the Park With George difficult for audiences?
I feel like sometimes in contemporary musical theater—and this is not a criticism, more the nature of how people are able to receive messaging differently now—there can be an informality and a lack of directness sometimes. Poetry seems to have found its way into a more naturalistic or realistic place in contemporary musical theater. When I first read Sunday, especially coming from television and film in the last 10, 15 years, it was easy for me to try to make this dialog fit into how it might sound now, and that’s not actually effective in a piece like this.
I feel like that’s what makes any revival important—you see what things were like when they were created rather than trying to fold them in to today. I don’t know if that makes sense.
It does make sense. “Anything you do, let it come from you, then it will be new.” Whether you’re in the director’s seat or you’re playing any of these roles… you don’t have to worry about making it for contemporary audiences. You’re just connecting with the material the best way that you know how rather than trying to triangulate how a modern audience is going to relate, because then you’ve already missed the mark, you’re robbing yourself of the opportunity to connect with this incredible material as it was presented. I’m not saying it’s a replication every time you do it, but there’s a story to be told here and there’s a reason why it resonated then. There’s a reason why it will resonate now. There’s a reason why it’s become many people’s favorite Sondheim musical. There’s a reason why it’s become many people’s not-favorite Sondheim musical. People’s opinions of this thing should come from the fact that it was created from a point of connection with the material.
You’re a very deep thinker, aren’t you? Just like Georges! Are you growing out a beard for the role, too?
Yeah. It’s the longest it’s ever been. I don’t think we’re going the full Seurat, though. [Laughs]
Do you ever think that you’ll come over to New York to do theatre or are you mostly based on West Coast, like “I love L.A. This is where I want to be”?
I’d love to be in New York, that’s my goal. About a month ago, I just decided it’s time to go back.
Have you auditioned for anything recently?
I almost got Marty McFly a month ago, for transfer for Back to the Future. (Editor’s note: Dan excitedly screamed “WHAT?!” at this point.) John Rando actually was one of my professors at Princeton for a short period of time and, yeah, so I was excited about that. But, it also would have been 14 months, it would’ve been a lot of Marty McFly. At the end of the day, as much as you want it to be your own, there’s a reason why people come to see that show. And, I think it would have been tough for me, honestly. For six months? Absolutely. For over a year? *whistles*
That’s tough. 8 shows per week, 52 weeks a year...
Yeah, plus it’s a lot of Bs, couple C’s—it’s high! I wouldn’t have had a life. I would have been Ben Platt-ing for the whole run.
HA! I’m stealing that. Well, I’m sad you’re not coming out as soon as you could have, but I’m also glad that you’re saving your voice.
My brother and I are also, with a couple of collaborators, we’re turning some of our film focus into developing a couple of pieces on stage. And our last film that we did, Rumble Through the Dark, that stars Aaron Eckhart and Bella Thorne, is coming out in theaters, actually on my birthday, April 14th. It’s the first theatrical release of a film that I’ve directed on my 30th birthday. So that’s a little fun surprise! I’m excited to see what people think about that. I’m proud of it. It’s crazy how long these projects take to make and how quick it takes to ingest art in all of its forms.
Sunday in the Park With George is currently scheduled to play through March 19. For more information and tickets, click here.