Featured Left: Nat Jones as Professor Callahan in "Legally Blonde the Musical."
Q: Where did you grow up? Were there any activities you did as a child that led to your passion for theatre and the arts? Where did you study theatre?
A: I am a product of the great state of Maine. Clearly the soil produces better actors than it does potatoes. Just kidding. Kind of. I have never been fond of Maine potatoes. Lobsters are another thing.
Outside of occasional school productions growing up, including a couple of perfectly inane college video projects, I did not seriously pursue acting until I was married and had kids. I had always wanted to be an actor, though, and discovered early on that I had a distinct talent for impersonating people. I’m told I do a dead-on imitation of Richard Nixon, for example, and also of my wife Chris’s eccentric and dearly departed “Uncle Jimmy.” Which would be great if people actually remembered the former or that he did not look or sound like Frank Langella, and if the latter had ever attained celebrity outside of dysfunctional family gatherings.
With the exception of an acting course here and there, I have never formally “studied” theatre. I graduated from Colgate University (where, incidentally, I met Chris, my wife of now 36 years) with a B.A. in Social Relations, a combined discipline of sociology, anthropology and archaeology, which thoroughly prepared me for a lifelong career in marketing, advertising and graphic design. Getting back to theatre, though, and without meaning to blow my own horn, I have always been a fairly quick on the uptake and pretty intuitive with regard to scene study and character development. Maybe it’s something in the genes or something in the water, but acting is something that has always been second-nature to me. Having said that, I work extremely hard at it and have had the great good fortune to hone my craft by working with a great many talented actors and directors over the years.
Q: Where have you acted previously? What are some of your favorite roles?
A: I’ve been in Charleston for six years, in which time I have been amazingly blessed to work with a lot of different theatres. My first show here was Arsenic and Old Lace at Footlight Theatre. I figured if I wanted to get on the local radar screen, that would be a good place to start. I was cast not on the basis of anything on my résumé, but rather, I suspect, solely because of my hammy impersonation of Teddy Roosevelt. From there, I went immediately To Village Rep, where I played Shelly Levine in Glengarry, Gen Ross. Immediately following that, I was cast as the disturbed and disturbing man-child Michal in Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman at Pure Theatre. Capturing these two roles so soon upon my arrival in Charleston was, in a word, a rush. Both roles required a lot of research and character deconstruction, and as such the process was emotionally exhausting, but immensely gratifying in the end.
Other roles I have particularly enjoyed, and grew as an actor from, are Lloyd Dallas in Noises Off, which I performed with the Montgomery Theatre Project in Pennsylvania, aged Tom Garrison in I Never Sang for my Father. The latter (also staged in Pennsylvania by a brilliant director friend of mine, Hal Holzer) was my first role playing a man far older than myself. Much of the characterization I took from my own father who died a month after I graduated from college. My dad was a highly intelligent brilliant, charming man (he was admitted to Harvard at age 16), but like Tom Garrison, was not always terrifically comfortable with the emotional demands of fatherhood, probably in no small part due to the fact that he never knew his own father, and so lacked the requisite skill set. I learned a lot about my father and myself during the run of that play, and I like to think of that production as a testimonial to his “humanness.”
Locally, other shows I am exceptionally proud of are Educating Rita, which I performed with Sheri Grace Midtown Productions a year ago, and Footlight’s second-stage production of The Weir, written by Conor McPherson. Both were directed by my extraordinarily talented and self-effacing friend, Jo Ellen Aspinwall. And, of course, I would be remiss not to mention three times over the course of four years taking on the iconic role of The Old Man (a.k.a, Ralphies’s dad) in Village Rep’s production of A Christmas Story.
A couple of years ago, after long ago privately swearing to myself that I would never again take a part in a musical, I accepted the role of Danny/Zeus in Village Rep’s production of Xanadu. I had frankly forgotten what a thrill it is to belt out a song on stage, and to do it more-or-less convincingly. I had people coming up to me after the show saying, “I knew you could act, but I didn’t know you could sing, too.” My usual response was, “I didn’t really know I could, either.” At any rate, my modest renaissance as a song-and-dance man (well, the “dance” part is arguable) led me to audition for and accept the role of Ebenezer Scrooge in Charleston Stage’s production of A Christmas Carol this past season. I don’t think I’ve ever worked as hard as I did in that show (in a 30-pound flying truss, no less) or enjoy the fruits of my labor so much. Plus, I finally got to perform in the venerable Dock Street Theatre. Last spring I was fortunate to be cast as the eponymous wizard in The Wiz and was thus happily reunited with my Charleston Stage buds once again; and I have now segued from that performance to my current role as the lecherous Callahan in Legally Blonde.
Q: How did you prepare for playing the role of Professor Callahan? Were there any challenges or things that you were excited about with taking on this character?
A: My main motivation in any musical, first and foremost, is not to screw up. I wish I could say I always succeed in that aim, but that would be disingenuous. I think that’s the biggest challenge of any musical: it’s so much more than “just acting”; it is mind-numbingly time-consuming, even for a role such as mine, which thankfully involves no real dancing. It’s all timing, timing, timing, and it’s so easy to “derail the train” if you don’t stay in the moment and out of your head. As to what excited me about Callahan is that his character, while his persona is the insufferable, stereotypical lawyer type, offers up such an opportunity to have such a delightfully nasty bit of fun. “Blood in the Water” is the consummate lawyer joke. More than a few of my college friends went on to become attorneys, and every single one of them would crack a wry smile at Callahan, because they’ve all encountered guys like him. (Caveat: Note that I did not in any way say that my lawyer friends have turned out to be like him.) On the flip side, as despicable as he may be, I try to make him believable: he’s proud of what he does and he takes no prisoners. And while he may, ultimately want to take undue advantage of Elle Woods, I think he is uncharacteristically impressed by what he calls her “instincts.” In short, the challenge with Callahan, like Scrooge, is to not play him as a one-dimensional caricature.
Q: You’ve been in performances for the past two weeks… what do you look forward to each performance playing Callahan?
A: I think it comes down to finding a another nuance or level to build into Callahan’s character, and continuing to smooth out my vocal performance. Above all, to gel with my cast mates, and have fun. This is a terrific ensemble show, and it never ceases to amaze me how many interlocking parts there are to it. Thanks to Marybeth, Cara, Sam and Chet, it is an extraordinarily well-oiled machine, and the audiences’ laughter and thunderous applause night after night just confirms that.
Q: What do you do in your spare time?
A: What spare time? When I’m not working or performing, I like to play tennis. I’m not very good, but I’m trying to get better. My wife is a phenomenal player. I occasionally play her, and if I keep my cool (i.e., don’t throw my racquet and cuss like a sailor), I can sometimes take two or three games a set from her. Trouble is, theatre and work sometimes leave me very little time to work on my game outside of summer. My goal going forward is to not sacrifice the gains I’ve made and to play and practice regularly. It’s a good workout if nothing else.
I like to paint (watercolor is my medium of choice), but I am ashamed to say I have not done a lot of it lately. I also like to bike the back roads where I live and kayak on my creek and the nearby Wando. I can spend entire days sprawled on a beach reading a book. Fortunately, I live within minutes of some of the best beaches in the Southeast. I recently bought a keyboard and hope to overcome my musical inadequacies and teach myself to play something beyond “Ode to Joy.” Maybe Sam will give me lessons.
I also like to travel and Chris and I finally have gotten to that point in our lives when we can take the time (or rather make the time) to do it. We went to South Africa last January and had an absolutely fabulous experience. So much so that we would like to go back several more times to see what we missed the first time around. This coming January, our wanderlust bug will be further indulged when we set off on a three-week trip with friends to New Zealand. Needless to say, we are totally psyched!
Featured Center: Nat Jones as Professor Callahan in "Legally Blonde the Musical."