PASADENA, Calif. — Actor Christian Borle swung from the saddest time of his life to pure joy in the matter of weeks. It was daunting, he admits, as he eases into a booth in the corner of a hotel lounge here.
Borle is a jubilant participant in NBC’s smash hit, “Smash.” He plays Tom Levitt, the songwriting partner of Debra Messing, as they prepare a musical based on the life of Marilyn Monroe.
“I got the show two weeks before my father died,” says Borle. “I had just finished ‘Angels in America.’ So as my father was slowly deteriorating, I was doing a play about grief and fear of death and deterioration. And in a way, that is the great gift of being an actor is I was able to go in and exorcise these feelings, all the fear, all the pain.”
The experience changed him, he thinks. He’s more appreciative of life, but also more chastened. “My father was an amazing man. He was a professor of physiology at the University of Pittsburgh. He retired, so the last decade or so he was retired in Florida. He was Swiss, a gentleman, a kind man, so he really set me on the right path.”
So far most of Borle’s work has centered on Broadway theater. He was nominated for a Tony for “Legally Blonde — the Musical,” costarred in the musical version of “Mary Poppins” and boasted several roles in “Spamalot.”
“Smash” marks his first major television role. “Having this amazing good fortune of working toward something I love and having ‘Smash’ happen, whatever happens with it, however it is received, however long it lasts, it’s already been unbelievable,” says Borle, 38, who’s dressed in a black T-shirt and jeans, worn slightly at the knees.
Like many performers, he knew what he wanted to do early on. “I did a lot of plays in elementary school like everybody did ... I had incredible teachers — in the sixth through twelfth grade, in Pennsylvania, and they really encouraged me. My parents were very liberal, lovingly open-minded people who supported the arts. So I never got any of that ‘You have to be a doctor’ or any of that. So as soon as I got the bug, they just encouraged me. I was really lucky.”
His passion bloomed in high school. “Growing up, going through puberty, being in the theater, feeling accepted, having friends who were all in it for the same reason — meeting girls for the first time — it was great, it was the best,” he says.
“That just continued. It never stopped. I went to school for it, and then I moved here and have been able to just do it.”
There has never been a moment when Borle considered quitting. “There are times when you get survival jobs when you need to pay the rent,” he says, “but it has never even passed through my pea brain (to quit).”
His very first job when he trekked to New York at 21 was as Swifty the Elf in Macy’s Santa Land. “It was really a beautiful place to work, actually,” he says, laughing.
“The people who run Santa Land are dedicated, lovely people, it was really a great, crazy experience. The one dictum when you get that job is that you have to stay through New Year’s, because what they get is people who come and work through Christmas Eve and quit to go home to their family. So if you quit before New Year’s Day, you are pink-listed, you can never work there again. And I got pink-listed.”
“Swifty the Elf” had landed a paying acting job and had to leave before the deadline, never to darken Macy’s door again.
He also tried bartending at a local watering hole called Vintage. “That’s where a lot of the young Broadway people hang out, it’s actually mentioned in Episode 3 of ‘Smash,’ he notes.
While he made an energetic elf, he wasn’t such a keen bartender. “I was fast and polite, but I didn’t know a lot of the drinks. It’s hard when you are in the weeds, it’s not like you can duck back behind the bar and look (up the recipe). It’s embarrassing.”
A major turning point arrived with his divorce from actress Sutton Foster after three years of marriage. “We separated in ‘07 before ‘Angels in America.’ I adore and respect my ex-wife, it was just a lesson in terms of what we think we are supposed to do growing up — part of the rite of passage. I think that I didn’t really think for myself, think about what I was doing necessarily. It’s a function of growing up. I got married because I loved her, but I didn’t think about whether or not there are any other alternatives. Just in terms of — this is what adults do. That’s a great lesson.”
The bar scene worked for “Cheers,” why not try it again? TBS is going to with its upcoming summer sitcom, “Sullivan & Son,” the tale of a big-city attorney who decides all he wants is to return to the old neighborhood and run the bar his parents are abandoning for retirement.
The show stars comedian Steve Byrne and is executive-produced by Vince Vaughn, Peter Billingsley and the show runner is Rob Long, who cut his teeth on “Cheers.”
Karen Gillan, who was booted off Tardis on “Dr. Who,” is back — combing her hair for “We’ll Take Manhattan,” an original drama on Ovation about real-life model Jean Shrimpton and photographer David Bailey, who fell madly in love with Shrimpton in the 1960s.
Gillan says she tried to research the subject. “Footage of her is very rare, so I managed to find a couple of clips of her talking and things, and I kind of had to make up the rest in terms of what she sounded and acted like. But she wrote a guide to modeling right at the height of her modeling fame. So that was really helpful. I read that. And also, then, in later life, she wrote an autobiography, and she’s really honest in it because she’s a bit older and doesn’t care so much about offending people. That was really helpful in terms of her relationships and her relationship with David Bailey.” The show premieres March 3.
What started as homemade Web videos turned into a paying gig for comedienne Stevie Ryan. Her smack-on impersonations of reality show stars earned her a sizable Internet audience and her own comedy show premiering March 4 on VH1.
“Here’s one thing that’s really odd is that every time I play a character, whether I’m just neutral on them at first or if I don’t like them or even if I like them, I always end up after we shoot, I really love the character after that,” she says.
“The only one I’ve kind of had a hard time loving, even after I play her, is Kim Kardashian. I just, I can’t get there ... Like Lady Gaga, I never realized because our wardrobe is amazing — we have an amazing wardrobe department. And when we do Gaga, they go all out, and I mean, like, Gaga would kill for the outfits that I have as Gaga.
“And, like, we shot Gaga two days ago ... and it was so heavy in the back. I had this huge tail. And it was so heavy that I would have to lean forward just to stay up and not, like, I fell. I don’t even know how many times I tumbled over, but I realized that’s her life. She does that all the time. And I never thought about that before. And after playing her, I’m like, ‘OK, Gaga is so awesome because I don’t know how she balances herself and even just wears that stuff.’ Like, it’s painful after eight hours in that outfit. You’re, like, ‘Oh, my gosh. I think I’m dying,’ and she LIVES like that. So you gain a new respect for these people.”
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