The Bad Actor of Broadway: Jeremy Shamos in Birdman

“I’ve gotten a lot of nice e-mails and phone calls congratulating me for being a great bad actor,” Jeremy Shamos says. “It makes me feel good. That was my job in the film.”

BirdmanposterThe film is Birdman, which has been nominated for nine Academy Awards. Shamos has a small part in the film as the terrible stage performer who is replaced by Edward Norton’s character.

As I write in my article for Broadway Direct about Broadway and the Oscars, it’s ironic Shamos was cast in such a role. He is a Tony-nominated veteran of six Broadway plays, including the Pulitzer Prize–winning Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris. He gets good reviews (including by me) in every show he’s in, from The Assembled Parties to the recent revival of Dinner with Friends (Jeremy Shamos “is rapidly becoming one of those actors who by his presence signals a quality production.”) He has more experience on Broadway than anybody else in the film had; when he was on set, director Alejandro González Iñárritu and others picked his brain about the way things are done on Broadway. They made changes based on his advice.

His own experience on Broadway differs somewhat from what Birdman depicts about life on the Great White Way. In the film, for example, there’s a lot of tension and conflict among the actors. “Maybe I’ve just been lucky, but I have experienced much more camaraderie and collaboration,” he says. “There was also a lot of solitude backstage in the movie. In general, there are always people around. You don’t find yourself alone.”

But there is also one thing above all the movie gets right. “I think Birdman captures the actor’s experience of being on a stage more than any film I’ve seen — the way the lights hit you and the way the audience kind of appears shadowy and out of focus, but very present.”

Like many actors who make their living primarily on the stage, Shamos sounds ambivalent about the symbiotic relationship between Broadway and Hollywood. (“I don’t want to bite the hand that feeds me but…”) On the one hand: “the Hollywood studios can throw a lot of money into developing a musical, while someone who comes out of a BMI workshop and has written a new musical, that’s going to be a lot harder to get off the ground.”
On the other hand: “Whenever I walk past the TKTS booth and I see the crowd looking at the titles of the show in red lights, I just understand from a producing point of view. If you see the name of a movie that you know, you say ‘that would be fun to see.’ Whereas if you see the name of a play that you have never heard of … I don’t even know why you would see it unless there was a star in it or unless you were actually interested enough in the theater that you did the research.”

Shamos believes the Hollywood-Broadway connection is changing in a way that makes it easier for people like him. “Right after we graduated there was a sort of a choice for people to move to LA or stay here and do theater,” says Shamos, who lives in Brooklyn. “Now I think people can choose living here and not completely eliminate their chances of working in other mediums.

“In London, it’s been easier to go between TV and movies and theater, because it’s all right there. In the past it has been a lot harder here because of the geographic distance between Hollywood and New York. But New York is becoming a center of television and film that it hasn’t been for a while. Now people can live in New York and not eliminate their chances
There’s still more work out there in California, but there’s great work here.”

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Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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