EXCLUSIVE: Tony-nominated Broadway actor John Cariani (The Band's Visit) on succeeding in theatre

John Cariani is a TV and Broadway actor known for playing Julian Beck in Law & Order, earning a Tony Award nomination for Best Featured Actor in a Musical for his turn as Motel the Tailor in the Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof in 2004 and playing Itzik in this year's ten-time Tony Award-winning musical The Band's Visit. Here John tells Mandy News how he started out in the industry, about his process on The Band's Visit and what actors need to do to succeed.

27th June 2018
/ By James Collins

Actor John Cariani from The Band's Visit JOHNCARIANI

Please introduce yourself and tell us how you got involved in film, TV and theatre?
I’m John Cariani – an actor and playwright. Most people know me for my play, Almost, Maine, and for my acting roles on Broadway and on TV. I feel like this is a “how did I get started question?” so here’s my story. 

I started doing plays in high school and loved doing them but I also did a lot of music. I was a pretty serious clarinet and saxophone player. In college, I majored in history, but still kept up with my music, this time as a singer. I left my clarinet and saxophone behind, joined an acappella group and loved every second of being an acappella geek. But then my senior year I did a student written one-act play and realised that I liked words more than I liked music — or maybe I was just better with words than I was with music — and decided that I wanted to be an actor. 

After college, I ended up getting an acting internship at StageWest in Springfield, Massachusetts. The internship was intense — we (interns) took acting classes from the resident acting company and understudied roles on the main stage. We also did some wonderful children’s theatre and did tons of classical theatre in a small black box space. We also did unglamorous stuff like clean the bathrooms and work in the offices and work on set builds and strikes.

After finishing up at StageWest, I moved to New York and got a job at The Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival playing Sylvius in As You Like It. That gig got the attention of an agent who signed me and that led to auditions for TV and movies. I was pretty lucky and booked some TV and movie roles early on and, about seven years after I moved to New York, I was cast in my first Broadway show as Motel the tailor in Fiddler on the Roof…and that’s a pretty much how it all started for me.

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How did you get involved with The Band's Visit?
I was finishing up my run of a Broadway show called Something Rotten! in the spring of 2016, and I got an audition for an Off Broadway show called The Band's Visit…and I went to the audition. And got hired.

Tell us a little about your character Itzik and how you take on a new role and become that character.
Itzik is unemployed and he’s a new dad. He’s a bit of a man-child. He loves a good time. He has so much love to give — to everyone, to strangers, like the Egyptian visitors, but first and foremost to his wife and child. But he has lost his wife’s love and respect because…I think love — real love — is all about being responsible to, and for, those you love. And Itzik hasn’t been responsible. I think his journey in the play is learning how to be responsible to, and for, the people he loves.

And I guess it’s always different for me, how I create or become a new character. Story is everything. So I rely on the story I’m telling to guide me. And Itzik and Iris’s journey to reconciliation guided me as I worked on finding Itzik.

Also, learning Hebrew for the show and learning to speak English with a Hebrew accent helped me find Itzik. The better my Hebrew, and my Hebrew accent got, the closer I got to being Itzik.

As far as understanding Itzik — well, I feel like I understood him pretty well when I read the script. We’re a lot alike. I love a good time. I love people. I forget to be responsible to my loved ones sometimes, much like Itzik.

And I realise as I write this that I think a key to understanding any of the Israeli characters in The Band's Visit is understanding the place. The Band's Visit takes place in Bet Hatikvah, a small desert town in the middle of nowhere which is a lot like my hometown. I grew up in a small farm town in the middle of nowhere in far northern Maine called Presque Isle. There’s lots of open space and sky in both Bet Hatikvah and Presque Isle. Which makes for lots of room to dream. And yearn for more. And want and hope for something more. Which is what the opening song of The Band's Visit is all about. My desire for more took me away from my hometown. Itzik found what he wanted in his hometown.

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The Band's Visit has just won 10 Tony awards. Congratulations! What, in your opinion, is the reason the show has been so successful?
I think the story couldn’t be more timely. It’s about people who we all think don’t get along — Egyptians and Israelis — actually getting along. And, right now, we are all told every day in this country that we all don’t get along. And we actually do get along. Quite well. On a daily basis. Nations and cultures clash, but people generally don’t. And The Band's Visit celebrates how human beings are quite capable of getting along. So the show came along at the right moment, at a moment when people are really ready to hear that we all can — and do — get along!

I also think our creative team made magic. The music — the score — is extraordinary. David Yazbek has outdone himself. And this is the guy who has given us one of my favourite shows, The Full Monty! Itimar Moses’ adaptation of the film is exquisite. I am very lucky, because the story of Itzik and Iris is quite small in the film and has been beautifully fleshed out by Itimar for the play. So my story arc and character were written by one of our great playwrights. 

And David Cromer is…well, worthy of the McArthur Genius grant he won. He’s a genius. I think he is truly responsible for what The Band's Visit has become. He took our producer, Orin Wolf's, vision…and ran with it and built something that just takes people’s breath away. The Band's Visit would not be The Band's Visit without him. He has melded music and story and design sublimely. 

And our designers are just amazing. Tyler Micoleau (our lighting designer), Kai Harada (our sound designer), and Scott Pask (our set designer) all worked so beautifully together to create the world of Bet Hatikvah. And our cast and the musicians are just first-rate. Our band — our musicians — are a huge reason why the show is what it is. And we have some unicorns among us — one-of-a-kind people like George Abud who plays Camal. He’s a comic genius and plays the violin like nobody else. And Ossama Farouk, our extraordinary drummer — nobody can do what he does. He thrills audiences with his playing! And Katrina Lenk is just luminous. 

I think George and Ossama and Katrina have contributed tremendously to what The Band's Visit has become. All of us have. Which leads me to the short answer to this question: a bunch of great artists came together and made magic together as they told a beautiful story together.

You are also a successful playwright. How do you balance acting and writing?
I don’t really think of it as balancing. I’m just a guy who loves to tell stories, as an actor and as a writer. Playwriting is more of a hobby for me. I do it because I love it. Acting is how I make my living. I take acting jobs but I don’t take playwriting jobs.

And, if you’re a creative…well, you’re always creating. So I am always writing, always auditioning. There’s no real balancing act. It’s all part of being creative.

What advice do you have for the next generation of potential Broadway stars?
Well, Nigel Bottom — the character I played in Something Rotten! — implores his brother to be true to himself: “To thine own self be true.” Do that. There’s only one you. So be you. And be the best and truest you you can be. Be inspired by others. But don’t try to BE like the others who inspire you. Be yourself. And trust that you can always improve — but that you are enough.

Being me served me really well with my writing. Almost, Maine is super popular, and it’s set in a mythical version of my hometown. And I don’t think anyone saw a play about rural people in northern Maine falling in love becoming a popular play. And that’s because rural people are pretty absent from the contemporary American cultural landscape. I wrote what I knew and what I loved and something special happened. So, trust that what you love is worthy and that the stories you want to tell are worthy!

Oh, and Katrina Lenk (star of The Band's Visit) told me about a quote she found: "Work as hard at being a good person as you do at being a good actor." Good advice.

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