Brooks Ashmanskas is at the comedic heart of Broadway. His latest role as Roland Maule in Present Laughter is fancifully unique and funny, but that’s no surprise to anyone who is familiar with his reputation in theater.
It’s actually difficult to imagine not enjoying yourself when he prances onto the stage in one of the many light-hearted roles.
Ashmanskas, a 2007 Tony Award nominee, has commandeered the stage in supporting spots in The Ritz, Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me, Little Me and Gypsy.
He also filled the shoes of Carmen Ghia in The Producers. His beaming talent even landed him his first film role in “Julie & Julia,” starring Meryl Streep.
As Maule in Noel Coward’s farce, Ashmanskas trails after Victor Garber’s Garry Essendine like a smitten puppy. The stage is his playground, and he makes it his own every chance he gets.
Off stage, Ashmanskas’ jovial personality and good-natured humor immediately reel people in. Any interaction with him is an incredible treat.
He recently spoke with TheImproper about Present Laughter, his own celebrity infatuations and his upcoming role in April’s Promises, Promises.
TheImproper: ‘Brooks’ is such a unique name. Why did your parents choose it?
Ashmanskas: I was named after a professor that my mom knew in college. It’s actually my middle name. He was sort of instrumental in my parents meeting. His name was Brooks Hamilton. He is a guy who sort of set them up and remained a great friend of theirs forever.
IM: Present Laughter is not a new project for you; you worked on it before it came to Broadway.
Ashmanskas: Yes, we did it about three years ago in Boston at The Huntington Theatre Company where Nicky Martin, who directed this production, was the artistic director at the time.
IM: How did you come to start working on the play?
Ashmanskas: Nicky asked me to do it, and I said, “Absolutely!” That’s basically how it was. I’ve worked with him many times. Victor Garber, who plays Garry, is an old friend, so it has really been a labor of love and a complete treat to work on. I love this group of people, I love this play, I love this part. It’s very rare that all those things come together. I love the design of all of it. Present Laughter is a really terrific evening.
IM: How did the play get its title?
Ashmanskas: It comes from a quote in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. [‘Present mirth hath present laughter.’ The song urges carpe diem.] I think it’s reflected in the play in that we keep people around us because they make us happy and we’re comfortable. When things come in like Roland, or the other women in Garry’s life that come in, they’re dangerous and they can affect one’s little world in a bad way. They want to keep their lives as they are, to keep their lives happy.
IM: You literally command the stage in any show in which you perform! In Present Laughter, Roland is probably the most interesting character because no one understands where he’s coming from. What do you think is behind his fascination with Garry?
Ashmanskas: I think he’s sort of this guy who’s from the outskirts of the city and has dreamt his whole life about being a part of this glamorous world, or what he thinks to be just the greatest Edensque place in the world. The fact that he writes a play and sends it to Garry, and even gets an appointment with him is something he just can’t even take! He’s so excited and nervous and scared. I think Roland has a misconception about Garry when he first meets him, he thinks he’s just going to be wearing dressing gowns and smoking and drinking, and that Garry [is an actor] for the money, and blah blah blah, and not really an artist. Garry shuts him up, tells him to sit down, and says, “If you want to be a playwright, here’s what it’s about.”
Roland is immediately smitten with him. He’s a little fawning and sort of a stalker fan, and obsessed with this guy for a long time. And then he’s so surprised by how smart and great he is, that he completely falls in love with him and he just has to be around him and the people in his life! In Act III he will not leave, it’s a little creepy, but hopefully to comic effect. I think it’s also a very funny part, and Roland is by definition from another planet. It’s hard to make him seem of the same play, because he shouldn’t be. Some people may think I go too far, some people think I don’t go far enough, or that I’m just right. I can’t really worry about that, I’m just trying to do the best I can.
IM: Roland’s vigorous handshake is arguably the best bit in the show! How much of that aspect of the character was created by you, and how much of it was in the script?
Ashmanskas: It’s both. His first entrance is a part of the script. I think it’s just sort of a physical manifestation of how nervous and excited he is to be there, and he’s just like, “Huuuh-hi!” He just can’t let go, and he’s ripping everybody’s arms off. There’s that bit with the oldest woman, Lady Saltburn, in which she’s unaffected by it completely and actually brings him to his knees. That part of it is not in the script. We just sort of tried it, and it certainly has some payoff, as opposed to just being something that we see every once in a while. It has a real sort of punctuation mark on it, hopefully again to great comic effect.
IM: Having spoken with you only a short time, it’s clear that there is so much of Brooks in Roland. How did you make him your own?
Ashmanskas: I think with any character you have to find some way to sympathize with them. This guy really believes he’s trying to do what’s best for him, but he thinks he can protect Garry from other crazy people. You have to go at it from a very positive point of view, no matter how creepy or scary or funny or weird they are. It’s a much more playable way to do it, to not be too boring and actory about it. As far as how is he like me? I think to some effect we all have a feeling of awe around certain stars or celebrities, especially nowadays.
Everybody has a certain fascination with celebrity, and so I can certainly empathize with him. I think most of the stuff that comes from me would be the physical stuff. I really wanted him to be very visual; you can see how excited he is. He didn’t just say, “I thank you so much for letting me stay,” but he’s so excited he just leaps over furniture. With the whole otherworldly creature part of him, I think it helps that whenever Roland is talked about, the next line is always, “He’s raving mad!” or “He frightens the life out of me!” or “He should be locked up and put in a straitjacket!” You can’t not go there with him, because if he was a perfectly sane person they would sound like idiots.
IM: With which celebrity are you most fascinated?
Ashmanskas: I don’t know, I feel like I’m more fascinated by the longevity of certain actors or celebrities, I’m not thinking of anyone specifically…
IM: There has to be that one person who, if you saw him or her on the street, you would be clamoring to gush over!
Ashmanskas: I never really had that gene! Because I’m in the business, I see people and know that they’re famous, of course, but I have many friends who are famous. I think the reason why I’m friends with them is that I don’t do that. It’s also because I’ve never been the kind of person to go up to someone and say, “Oh my god, can I get a picture?” I’m more of a person to appreciate their work and say, “I think you’re fantastic.” One thing that recently happened, which I guess is apropos of this conversation, I was walking my dog for him to go to the bathroom in my neighborhood here, and he was pulling over to someone and sniffing some random guy’s crotch. I was like, “Oh, sorry,” and I pulled him out of the way, and I looked up and it was Leonardo DiCaprio!
IM: So your dog is more similar to Roland than you are? He’s more excited about celebrities?
Ashmanskas: My dog likes celebrities! I certainly get the instinct. That’s when I left Leonardo alone, I just said I was sorry, and told my dog, “You’ve got good taste Henry.” Henry the Dog, he’s got great taste in crotches (laughs).
IM: In Act III of Present Laughter you are holding a teddy bear. What have you named him?
Ashmanskas: I haven’t named him. There was one time I was calling him Tim, and I don’t know why. I think I was just saying, “Oh, does Tim want a cookie?” or whatever. Every once in a while I would make fun of the bear as if he were the director, Nicky Martin. I would call him ‘Nicky’ sometimes just to make Nicky laugh at rehearsal. “Should Nicky and I sit down here?” It was really stupid. But no, I haven’t named him. I have a feeling Roland would have named him Garry!
IM: Did you have your own teddy bear or security blanket when you were growing up?
Ashmanskas: I had a blanket when I was young, and I held onto it for too long. I remember it was in rags, and there was only a little piece of it left. This will sound terrible, we laugh about it now, but I remember I went on a cross country trip on the train to visit family in Maine. My father couldn’t come with us for some reason. I guess [my blanket] had purposely been put away, maybe I was starting to grow away from it. And my father burned it in the fireplace! So now I still use it against him. If he ever argues with me I’ll say, “What are you going to do, burn my jeans that I want to keep?” But it’s very funny.
IM: That must have been very traumatic!
Ashmanskas: You know, it sort of wasn’t. I forgot about it, and they achieved what they wanted to achieve. I think I was 28, 29….no, I’m kidding!
IM: What is your earliest memory of yourself as a performer?
Ashmanskas: I took dance because I wanted to be Fred Astaire when I was like four years-old. I had seen the movie, of all titles, The Gay Divorcee. Talk about being enamored with someone! I would try to dance like him. My mom saw me and she was like, “Maybe we should put you in classes or something,” and I totally agreed and did it. I took tap classes until I was about 18. So my whole young life was about being or trying to be a dancer. I think I got to a point where I thought ‘I’m not disciplined enough,’ or, ‘I’m not good enough,’ and I started falling into doing musicals because I could dance and found I could sing. Then I started doing plays and one thing led to another. But my earliest memories are of tap dancing in horrible costumes!
IM: What’s the worst costume you can remember being forced to wear?
Ashmanskas: There was one I remember when I was very young that was actually relatively subtle on the base. It was just a pair of black pants, and a black turtleneck. But down the sleeves of the turtleneck was white fringe, and then the same white fringe in a ‘V’ on the chest of the V neck, with big, silver spangles in the middle. It was awful! Awful! Oh, it was so terrible. So terrible. And I think we were tap dancing to Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke.” It was just crazy.
IM: Describe your first Broadway experience as an audience member.
Ashmanskas: I can’t really remember the exact first thing I saw because my parents were so great about supporting what I wanted to do at a very young age. I grew up in Portland, Oregon, and my Dad would take me out to New York. He had family out here, so whenever he’d go he would make sure we went and saw some shows. I saw a lot of stuff when I was young. And the one I really remember, it may seem really cliché, was A Chorus Line, but very early in its run. I remember going to the Shubert Theatre and sitting upstairs and looking down. I don’t think I understood what it was really about, but I remember just being really enamored with the idea of these performers, and the dancing was sooo great. I loved the music, and I just thought it was fantastic. And I then saw it later in life because it ran forever.
IM: What is your dream Broadway role?
Ashmanskas: I don’t really have one, honestly. The only answer I can give you would be that I’ve sort of gotten it, in a way. Maybe it will end soon, but I just want to be working in the theater in New York. I love living here, and I love working in the theater. I’ve been very fortunate for no reason necessarily, because there are plenty of people who can do what I do, but for some reason I’ve been lucky. In a way my dream is realized every time I get to work. Whatever I’m doing is the role I want to be doing.
IM: If Chris, your flamboyantly funnyman from The Ritz, and Roland, were to meet for dinner, how would the evening progress?
Ashmanskas: I wonder? I certainly think Chris would have more to say! He would really be the king or queen of the table, and really lavishing praise on this person and making fun of everybody that walked by, and he’d be wildly funny. Roland would be very nervous and probably socially inept. I think they might sort of come to like one another and see that they have some similarities, god knows. It would be a rather one-sided conversation in which Chris would say something like (switching to a very girlish, flamboyant tone), “Oh my God, this porkchop is delicious!” And then Roland would say, ‘Yes,’ and cough or something.
IM: Who would end up paying?
Ashmanskas: I think Roland would pay. Chris would just get up and leave the check. He would expect to be taken out. Roland would use his last forty dollars to pay for it, just like his mother taught him.
IM: Tell me something that no one else would know about you.
Ashmanskas: God. I feel like I’m sort of known. I think people would probably be mistaken in thinking that I’m nuts and sort of on all the time. People would be surprised by the fact that I go home and sit and cook and have some time with my dog and with my boyfriend. I like to go home and watch the same shows that everybody else watches. I can be pretty boring. People would be surprised at how low key I can be at times.
IM: Which shows would we find you watching obsessively?
Ashmanskas: “Project Runway” and “American Idol;” I love that crap. But at least in “Project Runway” they sort of achieve something. I love the sort of drama that comes up in those shows. I just like how you find yourself invested in certain contestants. Sadly, my favorite show on television is probably Frontline. I love news documentaries like that.
IM: Your debut performance in a film is clearly the reason Julie & Julia has been so well-received. Meryl Streep owes you her Oscar nomination!
Ashmanskas: Exactly (laughs), yeah really, I think I really overshadow Meryl Streep’s performance in it. It’s a tiny part, but I was still thrilled to do it. I played Amy Adams’ boss; it’s just two little scenes. It was literally an afternoon in my life two years ago. It’s so funny, it’s so different from the theater where you work so comfortably and consistently eight times a week. With the film I showed up in the morning at some office building, I put make-up on and a costume, did a couple of scenes four million times, and then went home. And that was it. More people called me about “Julie & Julia” than about any show I’ve ever been in! But it was fun, I really enjoyed it actually. It was a good movie, too, I actually liked the movie, it wasn’t some crappy piece of turnout. The scenes are really quick (laughs), I just worry about how fat I look!
IM: Next up is Promises, Promises. You must be excited to have that in your future.
Ashmanskas: It is exciting, and again, talk about lucky, I’m so fortunate! We did a reading of it about a year ago, and honestly, I know some of the music, and I know “The Apartment,” which is the movie it’s based on, and I love it. But I had never seen a production of the show, so doing the reading of it was very informative and fun. It’s a great book by Neil Simon, and Burt Bacharach and Hal David wrote these great songs, and it’s dated in a great way. I think director Rob Ashford is going to be going at it from it like it’s a period piece, and sort of a look back at a different time in dating. Not to be too dark about it, but I think it’s an interesting look at how people treated women at a certain time, even in the recent past. The lead girl, who is being played by Kristin Chenoweth, has this great strength about her. It’s really funny and the music is fantastic. Really great people have been cast so far, Sean Hayes is playing the lead, he’s a great friend of mine, just a terrific guy and he’s going to be wonderful. I’m really looking forward to it, I haven’t done a musical in a while.
For more information about Present Laughter, visit the Roundabout Theater.