What happens when you’re preparing to settle down with your girlfriend but can’t seem to shake off the idea that you might still want to try dating men?
That’s the central conflict for Ben, the protagonist of Straight. Now playing Off-Broadway, this intimate character drama tackles issues of sexuality, fidelity, and perhaps most importantly, identity. Directed by Andy Sandberg and written by Scott Elmegreen and Drew Dornarola, Straight is a thought-provoking meditation on love and lust.
Playing Ben is Jake Epstein, the talented and versatile actor best known for his starring roles in Degrassi: The Next Generation and Beautiful: The Carole KingMusical. In Straight, Epstein must navigate his character’s complex self-discovery in a world keen on putting a strict label on all those who inhabit it. I chatted with Epstein about how Ben does this, why this play resonates so strongly with him, his career aspirations, and much more.
ALEX NAGORSKI: Although it deals with many complex issues, Straight has a surprisingly funny tone to it. How would you describe the show in just a couple of sentences?
JAKE EPSTEIN: The play is about a Boston “bro” and his relationships with his girlfriend, and a charismatic, younger guy he meets online. I always describe the tone as “something like life.” It’s funny, sad, and filled with surprises.
You have a long history with musical theater. You made your Broadway debut as the alternate for Peter Parker in Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark, created the role of Gerry Goffin in the Broadway production of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical alongside Jessie Mueller, and have been part of the Spring Awakening and American Idiot national tours. What was it about Straight that made you want to act in a play versus a musical again?
After I did the Spring Awakening national tour, there were a lot of doors in the musical theater world that opened up for me. I’ve been so fortunate to have continued on that path. But the truth is, I never intended to be a musical theater actor. In fact, I went to theater school to study acting and “straight plays” (no pun intended!). When I finished my run in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical on Broadway, I was craving being part of a play again. When I knew that Straight was a possibility, I jumped at the chance to get my feet wet in a real Off-Broadway play.
At first glance, Ben seems to have everything figured out. At 26, he already has a stellar job and what seems like a solid relationship with his college girlfriend. What do you believe to be the catalyst for his journey of introspection and self-discovery?
I think Ben is in that rare window of time after college and before really settling down where you almost have one last chance to figure out who you are. On top of that, he is feeling the pressure from his best friend and long term girlfriend, Emily, to move in together and get married. Realizing he has this tiny window of time, he goes out on his “journey” as you put it, to lay to rest whether or not he has feelings for men.
How is Ben different than previous characters you’ve played in your career?
That’s a great question but hard to answer. Each of the characters I’ve played have been so specific and so different. Ben feels like a mix from a lot of the great parts I’ve played. He is extremely intelligent, charming, and sexually ambiguous, with both an emotional intelligence and an amazing ability to suppress his feelings. He’s manipulative and brutally honest. He has a great sense of humour and at the same time, an ability to be very serious. He has a need to control others and yet realizes what he actually wants is being out of control. He’s a lot of things and maybe a better way of saying that is that he is very human. So I suppose my answer is that I’ve never played a character who felt quite so human.
What’s the best piece of direction that Andy Sandberg gave you during the rehearsal process?
Keep emotion out of the argument. Ben is ivy-league educated and extremely good at pontificating. And it’s hard for me to not make some of his arguments emotional. Andy has encouraged me to be courageous enough to trust that the emotion is there in the story without having to rely on it during Ben’s intellectual arguments.
Including yourself, the show only has three characters. What type of creative challenges and/or rewards does being part of such a small cast instead of a full ensemble present?
There’s huge trust that goes into performing with such a small cast. You need to have each other’s backs and keep the energy and story moving with pace, intelligence, and spontaneity. It is a different kind of trust with a larger ensemble.
The show grapples with many themes, including the struggle people face to be accepted simply for who they are. Is there a main takeaway that you hope the audience has after the curtain falls?
I mean, sure, I’d love people to be aware that society still has this nasty obsession with labeling people. But in truth, I hope people are moved by the story and entertained by the wit and dialogue.
Growing up, what was your dream role as an actor? And what is it today?
When I was kid, I wanted to play the Artful Dodger in Oliver. I was fortunate to play the part when I was twelve in Cameron MacKintosh’s tour of the musical in Toronto. That experience was life-changing. Now I want to play Fagan.
You touched on this earlier, but when you were 18, you left your role on Degrassi: The Next Generation to attend the National Theatre School of Canada. What was it about theater that made you want to leave television and pursue it full-time?
The producers thought I was crazy! Why would anyone leave a TV show to go to theater school? I was 18-years-old and had been on the show for 5 years. I knew that if I was going to be a professional actor, I needed to study. I had it in my contract that when I was 18, I could have the choice to leave the show and go to college. Even though it was one of the hardest decisions of my life, it felt right.
Last year, a play that you co-wrote with your mother, Therefore Choose Life, premiered in Toronto. What did writing teach you about the theater that acting has not, and do you plan on continuing to write more shows?
When you’re playing a part, your entire world is your character’s point of view. Writing a play is about looking at the whole picture. It’s an important reminder that each role is a cog in a bigger machine and you help the machine the most by doing nothing except what your part is meant to do. Nothing more, nothing less. My dream is definitely to continue writing.