The last time the consistent, versatile and always delightful Mike Nadajewski was nominated for a MyTheatre Award it was for playing a religious figure in a musical. This time he’s nominated as a scientific figure in a contemporary morality play. Well, not a scientific figure exactly- the man he played in Stratford’s wacky and thoughtful production of The Physicists to garner an Outstanding Supporting Actor nomination merely thought he was Einstein. Or did he? We turned to Mike for answers.
We last spoke to you as part of the 2011 Nominee Interview Series when you were just about to take Jesus Christ Superstar to Broadway. Looking back, what were the highlights of that whole adventure?
That was a remarkable time for me and for my family — we got the complete New York Experience, from Broadway to bed bugs. My boy, who’s 7 years old now, still remembers bits and pieces of that time, and I love that his world view is that much larger because of it (JCS also went to La Jolla, California). New York completely surpassed our expectations in every way… (yes, even with the aforementioned pests) but we were mostly struck by how generously the community we moved into welcomed us with open and helpful arms. It’s daunting to move to a new city with your with a 3 year old in tow, but much to our surprise, we found the Big Apple to be very family friendly with some of the most brilliant playgrounds we’ve ever seen! And of course, the experience of performing our production of Jesus Christ Superstar on the Great White Way is something I’ll always cherish. The New York audiences were incredibly enthusiastic — these crowds aggressively insisted on participating throughout the whole play, applauding where we never had applause before, even erupting in the middle of songs, there was really no containing them! They seemed to experience the play on a very primal level (which makes sense given the content) which we all found very moving. And our company is now a small part of that very deep and rich Broadway history. But I have to say, one of the most useful things I took away from that experience was perspective; I have always appreciated the quality of our Canadian theatres and festivals, but this wonderful experience expelled any “grass is greener” or romantic notions I may have had about Broadway — our Canadian stages sit quite comfortably on the world stage.
Catch us up on some of the other things that have been going on with you since your last interview.
It was the understanding of my last comment above that really informed my wife (actor Glynis Ranney) and I on where we wanted our path to lead us, and before Superstar received it’s closing notice, we decided we were ready to go home and I accepted my offer to participate in the Birmingham Conservatory for Classical Theatre at the Stratford Festival under the leadership of its Artistic Director, Martha Henry. It was a rare, fantastic opportunity to continue training, and to get closer to Shakespeare’s text which, at that point, I had had very little real-life experience with. I gained a lot of insight during that time, and learned a lot about myself — participating in that program was one of the great honours of my professional career.
You’ve been taking on a lot more non-musical roles in recent years, including your MyTheatre award-nominated turn in The Physicists. Has that been a conscious choice?
No, there’s been no conscious decision to play more non-musical roles. I may steer things in opposition sometimes, so if I do a festival season without singing, I tend to be drawn to projects in the winter that do, or vice versa. Nothing is more satisfying than being able to do both a play and a musical in one season, but it all depends on how the cross-casting works out for that year (however, in this Stratford 2016 season, I get to sing in all three of the plays I’m doing, so I’m quite pleased with that).
Is there much difference in how you approach the two genres?
No. No difference. I’m always looking for a way in; any clue to set me off down the path in search of who my guy is, be it musical or non-musical.… it can be an idea, a song, a soliloquy, a sentence, a moment… if I can just hang my hat on one bloody thing, I can make my way from there. But I’m always looking for a way in.
In The Physicists you played a man who calls himself “Einstein”. How much did the Einstein persona come into your performance?
I read up on the man himself, looked at photos, watched documentaries, tried to just get a feel for context, for background, a flavour perhaps, nothing too rigorous since I was really only playing someone who believed he was Einstein (or so we think…). But it really comes down to what the director wants and what serves the text, and most of the time no one really wants to watch someone show their homework for 2 hours anyway, so at some point you have to let all that other stuff go.
What were you hoping the audience would take away from the production?
More than anything, I would probably say surprise, and surprise on a few levels: the first level being the twists and turns of the plot (it’s wonderful doing an unfamiliar play — the audible gasps from patrons were delicious); second level would be the surprise of where the play ultimately takes you… it sneaks up on you and before you know it, you’re in a bit of a morality play faced with some fascinating decisions. There’s an exciting fundamental argument that’s presented in the second act (summed up at the end of the play by Möbius, played by Geraint Wyn Davies, as “knowledge being mistaken for wisdom”), and the brilliance of this adaptation is that it doesn’t get bogged down with the real politics or the true science — it’s just a great argument that’s theatrical, entertaining, and surprisingly satiating on an intellectual level. As Miles Potter, our director, would say, “It makes us (the audience) feel smart!”.
The Physicists had an incredible cast. Tell us a bit about working with your co-stars, especially Graham Abbey as your counterpart “Newton”.
I’m a great admirer of everyone in that cast, so that was thrill to begin with. I mean, you’ve got Wayne Best, Antoine Yared, Karen Robinson, and Randy Hughson to name a few! I’ve worked with both Geraint Wyn Davies and Graham Abbey before — Ger and I did Camelot together at the festival back in 2011 when I played his illegitimate twisted (but mostly misunderstood) son Mordred. And I’ve actually known Graham for over 20 years… we met doing a community theatre production of Hello, Dolly! in Toronto, (circa 1995) where we played Cornelius and Barnaby together. On the opening night of The Physicists, I tweeted a then/now pic of Graham and myself, recreating a backstage shot from many years ago. Both Graham and Ger have killer instincts and I relished swimming in the deep end with them.
What were some of the most interesting conversations you had with director Miles Potter throughout the rehearsal process?
There were lot of discussions about the tone of the play — it is, after all, a Canadian adaptation of a translation of a German play by a Swiss playwright. There are a few lenses there… So our challenge was trying to honour the humour and satire of the original (which could be, for lack of a better term, a bit severe) without sacrificing the craft and western sensibility penned by our inspired adapter, playwright Michael Healey. A bit of a balancing act, to be sure!
Did you have a favourite moment in the production?
Hard to say. We never got to exchange words in this one, but I loved all the scenes with Randy Hughson’s exasperated (and then liberated) Inspector Voss. Masterful stuff.
You understudied Jonathan Goad’s Hamlet last season but never had to go on. How do you approach that situation knowing that you might never perform but having to be prepared to take on the biggest role in the English canon just in case? How was your Hamlet different from Johnny’s?
I feel quite privileged and extremely grateful to say that every season that I’ve been asked to participate at the Stratford Festival, there has always been a demanding challenge of some kind to overcome — and understudying Hamlet may have been the most difficult of them all. But even though my Hamlet was never seen by the masses, it’s still one of the things I’m most proud of. It’s kind of against all odds that anyone can excel at being an understudy, really, given the circumstances you have to overcome. I found out that I was covering the role a bit later than you would expect (three weeks before rehearsal began — which normally would be fine with an average sized lead — but, as you say, Hamlet is no ordinary lead…). You do get official rehearsal time, but it’s quite limited. The incredible Stage Management team made themselves available to help me above and beyond the given hours, but of course, like everyone else, you have to juggle the roles you’ve actually been hired to play that season! Ultimately, preparing an understudy assignment requires the same amount of focus and attention as if it were your part, because the reality is: understudies go on all the time — and if you’re not prepared… well, besides embarrassing yourself, you’re actually not doing your job. And no actor wants to be the understudy that makes an audience regret their decision to stay after they’ve read “the news” in their program for the performance that afternoon — it’s not good for the theatre, or your own reputation. Understudies get one official adrenalin pumping opportunity to perform the piece with all of the elements… so that’s with lights & sound, on stage, and a closed in-house audience. It’s a kind of the Bizzaro version of the show, it would never happen in real life because you would never see an entire cast replaced all at once; but for one evening I got to play Hamlet on the Festival Stage… and I will never forget it.
As for how my Hamlet was different from Johnny’s… all I can say is the mere fact that I am ‘me’ and could never be Johnny, is probably the biggest and most obvious difference to speak of. And that’s actually a beautiful thing to embrace. I’m not up there to do an impression of Johnny. If I had ever been called on, my objective would have been to play Hamlet to the best of my ability within the given parameters that were established by Johnny, and to hopefully facilitate the other actors playing their roles with as little alteration as possible. But it’s tricky, because at the same time, you have to own it, and inhabit the role as much as you can — you’re retroactively making decisions that have been decided for you, yet you must claim them as if they were your own. One could go cross-eyed thinking (or reading) about this! For the record, no actor (me) has ever been more grateful to another actor (Johnny) for staying healthy all season long! Thank you, Johnny!
Do you try and see every play in the season? What were some of your favourites of 2015?
Yes, the goal is to see every play in a season, but some shows are harder to see than others depending on my own show schedule and how well the show I want to see is selling — but I love watching my friends at work! I often walk away inspired, and in many cases, awe struck to the point where I suspect I will soon be outed as a fraud and need to look into a career in TV/VCR repair. I enjoyed every play I saw last season (and I only missed one!) Some highlights for me were The Adventures of Pericles, The Sound of Music, The Last Wife and The Diary of Anne Frank.
What have you been up to in the off-season?
This past winter I got to play the title role in Stephen Sondheim’s musical Sunday in the Park with George at Talk Is Free Theatre, which has been a dream role of mine for a long, long time. A true “bucket list” part — and I got to do it with some wonderful friends, not to mention my astonishing wife, Glynis Ranney, who played Dot & Marie.
What are you up to now/what’s next?
I’m currently in rehearsals at the Stratford Festival for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as Mr. Tumnus, as well as in rep rehearsing Shakespeare in Love. So many possibilities!
Do you have anything you’d like to add?
Just to say thank you for the nomination. Since the nature of this biz can have a kind of relentless forward looking ‘what’s next’ quality to it, it’s been rather lovely to think back on last season and remember it this way. Many, many thanks for that.
Also, have you seen this video, and why is it so funny?