My Theatre

11 February 2018

Nominee Interview Series: James King

By // Theatre (Toronto)

Before we announce the winners of the 2017 MyEntWorld Critics’ Pick Awards, we’re proud to present our annual Nominee Interview Series.

Anyone who sees a lot of Toronto theatre is familiar with the tiny spitfire superfan known as Barbara Fingerote. She’s a theatre expert who sees hundreds of shows a year. In the past few years, Barbara has taken to emailing me just ahead of awards season to put in a good word for her favourite performance of the year. Barbara doesn’t technically get a vote (only our staff writers do) but her taste is impeccable and, without fail, her choice is already at the top of my short list. This year, Barbara Fingerote’s favourite performance of the year was James King in Hedwig and the Angry Inch at Hart House Theatre, a transformative tour de force played in real time in 6-inch heels. Like I said, Barbara has impeccable taste.

Do you remember your first experience with theatre?
My first experience with theatre… that would have been when I was 10 years old. I’m from a rural area near North Augusta, Ontario, near Brockville, so there’s not a whole lot of theatre in that area, but they had a pretty prominent community theatre scene, and I auditioned for a production of The Wizard of Oz, and played a Munchkin in that when I was 10 years old. 

When did you start singing?
I started singing right about that time, actually. I sang a cappella at the audition, so I got in, and they told me that I couldn’t sing once we were in rehearsals. I had key and tone issues. Singing with the rest of the kids, they were like, “if you want to keep doing these plays, you have to go take singing lessons.” And then I started doing that, because of the whole “if I want to do this, I gotta learn how to sing”.

It worked!
I guess. I hope so. [laughs]

What are some of your all-time favourite musicals?
I love a lot of the rock and roll musicals. The Rocky Horror Show is, for sure, my favourite musical. I think that changed my life when I was about 14 years old. Love that. I love Jesus Christ Superstar. When I was in music theatre school, I discovered that all my favourites were rock musicals, and I didn’t really realize that till I was there one day, stopped, and was like “Oh, there seems to be a theme here”. I think I’ve always just been really drawn to rock and roll, and that kind of raw, edgy expression of that whole thing. I don’t know. There’s something about that that just really speaks to me, and has always stirred me up.

I’ve seen you in three shows at Hart House, two which fit into that rock mold, but what about Into the Woods? Was that a bit of a stretch, to do something more classical?
It was, yes. Absolutely. I don’t know what that says about me, but I totally feel more at home with Hedwig [laughs]. But I have a great appreciation for Sondheim. He’s incredible. I am classically trained, but I sing a lot of rock and roll. I sing in a rock band of my own, and do all that, so it was going back to the basics. Singing in a different way, and I get more scared and more nervous doing that type of stuff, for sure, because I feel a little out of place. Like, I chopped off all my hair for it. But that’s a fun one. I love transforming myself into another person, but it really feels like it’s more of a stretch for me, for sure.

Most musical theatre performers have to train their voice to be able to handle the rock music, to sing it over and over without ruining your voice. Was that something that came more naturally to you?
Totally. I worked on it for sure, too, but even when I was in school, they always said, “you have a voice for this. Your voice is very suited to these rock musicals”. Maybe when I was 14, singing alone in my room [laughs], I was always singing that type of music, so I kind of adapted my voice to sing that type of stuff, and I just listened to it like a crazy person. I’m a total geek and buff about all that era of music- 60’s, 70’s rock and roll- so I know the vocabulary of a lot of that stuff.

I’ve worked on stuff, too, and I still really use a lot of my classical training to protect myself, because it is so raucous, and you can really damage your voice. There’s a lot of breath control and placement, you use that type of stuff to protect yourself and get that sound without completely damaging your vocal chords. It’s something that I guess is more natural to me.

with Lauren Mayer in Hedwig (photo by Scott Gorman)

It sounds like Hedwig was sort of a dream role.
Absolutely. 100% a dream role. Like I said, I also don’t know what that says about me, but I’ve heard people in theatre school say “You should read this play, because you should play this part”, even before I knew what it was. And then I did, I read it, and I was like, “Well, this is one of the most incredible things I’ve ever read”. It’s just beautiful.

I actually went out for it at one other point, in the past. It was another production being done here, and it was down to me and one other person. I didn’t get it that time, and it was probably the biggest let-down that I’ve ever had, because it’s rare that I care so much about a certain role. That sounds bad, but there’s certain [roles] that, oh, you just want it so bad, and I totally did with that one, but I think it was meant to be. Maybe in some ways I wasn’t ready. I think I was more [ready] this time.

It’s one of those roles that’s been played by tons and tons of iconic performers. Is there one performer who stands out in your mind as a great Hedwig?
For me, my favourite is the original. John Cameron Mitchell. He wrote the play himself. He created the character, so in some ways, it’s like he is Hedwig. You know what I mean? Neil Patrick Harris was fantastic, and there’s been so many other amazing performers, but John Cameron Mitchell’s my god [laughs]. He’s incredible, and he is so funny, and so witty. And his performance as Hedwig is jus shattering, in my opinion. It’s beautiful.

On top of the vocals, there are a lot of technical realities of Hedwig that are complicated. First, talk to me a little bit about that accent.
[laughs] It was crazy. We had a dialect coach on the show, and we started really working on it because Hedwig’s lived in America for quite some time, so it’s kind of a watered-down accent. Also, I found that something that worked for me was that I think she has a bit of a voice that she puts on, kind of like Marlene Dietrich. A showy voice that’s a bit put-on, very watered-down east German lilt. She has this sort of [puts on voice] “show-business voice”, and we worked on it a lot. We had the dialogue coach there a lot, and he would go through the whole script and be like, “that vowel should be like this, and that”. I’d start talking like that about half an hour before the show began, just so I could naturally be talking like that all the time, and not even think about it. It was crazy, to really work on it. It took a lot of time.

To go off on this idea of a “show business voice”, Hedwig puts on a lot of airs. Did you carefully craft moments in the piece when you would drop a little bit of that, or use a bit more of your own voice?
Totally. Absolutely, for sure. I feel like they come naturally, and that play’s so well-written because so much of it was improv’d. The original script that was sent says “This is an audio recording of one night of the original production transcribed, so you should adapt it” – there are certain sections that you hold to, so it feels just like someone talking off the top of their head. And there are those moments where you come to and you go “Oh, this feels like something’s coming through the cracks here” or “She’s letting [her wall] down, and tries to put it back up”. Much as it seems unstructured when you’re watching it, it’s this big, off the top of her head – it actually is so well structured, and the more and more we did the play, the more and more I realized that. It’s very smart.

Speaking of the parts that get adapted for a current production, yours was set at Hart House Theatre in 2017. Obviously, it’s a much older play, set in the past. How did the contemporary setting and the Toronto setting really affect your Hedwig?
It made it very immediate. The script also indicates that you should try to change all of the locations to make it feel like the audience is just attending a gig of Hedwig’s, wherever you’re performing it. And it was really fun because it was like, “well, this is Hedwig in Canada”. So we had “Trudeau take me home” on the thing, and all that. It was fun, and it made me think – Hedwig is so much of the story – going from Berlin to the kind of Western culture of the United States. And the story is very much centred around that, in that there’s a way the United States handle things – their outlook on certain issues, and orientations to stuff. So it was interesting to be like, “Well, what does Canada think about some of that stuff?”, and “How do some of these things relate to that?” and “What issues do we have here in Canada that Hedwig would come up against?” It was a fun journey to explore.

And you had to do the whole thing in how many inch heels?
I think they’re 6-inch platforms, yeah. [laughs]

So I’m assuming you had to practice walking. 
Oh, yeah. I was like, “You need to get me these as early as possible.” And they did, because they were like, “We want you to climb the truss, and you have to do the car wash standing on the seats.” We had grips put in the bottom of them, but it was a lot. I’ve walked in heels before, but not heels like that! [laughs] So it took a lot of practice, but it’s one of those things where you’re like “Yup, just gotta do it. Just gotta charge right through this stuff”. And your feet do die after a while [laughs].

Did the whole get-up take some getting used to, having the wig and the short shorts, and everything?
Absolutely, yeah. I would get to the theatre at like 4:30 for an 8 o’clock curtain. I would have to do my warm-up, because it’s so physical- running around, you really need to stretch and have a physical warm-up. Then a vocal warm-up so I don’t blow out my voice, and then there was the makeup process.

The makeup process took so long. We had 2 different people – it was designed by this brilliant woman named Andi Clifford, and she’s incredible. She designed it and was there till opening night, and then after that, it was myself and the help of this wonderful assistant named Emily [Maxwell]. We did it all, but it takes a long time. You had to do that, and then get the wig on, and get the get-up on, and at least try and leave me some time to kind of centre myself. But there was a couple of nights where it was “Get it right, and onstage!” Because if one thing goes wrong, then you have to re-do it, and you fall behind. So it took a lot of getting used to, and just knowing, “How much can I shake my head without the wig actually flying off? How much can I do that?”

It was totally immersive, and in some ways, I always said the get-up helped me, because once it was on, I would look in the mirror, and I was gone. It was like, “Oh, there she is. Oh, it’s me!” I didn’t feel like myself, and so for me, it was almost like once this stuff went on, it was like “Goodbye James”, and “Hello Hedwig”, and she was there. It was very interesting. I’ve never done anything on that level before. That was so transformative.

How did people usually react to the audience participation? There’s a moment when you fully straddle an audience member. 
People were usually really receptive. It had to be an aisle seat but it wasn’t the same seat every time, so I kind of had my choice. I’d look and go, “does that person look like they’re gonna really hate it?” Although I would love to do it to those people, and sometimes I did. One time there was this really elderly gentleman. He was shaking his head, and I climbed right up on him. It was like, “Why come to the show?” [laughs] I was Hedwig, and that just enraged Hedwig, so Hedwig picks those people. But most people were receptive.

We had some pretty rowdy people sometimes, which is fun, but there was one time where someone kept calling out and saying, “I love you”, and “Come and touch me”, and stuff. And when I was in the audience, they wouldn’t shut up, so I went over to them and was like, “You wanna touch?” and gave them a giant noogie on the top of their head, and then sat and gave them an impromptu lap dance. [laughs] I think they got more than they bargained for, but I was like “don’t tempt Hedwig. You’re tempting the beast here. She’ll give it to you.” Yeah, it was fun.

Hedwig carries 98% of the dialogue and the singing in the show, but how important was it for you to have Lauren Mayer beside you?
Oh, incredibly important. I can’t say enough how important. She was an incredible support system, not only with the characters onstage, but behind the stage. She would draw on my eyebrows every night. She’s a wonderful person, and we didn’t know each other at all before we did the show, and we got to learn about each other, and figure each other out in the run, figure out an intimate relationship. And she’s incredible. Like, those high notes- she would explode, and she was great. She gave me so much to work with, cause Hedwig is really front and centre, and trying to take front and centre throughout the whole show, kind of shove Yitzhak to the sidelines. All I would do was look at her- and she also disappeared; her accent! She’s such a handsome man, too. [laughs] She made it easy. She gave me so much to play with, and it was just great to play together on the stage. It was just a beautiful experience all-around.

In approaching a character that is so legendary, what were some of the conversations you had with Rebecca Ballarin, the director, to make it your own? 
It was terrifying because it is so iconic, and so many people have done it. You’re like “I just wanna do it right, and I don’t wanna mess it up”. For sure, it was the most scary challenge I’ve ever taken on as an actor. But that excites me, and I was like “Yeah, I want to sink my teeth into this.” And Rebecca was so thorough. I think with the first two rehearsals, she opened her book, and she had all of these articles, and this research, and I’m like “Oh, we’re in good hands”. And she just encouraged me to play a lot.

She was really wonderful in the sense that she kind of let me run rampant, and would shape and curb – “Try it like this”. We were both really open and receptive to playing, and trying things out, and if it didn’t work, not being sensitive and saying “Okay, that doesn’t work, let’s move onto the next thing”. She created such a safe space. 

I chose not to watch the movie. I’d seen clips, but I’d never seen the full movie, and I decided I didn’t want to, because I didn’t want to steal too much. I did want to try and make it my own thing, my own interpretation of it. Just read the script, and try to make it come alive from what I got out of that. We said, “Let’s not watch”, and I stopped listening to the cast recording, not to steal from people. Of course, having heard it so many times, the influence is in there, but we made a choice not to watch a lot of stuff, to try and let it be natural and new to us.

Did you have a favourite moment in the production?
That’s a hard one. My favourite moment in the production, I think, was every single performance that we did of the show at the end during ‘Midnight Radio’, when you sing “Lift up your hands”. And every single night, the audience did. They’d lift up their hands, and wave them with us, and that was always the moment when I’d go, “They’ve been with us the whole time. They came with us on the journey, and they listened to the story, and they’re here, and put their hands up.” It just felt magical every day to be like “Oh my God, it spoke to them in some way, and they wanted to be part of it”, and they would really get into it, and stuff. That was magical. Every single night I would go, “This is an experience unlike anything else. Let me never forget this”.

Do you have any other bucket-list roles?
For sure, I’d love to play Dr. Frank-N-Furter in Rocky Horror Show. 

I’ve always considered myself an actor who can sing. I love a lot of theatre. A lot of classical plays. I’m obsessed- I don’t know if I would ever be cast in that, but Edmund in Long Day’s Journey into Night. I just think that play is incredible.

As far as music, I’d love to be anyone in Sweeney Todd, because I just love that show. It’s insane, and the music is incredible. I’d love to be anyone in that. Maybe Toby, maybe Anthony, something like that.

Tell us about James King and the Midnight Hours.
They’re an incredible group of people, and they’re all my friends. I’m a singer-songwriter in my own right, and that’s something I’ve done for a long time. I recorded an EP last year. It came out early last year, and for the EP launch, I wanted to recreate the band sound I put on the record and got these guys together to play, and it went so well, and they were like “we loved playing with you, and we’d like to continue. If you want us to continue on, we would.”

It just grew from there. I was like, “Well, we need to have a name for you guys. I don’t want it to just be James King Band, or something – I feel like we play together and create such an energy.” And it’s been so fun, and it’s gone so well, and we have a residency at the Amsterdam Bicycle Club now, once a month, second Saturday. It just keeps growing. We won the Toronto open mic festival, and we got to record a single in the studio, so that’s coming out. It’s so fun.

That was also part of the easy part for me, for Hedwig. I’ve fronted a rock band before, so doing that was not new to me. That kind of rock and roll performative aspect – that wasn’t scary to me. It was all the other stuff- the accent, and just Hedwig’s personal journey, which is full of such horror, and such trauma, and sadness, and pain- that was the scary part. But there were some things that were easy, because, as a songwriter, if someone stole my songs, and ran off with them, and became majorly famous with them, I’d go nuts. I would stalk them around the country, probably, following their big tour. There were parts of it that were easy to get into, because I was like, “I can just so relate to this.”

What are you doing now? Do you have any upcoming projects?
Like I said, with the band, we just started our residency at the Bicycle Club, so we’re really looking forward to expanding and trying to play all over the city, all the mainstays like the Horseshoe, and Cameron House- we’d love to play there. And we’re gonna release the single, and try and gain some traction with that. That’s my upcoming project, focusing really on the band right now, and in the music. I’m the manager right now, so I’m doing all that work. It does take up a lot of my time.

And I’m gonna be doing Hastings the musical with the Tweed & Co Theatre. They did that last summer, and it’s being remounted and going on a tour of the area. In Hastings County up there, and stuff, and north of Belleville, so I think I’m going to be doing that again this summer. Tweed & Co are also bringing James King and the Midnight Hours down as part of their season for one night only, a kind of concert. That’s kind of what is coming up on the horizon, so far, but keeping busy.

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