On the smash NBC
hit Smash, Broadway veteran Will Chase sinks his acting chops
into not one, but two meaty roles. As Michael Swift, he is the love
interest of Debra Messing’s main character, making for the required
steam and sparks that fog up our TV screen. If that were not enough,
he also plays the complex, legendary love interest of Marilyn Monroe
(namely Joe DiMaggio) in the fictional Broadway musical that is the
center of the story.
Quite an exciting challenge for the can-do actor, who has actually
appeared on Broadway (in real life!) in such diverse fare as Rent,
Miss Saigon and Billy Elliot.
His on-stage experience is key to the development of his two complex
TV characters. He’s been given the tall task of a telling a
televised tale of a Broadway musical, from two angles.
He says of his vast experience on The White Way, “It only feels like
a job when you are on the way to the theater or on the way home. But
actually standing on that stage, you pinch yourself. You can’t
believe it. When you are walking down the street and your picture is
out on the marquee, that’s when you go, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe
I’m on Broadway.’ For me, it certainly never gets old and never gets
Of course the
novelty never wears off, not when you have humble beginnings in
Kentucky, where the Broadway stage is as far away as Mars.
“My cousin was in
the musical Guys and Dolls in high school,” he says, “and in
my mind, that was the best production of anything I have ever seen.
But I was like eight at the time.”
Still, as he grew, so did his dream of pursuing a career in
entertainment, with the usual detours.
“I grew up singing in the church,” he says. “I was studying to be a
percussionist. I fell into [acting] in college. From the day I
graduated, I moved to Chicago and started a musical theater career.
It was a good fit, one of those things that really fit in my life,
and I was very passionate about it. Then I just started climbing the
ladder, New York and national tours. It was a passion as opposed to
something I was supposed to do.”
His role (within a role) of the troubled, protective, old-fashioned
Joe DiMaggio, who is in love with a woman who happens to be an icon,
gets a humane, understanding treatment from Chase.
“[The film] The Seven Year Itch shows that iconic picture of
Marilyn with her skirt blowing up,” Chase says. “Joe was pissed off
at that. He was that lovable baseball player, but he was also very
jealous. It brought a lot of volatility, because every man on the
planet wanted Marilyn. But when she died, for twenty years Joe sent
roses to her grave. Every week for 20 years. It was one of those
lovely traumatic relationships.”
He is also pleased to be working with Will & Grace’s Debra
Messing, who is getting the rare chance to show television viewers
what else she is made of.
“I think people are going to be really surprised,” he says of his
co-star. “They have not seen Debra like this. Here, she really gets
to go deep. Because of our characters’ background together on the
show, I don’t think people are going to recognize her, but I think
they are going to like what she’s doing. She has a musical pedigree.
She’s trained. This is a nice departure for her and I think people
are going to be pleasantly surprised.”
itself, which contains a show within a show, can have the effect of
a house of mirrors on the actors.
Chase explains, “We record a song three of four weeks before we
shoot the episode [in which the song is featured]. And for me, the
challenge is trying to find the emotional content of the song when
you are three episodes behind. So you have to use your imagination a
little more than say any given night on Broadway when you perform a
song live. With that said, the music really does speak to the
Marilyn and Joe characters and the actual show within the show. They
are also layered enough that they also follow the emotions of our
characters, Michael and Julia. But you record way in advance, which
is kind of weird and trippy.”
Trippy? How trippy is this: his gig as John Lennon in the Broadway
musical, Lennon. Although it opened and closed quickly in
2005, it was a career high for Chase.
“It was very trippy,” he agrees. “I couldn’t get over playing my
musical icon, and then being part of a nine-member cast. It was
pretty amazing. Yoko said to me, ‘John would have loved it.’ It made
me so happy to hear that. It was a dream come true.”
Unlike Broadway musicals scores, it seems that The Beatles are
Chase’s biggest influences, musical and otherwise.
“The Beatles probably affected every aspect of my artistry,” he
says, “my acting, the way I listen to music, the way I read lyrics.
I am a huge Beatles freak. I’m also a huge fan of the Canadian band
Rush. The music made me pay more attention. I know naming The
Beatles is an odd thing for an actor to say.”
He lists his acting influences as mostly the usual subjects, (Robert
DeNiro, Al Pacino, Albert Finney, and Michael Caine), but his daily
pre-performance mantra is strictly unorthodox.
He says, “As I’m getting older, I’m trying to be more selfless. I
have a mantra which is a little expletive. I say, ‘fuck the
audience! ‘And it’s not meant to be mean.’ It’s meant to invite
these people onto this thing, because nothing like this will ever
happen again. That night is never going to happen again. That’s my
mantra. Fuck the audience! Take them home with you!”
With the huge success of Smash, Chase’s one-night stand with
audiences may turn into a long-term relationship.