Sitting down with the hot men of Matthew Passion revealed some surprising answers in our little Q & A session...

“From the production pictures, it’s clear that you’ve spent more than a little time in the gym. In one scene of Matthew Passion, you play a go-go dancer at a New York City club, and I know many people in the audience will be as focused on your body as your acting in that scene. Do you think that having a body like yours has helped or hindered you in your career so far? Do you think that casting people and agents might tend to ‘type’ you because of it?”
“For me, the gym has always been my place of peace—somewhere to relax. I think that, in many ways, it's opened up a lot of doors that wouldn't have opened as quickly. I believe that something is only a hindrance if you allow it to be—if you rely on that ‘something’ completely with nothing else to offer. Sometimes it does pigeonhole me into certain roles, or types. But thus is the nature of the business. It's taken me a long time to be content with the person that I am, and to be comfortable in my own skin. But I feel like I'm getting there. ‘We're all a work in progress,’ my good friend V.P. Boyle has often told me. I think that's important to remember.”
“One of your most recent projects was the Robert DeNiro-directed film Good Shepherd.  I'm sure that had to have been a thrilling experience for you. When you were considering appearing in Matthew Passion, which has an immense amount of gay content in the story line, were you at all concerned about what people in the industry might think about your being in a play like this?”
“Huh. To be perfectly honest, I hadn’t really given it much thought until you asked the question. I signed on to Matthew Passion after hearing and singing—and loving—much of the music. It’s simply a pleasure to sing, and I looked forward to the opportunity to do that for a while. And knowing that the play was substantially gay-themed didn’t really affect that one way or the other.

Giving it a bit more thought now that you’ve brought it up, however, I certainly don’t think it changes anything. Professionally, I grant that there is a different perspective and philosophy on sexuality between the worlds of film and theatre. But even that continues to evolve, I think. You see far more actors, from unknowns to celebrities playing in gay-themed films or gay roles without cutting their careers off at the knees. The most obvious example is Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in “Brokeback Mountain,” but there are plenty of others. Of course, I doubt you’ll see either one of those two run to play another gay role anytime soon. There’s still a difference between doing it once and making it a pattern or stereotype—and an even bigger difference between the roles you play on film and the life you lead off camera.

Having now diverged from the original question a bit, it seems to me that perhaps Hollywood is following its own path of acceptance much like the parents of a son who comes out: at first anything about being gay is taboo and to be feared, hated, and avoided; then comes a point of admitting that it’s there and there’s nothing they can do about it—but for God’s sake don’t do anything that lets the neighbors know or brings too much attention to it. And finally, one can hope, will come the point of recognizing that it’s no big deal, people are who they are, and their sexuality is only one small part of that. Whether for a film studio or a parent, I suspect that’s the largest hurdle to jump.

But, in the meantime, to bring this back to the question that was originally asked: perhaps I’m an idealist, but no, I don’t think I’m concerned that performing in a play with ‘an immense amount of gay content’ will have an adverse effect on my on-camera career. Hopefully that won’t be proven naïve!”

“Having read the script, I know that the character you play inflicts bodily harm on another cast member. While other cast members have told me your formidable build makes you look right for the character you're playing, beneath it all you’re a warm, wonderful guy. How does an actor tap into a quality in a role that is contradictory to his nature in life? And, once he’s done that, does he ‘dwell’ in that dark place for the run of the play, or is it easy to leave it in the theatre after a performance and go home?”
“It's shocking that there are real people like Aaron McKinney for me to play. But that's what it is—‘play’. We have such a variety of emotions and behaviors as humans. As an actor, it's my duty to tap into those emotions, fears, and insecurities that make up the character I am creating. Oh course I have never ‘gone there’ like Aaron McKinney has. I don't have such hate and issues, but I have to draw on what I do have from my own life experiences, and manipulate and expand them to be able to create this character. It is important for me to take some time before tapping into any character to find that place and explore it; live in it. But when the play is done, it's done. I don't hold onto any part of Aaron McKinney or any other character I am playing.”
“This is your first New York City production since moving here from Houston. Does it give you butterflies to be seen in something in New York City, now that you live here? Or is it more an experience you've longed for, and therefore, welcome? Do you do anything differently in preparation for a performance here than you would have done in your hometown?”
“This experience is, of course, all brand new to me—hopefully, the first of many! It is a little overwhelming and at the same time so incredibly exciting to be making my New York theatrical debut. I think that ‘first big break’ is a memory I’ll cherish and hold onto forever. I couldn't ask for a better cast and creative team. You cannot believe how much fun we have behind the scenes! We keep each other in stitches most of the time! As a performer who hails all the way from Houston, Texas, this definitely is an experience I have longed for all my life. I don't think I prepare any differently for this production than I have for others—maybe a few more jitters is all! I have never done a new piece like this before. It's exciting knowing no matter where it is done in the future, I will have originated this part. The play is powerful. I’m certain it will not only get people thinking, but will also make a bigger difference!”
“In the movie, Billy Elliot, after Billy has auditioned for the school and is about to leave, he extemporizes on what dancing means to him. So many people I’ve talked to in preparing for this interview have spoken to me about your singing and what it means to them. Clearly, your singing is important to others. What does it mean to you?”
“What does singing mean to me? Singing is and always has been what I was born to do. I was lucky. I found my voice when I was just nine years old, and the second I sang my first note, I thought—this is something I can do! It was the beginning of performing and studying music for the rest of my life. There's a feeling I get when I sing that I can’t describe in words. There is nothing but honesty in good singing, and it takes me to a place within that is unlike any other feeling I’ve ever had. Singing is pretty much what brings pure joy to my life.”
“I know you have a wife and a baby. But in Matthew Passion, you play a middle-aged HIV positive survivor who has outlived his life expectancy, and seems disappointed to have done so. With a new baby, a wife, and the full, rich, wonderful life that suggests, how do you prepare for a character who's all but ready to give up on his own life?”
“Obviously, in relation to the character, I'm not infected with a terminal disease. I'm not gay. I am quickly entering the world of men in their mid-forties, though. When did that happen? I used to be the young guy in each cast. Now I'm the older guy who covets the younger ones. After the photo shoot for the show, I almost convinced myself to rejoin a gym. I contemplated it over beer and nachos. The jury is still out. But I do know loss. This past year has been one of unexpected diagnoses and sudden death. Death is such an abstract concept until you get a call one morning informing you that your good friend died of a massive heart attack in the middle of the night. Or when another close friend meets you for lunch and casually tells you that she's been diagnosed with cancer. Then three months later she's gone. I could go on. It all seems so arbitrary, and, at least in my case, makes me ask God, ‘Why not me?’ Yes, I have a wife and child. They are a constant reminder of what is important in my life. And I would give up my life for the sake of saving theirs. That might sound heroic, but it might also be selfish. I don't know if I'd be strong enough to be left behind by my wife and daughter. That's where I'd start with Jim Keenan.”
“James, you’re playing Jesus in this play, a difficult role, and an intimidating one. How are you doing it? Even though you’re only in your mid-twenties, will the fact that you’ve already been a missionary for two years color the way you play the role?”
“My friends from Altar Boyz are so impressed that I've moved up from an ‘Apostle of Pop’ to the big man himself! Seriously though, the thought of taking on this role is very humbling and intimidating but an exciting challenge as well. This is a person who is very near and dear to my heart and I don't think I could ever do the role justice, but I'm hoping I can do it honestly and in the right spirit. How am I preparing? Well, I'm reading through the gospels of the New Testament in a different way. As I read about Jesus's life and mission, I'm trying to put myself in his shoes and imagine what is going through his mind. I'm trying to imagine myself in those surroundings and situations and trying to put faces with the names of the different apostles and characters of the New Testament. Some people immediately recognized Jesus as the Messiah and yet, to others, he was just an ordinary man and a blasphemer. Since I'm just an ordinary guy, it's not going to be hard to capture the side of Jesus that was human, but I'm going to work hard to capture Jesus' higher sense of purpose and divinity. I did serve a two year mission to Argentina when I was nineteen. While it was just a brief time in my life, I do feel like it will help me in the way that I will color this role. It was the hardest, yet most rewarding two years of my life. I really learned to love the people I was serving and would do anything for them. In a little way I guess it was like Christ's mission in the fact that while I was trying my best to teach the gospel to those who would listen, feed the hungry, care for the sick, etc., there were still plenty of people who hated and persecuted me. Heck, in my two years there, I was chased, hit, cussed at, shot at, and even robbed a couple times. People threw bricks, rocks, and sticks at me and even sicced the dogs on me once, and yet, I wouldn't trade the friendships and experience I gained there for anything. So hopefully some of that will come across in my performance on stage. As long as I remember that all the things Jesus did was motivated from his love for us, I think I'll be on the right track.”
“You play Matthew Shepard, the title role in this play--a young man whose life ended far too early. You’re so young, I can’t imagine you’ve had to confront “mortality” issues in the roles you’ve played so far. I know that must have been something you had to do in preparation for playing this part. How does it feel to do so at your age?”

“To be honest, the reality of my own mortality looms very large in my own life. The realization, or revelation, that I too will die someday is not a source of apprehension or anxiety, but rather a source of inspiration for me. Not to sound folksy or dreamy-eyed, but the fact that I do not have forever reminds me to live all I can today.

I found this perspective very early in life, sitting in fourth grade grammar class at Oak Knoll School of the Holy Child Jesus. Our class was being very unruly, so our teacher slammed her ruler on her desk, as only a nun in the educational vocation could, and said, ‘I want everyone to look at the clock on the wall in silence.’ We obeyed and all twenty children, clad in embroidered maroon sweaters and plaid pants and skirts, sat in silence and watched the clock make one painfully slow turn. ‘You will never have that minute back,’ our teacher said softly, knowing she had finally commanded our attention.

That one minute stays with me to this day and serves as a reminder not to waste a single moment of this life.

The challenge for me in breathing life into Matthew is imagining this precious gift forcibly ripped from me in the span of a few hours. I imagine that, near the beginning of his being beaten, he imagined that it had to stop before it got too out of hand—that the two men would eventually have their fill. As the night progressed, he realized that no one would be coming to stop them—not the police, not his father or mother—no one could save him. He was going to die alone on top of a hill tied to a fence.

I use these images—these tableaus of total helpless desperation—in order to fully realize what it is to be hated and killed for being who you are. It is the greatest crime against any living being. When I imagine the character I’m playing having been treated so savagely, feelings of mortality surface, and it becomes pretty easy and essential to be thankful for every second of this gift called life.”

“You play seven roles in this play! In every scene, you play a different character. That's a lot of humanity to be responsible for! One of the characters you play, the Director, seems to have a big hand in how things turn out in the end of the play. Do you think that’s the way it is in life, or do we shape our own destinies?”
“I think the metaphor of the director being part of each of the characters most aptly comports with my understanding of life and choice. We are each in absolute control of our destinies, and we each have a different relationship to that control. Some of us have no idea that we are in control and seek outside influence to direct our actions. Others create reality intentionally with every choice we make. This choosing is God, and it is each of us. And likewise, for each of us to accept our role in life as the director is to accept responsibility for a lot of humanity, for how things come out in the end.”

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