Actor Jeffrey Carlson is leading the cast of the Goodman Theatre's Measure for Measure. Robert Falls' radical take on the Shakespeare classic is sure to entertain audiences with its dark comedy. Carlson portrays Lucio, a link between the underworld and high society.
Carlson may be remembered for his important part in All My Children as the rock star Zarf, who was revealed to be a transgender woman, Zoe, who was a lesbian. The show won a GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Daily Drama in the process.
Carlson is classically trained, having studied at Julliard. He debuted on Broadway in Albert Albee's The Goat or Who is Sylvia? with Bill Pullman and Sally Field. He played Marilyn in Boy George's Taboo, and was nominated for a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical.
He is no stranger to Shakespeare, with performances in Washington D.C. in Hamlet, among many others. Carlson brings this experience to the current production, where Windy City Times went backstage to explore his journey to this production.
Windy City Times: Hi, Jeffrey. Your story is interesting since birth. I read your mom was an All My Children fan.
Jeffrey Carlson: Yes, she named me after Dr. Jeff Martin; then many years later I wound up on the show!
WCT: She must be the proudest mother in the world.
JC: She was so proud. It was fascinating the way it happened. I was asked to do only one day and they called me a month and a half later to write me on the show, then they told me about the transgender role. So I don't think my mom knew about it in that capacity. I had to do a big coming-out transgender story on daytime television.
WCT: The videos are still out on YouTube.
JC: I know. My mom told me to watch them but I didn't want to. Those clips make me nervous and judgmental.
WCT: Were you pushed by her to be in theater?
JC: No; it started strangely. I was terrible at sports as a kid. We were an athletic family and when I kicked the ball, it went sideways. I was an artistic kid. My mom asked me what I wanted to do and I said "Acting." I'm from Long Beach, Calif., and she put me in local acting classes and it was fun. I tried sports again in high school and couldn't do it. One of my relatives taught at my high school and suggested I talk to the drama teacher. In a small capacity I started to open up. I was a really shy kid. I still am but in a different capacity because you have to deal with this business.
I wound up studying to be a veterinarian. I went to UC Davis as an animal-science major. My first year there I was playing the piano, and one of the drama majors heard me singing and signed me up for auditioning for the play. The dean encouraged me to pursue acting. They gave me a job so I could quit the pet store I was working at. I had to cram my degree into a year and a half. I auditioned for Juilliard School and was asked to come two weeks later. That was a marvelous experience. I moved to New York without ever having been there before. My very first day at school was my first day in New York City.
WCT: That is an intense program.
JC: I don't regret a single day of it. I wanted to hang myself most days I was in it because of how rigorous it is. Sometimes they are just plain mean to you, but it is all out of love. Right after that, I got the off-Broadway play and was lucky that a lot of people saw that performance.
WCT: What was the name of the play?
JC: It was called Thief River by Lee Blessing at the Signature Theatre in New York. Edward Albee came to see it and I was asked to do a reading of his play. Before I knew it I was doing my first Broadway play right out of school.
WCT: How old were you?
JC: I was 26 when I started it, and did it for almost a year. I then left it to do a revival of Tartuffe on Broadway. I left that a week early from that to do a revival of The Miracle Worker with Hilary Swank. It was supposed to go to Broadway but we closed out of a town for a variety of reasons.
I shot a bit of a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie and was worried that I would never work again when I got the call to audition for Taboo. I guess they had been looking for a Marilyn for a long time. I had never played a drag queen before. By the time I auditioned for Rosie O'Donnell and walked to my agent's office a block away, I had gotten the rolethen I went on that crazy rollercoaster!
WCT: How long did that last?
JC: I think we did 113 performances so it was a good three months. We were in rehearsal for two months before that so it felt like it had its due. It went through such a beating through the media. People really loved it and didn't want it to close. It was so fun to go to work every night. The cast got along great even with all of the drama outside.
WCT: Did you see the documentary about it and why it failed?
JC: I was in it.
WCT: When did All My Children happen?
JC: It was a few years after that. I did a lot of theater in between. I did my first show in Chicago at the Shakespeare Theater. We took it to the Royal Theatre Company in England. While I was there I got my script for All My Children. They hired me as a day player but then they wrote me on the show. My parents were thrilled.
I had a meeting with the producer and they explained that they wanted to do the first coming out story of a transgender from male to female on daytime television. I asked, "How are you going to do it?" She said, "With dignity." Then I said okay and they told me what they were doing with Eden Riegel's character, Bianca, coming out as a lesbian and I was sold. I would not have gone on the show for sensational pieces.
WCT: I know many people where they transition and become a lesbian but you don't usually see it on daytime TV.
JC: I feel like that is commonplace now because it opened up my whole world.
WCT: How did you land Measure for Measure?
JC: I did a show here two years ago called Stage Kiss. I was in between moving from New York to Los Angeles but I spend a lot of time here. I teach Shakespeare in the city.
JC: It is freelance. I teach with my dear friend Susan Hart. We do this thing where I come in and help professional actors with their language.
After Stage Kiss, the casting director here just called and asked me to see Bob about Measure for Measure. I just happened to be teaching a class about Measure for Measure at the same time. I was covered on the language part.
WCT: Tell our readers about your character in the show.
JC: He is Lucio. He's called a "fantastic."
WCT: What does that mean?
JC: No one really knows what it means. People that have taken a stab at it claim he's avant garde and ahead of his time. He's sharp as a tack with his wit. His references are so obscure almost to a point that they had to be cut because a modern audience wouldn't even understand what I was talking about. In fashion he is ahead of his time. You can't get him to shut up. When he is onstage he always has something to say.
WCT: He must be fun to play.
JC: He can be played so many different ways but we had made him British in this play. He's someone who is very wealthy but he can go from talking to the wealthy people to hanging out with the lowlifes. He hangs out in brothels and does drugs. We are set in the '70s in New York. This isn't your grandma's Measure for Measure!
WCT: This sounds wild.
JC: I never thought I would play someone like him. Bob is really encouraging me to go a very different direction than what I thought he was or perceived him on paper and it is fascinating. There is a little dark side to him. He has ended up being a very caring person as well as the wild child.
WCT: You have performed so much Shakespeare over the years. What do you like about his works?
JC: I just love the writing. I think he is practically perfect. I know some of his plays have problems. It may be clichÃ© but the reason they have been around for so long is when you really look at them they are some of the most human situations. We don't talk like that anymore or even back then. No one was running around rhyming in iambic pentameter. I find the stories very personal to me and I can make them very personal. Almost every character in every play I know someone who is similar to them.
Shake it over to the Goodman Theatre, 170 N Dearborn St., as Measure for Measure is currently running through April 14. To purchase a ticket, visit www.goodmantheatre.org .