Steppenwolf ensemble member K. Todd Freeman is bringing sass to a Sissy this season.
Directed by the "Wicked"-ly talented Joe Mantello, Airline Highway depicts the drama surrounding the parking lot of The Hummingbird, a motel in New Orleans. The cast comes together for the final party set at the motel for Miss Ruby brings some poignant moments to the story for a grand finale.
Portraying Sissy Na Na, a flamboyant character with a heart of gold, Freeman gives life to someone many of us may know in real life.
The Tony-nominated Freeman is a staple for Steppenwolf with The March, The Brother/Sister Plays and Art.
Off-Broadway credits include Spunk, Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Uncle Tom's Cabin.
Some television watchers know him as Mr. Trick on Buffy the Vampire Slayer or have spotted him in movies like Grosse Pointe Blank, Cider House Rules or The Dark Knight.
Windy City met with Freeman on opening night to walk the runway on this Highway.
Windy City Times: Where are you from originally?
K. Todd Freeman: Houston, Texas.
WCT: What brought you to Chicago?
K. Todd Freeman: I was living in L.A., and auditioned for a play called Song of Jacob Zulu that Steppenwolf was doing. I got the job and that was the first time I came in 1992. They asked me to join the company in 1993. I never lived here until about five years ago. I was always just bouncing in.
WCT: You have had a longtime relationship with Steppenwolf.
K. Todd Freeman: It has been 21 years but I am only 18!
WCT: I heard you went full-frontal in a Clockwork Orange for Steppenwolf. Was that nerve-wracking?
K. Todd Freeman: Not at all. I had no problems with that.
WCT: How long were you in Wicked?
K. Todd Freeman: I was in Wicked for over four years, one year on the road, and I closed it out for the last two years here. I joined the Broadway company in January of 2014. I did it for nine months right before I came here. Joe Mantello is a friend of mine and we have known each other since college. That is not why I am in this show, I actually had to audition. Steppenwolf is an institution that when you are in it then you really never leave. People are always coming back and popping in when on tour. It is a great gig to have when you need to bulk up that bank account.
WCT: How was it working with Joe on this show?
K. Todd Freeman: It was great. Like I said we went to school together. He was a few years ahead of me. We had acted together because we did the original Angels in America in L.A. He was Louis and I was Belize. We have been friends for 30 years. When I was in Wicked he would come and give notes but we had never worked together with him being a director and me as an actor from the beginning, so this was fantastic. We were able to bring our history to the work, which was really good.
I know the level of perfection he requires and you don't want to suck in your friend's play! There was some pressure so it was a double edged sword.
WCT: Is your character, Sissy, based on someone you know?
K. Todd Freeman: No, but I am from Houston so I have been around those Southern provincial drag-queen men since high school. It is a hodgepodge of them but visually I took inspiration from Big Freedia, who Lisa D'Amour, the writer, based the character on.
WCT: I heard the Big Freedia song at the end.
K. Todd Freeman: I was so pleased that it wasn't full beat drag. I could do exactly what I wanted. He's a boy. He's a girl. He is his own thing. You can't define that. It's a wig, no makeup, and a heel. I was into it and comfortable with that.
WCT: Have you been to a Big Freedia concert?
K. Todd Freeman: No, I can't twerk. I'm too old for the bounce!
WCT: Do you have crazy Buffy fans in your life?
K. Todd Freeman: They are starting to fade away but they are there. They pop up when you least expect it. They flew me to England for a Buffy convention. It was like a Trekkie convention and I had never experienced anything like it before. In the United States people know me from Buffy or NYPD Blue. The people that are into Buffy are usually middle aged to older dudes. Apparently, I am really big in England and I had no idea.
WCT: Are you wanting to make more movies?
K. Todd Freeman: I have one coming out with Tim Blake Nelson that might go to Sundance. We shot it last December; it's called Anesthesia, with Sam Waterston and Glenn Close.
I was just on an episode of Elementary that came out two weeks ago. So hopefully more but I am booked with this play for awhile.
WCT: You have such a touching scene in Airline Highway with your backstory.
K. Todd Freeman: I like that shit because it is completely unsentimental. I love it and I am glad it is there. That was the reason that I decided to the part because that scene was there. It added dimensional so he is not just a jester character. It brought depth and purpose. At one point, Lisa talked about cutting itand I wouldn't let her.
WCT: Oh no, that scene is important. In the wrong hands, this role could have [been a] caricature.
K. Todd Freeman: It was really important to me to make an homage to the queens I was talking about who are so special, like Lady Chablis in in the movie Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. We always see the grand drag queen who is all girl. Another inspiration was the movie Paris Is Burning. This is an homage to those unsung people.
WCT: Are you out of the closet in your career?
K. Todd Freeman: I don't go around saying, "Heyyy," but if people ask me I tell them I am gay. That is not my agenda...
WCT: You did a show called Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism, so talk about that.
K. Todd Freeman: The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scripturesit was Tony Kushner's last play he did in New York. Stephen Spinella was in it; [he's] from Angels in America. It was a great play and four hours long. It was recently done again at Berkeley. I am glad because it was another pass at that play and it wasn't done when we did it in New York. I know he wanted it to go to Broadway and that didn't happen. I think it could be another great piece of American dramatic literature.
It is the story of someone done with life who calls in his three children to tell them he's going to commit suicide. I played the lover of Stephen Spinella, who is one of the main character's sons. It is dense because Tony Kushner can only write dense plays.
WCT: Or long plays!
K. Todd Freeman: When we did the first read through in rehearsal and it was five hours. We finally cut it down to the four hours on opening night. It took six weeks to cut it down to that. I love doing new work and that gives me the biggest thrill.
It is not so much that Airline Highway is harder but there is so much happening all the time. You have to listen to things all over the stage and it splits your focus. It is challenging with all of the overlap. To orchestrate it in rehearsal was exhausting, plus running around in five inch heels didn't help either!
Catch Highway before its Broadway debut while in Chicago at Steppenwolf, 1650 N. Halsted St., only through Feb. 14. For tickets, call 312-335-1650 or visit steppenwolf.org .