15 Minutes with Michael Cerveris
by Ryan Leeds
Michael Cerveris has sunk a ship (Titanic), shot a U.S. President (Assassins), slashed a few throats (Sweeney Todd), and committed suicide by throwing himself in front of a truck (Fun Home). It’s a dark resume, but one that has earned him four Tony nominations and two awards. Not that he’s counting. The mild-mannered Broadway star tends to shun the fanfare of ceremony, focusing more on the joy of stagecraft and performing with his band, Loose Cattle.
On Thursday night, his fellow folk/country music cronies will take to the stage at the Sheen Center, where audiences will be treated to selections from his albums, Dog Eared and Hinterland. He’ll also be playing tunes from his new album Piety.
On a recent rainy morning, the Chelsea resident grabbed coffee at the Grey Dog Cafe with The Broadway Blog to discuss his upcoming gig, his career, and why—with complete sincerity—he doesn’t consider himself “the best.”
The Broadway Blog: First and foremost, let’s clarify the pronunciation of your last name.
Michael Cerveris: It’s “server-iss” (rhymes with hiss). I have close friends who mispronounce it and I have to say ‘You are my friend, but that’s not my name.’
BB: And you come from an artistic family?
MC: Yes. My brother is an actor, my sister was a ballet dancer and later a Broadway actor. My parents met at Juilliard. They tried to send us to good schools so that we’d have ended up in lucrative, stable careers but that just didn’t happen.
BB: How did Loose Cattle get started?
MC: My girlfriend at the time, Kimberly Kay, and I were going through an argumentative phase in our relationship and decided to create something a little more productive. She loved to sing and I did, too. After years of being away from the South and then returning, I realized that my formative years were spent here (West Virginia). We decided to start a casual country band for fun, but it grew from there.
BB: How did the name originate?
MC: I was singing backup for my friend, Laura Cantrell, at Hill Country Barbeque [in New York City.] There was a photo on the wall of a road sign in Texas warning people of “Loose Livestock.” I thought it would be a great name for a band, but I misremembered the sign as “Loose Cattle.”
BB: Your night at the Sheen Center will be billed as “Michael Cerveris and his Accomplices.” Who will be joining you?
MC: Unfortunately, Kimberly won’t be able to make this show but I’ll have a string quartet, fiddle, and mandolin players. Joe McGinty will play piano and a few others. It’s going to focus mostly on my Piety album, which has just been released. There will be 10 of us altogether.
BB: Which do you prefer: Performing in your band or on Broadway? They are vastly different.
MC: They are totally different. I’m so grateful that I haven’t had to choose. To be able to have acting as a day job is pretty exciting, but my band is really a labor of love.
BB: You mentioned in a NY Times article that you “have ambivalence about awards in the arts, especially competitive awards.” Why is that?
MC: In general, I think I’ve struggled with competition. I used to run cross-country in junior high school in the hills of West Virginia. I would love the practice runs but as the week would progress towards the track meets, by Saturday morning I would be a ball of nerves. I think I that have color to my personality, which has aversion to ambition and competition.
In the arts, there is no way to objectively compare two performances and say that one is better than the other. The year that I won [the Tony Award for] Fun Home is a perfect example. The job description for my fellow four actors is completely different. There is no way I could have done what Tony Yazbeck, Robert Fairchild, or Brian D’Arcy James did. So to say that I was better makes no sense. I wish they would take away the “best” moniker. I love the celebration of the work, but the actual competition part drives me crazy.
BB: Who has influenced you in the Broadway realm and in the country/folk genre?
MC: Seeing Len Cariou in the original Sweeney Todd is what made me think that I could do serious musical theater. I’ve always admired Ed Harris. In music, my tastes are pretty varied. John Prine, Dan Fogelberg’s early work, Cat Stevens, Harry Chapin, and Jim Croce were also influences. I’ve also had my indie-rock and punk rock phases.
Now, I’ve rediscovered a lot of country music like Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, and those singer-songwriters who could capture a scene or character in the most commonplace words that take on a poetic essence. There are some modern bands I really like such as Blackberry Smoke and Drive-By Truckers.
Michael Cerveris & His Accomplices
18 Bleecker Street, NYC
Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Ry_Runner or on Facebook.