Once a month, a member of the theater community will pull up a chair to our cyber table and join us for a little conversation. I’ll edit the transcripts (removing the truly libelous parts) and post the results. For January, we’re sitting down with three accomplished Broadway vets who know that show business is all about Hustling…
From the buzz campaign for [title of show] to the web comedy Submissions Only, Broadway has embraced the internet as the next frontier in building careers beyond the theater district. The latest entry in this new world of content is Hustling, a seriocomic series about a forty year old male hustler and porn star looking to get out of the business and find his true passion. Written by, directed by and starring the drop-dead talented Sebastian La Cause (The Rocky Horror Show and the upcoming Sundance Festival film Keep the Lights On), the show premiered in November and has already gathered a devoted following for its intriguing story, stylish look and stellar cast of Broadway luminaries like La Cause and Daphne Rubin-Vega (Rent).
After a short holiday break, the series returns tonight with a fresh episode in which leading man Ryan is hired by a swinging couple, deliciously played by Brent Barrett (currently appearing in Chicago) and Shannon Lewis (currently in How to Succeed…). Last month, I caught up with Barrett, Lewis and La Cause over a bottle of wine (and lots of laughter) to discuss Hustling, the benefits of working with friends and a certain director/writer/actor’s gay icon bonafides…
This is all friendly. I won’t do anything that compromises anyone.
Shannon: Oh please, we’ve already been compromised.
Brent: You have watched [Hustling], right?
I have. Though I haven’t seen your episode yet.
Shannon: Neither have we!
Are there things we should be concerned about?
Brent: Other than me getting [expletives deleted]? I don’t think so.
I think we have the headline for the article right there.
Shannon: Good times.
Brent: That’s how you start off an interview.
I don’t know where to go from there.
Brent: That’s the thing about this episode; it doesn’t hold back on anything. There’s a little bit of everything.
Sebastian, is that why you cast [Brent and Shannon], because they weren’t afraid to go anywhere?
Sebastian: I’m sure that factored in. But Shannon’s role…I wanted to write something for her. And then I wrote her this awesome husband and when I started thinking about who would fit that bill, I thought of Brent Barrett.
What qualities were you looking for? What did you want to bring out in Shannon?
Shannon: Choose your words carefully.
Sebastian: We bonded doing A Chorus Line. She was Shelia and I was Zach. Not only did we have a great time doing those scenes but we bonded as human beings. So when I was writing, I knew I wanted Shannon in it…I definitely wanted to capture her sexuality. She has this…
Shannon: Shocking. This is shocking.
Sebastian: Her sexiness. There’s an openness that she has that is definitely a part of the character… I wanted to write something for her that I hadn’t seen her do before… I wanted to do that with everyone. My character may be the lead character but I really see it as an ensemble piece. All the other series regulars or supporting roles are really great characters. I wanted to make sure I wrote those roles with lots of stuff to play with.
And with Brent, why did his name come to mind?
Brent: A sexually addictive man of a certain age?
You needed to stretch. Push you in new directions.
Sebastian: The character is definitely sophisticated and handsome and well-off and worldly. All that Brent has. There’s also this dirtiness that’s there.
Brent: I don’t know what he’s talking about.
Sebastian: And a playfulness. Brent would be perfect; that’s all I could think about.
Brent: Reading the script, it was funny and intelligent… It was like wow. I was very impressed.
Shannon: And watching [Sebastian] direct, too! We came back to do some extra stuff, a reshoot situation and it was just Sebastian. We had him directing us, doing the storyboards, playing the lead…
Brent: Doing the lighting.
Shannon: Doing the shots.
Brent: Setting up the camera.
Shannon: He is Barbra Streisand.
Sebastian: It’s true I only like to be shot from one side.
How does it feel to be totally in control like that? As an actor you are at the mercy of so much…
Sebastian: Oh yeah, this whole project has been life transforming on many levels. Not just as an artist but as a human being, in the sense of taking control. Because as artists we always feel like our careers are left to chance and what we like to think are other people’s bad decision making when we don’t get the roles.
Shannon: …I’m sure you both can attest to this, show business is all about relationships. The people that you know forever become directors and they trust you because they know your work… Sebastian had to trust that in this moment, not being able to sit behind the camera and watch, he had to trust that what we had already built as friends and people in the business together was going to be there… It’s what Hustling is about. It’s the relationships between the people. That’s what he does so well. That’s what I found the minute we started shooting. There’s so much chemistry here. Like you said, sometimes when you don’t get a role, they don’t know what you can do. But we do, and we can mine that. That’s what makes this so special.
Does the overarching idea of the show resonate with you? Did you ever reach a point in your career where you thought, “Should I go off and become a chef? Should I be getting out of the business?”
Brent: Every day.
Brent: All along the way you’re thinking, “Is there something else I’d like to do?”
Shannon: Even when you’re successful.
Brent: That’s when you diversify and try other things.
Shannon: I’m a certified yoga teacher and I write a yoga blog. That has been enriching to my life on stage as an actor, to do something else and meet new people and get a new point of view. To see other parts of life makes me a better actress.
Sebastian: It’s not just show business. There are people in all walks of life that are doing jobs and in lives that they don’t want to be doing. And are looking at their lives and thinking what other choices they could have made. Wondering, is there anything else I can do? What am I passionate about? That’s what makes this story relatable. That’s what the story is really about.
Is there a specific moment that inspired the show?
Sebastian: When I was in LA I met a couple of, you know, porn stars.
Brent: As you do.
Sebastian: It’s true. It’s LA. I was very intrigued by them. Not because they were porn stars but I thought their psychology was interesting to me. There were two people that I met that inspired Ryan’s background. One person was extremely open about what they did…almost wore it like a badge of honor. But at the same time he carried a lot of shame about it and wanted to get out of the business. And this person was in his early 20’s.
Sebastian: And another person I met was 30 and the complete opposite. He told elaborate tales and lied and wasn’t forthcoming about his life. He also carried a lot of shame and wanted to leave the life. But both of these people just didn’t know how. I thought that was really fascinating. …So I thought “what about a guy who has been doing this and he turns forty” and I just turned forty. There’s so much of me in Ryan. I mean, I’m not a hustler and I’m not a porn star, but what he’s going through, all that stuff, I pulled from my own life.
It feels like everybody here has crossed paths multiple times.
Brent: [Sebastian and I] first worked together in Chicago.
Sebastian: I was Harry or something and Brent was…Roxie?
Brent: I was doing Velma at the time.
Shannon: Oh my god.
Brent: Shannon and I did Candide. Was that your first Broadway show?
Shannon: It was my second.
Brent: You were a baby.
Shannon: I was the understudy to Paquette. She got food poisoning during previews and I’d never had a rehearsal. But I’d luckily slightly prepared for it at home. She literally turned green and puked in the wings. They pulled her costume off, put it on me and threw me out on stage. [Brent] basically puppeteered me around the stage. I had no idea; I hadn’t even seen half of the show.
Shannon: We bonded over that for sure.
Sebastian: And when I was doing Chicago, [Shannon] was doing Fosse. We were next door to each other.
Shannon: Yes, we were the Fosse people.
Was it like West Side Story? Two rival gangs?
Brent: We shared an alley way.
Shannon: You could walk back there and be like, “Hey, what’s up?”
Sebastian, you have the trifecta. According to your bio you’ve worked with Liza (Minnelli on Minelli), Madonna at the Oscars and you were in Showgirls.
This is crazy.
Shannon: He’s a gay icon, ladies and gentlemen.
What did you do in Showgirls?
Sebastian: I played “Sal”. That was like my first…it was a small role. I was one of the dancers in the “Goddess” show. I had some lines.
Shannon: Isn’t there a shot of you pulling off some girl’s shirt?
Sebastian I don’t know. There’s definitely a shot of me licking Carrie Ann Inaba’s vajayjay.
Shannon: There you go!
It’s the memories that are so special.
Brent: Do you have a photo of that up on your wall?
Shannon: Yeah, you should.
Sebastian: I had no idea what I was doing in that as an actor. I was so terrified when I was shooting that. I had no idea how to approach saying lines at all. It was so horrible.
And Brent, I can’t have you sitting here with me without mentioning the number in Grand Hotel…
Brent: With Michael Jeter.
I talked about it on the blog (watch it here). It’s my favorite Tony moment ever. I remember thinking this is joy; this is why I want to be involved in music theater. Did you feel that at the time?
Brent: It was a magical moment. You know, there’s such an adrenaline rush when you’re on the Tonys. You’re waiting in the wings and it’s like “here we go”. You could fall on your ass and destroy the entire number. You’re thinking, “Just don’t fall.” But it was…we got back into the bus and we were watching Jeter’s acceptance speech and we were all crying our eyes out. It was beautiful.
Shannon, which numbers were you in in Fosse?
Were they idols for you?
Shannon: Ann Reinking was. I mean, Gwen Verdon obviously was but Ann Reinking was in Annie. When I went to see that when I was an eight year old child, my mom leaned over to me and said, “She’s on Broadway.” And I was like, “I want to do that.” …I think working with Ann and working with Gwen was the closest thing to working with Fosse because he died before I got to the city and I never got a chance to ever meet him or work with him. Both of them said to me many times–and some times it wasn’t a good thing that they said it–but they were saying that he probably would have taken to me, the way I danced his stuff. That was a huge compliment. [pause] You know what I’m saying, “taken to me”…
Brent: Taken to me. Maybe just taken.
Shannon: What is that line from All That Jazz? What does she say? “F*** him, he never hires me.” “Oh honey, I did f*** him and he still never hires me.”
Shannon: It was great to be a part of that. …It was like running the Boston Marathon every night. It was a crazy, crazy wonderful ride.
Sebastian: Doing Chicago was amazing. Doing that choreography was incredible. Even though it was mostly improv.
Brent: “Hey, what do you want to do here? Show me something.”
Are you kidding?
Sebastian: Oh, it’s all improv.
Brent: I think now they’ve tried to make it more uniform so each company does the same thing so people can go in and out of the companies. But originally, for probably the first ten years…
Sebastian: The show can be as hard or as easy as you want it to be. The only time it’s choreographed is when everyone is dancing together. All the amoeba stuff, you have the vocabulary, the Fosse vocabulary, and you do what you want.
Shannon: But that’s a Fosse thing. He didn’t want it to be choreographed. He wanted you to feel it.
Sebastian, what do you hope happens with Hustling?
Sebastian: Honestly, it’s already happened. What it has done for me creatively has already been more than I could have imagined. I’ve never felt more invigorated, more alive, more focused, more creative, more fulfilled as an artist than when I’ve been working on this. So that right there is amazing.
Episode 6 of Hustling is available now on blip.tv.