Brooks Ashmanskas a God of Carnage
A Comedic Bare Knuckles Slug Fest
By: Brooks Ashmanskas and Charles Giuliano - Jan 14, 2012
Over the past several summers we have seen a lot of Brooks Ashmanskas in a variety of roles including the lead in the musical She Loves Me which Nicholas Martin took with him during the 2008 season in a move from the Huntington Theatre to Williamstown Theatre Festival. Our first interview was hilarious. It was challenging and fun to reconnect about his role in the current God of Carnage at the Huntington. With Brooks you come to expect the unexpected. Starting with a straight interview it doesn’t take long for the wheels to come off. From there it devolves into a comedic, bar knuckles slug fest. But all in outrageous fun. Read this and weep. Tears of hysterical joy.
Charles Giuliano We first met at the Huntington in 2007 when you did Present Laughter, directed by Nicholas Martin, starring Victor Garber. There was a press conference. Since then we have seen you several times at Williamstown Theatre Festival including last summer in She Stoops to Conquer. Now you have returned to the Huntington with God of Carnage. How many times have you been at the Huntington?
Brooks Ashmanskas This is my fourth time.
CG What does Huntington mean to you? Initially you were there through a long association with Nicholas Martin (part two).
BA I love Boston. I come up here a lot to see Red Sox games. It was an opportunity to do a great play and a role that I wouldn’t always play. With a director, Danny Goldstein, who I have known for a long time, but never worked with. He used to assist Nicky years ago and that’s how I met him. When he called and asked if I wanted to do this I said, absolutely, why not? I’m not doing anything. I really like it up here in Boston. I like it a lot.
CG So you were asked to do the play. You didn’t audition for the role.
BA No. It’s a fortunate way to do things.
CG I’m having trouble wrapping myself around this. It doesn’t seem like your kind of role. In fact a colleague commented that in this play you seemed quite subdued.
BA Uh oh. Yeah. That’s what I mean about a different kind of part. Certainly it gets to a fevered pitch at certain points in the play. It’s sort of refreshing, to tell you the truth, to not have to be always jumping over furniture. You know. Being insane. It’s a nice change. Absolutely. It’s part of the reason why I did it.
CG You’re known for physical comedy. I’m thinking of last summer in She Stoops to Conquer. So you’re not dancing all over the set this time.
BA No. Not really. There’s this little dance with a bean bag chair. I would say the dude is right. It’s a very dim version of physical comedy. It’s a different kind of comedy. It’s more drawing room comedy than farce.
CG I saw Carnage on Broadway with our friend Dylan Baker and Lisa Liu. It seems to start in a subdued manner and then build. Eventually there is vomiting and throwing the flowers. It gets madcap as the momentum develops. At that point it plays into your style.
BA Yes. That’s what’s fun about it. You get the best of both worlds. There is a tense beginning and then after about ten minutes it starts to get a bit more argumentative. Then the gloves come off and they turn into complete children. Animals really. That’s fun too. So there is a little bit of both.
CG I was surprised when they started throwing around all those flowers. It seemed like such a terrible waste of gorgeous tulips.
BA I know and expensive.
CG I don’t know about at the Huntington but on Broadway it was an immense arrangement of flowers.
BA Yeah huge. Just huge. She gets to just tear them to shreds. It’s great.
CG Did you see Carnage on Broadway?
BA Yes I did. I wish I had seen Dylan but I saw the original cast. I really enjoyed it. I thought it was great fun.
CG How was James Gandolfini?
BA Great. They were all great. All four of them.
CG So are we implying Brooks that there is something about you which we don’t know?
BA What do you mean?
CG You are saying that this is a different aspect. More subdued.
BA I’m a human being Charles. I don’t run around my apartment leaping over couches all day long.
CG That’s so disappointing.
BA Yeah. So disappointing. That’s why I’m so fat. I don’t get the exercise I need. That’s why I have to do it on stage.
CG Is that why you wear sneakers all the time? So you can break into a run and leap over furniture on the spur of the moment.
BA Exactly. Of course I wear laceless sneakers so you don’t have to bend down to tie them. You just put your feet into them. So I don’t have to deal with the stomach.
CG So you can break into a fast trot. Is that the idea?
BA Absolutely. Always ready. Particularly on a day like this. It’s hideous outside.
CG It’s snowing here. Do you get nostalgic for the Berkshires?
BA Always. I love it up there.
CG Are there any plans on the horizon for you here?
BA Not right now. I don’t know what they’re doing in Williamstown. I haven’t heard anything. God only knows. They should do Jacques Brel over and over again. All summer. Just to put us all through hell.
CG Deconstruct Jacques Brel.
BA They can get John Doyle up there so they can also play the instruments.
CG There we go. Sounds like a hit to me.
BA It probably would be.
CG What don’t we know about you Brooks? What am I missing?
BA You’ve missed quite a bit. Knowing you probably you’ve missed just about everything.
CG That’s what I like about you so refreshingly frank.
BA So kind. That’s what you don’t know about me. Very kind.
CG I never would have guessed.
BA I’m pretty much at face value. Basically I am who I am. This is just, you know, this is showing a more relaxed or different kind of tension. You know I’m an actor. I’m not just a specialist. That’s again why I would come up and do something like this. I did that play Knickerbocker up at Williamstown (2009) which John Sherman directed. I was just sitting in a booth. It’s refreshing not to have to leap around or do a musical. It’s nice to just sit in a chair and say things. Let the play do the work. That’s what’s nice about this play. It’s actually very funny so you don’t have to do too much.
CG Let’s go back to when you were studying drama at Bennington. When you started out in this crazy profession what did you have in mind? Where did you think it would take you?
BA God only knows. I didn’t know. It was the only thing I could do and was any good at. I tried other things. You go where you need to go. Honestly, when I moved to New York after Bennington it was just because I had been to New York a lot. I sort of knew New York a little bit. I felt comfortable there. It never even crossed my mind that it would be the right place to go to be an actor. I just wanted to go there and I still feel that way. I like New York and it’s where I like to live. Talk about me being an idiot, and oh yeah, right, they do lots of plays there. That was secondary.
CG Nicky has often talked with me about theatre being a family and referred to you as an adopted son. How has that worked for you in terms of working with friends and having those associations?
BA I try to do it as much as possible and this is again a good example of that. When Danny called me, as I said, I had known him a long time but never worked with him. When I was at WTF doing Knickerbocker he was there directing True West. We lived in the same house. It was him and Red Rogers and myself. We cooked. Stayed up late. Sat on the porch. I always had a great camaraderie with Danny so when he called this is exactly what I try to do as often as possible. Work with people who I know and like. I knew Stephen Bogardus who’s in the cast and Christy Pusz. I had seen Johanna Day a lot but never met her. We became fast friends on this. I knew they were all terrific. So that’s a no brainer for me. Usually the jobs that come along you say, well, I don’t really know that person. I usually don’t do it. As much as I can I like to pick and choose to work with people whom I love. That’s why I work so often with Nicky. He’s one of my great friends in the world. I’ve know him a long long time and we’ve done a dozen or so shows together. Which is crazy.
CG I’ve seen a few of them. One of the things that Nicky does is let you off the leash.
BA He has good taste and I don’t mean that as a compliment to myself. The plays he chooses. The people he chooses to work with. The designers, actors. It’s always going to be a good time. Even when it gets stressful during tech. You’re trying to get things learned. The boring part of the business. Even then it’s great fun. Because he has a great sense of humor. It’s a joy to work with someone who knows what you do. Who allows you and encourages you to go as far as you can. Otherwise why not just stay in your own living room and say the lines. You have to perform it. He loves performances.
CG Considering She Stoops to Conquer last summer it seemed that a lot of your performance was not on the page.
BA I’m not sure that’s true. I’m not judging you Charles. Not that much. When you see someone like myself who is known for, maybe, being over the top. Actually, theatrical performances. People will see me in God of Carnage and think, oh, he’s a little much. Or they just expect me to be too much. I can’t think of much in She Stoops to Conquer that’s not really in the script. I would say the same of Present Laughter which I was accused of going crazy in. It’s all in the script.
CG In Stoops you were wearing that crazy tartan costume, a vest that hung like a skirt. In one scene you flipped it up, twisted and turned, gave a kick and a flip, skipped off stage and brought the house down.
BA The actor’s job is to bring a physical life to the character. That was the first entrance and the character, obviously is supposed to be a lot younger than I am. Or he felt he was. In the end they say you’re not as young as you think you are. He thinks of himself as a little boy. So it just made sense to me that wouldn’t a little boy go skipping across the room? Then you calm it down after that but the first image of him is this bouncy, crazy troublemaker.
CG To me Brooks you will always be a little boy and a trouble maker.
BA That’s right. That’s the right thing to say.
CG Why change? It seems to work for you. Some of my colleagues go after you and appreciate your style of humor less than I do.
BA It’s a matter of personal preference. I have friends some of whom say I just love seeing you and others who say, oh Brooks, jeeze, calm down. I may have said this to you before but the best kind of audience is just going to go with it. It’s possible to have an open mind with no expectations. Just go with what is. When people come with a preconceived notion of what they want to see there’s no way you can deliver that. If you do I would think that’s a little boring.
CG Maybe I’m just a bad critic but I always find you utterly hilarious.
BA That’s redundant.
CG You crack me up. Even when you rag on me it’s hysterical.
BA It’s so easy to give you a hard time. You’re a wide open target.
CG Hopefully you don’t miss the mark.
BA Even on the phone I sometimes hit the bull’s eye. Sometimes.
CG When will I learn to duck?
BA I don’t know. That’s what I always say about you. I say it behind your back. This man never ducks.
CG What do you say behind my back?
BA I always say, oh Charles, sure, I’ll talk to him. He never ducks.
CG Do I detect a bitchy streak here?
BA No. There’s no bitchy streak here. It’s just clean bitch. All the way across. No streak about it.
CG Just flat out bitch.
CG How do you keep your friends?
BA I pay them. That’s why I have no money because I am constantly giving it away to pay friends of mine. Hundreds of thousands of dollars.
CG That sounds just wonderful. How does one become your friend?
BA It’s a lucrative job but there is a very involved initiation. A recruiting process you have to go through. It helps if you’re beautiful. But I’m willing to interview a few character people as well.
CG Yourself? Or the other?
BA You fill in the blank.
CG To see someone beautiful you just have to look in the mirror.
BA That’s very kind. When I look in the mirror I literally see Mama Cass.
CG How do you tear yourself away?
BA It’s very difficult. I’m looking at myself right now. I haven’t been listening to a word you’re saying. I’ve just been looking at my face. I’ve just been admiring how bright and smooth my skin looks.
CG If you don’t watch out the gods will turn you into a flower like Narcissus.
BA Exactly. I read that one. I wrote that one.
CG When I discussed with a colleague that you would be appearing in Carnage the comment was ‘Will he be chewing the scenery as usual.’
BA As usual. Tell your friends that I really appreciate their generosity.
CG Maybe with some luck you’ll get to talk with them sometime.
BA That would be their luck.
CG What are you doing after this?
BA Immediately I’m going to the Ford Theatre to do 1776. Again a great friend of mine is directing it and I said, yeah, I’ve never had the chance to do 1776 which is a show I love.
CG Is that Ford Theatre.
BA The Ford’s Theatre. You know, where Lincoln got shot. Jesus. Pick up a book. I can’t imagine anyone in your position who wouldn’t know Ford’s Theatre. Buckingham Palace. I suppose you never heard of it.
CG Buckingham Palace? What goes on there?
BA Oh, mostly they do mime.
CG Are the Royals as dense as they seem?
BA It’s all an act. They’re Canadian.
CG So that’s it for now? Nothing beyond 1776?
BA There may be something. I’m not sure where it is. It may be Bard, They’re doing The Imaginary Invalid. My friend Pete Dinklage is doing it with his wife directing. We might do it but I’m not sure when.
CG Do you ever do movies and TV?
BA I’ve done one movie. Julie and Julia. Look it up.
CG It’s in our Netflix queue.
BA Some people liked Meryl Streep in it but I’m really the draw.
CG You’re the beautiful one.
CG What was it like to hang out with her?
BA I didn’t really. I met her once and we did a read through which was exciting. She was right across the table. That’s Meryl Streep. But the movie takes place in two different periods of time and I was in the one she wasn’t in. The opportunity to do film hasn’t come up but mostly it’s because I’ve been busy. I’ve been able to work pretty continuously in the theatre which I enjoy very much. You have to devote yourself pretty much if you’re in it and I’m not much of a movie person. You have to go and audition for these things and I rarely have time.
CG Is it difficult to live in New York, pay that rent, and survive in theatre?
BA Of course it is. I find it to be worth it so in a way the struggle is not a struggle. It’s part of the fun and excitement of it.
CG The public has a lot of misconceptions about actors. They focus on the few who have successful and glamorous lives. They don’t see the struggle. But you seem to find steady work.
BA I’ve been lucky. What’s great about coming up to Huntington or Williamstown is that when I’m not working in New York there are possibilities elsewhere. I’ve lived in New York for just over 20 years and in that time I have worked in New York roughly two thirds of the time. The other third is going out of town like this. Working in Boston or D.C. or LA or wherever it may be. That’s great too. It makes me better prepared when I’m doing a Broadway show or something.
CG Speaking of Williamstown you were there every summer with Nicky Martin including last summer when he directed a play under the new artistic director Jenny Gersten. Do you see that changing for you under a new administration?
BA I was at WTF before Nicky when Matthew Ritchie was the artistic director. Jenny Gersten was his associate. In a way it’s like old times to have Jenny there.
CG So you feel connected.
BA Absolutely. As you say I came up here when Nicky was here. Which is true. But I feel connected with the theatre community and audience here. To me it doesn’t really matter who the artistic director is. If they’re good. But it’s not really my worry. I deal infrequently with artistic directors. You see them at the opening. It’s not really about that for me so it doesn’t really matter. That said, I love Jenny. She did a great job and she’ll continue to do a great job. Jenny has good taste which is about all you need. And a fundraising ability. I can’t imagine how boring that would be.
CG I’m from Boston and it’s a great theatre town. I miss it.
BA Yeah. People really want to come to the theatre here. We opened last night and it was packed. This little regional theatre. But it’s a big deal here which is nice. It’s the way it should be. People want to go to the theatre. It’s very cultured here like that. If you live long enough in New York the same thing happens. It becomes like a small town. Theatre is a community.