To be honest, and I know this may sound strange, my favorite characters are usually the bad guys. The antagonists. The seemingly irredeemably flawed. I’ve always thought that they were the most interesting…that is, when they’re written well.
Too often, these characters are written as one-dimensional–rotten to the core and easy to hate, which, unless you’re a cartoon evil-genius twirling a giant mustache, just isn’t the case. I appreciate when a “villain” is nuanced and complex, when we are shown how they, too, are victims and products of circumstance. Waitress is one of my favorite movies, and the masterful character development is a big reason why. When asked which cast member I would like to interview for this piece, I had zero hesitation: “Give me whoever is playing Earl!”
That would be Nick Bailey, an established actor and musician most recently known for his role as Robin in “Hood: The Robin Hood Musical Adventure” at Dallas Theater Center. I had the pleasure of asking him a few questions about his character Earl, the angry, abusive husband of our protagonist in Waitress. After exchanging some pleasantries, it was obvious that the friendly, warm man I was speaking with could not have been more different than the character he inhabits. I couldn’t wait to hear his insights on playing the “bad guy:”
How did Earl’s character development translate from movie to musical?
I made the decision not to see the movie (I plan to see it after I finish my contract) because I didn’t want any of Jeremy Sisto’s tics or habits or the way that he plays Earl inform the way I do it, I only wanted to use the script as given.
Our rehearsal process began in September and we had both the book writer and the composer/lyricist, Jessie Nelson and Sara Bareilles, with us in the rehearsal room the whole time. They, along with the director [Tony Award-winner Diane Paulus], gave us a lot of clues as to why certain things were a certain way. The direction that we got from Diane Paulus was that Earl is a very frustrated man, and he’s a man who has reasons for everything that he does.
I feel like an antagonist can always be just as sympathetic if you know the reasons behind his actions, so I try to approach Earl in that way. We’ve talked a lot about how the abuse in the piece between Earl and Jenna is mostly emotional and manipulative, which can be so much harder to navigate. There’s only one, or maybe two instances of physical violence between them, where Earl has an explosion of anger and immediately pleads for forgiveness and vows never to do it again. It’s not cut-and-dry, it’s not very easy for Jenna to justify leaving this relationship– there’s a real conflict there; she feels that maybe if she did this or that, then this relationship would be salvageable and that things could go back to the way they were.
How did you develop Earl? Did you give him a back-story?
Absolutely. My version of Earl came from a family where his father was very tough on both him and his mother, and whenever his father told his mother that he loved her, it was followed with a very domineering attitude towards her; that love was shown in his family through control, both financial and emotional. His father provided for his mother, but his love was never demonstrated through an open or romantic relationship.
When Earl and Jenna meet in high school, they are both dealing with conflict at home (Jenna’s in a similar situation–unfortunately it’s not uncommon), and find refuge in each other. Earl is a popular, talented kid who has big ambitions of being a rock star, and things are going pretty well for him in those years. After Jenna’s mother dies, Earl tries to be her savior in a way – they marry, and things go well for a little while, but then his aspirations don’t pan out, which leads him to a string of dead-end construction jobs. When he finally loses his job, he decides that he will control everything financially in order to validate his position of “head of the household.” He’s the arbiter of what goes on in the house. It’s an impossibly tough situation, because this is what he knows.
The serendipity of this being the first all-female creative team, along with it being a story of a woman coming into her own, I think it couldn’t be more timely!” – Nick Bailey
Earl is so in love with this woman, but he doesn’t know how to show it properly, he doesn’t know how to convey his feelings, and his ignorance and frustrations result in abuse. I’ve tried to approach Earl in a similar light to the character Billy Bigelow in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel. They are very similar characters, and while we see Billy finally find redemption in the afterlife, we don’t get to have that moment with Earl. We have to assume that it happens way, way after curtain call!
My friend saw this show while you guys were in Orlando, and she told me that you mouthed “I’m sorry” to the audience during your curtain call!
*Laughs* That was something that developed in Cleveland. Audiences in New York City can be very different from audiences on the road. The audiences in the Northeast are typically removed from our show about a Midwestern/Southern couple and their conflicts, but audiences on the road have lived this life. They see Jenna in themselves, in their sisters, in their friends. So…when Earl comes out, it’s very personal for them. They do not like him at all. I get a lot of “boos!” I try to take it as a compliment, as a job well done. In that moment, I want to reach out and kind of say, “someone had to do it, I’m glad it was me, it’s all over now, so let’s have a good time with this final song!”
The fan reactions and interactions must be very different for you!
They can be, but I’ve also had some heartwarming stories where people have reached out to me. Once a woman told me that she came to the show with her father. This woman was divorced from a man who was a lot like Earl, and her father always sort of judged her for not getting out of the situation sooner or for not sticking up for herself more. She said that after the show, her father looked at her point-blank and said, “I understand now why you couldn’t leave – because you loved him.” It was a really special, healing moment for her and her father, and I think that this is, at its best, what good theater can do in addition to entertaining. Things like that make it all worthwhile!
What’s it like playing an antagonist every night? I imagine it’s a stressful, draining thing to do.
Well, during Act Two I have more off-stage time than anyone else. Before Earl comes in during the last twenty minutes and manages to wreck everything, I have a half hour to find something to do. There is so much anger that you have to summon for this character, and ironically I find that doing a full yoga-flow during this time helps me relax so that I can focus the energy on where it needs to be…and go destroy my marriage!
I also try to set aside time during the week to interact with the actress playing Jenna OUTSIDE the material, where I’m not screaming at her or grabbing her by the wrist. It’s easy while on tour to just show up when needed and do the scenes, but then your only interaction with your co-star is onstage with this difficult material, and that can affect the personal and professional relationship. We like to spend time together as real people and real friends, and just connect on a personal level outside of this tense relationship we share onstage.
What was it like working with the creative team?
I would love to praise our creative team, which happens to be (with the exception of Liz Swados in the 70’s who wrote, directed, produced and created a show called ‘Runaways’) the first all-female Broadway creative team of a musical. Director, Choreographer, Book Writer, and Composer/Lyricist all just happen to be women, it’s not something that was specifically set out to achieve. The serendipity of this being the first all-female creative team, along with it being a story of a woman coming into her own, I think it couldn’t be more timely!
Sara Bareilles’ music is so beautiful, and it’s something I would listen to even if it weren’t my job! She is such a kind and open-hearted soul, who came to rehearsal every day – which is not something that established Broadway composers are known to do. She took the time to just be there for questions, and to help with phrasing or character development. She was so generous with her time, and has really assumed an influential role in commercial New York theatre now. She has a song in the Spongebob musical (which is nominated for a Tony this year), she’s going to be working off-Broadway on a new adaptation of Alice in Wonderland this season, and she’s just finished playing Mary Magdalene in NBC’s Jesus Christ Superstar Live. New York theater is so lucky to have her join our team. She’s an A+ gem, who we’re so lucky to work with and for. I know that her record producers are hoping she gets another record out soon, but we are going to hold onto her for as long as we can!
And now for the most important question– What’s your favorite kind of pie?
*Laughs* I have to eat a piece of pie onstage every night. As of now, that’s 223 pieces of pie in under six months! The piece of pie that I’m supposed to eat is “Blueberry Bacon,” which I’m sure is probably really good, but since that’s a tough flavor to get a hold of I usually end up with, you know, a pop-tart tasting pie every night. If I had my choice, it would be a nice cool slice of key lime pie without food coloring, and a big dollop of whipped cream on top!