From the first time I saw the young Aubie Merrylees in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 2010, at People’s Light & Theatre Company (now People’s Light) in Malvern, PA, I knew he was destined for a successful career as an actor. Presently seen in his Broadway debut at the Shubert Theatre in To Kill a Mockingbird – one of the biggest hits of the 2018-19 season – the unforgettable Downingtown, PA native appears as both a member of the ensemble and as an understudy for five other roles.
In the interim, Merrylees established himself as a respected member of the Philadelphia theater community, completed two Ivy-League degrees (his BA at Brown University, where he was the recipient of the Weston Award for Acting, and his MFA at the Yale School of Drama), and has since become a full-time resident of New York, now living in Brooklyn. He has turned in memorable portrayals in a variety of regional and touring productions, from the classics and their more recent adaptations (including Lantern Theater Company’s The Liar and Bedlam’s Saint Joan and Hamlet, in which he played the lead) to contemporary works (among them his stellar performances in Theatre Exile’s The Aliens and Philadelphia Theatre Company’s Hand to God, for which he received Barrymore-Award nominations for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Play and Outstanding Leading Actor in a Play, respectively).
Aubie was able to make some time in his hectic schedule to discuss his professional journey and his innermost thoughts and feelings about the work he does.
What does being on Broadway mean to you? What emotions did you feel on opening night of To Kill a Mockingbird?
Aubie: It’s a childhood dream, so it is really exciting to be where I hoped I’d be when I was a little kid, seeing Cats at the age of six. And it’s really exciting to work with other Broadway artists; not just the actors, but everyone involved in the production. It’s the top, and they make me better. On opening night I felt not only exited, but grateful, and held – taken care of by the universe, a feeling of something larger than myself. And maybe a little nervous – but only a little!
What one element do you find most effective in this new adaptation of Harper Lee’s classic novel?
I don’t want to spoil anything for people who haven’t seen it yet, but the way the trial is set up; I like the way it’s used in the play. As for the classics, they tend to speak to human struggles, feelings, and experiences in profound and emotional ways. And it’s cool to take on a classic work that people are familiar with.
What is the main challenge of being an understudy in addition to a member of the ensemble?
The main challenge is not getting to do it every night, so your muscles aren’t used to it. But you have to be ready to knock it out of the park, so you have to watch, to pay attention, to think about it; you have to be vigilant. It’s great that I have a long commute to the theater; it gives me time to think.
What’s the best thing about an open-ended run, and what’s the worst?
The best things are the security and consistency. Those aren’t things you normally feel as an actor. As far as the worst, I don’t know, it’s mainly exciting to me, it’s a new experience. It might be tough if I didn’t like the people I work with, but I like everyone, so it’s all great!
What’s the most important lesson you learned at Yale?
I think I came out knowing better how to tap into me, how better to act as my own instrument. There are things you need to do as an actor – be active, have a need. I understood that intellectually, but now I feel it in my gut and I don’t have to think about it.
You’ve been working as an actor since your early years. What do you do for fun, and what do you do to relax?
I try to stay social, I love camping, I write, and I try to get outside – so winter sometimes is hard. But when the weather’s nice, I go for a walk by myself. I’ve been teaching myself how to play the guitar, and I find that very relaxing. I probably watch more TV than I should (though I tell myself it’s research). Rehearsals are also fun!
What career path would you have followed if you weren’t an actor?
When I was a little kid, and people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said I wanted to be a video game music composer, so I might have gone into composing, or maybe sound design. Or I might have become a therapist, since I like talking to people about the things that trouble them.
What one moment on stage stands out in your mind as your greatest experience to date?
There are many, but I’ll give you three. I had a kitchen scene with Grace Gonglewski in Stupid Fucking Bird in which she comforts me. It felt profound to do that, and to do it with her. Looking people right in the eye while delivering the Hamlet soliloquies was remarkable and it felt like a milestone. And the first laugh we got from the audience in the first performance of To Kill a Mockingbird came back with such force. I had never experienced a laugh from 1500 people before; the acoustics of the theater made it feel like a massage!
What three things do you always carry with you as an actor?
I try to carry a sense of empathy, which is useful in making a connection with the characters I play. And I always carry with me the love and support I was shown when I was growing up; that informs me.
If you could have one wish for the future, what would it be?
So many, but I’ll keep it personal and say happiness, and extend that out. I hope that the sun comes out for everyone!
Thanks, Aubie, for sharing this important milestone in your career with us! It’s always a pleasure to talk to you and to see you on stage.