Reeve Carney stars on Broadway as Orpheus in the Tony-winning musical Hadestown. He made his Broadway debut in the title role of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. Other roles have included Dorian Gray in Penny Dreadful on Showtime and Riff Raff on Fox’s musical version of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. His great uncle was Oscar-winning actor Art Carney.
I met with Reeve in the empty orchestra section of the Walter Kerr Theatre before an evening performance of Hadestown.
KEVIN SESSUMS: You grew up in Greenwich Village. Was it an artsy-fartsy environment in your home?
REEVE CARNEY: Yeah. The first place I lived was right around the street from the Village Vanguard which was on Tenth and Seventh Avenue South. But then we moved to the Flatiron District and the Union Square area. But I always went to school in the Village. I went to PS 41. And The Little Red Schoolhouse.
KS: I used to live above The Little Red Schoolhouse for about 10 years or so.
KS: Everything connects.
RC: What years were you living there? I might have been going there then.
KS: Late 70’s to the late 80’s.
RC: I started there in ’88.
KS: I lived in a six-floor walkup until about ’88 or ’89 and then moved to a loft in TriBeCa.
RC: Nice. Do you still live in TriBeCa?
KS: No. I live in Hudson, New York, now. Have you ever been there?
RC: Yes. I have a friend who used to have a recording studio in a beautiful old church there.
KS: That’s right behind my loft. It hovers over me as I look out my backdoor. Everything really does connect.
RC: I recorded there twice. Henry Hirsch owned it. It’s awsome. (Ed note: Hirsch is a creative collaborator with Lenny Kravitz who also recorded there. Hirsch bought the space in 2008 for $410,000. Composer/producer Patrick Higgins bought it from Kravitz in 2013 for $600,000. It is now back on the market for $1.85 million.). I used to live in the Catskills for a bit when I was a kid. Croton-on-Hudson. My parents are musicians, too. They met at the Bitter End on Bleecker Street. They are both singer/songwriters. My mom is also a jewelry designer. All this stuff (he points to all his jewelry) is mostly my mom’s.
KS: You come by all this honestly then. You didn’t rebel against them.
RC: The only other things I ever thought about being were a baseball player and a firefighter.
KS: As I look at your professional resume from the title role in the Broadway musical based on Spider-Man to Dorian Gray in Penny Dreadful to Riff Raff in Fox’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show to Orpheus in Hadestown – and even to your being Taylor Swift’s love interest in her video for her song “I Knew You Were Trouble” – they are all rather odd, heightened roles. How do you ground yourself in the reality of them to make them believable? They are all about longing in some strange way
RC: I can relate to that quality in those characters. And I think it is something I’m interested in watching as well. Longing is a quite active emotion. It is always interesting to play things as active as possible.
KS: I saw an early production of Hadestown at New York Theatre Workshop where the production values were much simpler and the actor playing Orpheus was different. I saw this Broadway. iteration of it the other night. What struck me was the choice you’ve made as Orpheus within the framework of what is now a very elaborate production. You have chosen to simplify him and be even more tender and still and quiet. And in that, you have become the sweet spiritual heart of the very busy and carnal narrative going on around it. There is a a controlled craziness to it all. You are kind of the idler on its motor.
RC: This is my third time doing it. (Carney played the role at the Citadel Theatre in Canada and The National Theatre in England before starring in the part on Broadway.). And this is the only time I’ve played it this way.
KS: What have been the differences?
RC: I think because I’m playing an ancient Greek myth, here was a temptation or a desire to connect to the original text that at times may have even fighting against the beauty of the text of Anaïs Mitchell who wrote the music and lyrics and book. I think at a certain point they found they could take certain liberties with it. What I’m trying to say is that the original Orpheus was much more confident. I think that the things that originally motivated him sort of came from a place of ego maybe than certainly this Orpheus. And in the earlier version that I was a part of, there was that aspect of pridefulness in him and sort of an ego-driven impulse.
KS: So his pride was more a part of his fall?
RC: I think so. That’s how I feel about the former versions I was involved in. It’s not true in this latest version. It’s more about the doubt which is part of what Anaïs has written so beautifully. I think the more you live on-the-text the less the intention is to be ironic or to go against that in a some way. I think it helps just to trust the text and build from there. As an actor, that is what I try my best to do.
KS: There is a cult-like feeling in the audience when you come to see this show on Broadway. You feel as if many of those sitting around you have seen the show before and are sharing that experience of a shared love of it. It is almost frenzied at times. And yet even as it often focuses on you, you remain eerily calm – almost becalmed – and retain that simplicity within it all. Even purity. You are almost manifesting a kind of purity.
RC: Oh, good. Good. Thank you. That was the biggest change about my character. I like to describe this Orpheus as guileless. The earlier version of Orpheus had a higher degree of machismo and bravado. There wasn’t that purity. And that is something that Anaïs did change in the text for the Broadway debut in describing him as someone who is naive and can perceive the world as it could be in spite of the way that it is. That is one of the starting points that drive the choices I am making as an actor.
KS: Orpheus is certainly in the cultural atmosphere lately. There are four operas about the character being done at the English National Opera. The Met is doing a production of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice. The Young Vic is doing a production of a more contemporary musical version titled Orfeus. Did you go back and listen to the operas about him or study the myths or read Tennessee Williams’s Orpheus Descending when you got this role?
RC: I asked our director, Rachel Chavkin, what I should investigate. I did look at those things. But in general, I guess, I think that in all these characters that I have been asked to play, which you mentioned earlier, they all are not fully human in some ways. So I don’t find studying the other versions of Orpheus as helpful as trying to find what would motivate him as a human. I am not aware that there are a whole lot of actual gods that come into the theatre every night sitting in the audience. Maybe invisibly there are. It’s all humans watching these shows as far as I can tell. So I want to help the people who are visibly there to find those human aspects about Orpheus and my job is to help them get to the core of that the quickest.
KS: How do you respond to a role when it is presented to you? You are a musician and have a band. Do you first respond to the music in the piece and then focus on the character? Or, do you respond to the character and figure out a way to appreciate the music?
RC: I approach everything that marries music and acting from the acting perspective. But the way for me to do that is to know the music so well that it’s not even an issue. When I’m doing a concert I am concentrating on singing and trying to communicate those words. But when I’m acting, you almost don’t want people to think about the singing. It’s tricky with this character since he has to stand apart from the other characters because he’s the only character in this musical who is “a singer.”
KS: Yes. When I first saw the show at New York Theatre Workshop, Orpheus had more of a vagabond troubadour quality.
RC: Right. That’s what they initially wanted. When I started this role in Canada, it was more like that. Like a Pete Seeger kind of style. That eventually changed for Broadway.
KS: Was that retrofitting you into the role and they were playing to your strengths as an actor and singer?
RC: I don’t know if I would say that exactly. Anaïs has told me that she did use me as an inspiration in some ways for this new version of the character. But obviously I think I am quite different from Orpheus in some ways.
RC: I like to think of it as that we all have as humans – and I do believe this – we all sort of have all of the spectrums of light. We have all of the frequencies of light within us. Or sound. Or whatever you want to choose. The vibrations. You can use either light or sound to describe it. I have a different fundamental vibrating frequency than Orpheus does. But we both share all the same frequencies. Just like you share all the same frequencies with Orpheus. I sense you do. And with any character onstage. I think that’s the beauty of this show. You’re able to see how easy it is for someone like Orpheus potentially to become someone like Hades. Because we really truly do have all of these things in our being, in my opinion. That’s how I feel. So I guess what I try to do is to try and find the fundamental vibrating frequency in each character and I try to turn the parts of myself down that get in the way of that and turn the other parts up. Dorian Gray and Orpheus to me are not polar opposites, but they definitely have different fundamental frequencies.
KS: How would you describe your own frequencies, those you have to turn down?
RC: Mine are somewhere in the middle. If I am around let’s say 1K – if that is my fundamental vibrating sonic frequency – then I’d say Orpheus sits somewhere around 6 kilohertz. Whereas, Dorian Gray sits around 300 hertz.
KS: I have never heard anyone ever describe anything quite like this regarding acting or even really life itself. But I deeply understand it.
RC: It’s probably because of my musical background.
KS: I have been talking to actors for 30 years. I have never heard one talk about their art in this way. It’s fascinating. It does tie in to your musicianship, I guess, this frequency of sound.
RC: Thanks. But it is about light too. It is about light. I don’t know the numbers that correspond to the frequencies of light as well as I do with those that correspond to the frequencies of sound vibration. But light is maybe something that more people would understand. The way that our lighting designer in Hadestown, Bradley King, paints these beautiful pictures. He is such a brilliant lighting designer. He truly underscores the emotional aspects of this piece. You can see when we’re changing. He really watched closely in rehearsals. When we have subtle shifts in our emotions, the lights go with it. People understand darkness and light. I guess that’s what I should say. I guess that’s what I mean about frequencies.
KS: Hadestown is certainly a story about darkness and light. Is talking about the frequencies of light a way to talk about your spiritual beliefs?
RC: It could be. Yeah. I definitely believe in an invisible realm. I am very fascinated by it. That is another of the beautiful powers of this show. I can feel that every night with the audience. There are things that are unspoken and unseen that I feel connect us as performers and audience. You don’t always get that with live theatre, but with this show we really feel it.
KS: You had the Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark experience which is now sort of legendary for its tsuris and backstage drama and sort of scathing reviews that reviewed the drama backstage finally even more than the show. Now you’ve had your Hadestown experience at The National Theatre in London and its winning the Tony for Best Musical here on Broadway and its getting rave reviews. They are totally different experiences and yet each was heightened and known in their ways.
RC: I was certainly aware that theatre could be this way. I knew coming into this that they would certainly be different shows. But I am really grateful to have had Spider-Man as a first show because it was kind of invaluable preparation for any actor. I didn’t realize that that wasn’t normal. We had a 183 previews. I guess by our 40th preview I knew that it was a little bit unusual. I just didn’t know what was being expected of us wasn’t particularly normal. But actually it was just a great experience. I guess both roles are physical but Spider-Man was quite physical. It was good to start there with something like that. Now we’re in a smaller show in a smaller house. It feels more like a play here in this theatre. A sung-through play.
KS: The night I saw Hadestown you seemed to have hit a zone of longing. A kind of zen of longing even. I kept wondering if you get there every night.
RC: That’s the goal.
KS: There was something sustained about it. It was as if you found a note – one on perfect pitch – and you were able to hold it even as you literally sang notes around it. I’m curious. Would Reeve, if he were in Orpheus’s situation, look back?
RC: I think the beauty of this show is that we have experienced both sides of the Orpheus myth as humans – the times we did look back and the times in which we didn’t. To me, this show gives us the opportunity to learn from Orpheus. Being able to accomplish something starts with having the best of intentions but it doesn’t end there. You have to go a little bit further.
KS: Do you have much regret in your life?
RC: Not much. I feel very fortunate. I have a song titled “Intention.” The catchphrase in the song is “there’s no greater drug than intention.” I think it is important no matter what you’re going through to do that, to have a good intention but also to follow through. I learned that from my parents. For example, I have had jobs that weren’t my ultimate end goal – like most people, everybody has that sort of a job sometime – but when I did them I really enjoyed those jobs. I learned from my parents that I might as well enjoy it because it takes just as much time to enjoy it as it does to not enjoy it. I am certainly not someone who says, “I have no regrets.” For me, I don’t buy into that. There are things you go sometimes, “Oooh, I could have done that a little bit better.” But you can’t let that stuff hold you back from stepping into your future. It’s interesting. Sometimes some things that you might be regretful for, ten years later you go, “This great thing wouldn’t have actually happened if that thing I regret hadn’t happened.”
KS: How old are you?
KS: In this show, you read younger.
RC: One of the things that was a struggle initially is that the phrase “Orpheus is a poor boy” is repeated 127 times. I’m exaggerating, but that also informs some of my choices as the character, that reference to him as a boy.
KS: Your own personal style is rather Orpheus-like.
RC: Yeah, they borrowed some of my look. These suspenders I’ve been wearing for ten years. They loved them so much they became the “Orpheus suspenders.”
KS: You are very art directed and have a singular sense of style.
RC: Probably because my mom is a designer. I just like what makes me feel comfortable. Eva [his costar in Hadestown, Eva Noblezada] and I went to the opening of the Metropolitan Opera the other night to see Porgy and Bess. It was amazing. I was wearing a tuxedo. But, I have to say, that is one thing I feel a little bit uncomfortable in. Maybe because I don’t think it represents me.
KS: Just think of it as being rather lesbian.
KS: Just flip it. Just think, “I’m dressing like a lesbian.”
RC: That could help me actually. That could help me. That’s good advice.
KS: I’m going to be 64 soon and knowing how to dress as an older person can be confounding. I’ve come to the conclusion that one just has to dress like a chic lesbian. Go to your closet and say to yourself, “What would Kate Clinton wear? What would Elle DeGeneres wear?”
RC: That’s smart. I’m going to try that.
KS: Honestly, I thought you already did.
RC: I do wear some ladies clothes. I do feel that standard-suit-wear just doesn’t feel right. It just feels weird.
KS: Never feel weird. That’s my old-guy advice. And if you do feel weird: dive into it. Whatever you’re fearful of: dive into it.
RC: Yeah, that’s good advice.
KS: But you don’t seem very fearful.
RC: No. I don’t think so. I don’t know if faith and fear can exist simultaneously. I guess they can exist simultaneously. I don’t know. But I tend to go with faith more than fear. I grew up with a family that is quite spiritually interested. So it has always been a part of my life.
KS: What does “spiritually interested” mean?
RC: As I was saying before, I am fascinated by the invisible. So it means to me the things we can’t see, although sometimes I do think that certain mystical people do see that sort of stuff. Everybody has something different that works for them in terms of keeping them aligned and wanting to become a better version of themselves. I believe in whatever can get you to do that.
KS: Do you think of yourself as a kind of spirit guide ?
RC: That I’m a spirit guide?
KS: Yes. That you are guiding the audiences in Hadestown with your frequencies in role as Orpheus through a spiritual experience together in a group in a theatre to something that they are going to remember individually.
RC: I have a few incredible acting teachers. You might know of one: Sandra Seacat.
RC: And her daughter Greta. Also Sheila Gray. After studying with Lee Strasberg, Sandra came up with her own ideas regarding The Method. One thing she says is, “Heal yourself, heal the audience.” That’s certainly what I try to do.