As Newman on Seinfeld, Wayne Knight spent seven years in Los Angeles playing the kind of quintessential New Yorker that made you believe he really lived in the Big Apple. This fall he actually is—back on Broadway, playing Herman in the revival of Sweet Charity at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre now through October 16. Best known for his TV work the actor also recurred on 3rd Rock from the Sun, Knight's previous Broadway credits include Gemini, Mastergate and Art. On the big screen, Knight has made dozens of appearances, most memorably with supporting roles in Jurassic Park, JFK, To Die For, Basic Instinct and Dirty Dancing, as well as charming voice-over work in Tarzan and Toy Story 2. We caught up with Knight to talk about his Broadway musical debut, his thoughts on the cult of Seinfeld and his bird's eye reminiscences of some of Hollywood's most glamorous leading ladies.
So, how's it going over at Sweet Charity?
It's going well! For a lot of others it would not be that big a deal. But for me, this was like the conquering of a fear. Because I have a theatrical history without problem [laughs], the problem was that I have not sung in front of people since my first Equity contract, doing Threepenny Opera at the Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Virginia in 1976.
Who'd you play?
Oh, God... a henchman. I think my only solo line was, "Let's all go Barmy and join the Army". So, it's a long history of not having a lot to sing—even back then! See, my mother had told me, I think shortly after I'd left the womb, "You can't sing!" She would just drum it into me like a mantra. So when I told her I was doing this musical she said, "And why haven't you done this before?" I said, "Because you told me I couldn't sing!" She said, "Well, you never listened to me about anything else, why would you listen to me about that?!" Then, instead of saying, "Well, maybe I was wrong, maybe you can" she says, "Well, obviously someone thinks you can sing, otherwise they wouldn't hire you!"
Oh, that was John Reich. He was head of the Goodman Theatre, and he came on a traveling professorship. And basically what he said to me was, "If you love the theater, stay fat." I think he'd worked with Avery Schreiber or someone, and he said, "There's always a role for someone fat. So if you stay fat, you'll always have work." So, those were the two things—"Don't lose weight. Don't Sing."
You lost like a hundred pounds at one point, right?
Yeah, it's been an on-going battle. And it always will be. I had to deal with it as an addiction, which it is for me. Euphemistically, it's a one day at a time struggle. That's how I deal with it.
Well, I empathize with addictive-compulsive behavior.
Yeah, cause it can be anything—behavior, substance, anything. Whatever the hell you use to keep away the creeping fear. [Laughs.]
So you're using a Broadway musical to do it!
The difference here [in Sweet Charity] is seeing all the work that everyone does in a musical. And seeing the work that Christina does! To keep in shape and be ready to go, it's really a different process. I mean, doing Art—with George Segal and Buck Henry—we would kind of walk in the door, put on a suit, have a cup of coffee, and go out and do it. 90 minutes later you go home [Laughs]. It's a very different experience.
Did the producers just call you for Sweet Charity?
It was basically one of those situations where the name comes up and they go, "I wonder if he'd do it?" And you know, it was like asking, "Do you have any desire to jump out of a plane?" And I'm like, "Yes. Yes, I do." [Laughs.]
Well, I'm sure your Seinfeld fans would be willing to catch you. Say, what's the most common thing folks say when they encounter you in public?
"Hello, Newman!" In New York you get some variations. Like once two guys walking down the street yelled at me, "Jum-ba-lia!" Which is from the "Soup Nazi" episode. Cause it's gotten to that point where people are studying it like the Holy Grail.
Did you realize when you started doing Seinfeld that it would create such a devout following?
You realize when you come to the table that you're doing something very good. That good words makes all the difference in the world. Performances are great. But without the words, what difference does it make?
But the cult of Seinfeld has become like Gilligan's Island or something.
Well, isn't that a wonderful, lovely thought. [Laughs.] Gee, Wayne, "You're gonna be like the Professor!" Thank you so much. Here I am doing a play on Broadway and you're like, I don't care what the fuck you do, you'll never escape this! [Laughs.] Well, I will tell you right now I am not doing like the "Sein-Fest '82" thing. But I can imagine it—all these little festivals where you'd find the ancillary characters wandering around somewhere with the remaining, living people from Star Trek? [Laughs.]
I stay in touch with Jason [Alexander]. I did his TV show. But in general, I think because of the iconography of the show, you assume-like with The Mary Tyler Moore Show or something—that these people are all actually getting together on a weekly basis. But see, we all came into [Seinfeld] as full-fledged adults with families and lives. It wasn't like something you come into in your 20s, where you bond in a certain way that stays with you. Although there's nobody who has a bad relationship with somebody else in that sense, you know…we're not all hanging out.
Have you invited Jason to see you in Charity? After all, he won a Tony for his work in a musical, Jerome Robbins' Broadway.
He certainly may come. I went and saw him in The Producers, for God's sake. And that was one of the reasons that kept me from doing one for quite a while—I said, Jesus Christ, that's a lot of work!
Speaking of hard work—and good work, I might add—I had the privilege of seeing you perform in David Grimm's new play Measure for Pleasure at the Sundance Theatre Lab this summer. Will you be doing the play when it comes to the Public this January?
Well, there's still the possibility. I would love to do it, because I really like the play and I had a great experience. What was really great about being at Sundance was seeing all the great work.
At this point in your career, though, you could've taken the summer off. But instead, you went to Utah and worked your butt off for no money on a new play—written in verse, no less. Why is that?
Being out in LA I've spent a long time as a commodity, as opposed to an actor. And it's important to return to being an actor. To re-awaken what it was that made you want to do this, and to become a part of an artistic community. I didn't realize the importance of that. Now, I went kind of kicking and screaming to Sundance. Next thing I know, I've got someone waving an eagle feather at me and I'm singing Kum-Ba-Ya.
That was kind of cool, though, when the whole company was blessed on the mountain by that Native American spiritualist?
I had no idea I would stand in a field for 90 minutes—and like it. Which I did. I felt like [Sundance] was a great opportunity. You're not selling a damn thing. You're just there to work. And it helps me back here [in Charity], doing the eight-shows a week. And hopefully, maybe doing Measure for Pleasure again. It made me very happy.
In looking at your film credits, I realized you've had a bird's eye view of the leading ladies...
A bird's eye view? I had a penguin's eye view of one of them!
Yeah, in that infamous interview scene in Basic Instinct? OK, short and sweet. What's your take on Sharon Stone?
Really beautiful... from any angle.
How about Jane Curtin?
Brilliant. Bawdy. Delicious.
I thought, especially in that role in To Die For, she was just ethereal. Kind of a porcelain quality, really. And that little role that I had was a wonderful experience. Gus Van Sant was great. And Buck Henry, who was on the set, that was my first encounter with Buck.
Actually, I had first worked with Kathleen on Broadway. We had done Gemini together.
I didn't realize that.
Yeah! And you know, even back then when she was doing Nola on [the '70s soap opera] The Doctors, she had a kind of crystalline determination. She was a star before she was a star.
And your currrent leading lady, Christina Applegate?
Well, I was quite taken by the work she does. And what's amazing about Christina is that she's so seemingly fragile and beautiful, but with the tensile strength of steel. You know, there's one other leading lady who's really my favorite of them all.
Emma Thompson. Now, she's a personal friend. We had done a sketch comedy show in England back in 1980. At that time she was a comedienne and a writer—not considered a classical actress. And then she took off from there, and I just think between her and John Lithgow they're the kind of actors who will take on any challenge; who will make fools of themselves to be funny, go to the depths of themselves to be serious. Fearless. They are not afraid. And coming from somebody who waited 25 years to do a musical—out of fear!—that is something I really revere, that fearlessness.
See Wayne Knight in Sweet Charity at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, 302 West 45th Street. Click for tickets and more information.