James Carpinello in Rock of Ages
Sitting on the floor of his dressing room at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, black nail polish on his fingers, sushi dinner spread out on the floor, James Carpinello is looking—dare we say it?—a little glamorous. Which is fitting, since the actor is currently channeling '80s glam-rockers as belligerent, be-sequined metal god Stacee Jaxx in the Broadway transfer of new musical Rock of Ages. The role is his first on the New York stage since the painful injury that jolted him out of the lead role in Tony-nominated hit Xanadu shortly before opening night, and Carpinello, a vet of flicks like John Dahl’s The Great Raid and TV’s So NoTORIous, clearly couldn’t be happier to be back. We sat down for an uncensored chat with the Saturday Night Fever alum, who opened up about the accident that ended his Xanadu run, his love of '80s rock and how to deal with negative reviews and snarky comments like a true rock star.
What did you know about Rock of Ages coming into it?
I had seen it at the Vanguard in Los Angeles years ago and loved it. I remember sitting on top of my little bar booth screaming along with the songs and thinking, “I wanna do that!”
And now you’re doing it.
Yeah! I got the call a few months ago, went in and read for it, and just thought the writing was genius. I’m so psyched to be onboard.
The music is a no-brainer, but what pushes it over the edge—and I’ve never seen such a tangible audience reaction at a show before, in a good way—is Chris D’Arienzo’s writing. The show is so seamlessly hysterical because Chris has enough knowledge of, and respect for, both musical theater and this genre of music to make it all work. It’s easy to dismiss it and go, “Oh, it’s just stupid '80s music.” But he was able to craft a story that’s incredibly smart and funny, so audience members are having the time of their life.
What is it about this show that wins people over?
Did you listen to this music when you were young?
Oh yeah, I won the talent show in fifth grade lip-synching to Bon Jovi. It’s on my iPod. Anyone who knows me is like, “This is your karaoke dream job!”
It’s a crazy show to begin with, but your character is by far the most outrageous.
Sometimes I can’t believe what I get away with onstage. To be out there tapping into that rock star mentality and just be like, “I’m better than all you fuckers!” is ridiculous. That’s what it’s like for those people—rock stars don’t have to ask for anything, stuff they want just arrives, even women. And there are women everywhere in our show, which I’m sure my wife is just going to love [laughs].
Has she seen it yet?
Not yet, but she saw pictures from our open rehearsal. There’s girls running around in their underwear, but, hey, a rock star’s gotta do what a rock star’s gotta do. That’s the job!
Did you ever think your next Broadway gig would have you screaming Poison songs in a leather codpiece?
Actually, I only work with codpieces and jukebox musicals; those are my prerequisites [laughs]. No, I mean, look: I loved, loved, loved Xanadu. I was so attached to it, I honestly didn’t know what would be next for me when it ended. So I just feel fortunate to have a job in this community, and in this economy, let alone one as amazing as this.
Touching on Xanadu, your injury was pretty severe, correct?
It’s interesting. Recently there have been several high profile “foot” injuries, you know what I mean? But I broke my leg in three places, had multiple surgeries, was in a full cast up to my knee for over four months; when you hurt yourself like that, there’s no way to come in and do a play. I know the injury was downplayed for press reasons, but that was hard because it was so much bigger than what was reported. I was so in love with that play—I live in Los Angeles and have two little kids, and moving your whole family across the country isn’t easy to begin with—that to be injured like that a week before opening? Devastating. It’s weird, too, because I was a hockey player growing up, so skating was never difficult for me; I skate as well as I walk. So, to me, that same accident could have happened picking up the remote to watch TV, and I had to say, “I guess I just wasn’t meant to be there.” But it was a tough pill to swallow.
Not to dwell on negative stuff, but what’s the story with you turning down Link Larkin in Hairspray to do a war movie?
Since the very first Hairspray workshop, three years before it started, I had been involved with the show. I did all the readings, the demos, was in full rehearsals for the [Broadway production]—I love all of those guys involved in that show. But I had really wanted to do this movie called The Great Raid, and I told them that. When I got the film I was super excited to be a part of it. I don’t regret the decision to do the movie at all. It was a great time for Hairspray and for me.
What was shooting that film like?
We shot on the Gold Coast of Australia, and it was awesome. Growing up, I had always wanted to do a war movie; it’s such a guy thing. We went to boot camp, me and this cast of great guys. We were out in the middle of nowhere, camping in the woods, crawling around through sugarcane fields. We were just there, making it happen in Australia.
Long before you were in the Australian wilderness, you got your Broadway break in Saturday Night Fever. Was playing Tony Manero overwhelming?
It was insanely overwhelming. It’s interesting because I was such a big fan of the movie, and new to the Broadway thing, so for me it was just a crazy, crazy whirlwind. I spent months before the rest of the cast learning the dancing, because that wasn’t what I did—dancing, I mean. It was a $12 million production! But I was so busy that I didn’t have time to think about that pressure. The show was what it was. Audiences enjoyed it.
How did you handle how it was received?
Well, it got crushed—is that what we’re talking about here?
What I always say when people ask is that the reviews picked apart my dancing. And I kind of read the reviews and went, “Yup.” [Laughs.] But I didn’t cast the thing! So the critics didn’t like it. But the audiences did.
How do you get panned and just get up there afterward to do the show?
You’re doing it every night for the people who paid to see the show. I always feel lucky to be onstage, and I know people spend a ton of money to see these shows. I was being paid to do my job, and I took that very seriously. Yes, it was difficult that it wasn’t received well. No one likes that. But what can you do? We kept doing it.
People always talk about how hard it is in Hollywood, but you’ve survived a lot here. Is Broadway or Hollywood harder?
One isn’t more difficult than the other. I’ve always loved the community here in New York, and am always so happy to be asked back. Some of the happiest times of my life were making $180 a week doing Stupid Kids at the WPA Theatre 15 years ago and not knowing how I was going to eat—which is balanced out by the $12 million musical filled with Bee Gees tunes! The snarkiness is hard, but what are you going to do?
I find out who they are and fuck them up! [Laughs.] No, seriously though, I’ve heard of actors having certain sites blocked on their computers. For me, I just don’t read it. My wife is an actress and she experiences it too, and I’m always like, “Don’t read that shit!” For every one thing you read about yourself that’s great, there’s going to be 50 things that are bad. Or you’ll read 50 good things, and the one comment about how your hair was parted on the wrong side will freak you out and ruin it. I can read it and laugh about it—now. But, you know, when people get really personal or malicious you do go to that place for a second where you’re like, “I’m gonna track you down! You said you were there on Wednesday and you’re coming Friday? It’s on!”
How do you handle snarkiness on message boards or in the press?
You’ve mentioned your wife [actress Amy Acker] several times now. How did you meet?
Through mutual friends who were waiting tables together and thought we should get together. I went to a party at her house with a group of people, and the rest is history.
What was it about her?
Well, here’s a picture [he shows off a snapshot of his gorgeous wife], sooo that was the first impression. But I had also been in some relationship doozies before her. A best friend of mine said to me, “You can’t marry the crazies.” And there was something about her—she comes from Dallas and is so sweet and level and genuine and centered—that was everything I hoped that girl would be for me. You know how you have an idea in your head of what you hope it will be like when you’re in love, but you never seem to quite find that girl? Well I met her. And then I almost screwed it up!
Oh, you know—as soon as I met her, someone I had been with before called out of the blue and almost screwed it up. But luckily [Amy] stuck with me, and I’m thankful for it everyday. We’ve been married six years.
How did you ask her to marry you?
She had come to visit me in Australia while I was shooting The Great Raid. My buddy’s dad actually made the ring, and it got stuck in customs! The producers at Miramax, who made the movie, actually flew someone down to that part of Australia to get the ring since I was stuck on the Gold Coast shooting, and they passed it off to me the night before she left to go home. We headed to dinner and then I asked her on the beach. She didn’t cry when I asked her though! I always thought she’d cry—is that weird? I think I was the one crying!
And now she’s married to a sex-crazed, '80s-singing, cod-piece-wearing rock star.
And I fucking love it. Seriously, I’m so excited to be here.
Are you letting the kids come see Daddy do his rocker thing?
My son, absolutely! The sexual stuff will go right over his head at age four. He’s just going to love the music and the lights and all of that. But if he starts asking about tranny strippers, I guess we’ll have to sit down and have a talk.
See James Carpinello in Rock of Ages at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre.