Mark-Paul Gosselaar has survived the child star curse, television stardom, fatherhood and even competitive cycling, but there’s one thing that finally shook him up: a rehearsal room at the Roundabout Theatre Company. The 34-year-old actor, currently co-starring alongside Tony Award winner Julie White and Emmy Award nominee Justin Kirk in Theresa Rebeck’s comedy The Understudy, has spent nearly half his life on screen, first gaining notoriety as the Ferris Bueller of 90s teen TV, Saved by the Bell bad boy Zach Morris. Gosselaar staved off post-sitcom obscurity when he landed the prime-time part of Detective John Clark Jr. on NYPD Blue, spending four years on the hit drama before moving on to his own series, TNT’s courtroom dramedy Raising the Bar. When the show wrapped its second season, Gosselaar jumped at the chance to break out of his comfort zone, crossing the country to play an action star-turned-Broadway leading man at off-Broadway’s Laura Pels Theatre. What he didn’t know, he humbly explains, was exactly how difficult stage debut would be—or how much he would end up loving it.
You've been acting since you were a teenager. Why did you wait so long to hit the stage?
Honestly, I never actively pursued theater acting and never had the opportunity. I recently switched over to an agency that's open to theater acting—most agencies aren't, in my experience. My new agent is [co-star] Julie White's as well, and she said, “I think you should do a play. Just go to the audition and read." I went in with no idea what I was doing and walked out with the job.
So you're a natural.
I wouldn't go that far! I'm actually glad I had to audition, that I didn't just get offered the part. It's more rewarding knowing I had to go in and earn it. I want to legitimately get something out of this, since it's such a new experience. And, because of my television career, I feel I need to prove I can do it.
What's your crash course in theater acting been like?
Rehearsing was probably the most anxiety-ridden three weeks of my life. In TV-land, the goal of rehearsal is just to learn the lines and make sure you're on your mark. For this, we're running through the entire show "for real," as if it's opening night. Learning to work at that level every day, [paired with] getting over my fear of making mistakes in front of people I respect, was really daunting. There's always that fear that you'll make a choice and the people in the rehearsal room will look at each other and go, "What the fuck is he doing?" Going onstage in front of an audience is no problem. Obviously that can be nerve-wracking, but I can deal with that kind of nervousness.
Were your co-stars, both seasoned stage veterans, helpful?
Of course, everyone was. I remember when I was getting ready to come to New York and start working, [director] Scott Ellis said, "Don't worry. And don't memorize anything yet." I showed up and Justin and Julie had the whole thing memorized on day one! So then I'm going, "Great, I’m totally new and now I'm behind the eight ball too?" Scott kept saying, "You're fine. Trust me." I love working with Scott, but trust is hard. I had to learn that if they changed a line of mine not to take it personally. I'd be going, "No, wait! Don't change it! I'll do it better!" And [Justin and Julie] would be like, "It's okay, they’re not changing it because of you." God, I really didn't enjoy myself during rehearsal.
But you're having fun now that it's about the audience?
Absolutely! Now it's the fine-tuning of things. It's playing; it's fun. You also have an audience reacting every night, so you know immediately if something is working or if it isn't. The fun part is when something doesn't work, coming in the next day and going, "How can we make this better?" And if the change works and the audience is howling that night, it's an immediate reward. It's an amazing process for an actor. I understand now why theater is held in the esteem it is.
Do you see yourself acting onstage in the future?
Even when I was struggling through rehearsals I would have said yes. I would honestly love to come back. I have a family and two kids [five-year-old Michael Charles and three-year old Ava Lorenn], so it will be a little tricky, unfortunately. My son just started school, and my wife [actress Lisa Ann Russell] is back in California making that happen while I'm here. For me, this is like vacation. Everyone keeps asking how it is and I'm going, "It's fucking great! I went drinking with [Bye Bye Birdie star] John Stamos!" Meanwhile, my wife is on her own. Had this happened over the summer, we could all be here together as a family, taking in the city like tourists. If there's some summer theater I can do, I'll absolutely say yes.
The play's both valentine and a send-up of commercial theater. As a newcomer, were there inside jokes you needed explained?
I definitely had questions! Like, what is a "put-in rehearsal?" The whole show is about a put-in rehearsal—I’m an action star in a long lost Kafka play, Justin is my understudy and Julie is the stage manager rehearsing us—and I had no idea what that meant! Of course I read the script, but we don't have understudies on a television show. I wasn't sure entirely what an understudy's job is.
Your career was launched by a sitcom. At what point did you feel like you'd moved past that and become a more serious actor?
NYPD Blue definitely was the starting point of my young adult career. It was a moment where even I was baffled by what had happened. I auditioned for an entirely different part and didn't get it. But as I was leaving the audition, the director said to me, "Let me know if you get a pilot during the new TV season, because if not I'd love to work with you." I figured he was just being nice since I wasn't being cast. True to his word, two weeks later he called and offered the part of [leading man Detective John Clark, Jr.]. And all I could do was go, "Me? Really?"
You were surprised?
Look, I'm from California. I'd never played a cop, and certainly hadn't played one from New York. I was 27, playing a detective. And starring opposite someone like Rick Schroder, who had also been a kid star like me. It was all so surreal. And the director claimed he had never seen me on Saved by the Bell, which made it seem even more unlikely. That entire show was one of the proudest moments of my career.
So you're playing an action star in this show. Who is one of your personal action heroes?
I love the Spider-Man and Batman films. To be able to put on an actual Spider-Man suit, or to be able to play Batman, a comic book hero? That might be the coolest thing ever.
I have to ask: Who was the best Batman?
Michael Keaton, no question. I thought he was great. Maybe because it was so new back then? Don't get me wrong, Christian Bale is a good Batman too. But I have to go with Keaton.
We asked Justin Kirk who he'd like as his understudy in everyday life, and he said you. So: Who do you nominate as your personal understudy?
Well, Justin would get mad if I didn't say him. He's a very fragile man. I don't know—is it an insult to say you want someone as your understudy? In the play my character asks Justin's character why, if he's a real actor, he would take a gig as an understudy. So is it disrespectful to say, "You should be my understudy?"
I think it's a compliment. If you wanted me to be your understudy I'd be pretty excited.
Oh no. I'm not falling into that trap. I'm just going to play it safe and say Justin Kirk's my understudy. Even if he is fragile.
See Mark-Paul Gosselaar in The Understudy at the Laura Pels Theatre.