If you started asking around for names of show biz’s most notorious divas, the last person you’d expect to find on the list is Victor Garber. Which may be why this four-time Tony Award nominee (for Deathtrap, Little Me, Lend Me a Tenor and Damn Yankees) and all-round nice guy is relishing his current comedic gig as epic puffed-up divo Garry Essendine in Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of Noel Coward’s Present Laughter so thoroughly. The role of Essendine, a womanizing actor having a farcical mid-life crisis, literally pulled Garber back to Broadway after an eventful absence of 10 years, a decade filled with starring roles on TV series such as Alias and Eli Stone and films like as Legally Blonde and Milk. Broadway.com sat down with Garber, back for the first time since his acclaimed turn in 1999’s Art, just as Present Laughter began previews (the show opens January 21) at the American Airlines Theatre.
You’ve been away from Broadway for 10 years. Why return with this show?
I did this play in Boston [at the Huntington Theatre] two and a half years ago, and it was one of the most wonderful experiences I’ve ever had—and I’ve had some very lucky theater experiences. As soon as my [TV series] Eli Stone was cancelled, I called my agent and said I wanted to get this play to Broadway, because I wanted to be back with this show. It’s a play that’s not appreciated as much as it should be—and I love the character. I also think Noel Coward isn’t completely acknowledged as the kind of genius he was, so I aspire for this production to represent him in a comprehensive way.
Between co-stars Harriet Harris, Lisa Banes, Richard Poe and Brooks Ashmanskas you’re in good comedic company.
It’s a perfect cast, isn’t it? And it’s beautifully directed [by Nicholas Martin]. Everyone is in really good shape. We’re having fun playing.
Brooks is in especially rare form.
He’s a nut! Luckily, because we’re friends and my character is so baffled by his, I’m able to play that bafflement enough to keep from laughing. Honestly, sometimes he pulls out a move or gesture where I really think, “What are you doing?” He’s insane. An insane, inspired genius.
You’re known as one of the nicest humans in show biz...
Well, I’m trying to change that reputation [laughs]. I’d like to be more edgy or controversial.
Point is, this character, a vain, pompous diva, is pretty unlike you.
That’s all in me. I actually connect to him deeply. I love him, his frailties, his insecurities. I think he’s poignant because he is so vulnerable. And he’s the one who eventually sets all the other characters straight.
Garry is a sketch of the playwright, correct?
Yes, Coward based the role on himself. God, I would have given anything to know Noel Coward. You know, to sit across a table from him or see him act? Wouldn’t that be amazing? I so love saying the lines he’s written because they are so smart, and I am not that smart.
The dialogue is very sophisticated. Do you miss people speaking so eloquently?
I miss the love of language that’s demonstrated in this show. That’s one of the reasons I’m encouraging young people to see it. We had a young girl, about 15, see a matinee with her father recently, and she admitted she’d been worried about whether she’d like the show. But she really got it. That’s been one of our most rewarding moments so far, because she is the audience we’re building for the theater. I sense from doing this play that audiences are almost appreciative to sit back and get a break from all the drama.
Your character is in the throes of a midlife crisis. Have you personally had one?
Sure. That’s a daily balancing act for anyone who’s getting older. Suddenly you’re saying, “Okay, where is my life going? Where is my career going? Oh, God, I’m too old for that part now?” But I feel very at peace in my life right now. I’m so happy to be back in the theater in a show on Broadway.
Has Broadway changed since you left?
Definitely. It’s more star driven. I don’t think producers are willing to take the risks for commercial runs. That’s why I’m so grateful for the Roundabout, MTC and Lincoln Center Theaters. Otherwise we wouldn’t be doing [shows like] this. Economics change everything. I don’t dwell on it. But it is sad when a show like Brighton Beach Memoirs closes in a week. For it to be so good, then suddenly end? That’s genuinely scary.
Looking back, are there successes in your career you feel would have failed in this current climate?
I’ve been fairly lucky. But Damn Yankees might not have made it. [Co-star] Bebe Neuwirth was a big star, granted, but those sorts of shows—ones with big Broadway names but no Hollywood stars—aren’t surviving now. Look at Finian’s Rainbow. It got great reviews, but there’s no one from the movies in it, so it will close. People wanted to see a great production of the wonderful musical Damn Yankees back then, not stars, and so we ran for a year. That phenomenon is iffy now.
Of all the parts you’ve played, which have been the most challenging?
I’ve never been able to answer that question well, because all have been challenging. I mean, this play is an incredible challenge, as were Art and Arcadia for other reasons. Two Shakespearian Actors was one of the most terrifying, wonderful, rewarding flops I’ve ever been a part of, and I would do it all over again if I could. And of course Damn Yankees, but musicals are another ball of wax. That’s a terrifying proposition for me now, doing musicals.
The maintenance of it?
Absolutely. That, and I have such a fear of singing now. I recently started going back to voice lessons for the first time in a long while so I can get my confidence back enough to sing.
You’re afraid to sing?
Yes. People are surprised when I say that. It’s a fear because I’m so demanding of myself. I feel I’ve fallen into habits and traps I need to shake out of. So hopefully this little scare will pass.
You sing in this show. Are you afraid of that moment?
Not afraid, but aware? I’m always aware if my voice isn’t where I want it to be. Most people don’t notice, because it’s so subjective. Fortunately, I’m only singing one song in this show, as a specific character in a certain play, so it’s more protected.
This show is a comedy. What comedians make you laugh?
I’m blessed to have grown up surrounded by the funniest people. When I did Godspell back in Toronto, Gilda Radner and Andrea Martin and Martin Short were all in the cast. The ones who are alive are still my friends, and they still make me laugh harder than anyone. My favorite thing to do is just be with those friends who make me laugh.
So, is comedy or drama harder?
Well, you know the old saying. I’d say comedy is more—no, wait. That’s bullshit. They’re both hard! Doing After Miss Julie is just as hard as doing a Noel Coward comedy. When you’re in a drama, you’re going to a place emotionally that is just gut-wrenching. In a comedy, you go places that are hard in a different way. Both are equally difficult.
Play or musical?
Anything Steve Sondheim, always. But at this point I’m happy doing plays. Musicals are too hard right now!
L.A. or New York?
I’ve always been at home in N.Y.C. I came here early on from Canada with dreams of Broadway and immediately felt I belonged here. But talk to me in March when the show’s done—I’ll probably be begging for L.A.
Stage or screen?
There’s nothing like that stage out there—when it works. But I love doing film and television, because it isn’t the stage. The greatest thing about being an actor is being able to do all of it. If I was just doing one or the other I’d probably kill myself. After five years of doing Alias—which I adored—and being downtown in L.A. at 5AM shooting another fight scene, I remember thinking, “Please, get me back to the theater, when I can go home at 10:30!” But I guarantee by the end of this play I’ll be dying for a TV show. It’s a constant balance.
Heroes or villains?
I’m sort of the latter—I’ve entered the villain years and enjoy it, because they’re fun to play. Of course, the villain doesn’t know they’re the villain. My character in this play is like that. He’s the kind of guy you literally love to hate.
This is random, but you officiated at Alias costar Jennifer Garner’s very private wedding to Ben Affleck, correct?
I did. You can get ordained online to do one ceremony by some slightly Scientology-sounding church—the Universal Church of the Universe or something? Jen’s business manager set it all up for me—I gave him my social security number and driver's license and he set it all up. Apparently it’s all legal. Or I hope it is. They’re married now and have two children, so it better be! But it was a huge honor for me that they asked, and a joyous day. It was extremely emotional.
Did you cry?
Oh yeah. When there’s that much love and intensity in such a private setting, you almost can’t believe you’re there.
Now that you’re back on Broadway, would you consider officiating at stagefolk weddings? Jane Krakowski just announced her engagement.
I’m very excited to hear Jane’s engaged. She’s adorable. But I think it was only legal for me to do it the once! And I'm not looking at that as a backup career.