Stephen Kunken in 'Enron'
When you are playing opposite four dinosaurs, you have to jump into the breach."
Stephen Kunken had a bittersweet week. The actor, who is starring on Broadway in Lucy Prebble’s Enron as lupine CFO Andy Fastow, learned he had been honored with a Tony nomination for Best Featured Actor in a Play…and then later that day, he found out that his show would close on May 9. The accomplished actor, who always seems to be working, has a number of Broadway credits, including the London transfers of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Frost/Nixon and Festen as well as a replacement in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Proof. He most recently appeared on the New York stage in David Cromer’s hit off-Broadway revival of Our Town. Broadway.com chatted with Kunken about Enron, dancing with dinosaurs and the reason he’s so happy these days.
Right before Enron, you appeared as the Stage Manager in Our Town. Could these roles be any more different?
They’re pretty far: Houston to New Hampshire. It’s amazing what happens when you cross that divide. I think great plays, when they’re operating at their best, are asking the same questions. So even though Enron is very far from Grover’s Corners, they are both asking: What is your responsibility to other people, to yourself, to your kids?
You’ve done so much work regionally and off-Broadway, but when looking at your Broadway resume, you seem like the go-to guy for British transfers.
Yes, thank God for the Brits!
Despite being in a lot of London imports, you don’t usually play Brits.
True, though I spoke with a British accent in Rock ‘n’ Roll, even though I was playing a Czech.
Do you think there’s more of a hunger for political theater in the U.K. than here?
I think people need and want to be challenged to a certain point, but if it’s too unfamiliar, then it becomes easier to shut off to it. I think the Brits listen to language in a slightly different way; it’s a cultural difference. We’re able to something extraordinary in the theater here, and if you can meld those two worlds, you have something great.
I was surprised to see you sing in this play.
So was I. [Laughs.]
I didn’t know you sang.
Well, I have done a few musicals, and I have a sort of nice voice. I sang in college—I did Threepenny Opera.
What did you know about Enron before doing this show?
I knew enough. I’ve been a hand-to-mouth actor, especially when this was all happening. I certainly wasn’t going, “I gotta get my money out of Enron” by any stretch. I remember reading about it when it went down. There was this feeling of amazement that it had happened. I saw the documentary [Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room] when it came out. I was fascinated by that, and then I kind of forgot about it for a while. I certainly knew who Jeff Skilling and Ken Lay were. My politics at the time were very anti that group of people, so I knew them from a certain context of not liking them.
Is it hard to play someone who’s so vilified?
I found a lot of crumbs on how to build a skeleton in her [playwright Lucy Prebble] writing about how this guy wanted to be liked. He really wanted to impress Jeff Skilling, then he got pushed around, but he had a backbone and wouldn’t be pushed around. I don’t think he saw very far outside of the layer of how this was going to actually affect people. I try to stay on that course.
And you can’t take yourself too seriously when you’re dancing around the stage with dinosaurs.
True! When you are playing opposite four dinosaurs, you have to jump into the breach.
Are there any parallels between you and your character, Andy Fastow?
We went to the same school, which is Tufts University. We’re both from the East Coast: He’s from New Jersey, I’m from Long Island. We’re both Jewish. I think he was definitely aggressively ambitious. I wouldn’t say I’m aggressively ambitious, but if you’re in the arts, you’re tapped into that in some way.
I hear you have a new addition to your family. Congratulations!
Thank you. My wife and I just adopted an eight-month-old little girl from Ethiopia. Her name is Naomi. I was doing Our Town, and my last performance was on Thursday, and we flew on Friday to Ethiopia and picked her up. Then we flew back, arrived back on a Saturday, and I started rehearsals on Monday for Enron.
How exhausted are you?
It’s pretty tiring. But she’s the most amazing kid on the planet. It’s like if you wrote everything you wanted down on a piece of paper and threw it up in the air, what would come down is this kid.