Being a good father is its own reward, but for actor Daniel Jenkins it pays off professionally as well. The actor made his last Broadway outing as stuffy patriarch Mr. Banks in Mary Poppins, and now he’s back on the boards as a very different Dad in the long-running hit musical Billy Elliot. Jenkins, who grew up with an actor father of his own, began his Broadway career with a Tony-nominated debut in Big River (as Huckleberry Finn), and went on to roles in the revival (as Mark Twain) and shows like Wrong Mountain, Big and Angels in America. Broadway.com recently caught up with Jenkins to chat about his unconventional childhood, Randy Newman obsession, and how raising his own kids makes him a great onstage dad.
What’s it been like jumping into Billy Elliot?
I’m getting my cardio in! It’s a really cool ride, like jumping aboard a chugging locomotive. The journey Dad takes is just awesome. He goes from being a borderline bigot to accepting difference, embracing it and even rooting for it. Islington is this insular community of mining, very macho by necessity, and here comes this kid who is obviously not. I have two kids of my own and eventually you see that they are who they are, and Dad has to recognize that in Billy.
You jumped to this role from Mr. Banks in Mary Poppins. You seem to have a lock on Broadway dads.
Certainly angry British dads! Those two come from very different echelons of society, but there are similarities. He’s a workaholic, doesn’t really pay attention to his children, is kind of burdened with the history of who he should be. It’s cool to do the show with different Billys, because you take such an intimate journey with this kid and they are all completely different. The rehearsal process was so fast and furious, it really helped to keep my kids with me in spirit the whole time.
Your own father [Ken Jenkins] is an actor. Are your kids showing any interest in the family business?
You know how much? Zero percent. Theater is a part of their lives because my wife and I are both actors, but they’re doing their sports and studies and living full, balanced lives. It’s not central to their understanding of who they are. But I don’t know if it was for me when I was their age.
Did you grow up in theaters?
My dad was a founding member of Actors Theatre of Louisville, and I saw him do some amazing roles there. I loved it, the whole culture of these created families was intense and interesting, but I didn’t know that I wanted to do it. I had a lot of other things I liked, and I still do. Talk to me in a few months and I could be a line cook somewhere.
Was that another path you considered?
Oh yeah, right up there with baker and lawyer and page in the Senate and veterinarian. I grew up on a farm so there was a lot of variation in my life.
Wait, you grew up on a farm and your father was an actor?
I know, poor dad. We lived on a farm in southwestern Kentucky and he had a three hour commute when he was working.
Was this a working farm?
Yep, it was beef cattle, crops, and pretty much every kind of farm animal except sheep and pigs.
Did you grow up with farm chores?
Oh yeah. My least favorite job, which is now my favorite metaphor, was mucking the barn. You’re actually dealing with cow shit, and there’s something very satisfying about looking at this job that is just never going to be freaking done, and then you’ve done it and the satisfaction is very pure and simple. In theater we rarely get that; we don’t have that sense of starting, working, completing. A barn you can muck out and it’s done. Until the cows come in again.
Did you ever think you’d be raising your kids as city kids?
Never, and they are total city kids. We’ve been in the same apartment since my oldest was born. I have nothing but good things to say about raising kids in the city, but sometimes you say, “Hmm, I wish there were more stars above their heads.” The college search is this year and I want Jack to look at some schools out west. Seattle is my favorite city in the states. I did a show at ACT there called The Education of Randy Newman, I was in the room with Randy Newman and I could barely look him in the face! He’s in my top three heroes. That didn’t suck.
Other than my nerdy jazz and bluegrass heroes, my childhood musical heroes were James Taylor, Randy Newman and Bonnie Raitt. James Taylor basically taught me to play the guitar and Bonnie Raitt was my mother’s soul in song, but Randy Newman was a displaced Southern Jew. Ding ding ding!
Your resume is so eclectic. Any favorites?
While Wrong Mountain wasn’t a successful outing, I really loved playing that geeky playwright loser who lives in his head. I’m proud of Love Child, the off-Broadway show I did with Robert Stanton, because we stuck with it for so long! It was 16 years in the making because of our schedules. I’ve never laughed as much in a rehearsal room as working on that.
Do you do a fair amount of writing, as well as acting?
I do some. I wish I was one of those people who could sit down and write for two hours every day. Not me. I’d much rather scrub the kitchen floor until it’s spotless.
That old barn-mucking habit?