After reprising his role as part of the bad-boy posse in the summer comedy The Hangover Part II, Justin Bartha returned to the New York stage in a pair of plays from acclaimed young actors-turned-playwrights. In August, he led the cast of Zach Braff's All New People at Second Stage, and now he's sharing the Cherry Lane Theatre stage with Oscar nominee and close friend Jesse Eisenberg in Asuncion. In the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater production, Bartha plays Vinny, a burned out teacher's assistant at an upstate New York university living with Edgar (Eisenberg), a socially awkward former student. Broadway.com recently chatted with Bartha about his commitment to the stage, The Hangover's incredible success and his celebrity run-ins before he was famous himself.
Asuncion just celebrated opening night. How is the show going?
Really great. We all love this play, and it’s a lot of fun and very fulfilling. The audience has been overwhelmingly positive. We’ve had a lot of people come up to us saying they’ve seen it four or five times because they can’t hear some of the dialogue because of the laughter. They discover more things every time they come.
What's it like sharing the stage with Jesse Eisenberg, your co-star in the movie Holy Rollers?
This play actually predated that movie. Jesse and I have been friends for almost 10 years. We first did a reading of this about five years ago at my friend’s apartment, and over the years we’ve worked on it together. I think he had my voice in mind when writing Vinny. We did a couple more readings, one for Rattlestick, which is one of our favorite theaters, and kept going from there.
Did the show change a lot over the years?
The end of the first act is a little different, but otherwise everything is pretty much the same. The essence has remained. The characters became more refined as the process went along.
You and Jesse play roommates. Did your real-life friendship strengthen the relationship of your characters?
It was absolutely a huge benefit knowing each other very well. Over the years we would go over the play and think of how far we could push each character.
Vinny has a fondness for marijuana. Is it fun to pretend to sit on a couch and get high for much of the show?
Yes, he’s a very fun character to play. I have a great fondness for him. He’s kind of a bundle of contradictions. He’s a bizarre kind of guy in that he’s a bit wild, but the relationship between Edgar and Vinny is extremely complicated. He’s just a fascinating, very realized character. It’s rare to be able to play a character that’s so interesting and unique. It’s a challenge because obviously he’s a stoner, but he has to keep his energy up [laughs].
You show off some nice dance moves on stage. Have you been listening to a lot of the music Vinny likes?
Well the guy has a masters in Black Studies and is obsessed with Africa and anything that has to do with Africa and black culture. He’s obsessed with the blues, so there was a lot of listening to a certain type of music to get into that, which was fun.
The show has a very specific fast-paced, almost neurotic, rhythm to its dialogue, similar to a lot of Jesse’s film characters. Is it hard to get that style down?
You just have to get into the right energy. I don’t think it’s that hard because the writing is so strong. It’s rare for a young playwright, someone who’s mounting his first play, to have such strong dialogue, and the relationships are so fully fleshed out that once you get on stage it's pretty easy.
Before Asuncion, you starred in Zach Braff’s All New People. What do you enjoy about working with playwrights who also have acting backgrounds?
I think there’s a sensitivity to actors and performance that’s inherit to theater in the first place. What’s amazing about Jesse’s play is not only is the writing so strong, but every line of dialogue is fantastically woven and character-based. Even with all the great lines in the show, the biggest laughs are usually from a character’s reaction to the lines. It’s very much based in character and the relationship between the actors and not just the dialogue.
Do you have any playwright ambitions of your own now?
I’m a huge fan of theater and plays, so we’ll see. You never know. I have always tinkered around with my own things. I’d love to mount my own play, but I think I’m all burnt out on the actor-playwright thing now [laughs].
in spite of your work in hit movies, you’ve been very committed to the stage in the last few years. What do you love about theater?
Theater has a very different kind of control for an actor. It’s two hours on stage that’s yours to live within your character. It’s also, for a lack of better term, low tech. I’m a simple kind of guy who likes the basics. Although I love movies and consider myself a cinephile, I get the most exhilaration from just acting on a stage without having to worry about any sort of special effects. The current trend in movies is very technology driven and I love the other end of the spectrum. I think we’re going to see a crop of beautiful new plays plays and the quality of theater is going to continue growing because there’s an outlet for that anti-technology sense.
As a cinephile, what kind of movies do you appreciate?
Like most movie fans, the 70s American movies are my favorites, and that’s one of the reason theater appeals to me. Those are movies that are usually character-based, performance-driven and that’s what you get in the theater.
Well, you haven’t completely abandoned film. Your new movie, Todd Solondz’s Dark Horse, recently played at the Toronto Film Festival.
He’s one of my favorite filmmakers and has been for years. This is one of his best movies. I’m very proud of it and, like most of his movies, it will probably split audiences because it’s not for everybody. In a weird way it’s like Jesse’s play, a comment on America and very culturally relevant.
There are a lot of theater actors in the film, including Donna Murphy, Tyler Maynard and Zachary Booth.
Donna is fantastic. Christopher Walken and Mia Farrow play my parents. Todd Solondz is such an intelligent filmmaker. He knows exactly what he wants, and has a very specific voice, which I think is what fans of his are attracted to. He’s one of the last late 90s New York auteurs that have never faltered from their oeuvre, never compromised their vision. That’s so amazingly rare these days. All he’s ever done is tell the stories he wants to tell.
The Hangover Part II was a big hit this summer. When fans meet you, do they expect you to be a giant partier like the film’s Wolf Pack characters?
There’s so much love for the movies and they became such a cultural phenomenon that it’s hard for me to really wrap my head around the response. People really love that film so there’s a lot of calling out of the character’s name, that kind of thing.
I recently watched your 2001 pilot for MTV’s The Dustin and Justin Show [in which Bartha hilariously asked famous people ridiculous questions at red carpet events]. Would you ever like to do an improv-based project again?
That was just something I did fucking around when I was in school at NYU. We were lucky at the time that MTV picked it up. It was just kind of a comment on the fascination with celebrity in America, and that was even before it really became this epidemic of disgusting fascination. It’s a topic that is probably played out at this point, but it was a fun thing to do. When it comes to improvisation and comedy, I kind of get to do that in movies. It’s nice that I don’t have to really sneak into press junkets. Fortunately now I’m the one being interviewed.
A lot of the people you harassed, like Stockard Channing, Julia Stiles and Piper Parabo, are now your Hollywood and Broadway peers. Did anyone ever recognize you years later?
I’ve bumped into most of those people, and mostly nobody remembered it. The only person who did was Michael Douglas when I did a film [The Rebound] with Catherine Zeta-Jones. Michael is a wonderful guy and has a great sense of humor. He actually remembered it because we sang him a song and he got a kick out of it.