As Trip Wyeth in Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities, Justin Kirk does what Justin Kirk does best, walking the tightrope between providing comic relief and serving as the unlikely voice of reason. After his sister, Brooke (Rachel Griffiths), returns home with a shocking memoir that threatens to tear apart the wealthy, conservative Wyeth family, Trip becomes both a pawn and a crutch for each side as they prepare for battle. Kirk returns to Broadway a bona fide television star after playing Mary-Louise Parker's brother-in-law in Showtime's long-running hit Weeds (for which he received a Golden Globe nomination), starring as Prior Walter in HBO’s Angels in America (for which he received an Emmy nomination) and guest-starring as Jesse Tyler Ferguson's boss on Modern Family. The laid-back actor chatted with Broadway.com about his theatrical history, why he loves working on TV and his Broadway return.
How does it feel to be back on Broadway?
The feelings veer wildly from pleasure to terror to fatigue to stress, but mostly it’s pretty cool.
What did you think when you first saw Other Desert Cities?
It’s been such a bizarre process to replace someone, especially for me, because I pretty much memorized the play on my own. So seeing it for the first time was a strange experience. I went to the show on the first night I was here, and it was fantastic. Tommy [Sadoski] is so great. I was afraid of seeing it more than once and having his performance ingrained.
What was it like stepping into this existing dynamic—did you feel part of the family right away?
The natural process of doing a play is a month of rehearsal and discovering things in a very organic way sitting around a table, and the first few words I said to Stockard and Stacy were in the wings, waiting to go on stage in a Broadway theater [laughs]. All of a sudden, there we were! When Joe [Mantello, the director] asked me to do it, I knew that would be a crazier challenge than I’ve had in a while and it seemed like you should probably do things that would be crazy challenges.
What’s it like going head to head on stage with Stockard Channing and Rachel Griffiths?
I like to think we are head by head rather than head to head [laughs]. It’s fantastic, that’s the other great thing jumping into this play. First of all, it’s already a success. So I’ve come into this thing where there is already an audience showing up every night that has heard it’s good and is excited to see it. Then I’m working with people that are the top of what they do, which is always fun to do as an actor. So it’s great fun.
Let’s discuss your last Broadway outing, Terrence McNally's Love! Valour! Compassion! What did that experience mean to you?
It was my second job in New York, so I was pretty green, and it became this [celebrated] thing, so it meant a lot. We did it for a year and then we did the movie, so that was a very big part of my early life as an actor.
What was it like to translate the play to film?
I was terrified. That was my first movie I ever did, but luckily it was with the people who had been together on the stage and of course Joe [Mantello] was directing it. We were all there together up in Montreal, and we had a great time.
The last time you spoke with Broadway.com, you were prepping to play Prior Walter in Angels in America. How did the Angels experience change your career?
Well, you never know how something changes your career, but it definitely changed me as an actor. Want to talk scary, traumatic experiences? That was one for me! I put a lot of pressure on myself every day, and it never really subsided until we finished a year later. It changed fundamentally who I am as an actor.
In what way?
I am so glad I was a part of it, but when I look back, I think, “I’m a different actor now.” Ninety percent of a good performance of an actor is based on the material. If you’ve got the material there, you can ride it. In something like Angels in America, you can say, “Ugh, I didn’t feel too good in that scene,” but it doesn’t matter because it’s such a beautiful thing on the page, you just have to say the words and make an effort and it works out.
What was the most daunting part about playing Prior on film?
The material itself. The play was such a big deal to my generation of New York actors, and I knew [Stephen] Spinella [who originated the role on Broadway] well. Then on top of that there’s Meryl Streep and Mike Nichols, et al. So it never ended. It just felt like a lot.
And that’s where you first co-starred with Mary-Louise Parker [an Emmy winner as Harper Pitt]. What do you love about working with her?
The two of us have worked with each other more than any other actor I’ve worked with, and it’s still a joy and a challenge and a thrill to sit across from her and make a scene work.
Any fun secrets you’ve learned along the journey with her?
About her? Oh yeah, lots of secrets, but none that I can tell Broadway.com [laughs].
In Other Desert Cities you play a bit of a stoner, which between this and Weeds…
[Interrupting] Well, in Other Desert Cities, I roll a joint. Who knows? Maybe [Trip] hasn’t smoked pot in years and just decides to get some for the trip, no pun intended. I will tell you the biggest challenge of this play for me—believe it or not, I didn’t know how to roll a joint or cigarette, so I had to train. I have to do it during this big speech in the show, so that was the thing I was scared the most about as I embarked on preparing for the role. That’s one nice thing about being an actor: You pick up little skills that you might not have otherwise.
Andy on Weeds and Trip Wyeth are also both ladies' men. Is this a quality you also share?
I'm assuming that people assume I am both a stoner and a lothario. And you know what? I’m okay with them thinking both of those things.
The Weeds season finales are always shocking. This year, the episode ended with someone in the family being shot at. Were you guys nervous to see which of you is taking the bullet?
Boy, I’ll say, I have a mortgage to pay! [Laughs.] No, the thing about the Weeds finales is this: Not only do we not know what is going to happen, I am fairly certain that the writers don’t either. They like to write themselves into a corner and then get back together the next season and figure out exactly what’s up.
You went to see [Weeds star] Hunter Parrish in Godspell. What was it like to watch him on stage?
It’s been so exciting for me to watch Hunter become the actor he is becoming. The kid’s got chops. Not only is he a great friend, but watching this happen for him is cool to see.
Why do you think it’s important for young actors to work on stage?
There is probably some great acting that goes on in movies from people who have never been on a stage, but if you are in for the long haul, you’d be missing an enormous part of what being an actor is if you’re not part of theater. I think it’s integral if you’re going to be a real actor. I’ve really grown to love film, but I think occasionally you need to get up on a stage and see what’s going on.
Now that you’re back on the boards, has the bug bitten you again? Are you going to return to Broadway on future hiatuses?
[Long pause] Yeah [laughs]. I mean, it’s hard work, I’ve grown accustomed to my life doing a television show and living in L.A., but I think it’s for the best if you keep involved [with theater]. I am aware of the fact that I am still asked to come and work here, and it’s a small community that I want to remain a part of. So when a good one comes around, it behooves me to do it.
Weeds shoots three months a year. What is your favorite way to spend the other nine?
The great thing about having a schedule like that is the bills get paid in those first three months, then you get to go work on other stuff if you are lucky. I spent the previous two months before coming to New York in Europe working on the movie Mr. Morgan’s Last Love with Michael Caine, and now I’m here for a couple months. I have turned into a bit of a homebody as I’ve gotten older. I don’t really like to leave the couch in Los Angeles, but when a job comes around that you feel you have to do, you get up and do it.
See Justin Kirk in Other Desert Cities at the Booth Theatre.