Age & Hometown: 32; South Windsor, CT
Current Role: Surly ranchhand-turned-oil tycoon Jett Rink, whose rivalry with a Texan cattleman drives the action in the Public Theater’s production of Giant.
He Will Rock You: Phillip James “P.J.” Griffith can remember the exact moment he began thinking about becoming an actor. At age eight, he and his two younger brothers attended a children’s theater production of The Ugly Duckling in which the title role was played by an actor with Down syndrome. “It was a mind-blowing experience,” recalls Griffith, who officially caught the theater bug at 16 after seeing the first national tour of Rent. Since graduating from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, he has played a slew of starkly different roles, from Sky on tour in Mamma Mia! to St. Jimmy in Broadway’s American Idiot. “I like darker and grittier pieces,” he says, “challenging pieces that don’t just give the audience stuff they’ve seen before.” Griffith also fronts a ’70s glam electro-rock band called Blue Movie (named after the Andy Warhol film), and he’s at work on a punk rock adaptation of the 1984 sci-fi comedy Repo Man. “I’m all over the place,” he says with a laugh.
A Giant Transformation: Griffith joined Giant during the show’s pre-NYC run in Dallas as oil magnate Jett Rink, played in the 1956 movie by James Dean. Despite having big shoes to fill, Griffith crafted his character from Edna Ferber’s 1952 novel. “We didn't want any kind of replication of James Dean or Rock Hudson. Being from the east coast, it was interesting for me to find a hook into seeing the world with this Texas strong-but-wrong mentality,” he says with a grin, adding, “I do like playing the bad guy. I connect with obsessive, passionate people with a certain drive. And they get the best songs!” Griffith worked hard to transform his character from a mischievous villain in the Dallas production to someone “a little more sympathetic but manipulative” in the Public run. “Jett was more of a dog in Dallas, and almost a snake in this,” he explains. “It’s been cool to work on an evolving piece, but it’s also been like holding on to a jet ski.”
Comic Book Crimefighter: When he’s not commanding the stage (in Giant or with his band), Griffith is an avid golfer and writer, and he has dabbled in some odd jobs in entertainment, including a stint as an audience coordinator for Comedy Central, a production assistant on Showtime at the Apollo—and a cameo role in a certain summer blockbuster starring Batman. “My agent randomly got a call for me to read for a SWAT team member in The Dark Knight Rises,” recalls Griffith, who shot a homemade audition tape (“I used an umbrella as a shotgun”) with his wife, actress Kelly Karbacz. He landed the role and shot his scene a week later. “I just had one line. I set up a sniper rifle at the top of the stock exchange and say, ‘I’ve got something!’ and the stock exchange blows up. Four pages of script for one line of fury.” But the effect was immediate: “More friends of mine care about that than anything else I’ve ever done. It was totally badass.”