Jordan Gelber has come a long way since playing "Commuter" and "Man on the Bridge" in blockbusters like The Taking of Pelham 123 and TV's Rescue Me. These days, he's all about Buddy! The Bronx-born actor is starring in the holiday musical Elf, taking on the role created on screen in 2003 by Will Ferrell. An original cast member of Avenue Q and vet of the Broadway revival of All My Sons, Gelber also garnered critical accolades for his performance in Todd Solondz's 2011 black comedy Dark Horse. Gelber spoke to Broadway.com about how he's become the go-to actor for portraying overgrown children and why seeing Christopher Reeve in Superman as a child inspired him to become "something fantastic."
What made you want to take on the role of Buddy the Elf?
There was an opening for the job [laughs]. When [casting director] Bernie Telsey's office wanted to bring me in, I hesitated because I knew it wasn’t necessarily my type of role. But they thought I had something special to bring to it, so I just took a shot, and five days later I got the offer.
Is there any pressure in performing for audiences who might be fans of the film?
No, there’s never any of that pressure. I guess the pressure would be to be faithful to the story and to the character, but not necessarily to the film. I think there's a faithfulness to certain key elements of the film, especially to some of the funny parts. But with [director] Casey Nicholaw and [writers] Bob Martin and Thomas Meehan, there’s a collaborative feeling in the rehearsal room.
What qualities did you want to bring to the role of Buddy?
More of that childlike innocence. That’s what I tapped into when I first worked on the role, just the idea of what would somebody be like if they were raised by elves? Who are elves? What are they like? What do they do? And I just played with that. What’s great about Buddy, and Will Ferrell got away with murder a little bit with him, is that he has this innocence. You can try and experiment with how far you can push the envelope with the character, and that’s a whole lot of fun.
For Buddy, it all starts when he leaves the North Pole to make it to New York City. What would you attempt to do, if you knew you couldn’t fail?
That’s a great question. I don’t know if Buddy actually knows he’s going to succeed or not, but I think he’s the world’s hugest optimist. But if I knew I could do something and not fail at it, I guess I’d like to have a big family and a nice big house and be able to work on some great movies or television shows or musicals that reach the world.
The Elf cast includes several people who were in the show two years ago. How has it been working with all of them?
Oh, it’s just been wonderful. We’re like a hybrid: We’re half new and half old. It’s really a collaborative group. Everyone is just so much fun to work with. I always get a kick out of hearing about things that are different. A lot of times they’re like, “Oh, this is so much better here” or “Things seem to work so much different here” or “I never really got this scene and now I get it.” Stuff like that. So, it’s been exciting to make it fresh, even for the old crew.
How have audiences been responding to the show?
It’s been great. We get tons of laughs, we get some sentimental cheers in moments when Buddy’s dad, Walter, says he’s going to quit, or when people start singing the Christmas song in Central Park. There’s this real attentive quality to the audiences, and they seem to be really enjoying the show a lot. I love hearing the kids out there laughing at all the crazy stuff that Buddy does in the show. That, to me, is like icing on the cake. I get to do some stupid things that every kid recognizes they wish they could do, and they love it.
Was there a childhood event that shaped you the most?
I have a very early memory of seeing Superman in the movie theater, and seeing Christopher Reeve flying and thinking that it was the most amazing thing. I really wanted to do that, to be something that fantastic. I’ve just always been drawn to performing.
Has your son Henry been able to come see the show?
Well, he turns two at the end of the year, so he’s a little young. But he came to tech rehearsals at one point and had a really good time. I imagine if he came to a show, there would be points where I’d hear some kid screaming “Daddy” out in the audience [laughs]. I’d hope it wouldn’t shake me and distract me. But he loves dancing with me. When I had to learn the choreography he’d dance with me. He watched me on TV during the Thanksgiving Day parade, and he kept saying “More Daddy, more Daddy.” After the third time replaying it on the DVR, my wife was like, “No more daddy.”
One of the characters you’ve played recently, Abe, in Todd Solondz’s Dark Horse is such a dramatic change from what you’re doing now. What was it like taking on a role like that and working with a director who makes such strange and quirky films?
Well, Abe and Buddy, in my opinion, have a lot in common. I feel like they’re at opposite ends of the same kind of spectrum. They’re both overgrown children, and I guess that’s becoming something of a specialty of mine [laughs]. Abe grows up with this resentment and entitlement, and Buddy gets everything he wants and he’s completely happy. But they’re both big kids who don’t see or realize what being an adult really means as far as consequences and where our roles are in the world. Working with Todd was incredible. He’s a great actor’s director. So, it was never about any kind of strangeness, it was really about being specific with the story and true to the characters.
What was it like working with Christopher Walken and Mia Farrow?
It was incredible. I’m working with living legends. It was amazing. Mia Farrow was like, “Don’t you think Christopher Walken is a national treasure?” And I was like, “Yeah, well so are you.” I learned a lot from them. I learned a lot from Chris about how you can continue to play around for the camera. Every take doesn’t have to be the same, just like every performance for the stage doesn’t have to be the same. I learned a lot from both of them.
You were born and raised in New York. In Elf, the Big Apple is on Santa’s Naughty List. Would you agree with that?
No. The great thing about New Yorkers is that even when they’re edgy or in a bad mood, when something happens, everybody comes together. It’s amazing. I remember the day of Hurricane Sandy when everybody was trying to get all the groceries they could and stock up on water, everybody was so considerate at the supermarket. One of my shopping bags broke and my groceries fell on the street and two people came over and helped me get new bags from the supermarket and put them back in the bag. I’m always impressed with New Yorkers coming together.
Do you and your family have any holiday traditions?
I always like to see the Rockefeller Center tree. I’d like to have Henry come see the Macy’s windows when he can. That’s always fun to see. Other than that, I’m also Jewish, so we celebrate Hanukkah.
Elf ends January 6. What’s coming up next to you?
Pilot season starts up right after the show closes, so I’ll be going out for TV shows. It will be back to the grind!
See Jordan Gelber in Elf at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre.