Tony nominee Hunter Foster has established himself as a leading man who follows his heart. His Broadway credits range from Les Misérables, Footloose, Million Dollar Quartet and Grease (alongside his Tony-winning sister Sutton Foster) to a breakout performance in Urinetown (as Bobby Strong), The Producers (succeeding Matthew Broderick as Leo Bloom) and Little Shop of Horrors (a Tony-nominated turn as nerdy florist Seymour). Foster is also a skilled writer, having penned the libretto for off-Broadway's Summer of '42. Now, after a stint playing Sutton's onscreen brother on ABC Family's Bunheads, he is back on the boards as real-life contestant Benny Perkins in Hands on a Hardbody, the new musical based on a documentary that follows a group of Texans who must keep their hands on a Nissan truck in order to win it. Below, Foster chats about his newest passion project, hanging out with his sister on the set, and how he’d stack up against his co-stars in a real Hardbody competition.
How did you decide that Hands on a Hardbody was a project you wanted to be a part of?
When I read it, I thought, “This is definitely something different.” The music is authentically rock-and-roll and country, and it felt very real to me. With the challenge of being in a contest standing around a truck, I’m like, “How am I gonna make this work?” And knowing all of the people involved, you definitely want to be a part of something like that.
How are you guys making the contest work?
It’s been a challenge—Neil [Pepe, director] says, “When I normally stage a scene, people sit down, they stand up, and they walk around,” but they can’t. You’re basically attached to a truck, and it’s like a giant puzzle. Our home base is the truck. We come off the truck to have theatrical moments, but then we all go back again. The best show I can relate it to is A Chorus Line. They’re all on the line, and when they come out and sing, they have their moment, “At the Ballet,” or whatever, then everyone returns to the line. It’s still a work in progress, and we’re learning a lot from having an audience, so it’ll probably keep changing.
The requirement of touching that truck at all times must be a challenge!
I’m so attached to the truck that even when we’re on a break, I always try to keep my hand on it. I never want to forget that’s what I’m supposed to do, because if your hand comes off in the middle of the show, you’re out. The other day I was riding the subway and I wouldn’t take one hand off the pole until I had my other hand on it. It’s always a worry, that I’ll take my hand off the truck and the audience will say, “He’s out!”
Have you named the truck?
We call her Layla.
Now that you have all this practice, how would you fare as a real-life competitor?
I’d be terrible at it, to be honest with you. We stood around the truck for hours in La Jolla [Playhouse, where the musical premiered in May 2012] and for hours here, so you kind of get an idea of what it’s like. I don’t think I could do it. Other people are like, “Yeah, I could do this,” and I’m like, “Uh, I don’t think so!” You’re there all night, you can only use the bathroom at certain moments, you can’t take a shower, you have to eat certain things…it’s a lot.
Which of your co-stars would be the best at it?
Keith Carradine, probably [laughs]. He has the willpower. He’s our oldest cast member, but I really think he could do it.
Did you watch the documentary before you started rehearsing?
I rented it, and I thought it was fascinating. It’s very authentic, and very truthful about who these people are. It captures Texas and these sorts of people, but it doesn’t make fun of them. We got to meet them; they actually came to La Jolla.
What’s Benny Perkins really like?
I’m friends with him on Facebook, and he’s almost like a small-town philosopher. He comes up with these great sayings we actually use in the musical. He calls the competition a “human drama” kinda thing, which is the title of our opening number. Another song is, “If you can’t hunt with the big dogs, you better stay on the porch with the pups.” And what you see in the documentary, that’s who he is. He’s a very authentic guy. I don’t think any of it is put on.
There’s such a competitive relationship onstage. Does that help the cast bond offstage?
It’s the closest cast I’ve been in. Benny said when he spent three days around the truck, he really got to know the people and care about them. That’s reflected on us as a cast. It’s weird to think, but Hands on a Hardbody, in a lot of ways, is about love. And I think that’s something that permeates through our cast. We genuinely root for each other, and it’s a very positive experience.
We loved seeing you on Bunheads this season!
Sutton and I have had a great time doing it. Being able to work together was just amazing.
What was it like to hang out with your sister so much?
When you’re older, you don’t spend as much time with your sibling, because you have a life and you do your own thing. But we got to spend so much time with each other, it was great. Sutton really, really likes it out there, she likes doing the show, and she’s got a great new house—she’s moved out there, basically. I’m sure she’ll do Broadway again at some point, but right now she’s hoping Bunheads runs a while. And I’m hoping I’ll get to do it more!
Would you and Sutton like to do a musical together?
There’s not a lot of brother and sister shows. We talked about doing Lady Be Good, the Gershwin musical that starred Fred and Adele Astaire in the ‘20s. Or if anyone wants to write us a show! [Laughs.]
Would you like to do more TV and film work?
I’m not sure. Bunheads was such a great experience—I love the whimsical stuff we were doing. It’s so much fun, but I just want to do things that are challenging and interesting and different, wherever that may be.
Are you working on any new writing projects?
Georgia Stitt [composer and wife of Jason Robert Brown] and I are working on something together. It’s a completely original idea, which no one seems to do anymore! I don’t want to give it away, but it’s about an event that’s happened in the last few years that we all know about.
You’ve been nominated, but you’ve yet to win a Tony Award. Is that something you consider when you choose a project?
I think awards are great, but really the Tonys are important to promote Broadway. It’s not life or death for me. I would rather do something I’m proud of and have an amazing experience than win for something I’m not proud of. I’m very proud of Hands on a Hardbody, I’m very excited to be in it, and whatever happens with it, that’s enough for me.
See Hunter Foster in Hands on a Hardbody at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre.