At 28, Gary Wood is appearing in his third production of A Chorus Line, this time at the London Palladium. As Paul, the soft-spoken gay Puerto Rican whose monologue stops the show with no singing or dancing, Wood excels in a part that earned its originator, Sammy Williams, a 1976 Tony Award. Broadway.com spoke to the greatly gifted and articulate Wood about performing a role that hits close to home in front of his parents, life on the line, and working with Brad Pitt.
You make a huge impact in A Chorus Line. Was the role of Paul always your goal, or was it enough just to be in this show?
No, it was always this part. I’d actually done a production at college where I played Richie, and I was devastated that I wasn’t playing Paul. I really think that I belong in A Chorus Line in this role and this role only. I did the show [as Paul] the year before last in Israel for two weeks, which wasn’t enough to sink your teeth into, so when I heard that they were doing it at the Palladium, I was even more hungry for the part. It was, like, “I have to do this!”
Were you spared the audition process this time around?
Not at all! I was in rehearsals for Hello, Dolly! with Janie Dee in Leicester at the time, but I went through the entire audition process, maybe four or five rounds, traveling back and forth to London. I actually was pleased in a way that I had to work for the part. It felt like I got it off my work rather than because I had known [choreographer] Baayork Lee from before.
Is it difficult getting yourself in the right mental state for Paul’s moment in the spotlight?
To be honest, I try not to think about it and to overanalyze, since that is something I too easily find myself doing [laughs]. I remember in previews Scarlett [Strallen, who plays Cassie] got huge applause for her number [“The Music and the Mirror”] that felt like it went on forever, which is right before I go on. So, there I was, standing in the wings thinking, “Okay, we’re at the point in the show where most people would expect an interval [intermission] and I have to go out and talk.” It terrified me! What I’ve learned is that you have to focus and not worry about how long the audience has sat there.
Do you prime yourself in any particular way?
There are about 10 minutes while Scarlett is doing “The Music and the Mirror,” and I have a little spot I go to underneath the stage. When I first started, I created a scrapbook containing a lot of the things that Paul talks about—Anna May Wong and Cyd Charisse and pictures of what 42nd Street looked like during that time. It’s about reminding myself visually and helping me get inside the part; I can’t have a chat around the water cooler. That wouldn’t put me in the right frame of mind.
I especially like the fact that there is no self-pity or mawkishness to your portrayal.
I’m so glad you think that. When I first got the script, I trusted my instincts, and somehow I thought, OK, the hands in his pockets could make it become very inward, and I didn’t want to do that. I analyzed every detail and thought, “What about this?” and “How does Paul relate to that?” It seemed to me that the point about the character is that he’s not weak and he hasn’t walked out. He’s still there fighting, and he’s willing to stick it out.
Have things moved on in the world of auditions since A Chorus Line premiered nearly 40 years ago?
People at that time probably didn’t speak up as much as they do now. Rightly or wrongly, people have a bit more of a voice today, and they might voice their concerns if they were asked to open themselves up at an audition the way they have to in the show. I don’t know how I’d respond, to be honest, though I’d probably do it if it was a show I wanted.
You’re way too young to have seen the show before in London, but did you know the movie? The album?
I watched the film when we did [the musical] at college but I haven’t watched it since, and I’ve tried to stay away even from YouTube. It felt as if it was between myself and [director] Bob Avian to come up with the way I’m going to do this and to just go with that; I didn’t want my mind clouded by previous performances.
Paul’s monologue is so confessional, especially with regard to his parents. Was that a challenge when your own parents came to see the show?
It was surreal! They came a couple of months ago with my brother, and my mom is coming for a second time with some friends. Quite a lot of what Paul says is scarily similar to me, and there were moments during it when I just wanted to laugh, since there I was telling a story about my mother with my own mother sitting in the front row of the dress circle. But it’s also great in a way, since I couldn’t ask for more supportive parents, so it is lovely to do the monologue and see that Paul has that payoff at the end. People think what Paul says is sad, but the ending is in fact quite joyful: [his parents’] silence is enough to let him know that they accept him.
Before A Chorus Line, you had a long association with the West End production of Wicked.
Yes, I was in the ensemble for a year and a swing for two years. I left college slightly early in order to do that show. I had the best time: Kerry Ellis was my Elphaba and Dianne Pilkington my Glinda, and I still love it when I go to see it.
Changing gears, tell us about appearing in Brad Pitt’s blockbuster summer movie World War Z.
That was such an odd but brilliant experience! I played an Israeli zombie, though we actually filmed in Malta, which I thought would be lovely. As it happened, I spent 14 hours a day for three weeks covered in prosthetics and with corn syrup for blood in the height of summer, being attacked by flies. But of course it was incredible to experience that movie environment, and I did get a few scenes with Brad.
I can’t imagine he was thrilled about being besieged by bloody zombies.
You’re right, he wasn’t. In fact, I think I can say that I was shot by Brad Pitt!