For the first few years of his stage career, Sebastian Arcelus was mainly a musicals guy: He spread Christmas cheer as Buddy in Elf, walked like a man in Jersey Boys, sang "One Song Glory" in Rent and danced through life as Fiyero in Wicked. Now, Arcelus is taking center stage in Rupert Holmes' stage adaptation of John Grisham’s A Time to Kill as idealistic lawyer Jake Brigance, a role he originated in the drama’s 2011 world premiere at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. The star is getting serious on the small screen, as well, playing nice guy editor Lucas Goodwin in the hit Netflix drama House of Cards. Broadway.com chatted with Arcelus about his dramatic turn, his new digs in New Jersey, walking the red carpet at the Emmy Awards with his wife, Tony nominee Stephanie J. Block, and more.
What excites you about bringing A Time to Kill to the stage?
When I got the call to audition for not only a new play, but the first stage adaptation of one of John Grisham’s most successful novels, it was a no-brainer. Grisham is a part of our national fabric, and A Time to Kill lends itself to being transferred to the stage in the most gripping way. It takes place over the course of a murder trial of a man who took matters into his own hands after this terrible act upon his family—and the interesting distinction here is that we’re actually trying the case in the courtroom where the crime took place. How can you not want to be a part of the telling of this story in a new, exciting way?
How has this piece evolved since its 2011 debut at Arena Stage?
Most things get better with age, right? It’s marinated inside of me for the last couple of years, and [the play] has changed and deepened, although it’s the same wonderful story—a small town gripped in this massive fight between race and class, and whether justice is blind. When you bring in new cast members, the play is going to breathe differently and speak differently. We had a remarkable group of actors in D.C., and the actors currently in the play are taking that mantle and diving in even further.
What was it like meeting John Grisham?
He’s a remarkable fellow. For all of his success, he’s such a kind, lovely and almost unassuming guy. We got to chat briefly, and I look forward to the opportunity of talking to him more as he joins us in the theater.
Does that make you nervous?
No, it makes me more excited. He wrote this, his first novel, while being a lawyer, and he really drew on personal experience. Any chance I get to sit down and chat with Mr. Grisham will only deepen [my work]. I feel like there are a lot of parallels between him and Jake, and I want to be able to harness as much of that raw, authentic character as I can.
What have you been doing to prepare for this role?
All I have to do is spend the day shadowing [co-star, former Tennessee senator and Law & Order D.A.] Fred Dalton Thompson and I’m gonna get a lot of authentic legal advice! I’m not a lawyer, obviously, although maybe in some alternate universe I might have been—I studied political science in college. My best friend is an assistant U.S. attorney, so I talked to him a fair amount. And of course I’ve read the source material, and I’ve been a fan of John Grisham’s for a long time.
A Time To Kill is a departure from the lighthearted musicals you’ve done—has this been a challenging transition?
Not really. Of course, I did Buddy the Elf on Broadway and I’m very proud of the work we did. It’s not every day that you get to put on a green, furry outfit and make people happy. I’m generally a lighthearted guy, but when you get to the heart of some of the shows I’ve had the good fortune of doing, Rent is a heavy night and Jersey Boys, while joyous, is an intense night of theater for us as actors. I’ve been fortunate over the last 12 years to get to be a part of a wide range of shows.
It was so fun to see you and your wife, Stephanie J. Block, walking the red carpet at the Emmy Awards!
It was a wild experience. We were up at 4:00 AM because I was in tech and Steph was in rehearsal for Little Miss Sunshine the day before. We were on a plane at 6AM, landed at 9 and were on the red carpet by 2:30. You’ve got three blocks of press and photos all jammed in there. I was just soaking it in and enjoying being invited to the party. It was special in that it was a historic moment—House of Cards was the first time a series was nominated for Best Drama that was not actually delivered via your TV. So it was really cool to be asked to represent a new wave of television. Plus, I had the best date around!
How has House of Cards changed your career?
It’s literally been a dream come true. Anytime you find yourself in a room with [director] David Fincher, [writer] Beau Willimon, Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, you thank your lucky stars and open yourself up and go on the ride, ‘cause you know you’re in the best hands. We’re looking forward to season two, I don’t know when that’s coming out just yet, but we’re working on it now. It’s gonna be really fun.
What is Kevin Spacey really like?
First of all, his work ethic is off the charts. I don’t know how the man does it. He’s not just in the show, he’s also the artistic director at the Old Vic [Theatre in London], and he’s traveling to Shanghai to present a scholarship; he’s a remarkable man. Beyond that, he’s one of the most talented actors on the planet, and he’s such a fun-loving, goofy guy.
Why the heck would Kate Mara [as reporter Zoe Barnes] choose Kevin Spacey's character over you?
I have no idea [laughs]. I mean, come on, right? One of the great things about Lucas is that he’s an inherently good guy on this show of not too many good guys and girls. You’d like to think that she’d choose him, but we’re embroiled in a big, hot mess over there. So things have to play out how they play out. I’ve certainly enjoyed being the good guy foil to what is one of the greatest anti-heroes of recent memory!
I heard you bought a house in New Jersey—have you moved in yet?
We did, in August! The day we moved in, we were greeted by a whole family of deer in our backyard. We wanted a little breath from the daily hubbub, and we’re really happy right now. But of course, now we’ve gotta worry about deer ticks.
After getting a taste of Broadway stardom in Edwin Drood, how is your pup Macaco enjoying life as a regular dog again?
He’s a little jealous right now. Stephanie tweeted [producer] Daryl Roth recently to see if there’s any way we can get him into the show. We were trying to prey on Daryl’s love for dogs, but something tells me Macaco’s not gonna make it into A Time to Kill on Broadway. Maybe the next one!
See Sebastian Arcelus in A Time to Kill at the Golden Theatre.