Jefferson Mays, who was the talk of the town and took home a Tony Award for playing multiple roles in I Am My Own Wife almost 10 years ago, is at it again. This time the actor is playing all of the many doomed members of the D'Ysquith family in the new musical comedy A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder. Mays, who is known for his genteel manner, snappy suits and detailed performances, has also appeared on Broadway in Journey's End, Pygmalion and The Best Man. He sat down for a cozy breakfast with Broadway.com at his local cafe in the East Village to chat about the intricacies of his many onstage quick changes, eccentric childhood obsessions and the art of dying again and again.
You look very dashing in your fedora and suit.
I always dress up for recordings.
Is this your usual East Village attire?
I am not tattooed or pierced, for the record.
You’ve been living with the D’Ysquiths of Gentleman’s Guide for quite a while now—first at Hartford Stage and then at San Diego's Old Globe.
Yes, and they are wretched people. I’ve been involved with the show on and off for about three years now.
What was your first response to the material?
I loved it because I so loved that Ealing Studio comedy from the ’50s called Kind Hearts and Coronets, which was based on the same source material as The Gentleman’s Guide. I saw that when I was about nine or 10 years old, and I was just gobsmacked by it. I fell in love with Alec Guinness, and maybe even fell in love with acting. One man could play all of these different roles!
You’ve played multiple roles before, most notably in I Am My Own Wife. Is this your specialty?
It’s quite a different experience in that Charlotte von Mahlsdorf and everybody were wearing a little black dress. Everyone was a transvestite by default. Here, the transformations are complete.
You have so many costume changes. Is it stressful?
It is. And being naked in the wings is terribly vulnerable. I often fear that my performance is less artistic than athletic. It’s quite a marathon.
There is such elaborate backstage choreography. You must be very close to your dresser.
My dresser [Julian Andres Arango] is wonderful. He’s very calm—he does a lot of Bikram yoga. He’s an actor–whisperer. He has a series of hand signals for me ‘cause we can’t really bellow at each other offstage while scenes are going on. It makes me feel like a Westminster Dog Show Airedale. I’ll come running offstage and Julian will just go [puts up his hand in a halt position], and I’ll go [pants like a dog].
You’re fully trained now?
I am housebroken.
Have there been many mishaps?
At the end of the first day of tech, I went up to [costume designer Linda Cho] and said, “I love the costumes, but there’s one thing that’s just terribly wrong.” And she sort of went ashen and said, “What?!” And I said, “There’s no zipper. I can’t pee.” That’s the first thing that comes to mind—a last little detail.
How do you come up with specific minutiae and bits for so many different roles without losing your mind?
Some would argue I have lost my mind. The beauty of performance for me is finding details with which to betray character. My beautiful, long-suffering wife Susan will get up from bed to go to the bathroom and find me in the kitchen—I’ve rearranged all of the furniture to resemble the stage, and I’ll be practicing things with a plate or forks or a newspaper or something.
Who were your childhood idols?
Oh, God. They were very odd. Lord Nelson. I loved Lord Nelson, the great naval admiral. I loved Alec Guinness and Ralph Richardson, and my parents, of course.
You didn’t have rock stars on your walls, did you?
I didn’t. Everyone had a Farrah Fawcett Majors poster on the wall or the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders. I didn’t. I had kind of the same thing, though. I had pre-Raphaelite prints from the Tate of the Lady Shalott and Hylas and the Nymphs, which was this young man being dragged into a pool by these bare-breasted redheaded, limpid-eyed naiads. Oh, and I had one of Ophelia by Millais. All of my crushes were dead.
Are you as much of an Anglophile as you seem to be?
I’m kind of a reluctant Anglophile. My mother’s a children’s librarian and all of the children’s literature I read was from her childhood—E. Nesbit and Dickens, which isn’t children’s literature at all, but I was sort of steeped in English literature. I thought I was of that world.
Of all the characters you’ve played, which are closest to you?
Once you’ve played a part, they are always sort of a part of you. You think of them as almost a family member. When I was younger—I don’t do this too much now—but sometimes if I couldn’t sleep, I would lie in bed and imagine all the characters I’ve played at a dinner table together.
It’s easy to imagine the D’Ysquiths all around a table.
It certainly is. There’s a wonderful moment in Kind Hearts and Coronets where they are all sitting in the family chapel, and it pans across and there’s Alec Guiness, Alec Guiness, Alec Guiness.
Do you have a favorite D’Ysquith?
They all go by so quickly; it’s hard to get too attached to any of them. There’s one who is the banker. He isn’t terribly funny, but he’s very humane and he has a trajectory, too. He doesn’t just come on and die.
What is the best way to die?
I think freezing to death. I mean I’ve never done it myself, but I hear that freezing to death is just like going to sleep. You hear about these people who almost die on Everest and they’re like, “Oh, go on. I’ll just take a nap here in the snow.” And the hypothermia sets in. It’s not that dramatic but wouldn’t you prefer that? Drowning can be like that I guess, but wouldn’t you rather freeze? Oh, I guess we all just want to die in our sleep and not screaming.
It’s fascinating how much thought you’ve put into this, but I meant on stage!
There are ways to die on stage that elicit more of a reaction from the audience, but they cause me great pain and suffering. Like falling off the tower. I’m standing on one leg, and I have to go backwards and flail my arms around wildly and fall to the ground. It just hurts me and there’s no joy in that, but the audience seems to enjoy it.
You’ve said you don’t have a television. In what ways do you indulge in pop culture?
We have a laptop where we watch certain shows. We’re fixated on The Walking Dead right now.
That’s interesting because so many interviews I’ve read with you seem like you live in another era, read Dickens and go to sleep.
I don’t want to give you the wrong impression, though we do that, too.
You performed on stage with Claire Danes and Hugh Dancy in the same year. Can you offer any insight into that celebrity couple?
I got them together! Just kidding. They did invite us to their wedding, which was very nice. I love her—and him—but Claire is so smart and brave. Imagine Eliza Doolittle as your first stage role? It’s unfathomable. She was extraordinary and gracious—a great, generous scene partner.
This is your first musical in New York. How does it feel to be a Broadway musical theater actor?
It’s chilling when you put it that way. It’s amazing listening to old cast recordings of old musicals. You hear every cigarette and every whiskey that these people had. They were not pretty voices; they were potent voices. Now you have these Olympic athletes. And so that’s hard to think about sometimes because I’m not a trained singer. I don’t think of it in terms of singing, I just think of it in terms of acting.
I have to fact check here: Is it true that you’ve given all your awards to your agent?
Yes. I haven’t given them away, but I’ve loaned them to my agent like Elgin marbles. But yeah, they’re there at the agency ‘cause there’s no room in our apartment.
A Tony Award isn’t that big.
I love the awards, and I’m grateful, but I don’t want to have them around. Actually, if you came to our house, I don’t think you could tell that people in the theater lived there. There’s nothing: no posters, no awards, no photographs, no souvenirs of any kind. It’s a sixth floor walk-up. You cannot be sentimental. There isn’t any surface for it. I mean we could make a shelf, but I resent having to make a new shelf for something. I remember when I brought [the Tony Award] home thinking the only place it could really fit is the toilet tank, and that just didn't seem right.
See Jefferson Mays in A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder at the Walter Kerr Theatre.