Steven Pasquale has led a double life as an actor: Though he nabbed a breakout TV role as dim-witted firefighter Sean Garrity on FX's Rescue Me, the Pennsylvania native maintained a passion for the stage. Pasquale made his Broadway debut in 2009 in Neil LaBute's Reason to Be Pretty, and he'll soon put his rugged good looks and strong singing voice to good use as photographer Robert Kinkaid in the Broadway premiere of The Bridges of Madison County. In a recent chat with Broadway.com, Pasquale reflected on why sincere romantic musicals are so rare, the most embarrassing and frustrating experiences of his working life and why he thinks Hollywood is bananas.
It’s crazy to realize that this is your first Broadway musical! How does it feel to finally strike this off your bucket list?
It feels amazing! I’ve been waiting 16 years for the right show to come along and for the logistics to work, and I’m just glad that it was this one at this time. Coming off a frustrating experience in television [in the short-lived Do No Harm], it’s been the most glorious experience I’ve ever had.
The Bridges of Madison County reunites you with your Far From Heaven co-star Kelli O’Hara. How easy is it to fall in love with her every night?
Oh, man, it’s the best. She’s one of my favorite scene partners ever, a world-class actor on top of being one of the great singers in New York, so it’s spicy in a different way every night. She’s also one of my oldest friends in New York, so it’s dreamy on every level.
How familiar were you with the book or the movie before taking on the role of Robert Kinkaid?
I was unfamiliar with both. I have since read the book and seen the film and we’re excited the source material is that popular and successful in the world. But I think we’re going much deeper than the two-hander that is the book and the film. We’re creating a world and populating the town of Winterset, and [book writer] Marsha [Norman] and [composer] Jason [Robert Brown] have come up with some incredible ways into these people. For my money, this musical is the best possible thing for this source material.
Besides the obvious draw of working with this creative team, what do you love most about this story and the music?
The Broadway economy right now celebrates things that are lighthearted and funny or silly and spoofy or jukebox-y. It’s really uncommon for things to be written that have the aim of moving people, whose goal is to be beautiful and romantic and sweeping and soaring and sophisticated. Jason and Marsha have accomplished that with this show.
Even though Francesca and Robert are having an affair, you can't help but root for them as a couple. Are audiences reacting the same way?
Yes! Early on, Kelli and I were worried because we didn't want Robert to feel predatory, and we didn't want Francesca to feel easily accessible in a sexual way. What we learned is that very shortly after they meet, the audience wants it, so beautifully, to happen. So, we were able to let go of those fears. This story takes place in 1965, and Francesca was brought to Iowa by an American soldier from war-torn Naples, Italy. She chose this thing that basically saved her life, but it wasn’t necessarily based in love or passion or romance in today’s terms. In comes this man who served in the Korean War, probably saw some horrible things and isn’t that comfortable around other people. They see something in each other—the artist, maybe—and connect on a level that is very forward-thinking. To be able to play a guy who is closed and then cracks open is remarkable.
I’ve been warned that I should have tissues nearby when I see The Bridges of Madison County. Are you a big crier?
You know what? With every year that passes, the easier I cry. The wind blows and I find myself moved by something. I’ve known this music for three or four years at this point, and I’ve been involved with this story for two and a half years, and there are moments, on stage and off, when I still struggle to keep it together and not be moved by what’s happening in the music or with Kelli. It’s that kind of material, and the writing is that good.
You and Kelli had very different relationship issues in Far From Heaven. What was the biggest challenge of playing [closeted, misogynistic husband] Frank Whitaker? Was that a role you had to shake off every night?
Oh, yeah. I’m a people person, and Frank is such a self-hater. Also, I can’t even imagine the tortured, secret-keeping existence that must have been Frank’s life in the late 1950s in conservative, affluent Connecticut. Men and women who went through that must have had an unbelievable amount of self-torture. I know we have far to go, but, my God, how far we’ve come.
You decided to become an actor after a football injury in high school led you to join the school musical. At this point, do you feel like it was destiny?
Destiny I don’t know, but certainly a lot of good luck. That’s for sure! If I had maintained my athletic fantasy, I probably would have ended up as a fat football coach somewhere in central Pennsylvania. I'm really glad I’m starring in a Broadway musical instead.
Your first role was as Tyrone in Fame, but they changed it a bit. Please tell me there is video of this somewhere.
Oh yes! There is video, and I did a benefit for The Performing Arts Project where the whole evening was based around your most embarrassing footage and I brought it.There I was, running around having people call me Tyrone. I did the rap, I did the dance solo. I’d never danced in my life. It was crazy. It’s level of bad that not very many people ever get to be around.
Rescue Me prevented you from coming to Broadway with The Light in the Piazza. Do you ever find yourself thinking, “What if…”?
I do, but Rescue Me happened at the perfect time in my life. I’ve got a little girl [Maddie] who’s 17 now, and she was a very impressionable kid during those years, so I was able to have a TV schedule and be in New York and spend my weekends with her. From a personal life standpoint it was really perfect. But professionally I’ve never felt as strongly about a project, with the exception of The Bridges of Madison County, as The Light in the Piazza.
Your character on Rescue Me, Sean Garrity, was a fan favorite, and we got to see you take off your shirt…a lot. How much shirtlessness can we expect from Robert Kinkaid?
I think minimal [laughs]. I mean, maybe a little bit, but minimal. We did it a lot in Rescue Me, but you’ve got firefighters sitting around the firehouse pumping iron and talking about chicks, so it seems appropriate. But it’s always funny when that’s expected on a TV shoot. Everybody whips their shit together for like two weeks and nobody eats anything but egg whites and everyone’s doing crunches all day. Hollywood is ridiculous.
Your album Somethin’ Like Love received great reviews. Do you have another one in the works?
I’m going to record one this spring with just me and John Pizzarelli on the guitar called Voice & Guitar. I think we’re going to release it sometime next year. It’ll be all American Songbook—Richard Rodgers, Frank Lesser, maybe some Adam and Jason. Very simple.
Last year, NBC canceled Do No Harm after airing two episodes. What went wrong?
It was frustrating because with network television, there are a lot of cooks in the kitchen. I signed on for what felt like a thriller—a smart pilot that was a unique take on Jekyll & Hyde. The result became something, for lack of a better term, that everyone wanted to be “fun. ” You start to leave behind any sense of emotional logic, or logic in general. I loved the people involved and the city of Philadelphia, but ultimately, it was not what I thought it was going to be.
Do you feel like you have something of a double life as a TV and stage actor?
I do. My career is weird because it’s not like I'm a Liev Schreiber or a Philip Seymour Hoffman, incredibly well-respected theater actors who dabble in TV or film. Two different sets of people know me: those who are Sean Garrity fans and think I’m a comedian, and fans who know I have a life on stage as a legit actor and singer. When the two cross over, it's fun to see people be like, “Wait a second, you were that guy on Rescue Me and now I’m seeing you in this musical?”
You mentioned your daughter, Maddie. How are you managing being the father of a 17-year-old girl?
I really love it! I remember being 17, and I’m just grateful that she’s a really good kid with a good heart. She’s bright and funny and sweet. She’s the best thing in my life.
Has she been bitten by the performing bug, as well?
No! Thank God [laughs]! She’s obsessed with fantasy fiction, so she wants to write novels and she’s very gifted. I think she’s going to do that. I’m very proud of her.
Finally, what other musicals would you love to tackle?
Floyd Collins, Billy Bigelow in Carousel, Sunday in the Park with George, maybe, eventually, Sweeney Todd, and anything Jason and Adam ever write. If could spend my life singing Adam Guettel and Jason Robert Brown, I’d be perfectly happy.
See Steven Pasquale in The Bridges of Madison County beginning January 17 at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.