Think of the most athletically demanding role you’ve ever seen in a Broadway musical, multiply it by three, and you’ll have some idea of what Andy Karl is doing in Rocky. Before the title character’s thrilling boxing match with Apollo Creed, Karl has already survived one onstage fight, delivered a song while doing pull-ups and jogged for 10 minutes after downing raw eggs. On top of that, the actor woos Margo Seibert as Adrian, pounds on sides of beef and juggles ballads and show-stopping anthems. For Karl, playing Rocky Balboa is the culmination of 15 years of steady but often low-profile roles on the New York stage. As his chat with Broadway.com makes clear, however, he is more than ready for the star-making challenge of carrying a musical he describes as “the perfect blend of intimate scenes and spectacle, powerful music and script, nostalgia and something beautifully new.”
You’re finally playing Rocky on Broadway! What has the response been like?
There's nothing like knowing the audience is losing their minds, from the beginning to the final fight. We give so much of ourselves, and it's all worth it when the audience gives it back. The only thing that could make them completely lose control is if Sylvester Stallone came up on stage—and he did, after the first preview! It was so much fun.
How intense has it been to prepare for this role? Do you feel like a different person?
Oh, absolutely. A trainer at Crunch basically transformed my body, and I’ve been eating a low carb, high-protein diet with lots of veggies—all the healthy stuff I hate to do! Half of the show is spent in physical activity, and I’m only off stage for about 15 minutes, so it’s important to build the right muscles and sustain the energy for eight shows a week.
Were you a boxing fan going in?
Not so much, although my stepfather is big fan, so he was excited when I got this job. I spent some time training in the fundamentals, and it made me realize how much character and dignity and heart goes into it. Boxing is not just physical. You have to stand up against your own fears and rely on your inner heroism. It comes from your soul, and that makes for great theater.
Could you last a few rounds now against a pro boxer?
I would never be that stupid. Never! [Laughs.]
Would you get in the ring with Sylvester Stallone?
Not a chance.
How do you stay safe while making the fight scenes exciting?
Steve Hoggett, our fight director, has been incredible about staging the boxing like a three-act play. It’s choreographed lightly because there are some moments when we just go for broke and hit each other. Rocky is the guy who takes all the punches. I got a black eye the second week of rehearsal, but that was an accident with a different boxer. We’re riding a fine line, but it’s safe and there’s a lot of trust.
Speaking of riding a fine line, what’s the secret to portraying Rocky without veering into a parody of Sylvester Stallone?
I’m taking on some of the mannerisms Sylvester Stallone created, but I also have to let it be truthful to me. The music is character-driven and I am naturally a baritone, so the score fits right in my sweet spot. It’s actually pretty simple—for me, and for most of America, Rocky is a living, breathing person, and I’m honoring the character enough that I don’t have to rely on Stallone’s take on everything. He picked me; he’s trusting me with this, and that’s a huge honor.
You’re getting this break after years of stage work in New York. Do other actors tell you "It's about time"?
Yes, and it’s a weird compliment because I’m proud of the success I’ve had. I loved playing opposite my wife [Orfeh] in Legally Blonde, and I’ve never laughed so hard as when I was in The Mystery of Edwin Drood. But I’m happy this is happening with a character I trust myself to be good at. There are some leading roles around town I would never want to play, but I feel very comfortable in this. Doug Sills [Tony-nominated star of The Scarlet Pimpernel] and I did a reading a few months ago, and I was saying, “[Rocky] is a huge role. There’s so much involved, with the Tonys and all that stuff." And he said, “You’ve been preparing for this your whole life.”
You and Orfeh recently celebrated your lucky 13th wedding anniversary. Are you the real Rocky and Adrian?
She is definitely my real-life Adrian. We met on Saturday Night Fever, dated for six months, got engaged, and got married in Miami a month after that. 13 years later, we’re going strong.
You two have always been so supportive of each other.
I come home with aches and pains and sweaty clothes, and she takes care of me and Boo-Boo, the lovely dog we adopted from Legally Blonde. And I totally trust her to give me feedback on Rocky because we have a wonderful working relationship. What’s great about us is that we are opposites in the way we look at certain things, so we can help each other see situations a different way.
You’re more laid back?
I’m way more laid back. I’m like, “Just let it brush off your shoulders; nobody is trying to take advantage of you.” When a costume wasn’t working, my attitude was that I’ll make it work. And she’s like, “Say something. This is your show and you need to be comfortable, or you’ll be thinking about it the whole time you’re on stage.” And she’s right. I said something the next day, and it was fixed for me. She takes the initiative and I pull back.
How do you feel about becoming famous? Is that something you’ve always wanted?
No, no! I see a lot of young actors who get famous very quickly and then it burns out, or they don’t know how to handle it. I just need work that feels good, like Rocky. I love being on stage, and if fame comes with that, I won’t shy away from it.
Get ready for this show to open doors for you!
Last summer, I did a Rob Reiner film with Michael Douglas, And So It Goes, about real estate agents. My first day of shooting with Michael Douglas was the day after I performed the opening number on the Tonys with Jersey Boys, and I got the call about Rocky the same day. I thought, “What is my life?” I’m living the dream right now, and it feels so good.
See Andy Karl in Rocky at the Winter Garden Theatre.