Nico Tortorella is a very funny guy, and while he hasn’t had a chance to show off his comedic chops in television shows like The Following (it’s about serial killers!) or Younger (a comedy sure, but he’s the romantic interest, rather than the comedic sidekick) he finally gets a chance to make us laugh in Jordan Jaffe’s very dark, very funny Crude. Tortorella stars as Jaime Kurtz, a former-nonfiction-filmmaker-turned-oil-company-PR-executive, who during a catastrophic oil spill must decide whether he wants to follow his heart, or his need of societal approval. The play takes place entirely in Jaime’s living room, where like a tragic king he must come to terms with the dissatisfaction of the people around him. His environmentalist wife (Eliza Hurberth) thinks he’s working with the enemy, his best friend and co-worker (W. Tre Davis) wants him to reclaim his life and have more fun, and even a wisecracking drug dealer (José Joaquín Pérez) makes an appearance that will have unexpected repercussions.
Onstage, Tortorella makes use of the space in an inventive, lived-in way, his timing is spot on, and his reactions sometimes say more than some of Jaffe’s best quips. When I tell him how funny I found him, he suggests that the show I attended was “the best show we’ve done, it was the best one so far”, and I have a feeling that as the play continues (it’s running at Ars Nova through May 21), his performance will keep getting better. Here’s the rest of my conversation with Nico Tortorella:
What made you want to star in Crude?
It’d been ten years since I’d done anything onstage and I’d been talking for a while about getting back onstage, looking for the right projects, which is always difficult when you’re navigating through film and television schedules. The time opened up and this play kinda fell in my lap, so it was a no-brainer. Jordan Jaffe has a way of writing the way that I speak, so I saw so much of myself in the script - the good parts, not the bad parts - so I leaped at the opportunity.
Jaime left behind a job in the arts to pursue the “traditional” path. Did people ever try to discourage you from being an actor and suggested you did something “safe” instead?
It was never a question for me. I knew since I was a little kid that this was what I was going to be doing. Sure, people told me “no” because it would be impossible. I remember my own family being ten years old in the back of my mom’s car, and my mom and my aunt telling me how hard it was going to be. I was just hysterical, screaming and crying saying I didn’t care how hard it would be, I said “this is going to be my life, and it’s going to be amazing”.
Crude is a comedy which is the last thing you think of when you think about oil spills. Were you guys ever afraid you would cross a line that would offend people?
Yeah, the play is called Crude, so we had to take a bold, fucking punch at this. I think that we did it in a way, and Jordan wrote the script in a way, that not only does it point fingers at the oil companies, but also at wealthy America and environmentalists too. It takes swings at every group, and in comedy if you make fun of everyone it doesn’t matter. If you can make fun of yourself along the way, then you’re OK. That’s what we did, Jordan comes from a big oil family in Houston, his brother works in fracking, his sister works in wind, his mom is one of the largest female executives in oil in the world, and for him to write this play was definitely a risky move. I think we did it in a way where things can be taken with a grain of salt, it’s satire and entertainment with some really heavy material.
There’s a point where the play becomes like a portrait of America, beyond the oil spills it touches on immigration, the war on drugs, racial injustice. But it does all of this without being heavy-handed or trying to teach people something. Is it easy to forget about the larger issues and just play characters?
There’s so much information in the play, at times it could be easy to just start reciting information. But the core of any play is in relationships, and how we can get to make the audience feel a certain way, and that is the job of the actors. If you can believe that you’re actually watching a story about people, and not a presentation, then we’re doing our jobs right.
Can you talk about your relationship with the audience? You are so close to people in the show, and I wonder if you change things each night based on how the audience responds.
Every night is definitely different, we’re human beings so we bring a different energy to the show each night. The audience has a different energy too. On more silent nights, it doesn’t mean the audience isn’t engaged, it just means they’re engaged in a different way. Being so close to the audience is very intimate, the night you were there, my mom and brother were sitting in the front row just staring at me the whole show. As actors, it’s our job to feed off the audience just enough, so it doesn’t hinder our performance at all.
How is it different to relive the same scenes night after night onstage, when you come from doing a larger arc over months on television?
Honestly it’s a completely different technique, a different beast, a different game. In television we don’t have rehearsal time, we’re on a clock all the time, we have ten pages that we need to shoot in 12 hours, so it’s just “go, go, go, go, go”. Little time is left for the actor. Onstage it’s all for us, other than three days for tech, it’s a conservatory, it’s full fledged collaboration. To be able to perform the same show every night and to discover new things and find new light, to play around with the script, we have a beginning a middle and an end in the show. When I signed on for Younger all I knew was that Josh was a tattoo artist and he hit on a 40-year-old woman in a bar. I knew nothing else about the storyline, and I signed on to do whatever how many years of the show we do, but I don’t know where the story is going. In a play there’s just more time.
You did Showgasm XXL for Ars Nova, and now you’re doing a play in their space, why is it important for you to work with them?
Historically it’s been a great place for new work. There’s a great team behind the theater, and they believe in new playwrights, directors and actors that want to be onstage. It’s a beautiful space, it’s small enough that it doesn’t feel too heavy, and it’s big enough to be respected. In terms of theatre it’s one of the heavy hitters in New York City.
Has doing Crude changed your habits in any way? Has it made you a greener person?
Totally, but even more, I think more about my relationships that I have in my life. Jamie is so troubled and torn between his relationship with his wife and his relationship with his best friend and his job. Also on what is love and what it truly means to share a life with somebody. For me those are a lot closer to home than my carbon footprint is. I know how important it is, but going home every day I can change more about my own personal relationships than I can the future of Mother Earth.
I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but sometimes I don’t like you because in Younger, your character makes me not like a Sutton Foster character.
Yeah man, I know…
Josh is so good to Liza. He’s a “perfect boyfriend” so to speak and she’s not always a very good person.
I know and you’re not the only one who feels that way. I think that’s why they gave me my editor girlfriend, and set up the whole situation where I was sleeping with both of them at the same time. They wanted to give Josh some flaws, but I think at the end of the day, Liza is a very flawed character. In terms of painting what a woman is supposed to look like, act and hold herself up as in 2016, I think it’s doing it a little bit of a disservice sometimes. I don’t know if I should be saying this in the way that I am (laughs) but I know you hear what I’m saying.
Absolutely. Do you ever go to the writers and ask them to please make Josh a little bit more of a jerk?
No, I mean, I don’t want him to be an asshole! I enjoy having these conversations, Josh is the good guy, Liza’s not (laughs).
Now that we know you can tap dance, since you guest starred in some of Sutton’s shows, can we pitch a Younger musical episode? I mean, besides Sutton, there’s Hilary Duff, Miriam Shor...do you know how to sing?
So what are you guys waiting for?
Yeah, it’s never gonna happen. Sutton said she would never sing on Younger. I mean, we all have plenty of time to do that outside of the show. Maybe in the future I could see a Younger musical on Broadway.
So now that I know you can sing, what Sondheim part would you like to play?
Man, I don’t know. I definitely want to do a musical after this. That’s an answer to your question somewhat. I would love to open up a new show on Broadway at some point in the near future.
For more information on Crude, click here.