TV, film perfs bring 'added value' to stage work

TV and movie stars continue lining up en masse to make their Broadway debut. In the old and new season, there are Catherine Zeta-Jones, James Spader, Sally Hawkins, Scarlett Johanssen and Brendan Fraser, with Robin Williams, Ben Stiller, Chris Rock and Halle Berry to come.

This article is not about them. Rather, the flipside of that phenomenon — working theater actors doing notable TV and film gigs — can increasingly enhance a thesp’s stage profile, expand their career options and boost a production’s appeal.

This week, Denis O’Hare opens in “Elling.” A Tony winner for “Take Me Out” in 2003, O’Hare returns to Broadway after more than a two-year absence during which he’s appeared in nearly a dozen pics and delivered a breakout stint this past season on HBO’s “True Blood.”

“I’ve never had a film director recognize me from a play,” says the 47-year-old thesp, who has clocked eight Broadway shows to date. “All the film roles I’ve gotten have come from auditions.”

The tube, surprisingly, is much more legit savvy.

“TV writers are usually avid theatergoers,” O’Hare adds, “or have a background in writing plays themselves,” Alan Ball of “True Blood” being a prime example.

TV has been especially good to legit actors. Laura Linney is starring in Broadway’s “Time Stands Still,” fresh on the heels of Showtime’s “The Big C.” After starring in “Spring Awakening,” Jonathan Groff did a high-profile guest stint on “Glee.” Now he’s working again in the theater, in the West End in “Deathtrap.”

That audition, obviously, went well. “But from the producing standpoint of the play, my being on ‘Glee’ and ‘Glee’ being a huge success in London was a big deal for their selling the show,” Groff says.

Sometimes it’s just an emotional boost. Tate Donovan, who opens this winter in David Lindsay-Abaire’s new play, “Good People,” recalls that audition. “The casting director was a big fan of ‘Damages,’ and said ‘I love your TV show.’ That makes you feel good.”

During his run in “Next to Normal,” Aaron Tveit had the pleasure of embodying the caddish Trip van der Bilt on TV’s “Gossip Girl.” Suddenly, he got a whole different kind of reaction in Shubert Alley: “Oh, you’re that asshole from ‘Gossip Girl.’ “

In a roundabout way, the movies, if not the CW skein, have helped him land other Hollywood gigs. After his Seattle tryout in the “Catch Me if You Can” tuner, “people in L.A. knew about me, because I play the Leonardo DiCaprio role,” he says. (Rave reviews for his perf also didn’t hurt.) Turns in “Ugly Betty,” “Howl” and the upcoming “Premium Rush” and “Girl Walks Into Bar” followed. Intriguingly, Tveit doesn’t expose his vocal chops in any of these nonlegit projects: “I didn’t want the first thing I did on TV or film to be about my singing.”

Whether all that TV/pic exposure puts people in “Catch Me” Broadway seats in spring is another question. Theatergoers may come to see Frances McDormand in “Good People” and then realize they know Donovan, much as they may pay to see Brendan Fraser in “Elling” and recognize O’Hare.

It’s what legit producers call having “added value.” It may not sell tix but it makes for happier customers, all of whom help create good buzz. Or as casting director Bernard Telsey says, “It adds to the conversation.”

But can you build a show around it?

“I would never have been a lead in ‘Elling’ had I not raised my profile in movies and ‘True Blood,'” says O’Hare. “But if it was just me in ‘Elling,’ it wouldn’t work, not without Jennifer Coolidge and Brendan Fraser.”

According to O’Hare, you can be a 21-year-old theater actor and find work on Broadway. “But if you’re 35, you’re not getting a leading role on Broadway” without the TV/film exposure.

Cherry Jones, now starring in “Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” says she’s “grateful to ’24,’ ” where she played the U.S. president. “Maybe that’s boosted my visibility somewhat to the American people. I think I can say quite immodestly as a two-time Tony winner, it is increasingly difficult to get leading roles on Broadway unless you can put bums in seats.”

Like O’Hare, the actress points to the age factor for her own impetus to do more film and TV.

“Frances Sternhagen and Julie Harris both sat me down and told me that as you get older as an actress you’ve got to diversify. The leads will thin out in all media. But if you’re in all media, you’ll have a better chance of working all your life. When those two women look you in the eye, you take heart and act on it.”

She cites Linney as “greatest example” of the stage-TV-film actress.

There are those theater animals, however, who do get away. After a 12-year career on Broadway, Michael Stuhlbarg pulled down a Tony nom for “The Pillowman” in 2005. “A lot of people from L.A. came to see it. In some ways it put me on a path I wasn’t on before,” Stuhlbarg says. That path has led to the lead in “A Serious Man,” HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire,” the upcoming Martin Scorsese pic “Hugo Cabret” and then back to “Boardwalk.”

As for the theater, he recently did a one-night fundraiser of “The Normal Heart,” which could resurface as a Broadway production in March. “They’re trying to negotiate a schedule between my obligations with ‘Boardwalk’ and the play,” says Stuhlbarg. “I hope it works out.”

So does Broadway.

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