Andrew Keenan-Bolger Talks ‘Tuck Everlasting’ and Being Eternally 17

Andrew Keenan-Bolger wears a lot of hats. At 30, the fan-favorite stage actor (“Newsies”) and star of the Broadway musical “Tuck Everlasting” is also an early digital-media adopter, a children’s book author (“Jack and Louisa”), the co-creator and executive producer of three seasons of a web series (“Submissions Only”) and a filmmaker at work on two short films (“Sign,” “The Ceiling Fan”). With “Tuck Everlasting” opening tonight, Keenan-Bolger sat down with Variety to break it all down.

You’ve been attached to “Tuck” for more than six years. Were you a fan of the original novel?
It was one of the first books that my mom read to my sisters and me when I was growing up. I remember my mom being super-emotional as she read it, and me not really understanding what that was about. That’s actually the main thing that I remember, us sitting on the stairs and her reading it and just, like, weeping. And me being embarrassed about it. But I get it now.

You play an immortal 17-year-old in the show. What in the role resonates with you personally?
He’s this character who is eternally 17, and in a lot of ways, that feels like my professional acting career. For the past decade and a half, I’ve sort of been stuck playing 17, in this sort of beautiful contradiction of the no man’s land between youth and adulthood. When I first started working on the show, Jesse was very much the symbol of joy and youthfulness and wide-eyed wonderment, but then over the years it got harder for me to feel those things as authentically.

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Because I had been living in New York, I had had lovers and gone through friendships and seen loss, and I think that’s when the writers started adding a whole other level to the role. While Jesse is really excited to be 17 and he does feel like his whole life is ahead of him, he also has never really learned how to be a man. I feel like that has certainly come into play for me, when what’s been really validated in my career is my youthfulness, and then to be off the clock and go home and feel like a man is sometimes hard. The role checks a lot of boxes for me.

How did you get started making web content?
I was in college when YouTube was invented, and immediately I saw an opportunity there. I started directing these concerts, like staged readings or song cycles, and putting material up online. It was some of the first musical theater stuff out there, so it got a lot of traction. You realize there’s a whole huge fanbase for musical theater outside of New York. I did video blogging, early vlog-style things. I was on Twitter right in the first couple months that it was out. I think I just saw the potential in all that.

How did that early online activity grow into making three seasons of casting-office web comedy “Submissions Only”?
When I got to New York after college I definitely felt the creator itch, and YouTube changed what you could do. And then [co-creator and co-writer] Kate Wetherhead and I were doing this musical in Dallas, “It’s a Bird… It’s a Plane… It’s Superman,” in 2010, and both of us were returning to New York and neither of us had jobs. It was somewhat out of desperation. I don’t do well with unstructured time.

And then how did you and Kate go from writing “Submission Only” to writing a series of YA books?
A team of publishers at Penguin Random House happened upon “Submission Only” and called us in to pitch it to us. They wanted to do a chapter-book series about two musical theater lovers who are in middle school, and they thought we might be a good voice for the project. I write the boy chapters and Kate writes the girl chapters. We base it all on what we were doing when we were 12 years old. That’s why “Into the Woods” is in the first book.  Both of us wanted to be in it when we were 12 — she wanted to be Little Red, and I wanted to be Jack —  but I think maybe that ship has sailed.

You’re also at work on two short films.
One is called “Sign,” and it tells the story of a relationship between a deaf man and a hearing man. It’s a silent film, told all though ASL and music. We teamed up with a deaf director-actress named Alexandria Wailes, who was just in “Spring Awakening,” and I think we were able to really beautifully and powerfully tell this story in a short-film format. We’re gonna submit it to a bunch of festivals. The other film I created with Kate and it’s a big departure for us, because we’re so used to doing stuff in the comedic theater genre. This is more of an intimate, serious story. It’s called “The Ceiling Fan,” about a woman who is redecorating a room in her house after she has a miscarriage.

You’ve got something of a following among young theater fans. How’d that happen?
I tried to live my life really openly and transparently right from the get-go. I think that probably resonated with people. I came out pretty immediately when I started performing, and even 10 years ago it was a different time to do that. I feel like I have a bit of a responsibility to a lot of my younger fans, who might be going through similar things, to show them that there is someone living their dream in New York whose life is full and self-actualized. It was something I didn’t realize I was doing until a lot of people reached out about it. I grew up in a time where there were no queer digital references. The gay characters I met were on “Will and Grace,” and I saw none of myself in them, or they were dying of AIDS on a procedural show. I think now kids growing up having references who they can look to and see that their lives have a lot of meaning. And that there is life after high school.

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