Uptown to the Grand Canyon and Onward to the Sea
SETH NUMRICH with Libby Woodbridge
Seth Numrich currently stars in Golden Boy, Lincoln Center Theater’s Broadway revival of Clifford Odets’s Depression-era drama. I loved playing Seth’s little sister earlier this year at the Rattlestick in Daniel Talbott’s Yosemite, so I sat down with him to find out more about what he’s thinking as he heads into previews. Our conversation touched on Odets and the Group Theatre, boxing training for the role, his love of collaborative theater and the great outdoors, and the possibility of seeing pterodactyls in the Grand Canyon.
Libby Woodbridge (Rail): Tell me about your show.
Seth Numrich: Golden Boy is set in New York in the mid-1930s in the midst of the Great Depression. I play Joe Bonaparte, a son of Italian immigrants, who has grown up on the Lower East Side. Joe’s at a time in his life where he’s trying to figure out his place in the world, and he’s caught between what he sees as two options. One possibility is becoming an artist, a concert violinist. He looks down that road and sees the challenges, especially in making a livelihood. The other option is to become a professional boxer, something it turns out he has an innate talent for. Down the path of boxing he sees fame, money, and recognition in the world. For my character, the play is the struggle between those two things, and then the price of his success as a boxer.
Rail: Why this show, why now? On the train after rehearsal, what are you thinking about?
Numrich: I live in Brooklyn, so when I get on the train every night I have these 30–40 minutes to chew on the play, and where we are in the process. Odets was writing about the mentality of how people were dealing with the Depression—people were wondering if things were ever going to get better, and if they should lose—or continue to hold on to—hope. Golden Boy also explores the pursuit of the American Dream—how that’s possible or impossible, how it’s exploited in particular instances. Every night coming home on the train I see characters from the play riding home with me, and I have the feeling that the play’s not that far away from the world we’re in.
Also, we’re doing this play almost exactly 75 years after it originally premiered on Broadway. We’re even playing at the same theater, the Belasco. The Group Theatre was in residence there for several years throughout the 1930s and knowing that’s where they were creating plays is exciting. When they worked together, the level of collaboration they attempted is very inspiring—everyone would have a say. It wasn’t always successful; the theater had a lot of internal problems and ended up dissolving just a few years after this play came out. The cast and creative team of Golden Boy is wonderful and we work with a feeling of collaboration—no one is precious about their ideas.
I think in a lot of ways Golden Boy is about Odets’s struggle between staying in New York and being dedicated to the artistic pursuit of theater while other members of the Group were feeling the pull of Hollywood, fame, and success. Odets ended up moving in that direction too, but it was always something he struggled with. In 1937, the Group had had these huge successes, and yet all of this turmoil was going on within the company around some of these issues. When you read Golden Boy, you can feel Odets was digging into himself and trying to find the truth of the situation he was going through.
Rail: You’re working on boxing as part of your process. What is that like?
Numrich: Oh man, it’s awesome. I had this idea that boxing would just be two people beating each other up, but there’s so much more than that. Boxing is an art form and a science. It’s the most physically demanding thing I’ve ever done in my life. It engages your mind so intensely. And it’s amazing, I keep finding these parallels between boxing and acting. You can’t think when you’re boxing; if you stop for long enough to think, you’re going to get hit. You have to just listen and respond. You have to be in the moment and train your body well enough so that when something comes at you, you know how to get out of the way, turn, and serve it back to the person. I also think Joe is a good boxer because he was a musician for so long. He has a sense of rhythm, improvisation, and exploration. One trainer told me—I didn’t even tell him what I was working on—that boxing is music. That it’s all about music.
Then another thing about training, it’s changed my body. My body is different. Not necessarily in a noticeable way from the outside, but I feel different. As actors, a big part of our goal is to try to get inside the body of your person. I feel like training gives me a different understanding for what his body feels like and how his brain works.
Rail: How do you feel?
Numrich: There’s a weight I feel that is different. A big part of boxing that I learned early on is that it’s just as much about your lower body as it is about your upper body. Some people think that it’s just about throwing punches, but the punches have to come all the way from the floor, from the ground. You’re moving, twisting, pivoting on your feet. There’s a real rooting into the ground that is required. So I feel more grounded and that helps in developing the character. Joe feels more planted in the ground than I might necessarily feel myself.
Rail: That’s so fascinating because he has those lines about driving his car, “That’s it—speed! We’re off the earth—unconnected! We don’t have to think! That’s what speed’s for, an easy way to live!” But I didn’t realize that in order to box you actually need to be so grounded— —
Numrich: Yeah, for him, I think there’s a difference between being physically rooted and the feeling that comes with finding success as a boxer. Throughout the play, his style of boxing changes. In the beginning he’s a much more defensive boxer. He wins fights “on points,” as they call it, so the fight goes the entire length of all the rounds. He’s more agile and moves around more. Then at the end of the play, he’s knocking people out. That’s a different style of fighting. So over the course of the play I think he develops a feeling of strength that is new to him. That includes this physical rooted-ness, but in his head, he’s not rooted. He’s moving further away from himself. I think that’s where that feeling of being off the earth and unconnected comes from. He says “I feel like I’m hung up by my fingertips,” and playing him, it feels like he’s being pulled in two different directions. This is difficult to play, but it’s certainly interesting as an actor.
Rail: What kinds of projects excite and are important to you?
Numrich: I don’t believe in a hierarchy of what should be viewed as important in the theater, or in any art form. I’ve gone to plays on Broadway that have left me immeasurably moved and inspired. Then I’ve gone to the back room at Jimmy’s No. 43, to Rising Phoenix Repertory’s Cino Nights, and seen work there that was equally moving, shocking, and interesting.
I realize how fortunate I am because I’m starting to feel like a member of artistic families in a couple of different places. One is Lincoln Center—this is my third show with them, I feel so lucky to be part of that family. Another is with Daniel Talbott, Rising Phoenix Rep, and Rattlestick. I think that the work Daniel and those guys do makes you think, pushes the envelope, and challenges people. That kind of bold work is ultimately what keeps us pushing forward in the theater.
Rail: You’ve collaborated with Daniel on many projects. Slipping and Yosemite at Rattlestick, workshops of new plays, projects with Rising Phoenix Rep like Break My Face on Your Hand, Favorites, and Too Much Memory. He also wrote the play Mike and Seth for you and Jimmy Davis. Will you talk about your relationship with Daniel and what it’s meant to you?
Numrich: I feel a particular kinship with Daniel. In my eyes, he continues a legacy that Clifford Odets was also a part of. Daniel grapples with everything. When he’s writing about something, he is in it. He doesn’t stand outside of it; he really struggles with big ideas and issues, trying to pull them apart to find the best way to tell a story about the things. He doesn’t put limits on how that story might get told or adhere to any ideas about how plays should be.
Rail: You guys worked on something together in San Francisco this summer, what was that experience like?
Numrich: We did a play that we lovingly came to know as AZAK, which is an acronym for Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, America, Kuwait—that’s the full name of the play. Brian Miskell, Jimmy Davis, and I played soldiers abandoned out in a desert in a future time when the world is falling apart. The other people in the cast were Jelena Stupljanin, Wendy Vanden Heuvel, and Liam Callister. We were living together while workshopping the play, collaborating nonstop. We’d get home and Daniel would be writing and would ask “what do you think about this?” It was this melding of experiences. Hopefully we’re going to get to do it again.
Rail: You went on a road trip earlier this year! What were your favorite places you went to?
Numrich: Well it was technically two road trips because Jimmy Davis—who is one of my closest friends and a brilliant actor—we drove from Los Angeles to New York City and then about a month later from NYC to San Francisco. So we traveled about 9,000 miles with each other over the course of two months. I have three top places that we visited: Yosemite, Grand Teton National Park, and the Grand Canyon. We went to the Grand Canyon, got a backcountry permit, and climbed way down, maybe 4,000 feet down and camped on this mesa in the middle of the canyon. It felt like going back in time. I think we expected a pterodactyl to fly by at any moment. There was practically no one else for miles. We watched the sun set over one side of the canyon and ten minutes later a full moon rose, this big yellow orb, over the other side of the canyon. Connecting with nature feeds me immensely and recharges my batteries that can feel depleted after living in NYC sometimes. So that was big for me, I really cherished it.
Lincoln Center Theater presents Golden Boy by Clifford Odets, directed by Bartlett Sher, at the Belasco Theater (111 West 44th Street). Performances currently scheduled through January 20, 2013. www.lct.org.
LIBBY WOODBRIDGE is an actor living in NYC.