Interview: Jeremy Shamos of ‘Clybourne Park’

Jeremy Shamos, center, pontificates about racist values in Act One of "Clybourne Park."

Jeremy Shamos, Tony Award nominee for Best Featured Actor in a Play, has to ask our waiter whether he should order the cheeseburger or the club sandwich. His indecision is apt, considering that we’re here to talk about how the actor handles playing two polarized characters in “Clybourne Park.” In Act One, Shamos plays Karl a man who’s trying to keep his neighbors from selling their home to the community’s first black family in 1959. In Act Two, he plays Steve part of a couple who’s trying to buy the same house from an African-American family in 2009. Over lunch (the Karl burger won out over the Steve sandwich), we asked Shamos to talk us through his experience with those characters and the modern relevance of the race issues in “Clybourne Park.”

You play two characters in the show was that a challenge?

I find it to be an actor’s dream. Every actor likes to be transformational and try their hand at different things. So to be able to do that in the same night is a dream come true. They’re so different the time is different, and it’s a completely different vibe, and the set’s different. Once I come off intermission and change my clothes and muss my hair up, then it’s like the other [character] is completely gone. I think it would be more challenging if it was the exact same setting and same time, and you were playing a slightly different character. But it feels like it’s two different styles of theater, and the characters are so different.

So you don’t think they’re incarnations of the same character in different times?

I think any parallels that the audience wants to draw, [that's] for the audience to do. I don’t think Pam [McKinnon, the director] did, though I think Bruce [Norris, the playwright] did, in his own way. The play folds on itself so intricately and smartly, the audience gets to do that, I think. Do they relate to each other? Probably. But I don’t work to try to make things relevant or fit or resonate.

Do you think they come off as the bad guys in both settings?

I think that Karl in the first act can come off as a bad guy, in the most simplified version. When people are searching for that kind of narrative, then he’d be the bad guy, because he brings race into the picture. I think what Bruce does elegantly and very well and disturbingly for some people is not make it easy, like ‘Yes, he’s the bad guy!’ In the second act, I don’t think my character is a villain. Maybe he’s perceived that way, but I think what both characters have in common is that they both have an agenda. Karl, out of ignorance, and Steve, out of brashness, are not afraid to bring up something that they think is hypocritical. They just sort of tell it like it is. And in the world of racial politics, the guy who’s like, ‘Hey, let’s just talk about this!’ could end up getting branded as racist. Because why would you even bring up race?

In that case, whoever tries to bring up the issues could be labeled as racist?

What Bruce does really well is show that political correctness, and our ability to sort of talk about it, almost makes it worse. We can go through a whole afternoon where we might as well bring it up. It’s an issue in that neighborhood, it obviously is. They somehow almost are able to get through the whole play without talking about it, but they’re talking about it the whole time. If you bring it up, it’s dangerous.

So we face the same issues today, but we’ve found better ways to talk around it?

I think there’s certain language we can use so that we know we’re not offending anyone, but the issues are the same. In the play, part of what you see is that people were more genuinely polite in the 1950s. Now they’re like fake polite. You can spend time with people that you hate nowadays. In the ’50s, you just wouldn’t spend enough time with them there wouldn’t be enough language to talk around the fact that you feel different from each other, disagree with each other. The world is more integrated in a good way, so we have to find ways to talk about things, but it’s too bad that learning all these ways to talk hasn’t necessarily improved relations.

Is now a particularly relevant time for this play?

The disturbing thing is that I feel like it will be relevant for a long time. It’s great to be part of a play that’s part of the national dialogue. It brings things to the forefront that can be discussed. You want to think that it will make one less racial event in the following year, and inspire someone to have some kind of discussion or town meeting. Potentially, if it would become less and less relevant, that would be nice. You imagine that in the third act that would take place in 2059, the people in 2009 would seem old-fashioned. Like, ‘I can’t believe that they’d talk that way.’ And you hope.



News
Entertainment
Sports
Lifestyle
Local

MTA announces service changes for Sunday

The MTA has announced service changes ahead of Sunday's People's Climate March, which will be held from 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Sunday. Riders using…

Local

NYPD launches Twitter account for L train

The NYPD recently launched a Twitter handle dedicated to the L train and its riders. According to @NYPDLtrain, officers went underground Thursday morning to hand…

Local

Bushwick community space offers activists a place to…

A new Bushwick community space offers community activists to meet, create, learn and throw back a few cold ones. MayDay, located 214 Starr Street in Bushwick,…

Local

Activists gearing up for Sunday's "historic" People's Climate…

If all goes according to plan, more than 100,000 people will gather near Central Park West on Sunday morning and march through midtown to raise…

Movies

Kevin Smith makes peace with the Internet

I was thinking about Ain't It Cool News and Harry Knowles last night, wondering if anyone from Ain't It Cool had reviewed my new movie…

Movies

Art imitates life in 'Swim Little Fish Swim'

There's a certain comfort to be taken in finding that young artists are still moving to New York and trying to make it — and…

Movies

Review: Terry Gilliam's 'The Zero Theorem' is better…

Terry Gilliam's latest, "The Zero Theorem," concerns a reclusive malcontent (Christoph Waltz) struggling with the search for the meaning of life.

Music

Esperanza Spalding and a being called Emily get…

Esperanza Spalding is about to spiral off in a brand new direction that may or may include an alter ego named Emily.

NFL

Oday Aboushi ready for increased role, and to…

Oday Aboushi might feel comfortable enough to engage in some trash talk the next time he is on the field.

NFL

Giants vs. Texans: 3 things to watch

The Giants host the surprising Texans (2-0) in what may already be a must-win game for Big Blue.

NFL

Eric Decker misses practice again, could miss Monday

Jets wide receiver Eric Decker missed practice Thursday as he continues to rehab a hamstring injury suffered last Sunday.

MLB

Derek Jeter still focused on baseball as final…

Derek Jeter has effectively hid his emotions for 20 years in the Bronx.

Parenting

A sneaky way to serve kids fruits and…

"My First Juices and Smoothies" gives smoothie recipes for kids.

Style

3 things we love from Day 1 of…

The highlights from Day 1 of Milan Fashion Week.

Sex

Why don't more couples use condoms?

  Call it the “condom moment.” That’s the name the authors of a new study have given to the pivotal conversation every couple should be…

Sex

Need an idea for a first date? Here's…

Picture your idea of a nice first date. Is it dinner and a movie? A visit to an interesting museum exhibit? Instead, an expert on…