Nick Garrison’s "Angry Inch"

by Joseph Erbentraut

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday April 22, 2009

For Seattle-based actor Nick Garrison, the role of Hedwig, an also-ran East German transsexual rocker, has become a familiar one. His starring role in the American Theater Company's 24th season-ending production of John Cameron Mitchell's "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," playing through May 31, is his sixth time portraying the character, who has become a book-end of modern queer cinema.

In the near-decade that has passed since the 35-year-old actor first turned on the tape deck and put the wig back on his head, it appears that Garrison has come into his own in the salacious production, which originally won the 2001 Obie Award and Outer Circle Critics Award for best Off-Broadway Musical and earned Garrison himself the Joseph Jefferson Best Actor Award the same year. He speaks with confidence on what has become a signature role, inviting EDGE readers inside the world of everyone's favorite "hot tranny mess."

Back in Chicago

EDGE: How does it feel to be back in Chicago, playing Hedwig, nearly a decade after first playing the role in Seattle?
Nick Garrison: It’s really great to be back. I love Chicago and I’ve always said if I could work here again, I’d do it a heartbeat. It’s a very different production, so it’s great to be back doing [the role] in a very different way. The audiences have been great so far.

EDGE: Could you tell me a bit more about how the current production compares to the past production here in the city (in 2001)?
NG: The last production in Chicago was actually a New York production featuring all the same designers, opening with some of the same band members, the same music director and stage director - it was pretty much the New York production brought to Chicago. It was a great production and really fun to do, but this production is different, it’s eight years later and it’s kind of a darker production that’s pretty overwhelming with the design and it’s really fabulous. It’s a smaller, more underground space which is a great environment for the show, given its darker edge.

EDGE: Having performed the role so many times, all over the globe, how does that influence your perspective on the character? What was your biggest challenge initially with the role, and how does that compare to now?
NG: It has changed, and i think its a rare opportunity for an actor to revisit a role so many times. I was 26 the first time I did it and I’m now 35 - a lot changes in those years. At first, the challenges were physical and vocal, developing the stamina to do it. It’s still exhausting, but every time I do it, I add more texture and deepen it. There’s no end to how deep you can go with the role of Hedwig, burrowing into the role. Every time I do it, I feel like I get so much more out of it, and provide a much richer context.

EDGE: And what do you get out of this current production?
NG: One of the things that comes to me right away is the idea of "less is more." [Hedwig’s] such a theatrical character and a very dramatic story. As I get older, I find less is more powerful - there’s a sense of her telling her story in a much more immediate way this time and it’s hard to explain, but I think as an actor, you start to trust yourself to do less and it communicates more. When you’re younger, you want to throw as much as you can out there, using all the bells and whistles, and as you get older you realize you don’t have to do that: You whittle away at what isn’t necessary and you’re left with something more substantial.

EDGE: Do you ever find aspects of Hedwig sneaking into your own life - maybe you’re tempted to borrow some Hedwig costumes for a night out?
NG: I’ve never had that problem! I am very clear with my lines between myself and the character - she wears nail polish in the show and I take it off after every show - not that I’m freaked out about it, but for me, I like keeping the distinction between what’s on stage and off... I’m happy to leave the character in the dressing room I love the character but she’s not necessarily the kind of person you’d want to hang out with. She’s in a pretty raw place, by the end of the show... That said, I get very used to it, and it becomes very second nature, I rehearse in the costumes to feel completely comfortable in her skin and you get to a point where they almost feel like your own clothes.

EDGE: How do you psyche yourself up for a performance? Has that also changed, as you’ve gained mileage with the role?
NG: Of course, I do some of the same things I always do - the exercises, vocal and physical, the basic stuff you do, but I used to get much more amped up when I was first doing it. I’d work myself up into a frenzy before the show which was good for those productions, but this time, I find myself being more quiet and calm before the show. Getting into the makeup is always quite the process - a Zen process - then right before I go on stage, I do some private things and some little things I say to myself, little passages and some poems that I say to myself every time. I’m kind of a superstitious actor.

Boy with a band

EDGE: How did you first get into performing?
NG: I’ve been acting since I was pretty young - since I was still in elementary school, doing community theatre shows. I went to an art high school in Seattle where I did some intense acting and summer programs and graduated a year early when I was 17. I spent my senior year working and from then on, I’ve worked steadily. [Acting] was just something I’ve always loved and wanted to do. I originally thought I’d be a playwright when I was younger, and I still write, but I really fell in love with acting.

EDGE: Absolutely - and your work has been varied - including a brief stint on "Strangers With Candy," featuring Amy Sedaris and Stephen Colbert. How was that experience, working with that crew?
NG: I had three days on that show - I was living in New York and I got a call to do it. I’d never seen the show... I knew who Amy was and I knew the other guys from other shows, but didn’t know what the show was all about. I wasn’t prepared for it at all, but it was so much fun. She is crazy, fabulous and really funny the whole time, and everybody couldn’t have been nicer. They don’t even use the script on that show - you get on the set and they just make most of it up in the moment, very free and loose. I love watching the show now, knowing that they come up with most everything on the spot.

EDGE: Who is your dream person to work with, either musically or in a theatrical setting, let’s say dead or alive?
NG: That’s such a hard question! This sounds very obvious, I’m a huge fan of Meryl Streep and I think she’d be so much fun to work with. I’d freak out and it’d be a huge dream come true. She’s one that always jumps out. In terms of musicians, there’s way too many, though I’d say you can’t get much better than Joni Mitchell. I love women artists, but I’d say it’d always be a woman.

EDGE: What do you have coming up, after Hedwig closes?
NG: After "Hedwig," I will go back to Seattle for the summertime. I have two bands and some gigs lined up with them. A lot of my focus will be on music. I have a couple theater projects in the works with some good friends and directors that are being developed in the fall. I’m excited to be doing more original work.

EDGE: I recall reading in a previous interview that you had never been in a band - is this a new development for you?
NG: I studied voice for years and sung a lot, but had never been in a band, so that was a big deal when I was first doing the show, to be fronting a band. One band I have includes three of the guys from the band in the second production of "Hedwig" in Seattle in 2004. When I moved back there, we decided to start playing again. They’re great musicians, and by doing Hedwig, I started getting more confident performing and writing music. The other band I just started last year with five people is more subdued, a little more laid-back project, that one’s called the Love Markets.

EDGE: If you were to try and explain what one should expect from the show who has never seen it before, what would you tell them?
NG: I would say they should come with an open mind. You’re going to see someone with a lot of issues who is going to surprise you with how human she is. The story kind of takes care of itself. Wear very washable clothing, nothing too stainable, and come expecting to have a great time with this odd lady with a band. The more I sometimes start telling the story, the more it freaks people out or confuses them, so I love letting audiences figure it out for themselves.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch continues through May 31, 2009 at the American Theater Company, 1909 West Byron, Chicago, Illinois. For more information visit the the American Theater Company website

Joseph covers news, arts and entertainment and lives in Chicago. He is the assistant Chicago editor for The Huffington Post. Log on to www.joe-erbentraut.com to read more of his work.

Comments on Facebook