By MARK KENNEDY
NEW YORK — To properly play a pirate, Christian Borle has appropriately been stealing.
He’s lifted from comic book villains and swiped from Indiana Jones baddies. He has even plundered from sci-fi’s Darth Vader. Watch him closely and there may even be a touch of Dr. Evil from the Austin Powers films.
“I think I just stole a little bit from all kinds of different places,” says Borle, one of the stars of the breakout NBC TV series “Smash” who currently can be seen on Broadway in “Peter and the Starcatcher,” a prequel to the Peter Pan story.
Borle may have been ripping characters off left and right to create his over-the-top Black Stache – the blustery pirate who will become Captain Hook – but there’s one crook he tried to dodge: Jack Sparrow from the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films.
“That was the only thing I was trying to avoid. But I think I failed. I think there is some subconscious Johnny Depp in there, too,” says Borle. “But, in my defense, when you think of Captain Hook, you don’t think of a restrained id.”
No one would make that mistake after watching Borle chew the scenery in “Peter and the Starcatcher.” He mispronounces words, makes fart jokes, loses a hand, leaps over trunks – the actor must wear pads on his knees, thighs and hips – and is liable to say things like “The Stache is on everyone’s lips.”
“It’s an adventure every night,” says Borle.
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As dynamic and hysterical as Stache is on stage, the actor who plays him is calm and understated offstage. In an interview in his very tidy dressing room in the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, Borle is laid back and chooses his words carefully.
On a table in front of his mirror sits his mustache. It’s actually a small disk of Ben Nye brand makeup – CL-29 Black, if you must know – that Borle slathers over his upper lip at least three times during the show because his sweaty antics make it drip off. Of perhaps growing his own mustache for the part he says: “It was never in the cards, which is fortunate because I don’t grow a lustrous beard.”
Kevin Del Aguila, who plays Black Stash’s right hand man Smee, says Borle has become a sort of compass for the dozen actors playing dozens of roles in the show. “He brings the indefinable sense of magic and play and fun that really exemplifies the spirit of the show and the spirit of our group,” he says. “He’s got that spirit that you want to be near, be a part of and enjoy. He’s such a delight.”
The show was adapted by “Jersey Boys” co-writer Rick Elice from Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson’s best-selling 2004 children’s adventure book. It was a darling downtown at the New York Theatre Workshop last year but it was unknown how it would do at a big Broadway house.
“Some jokes literally don’t land the way they did downtown. And some things that didn’t necessarily take off downtown are killing uptown,” says Borle. “It’s the strangest dynamic shift. It’s been fun to see.”
Borle, 38, is in the midst of his own dynamic shift, moving from being an established New York theater actor to a nationally recognized star. In the last few years, he’s gone from playing happy chimney sweep Bert in “Mary Poppins” to Prior Walter, a young man dying of AIDS in Tony Kusher’s brilliant play “Angels in America” to a diabolical pirate to a composer on “Smash,” a behind-the-scenes look at the making of a Broadway show. He also grappled with the loss of his father.
“It’s been a really intense year,” he says.
Raised in Pittsburgh and a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University, Borle has been working steadily since he moved to New York, mostly in big musicals. He was in “Footloose” and “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” and then bigger roles in “Spamalot” and “Legally Blonde,” for which he got a Tony nod. He is divorced from actress Sutton Foster but the two have stayed friendly and watch each other’s shows.
Since “Smash” started airing, Borle’s profile has exploded and he now gets recognized on the street. “The nice thing is people don’t tend to stop you to say terrible things,” he says with a laugh.
He’ll be on hand later this summer when the show starts filming its second season. “The only thing I know for sure is that it will still be about musicals. Beyond that, I think we’re all excited to see where it’s going to go.”
He says that while he might explore more TV or film, his heart will always be with the theater. Borle loves the discipline and the ritual of stagework, the camaraderie and having the immediacy of the audience response every night. He stays grounded by calling home.
“The greatest gift and excitement of all of this sudden ubiquity – “Smash” and this show and everything – is being able, at the end of the day, to call my mother and say, `So this is what happened today,’” says Borle. “She’s so over the moon and so ecstatic. So it’s fun to be able to share every little tidbit.”
Might he even be worried about overexposure? He smiles at the thought: “That just seems like a really high-class problem,” he says. “It’s a nice question to be asked as an actor. My goal was to just work.”
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