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Weiss Guy

TV star Michael T. Weiss makes his long-awaited Off-Broadway debut in the Atlantic Theater Company's Scarcity.

By New York City
Michael T. Weiss
Michael T. Weiss
Broadway producers may be chomping at the bit to put television and film stars into their shows, but Off-Broadway, it's still about getting the best person for the part. So despite two decades of stardom on the West coast, including the lead in long-running NBC series The Pretender and playing Steve in the film version of Paul Rudnick's Jeffrey, Michael T. Weiss was willing to not just audition -- but to put himself on tape and fly to New York on his own dime -- to land the role of Herb in Lucy Thurber's dark comedy Scarcity, which begins previews at the Atlantic Theater Company on August 29.

"Auditioning is a good thing; it keeps you humble," he says sincerely. "People have this whole preconception of what it means to be a television and movie guy. But if you want something, then you have to go for it."

In Scarcity, which marks the actor's Off-Broadway debut, Weiss plays the alcoholic father of two teenagers in a depressed rural Massachusetts town, one of whom is given the opportunity to escape. "I've spent a lot of my career playing heroes, like Jared in The Pretender, but playing part of a dysfunctional family is more interesting," he says. "My character has given up all hope for himself, but he still has hope for his children, which is a weird and sad place to get to."

Weiss also sees a larger message in Thurber's work. "The play is really about how hard it is to rise above your socioeconomic position," he adds."I've always felt very blessed and lucky in the world, and I have great compassion for people who struggle to get through the day. Sometimes, you have to remind yourself that some people are just trying to find something to eat."

Weiss said he did some research to play an alcoholic -- although not hitting the bottle every few minutes -- and discovered some interesting things about those afflicted with the disease. "I learned that many of them drink to medicate themselves. They think they'll feel better; they don't do it to feel worse. Still, it gets the better of many people in the long run," he notes. "And in the kind of small towns like this play is set in, drinking is one of the only things available to do."

The actor isn't the only "big name" in the cast; his wife is played by Emmy Award winner (and stage veteran) Kristen Johnston and his son by rising movie star Jesse Eisenberg, who will be seen next month opposite Richard Gere in The Hunting Party. "Kristen is so much fun, fun, fun; but she's also incredibly hard-working. And Jesse is just great," says Weiss. "I love being in rehearsal with them, and Lucy, and our director Jackson Gay. In theater, everyone's head is in the right place; it's about the craft and the work. To me, there's nothing better than spending all day in a room working with smart people on great material. Sometimes, I wish you could never stop rehearsing."

That sentiment isn't totally surprising from someone who was a child actor in his native Chicago, who had dreams of a stage career in New York. However, Weiss decided to go to college at U.S.C. -- where his classmates included Ally Sheedy, Anthony Edwards, and Forest Whittaker -- and he was quickly discovered by Hollywood while performing in a local showcase.

He's worked steadily there for nearly 20 years, finally coming east to appear on stage at Boston's Huntington Theater Company in their productions of Burn This in 2004 and Les Liaisons Dangereuses in 2006, both under the aegis of his friend Nicholas Martin. "Hollywood sucks you in," he says. "That other coast just kept me very busy for a long time."

Considering his success, one would imagine Weiss would never consider giving up acting. "I think about it every morning when I wake up," he says with a laugh. "But it's in my blood, so I don't think I will ever stop, even if it is a crazy way to make a living. However, I've been doing mixed-media artwork for the past few years, and that keeps me sane. There was a show of some of my work in L.A. recently and everything sold out in four hours."

As for what's ahead after Scarcity -- be it another Off-Broadway show or another hit TV series -- the 45-year-old actor says anything is possible. "I love New York, so all I need is another good reason to stay. But that doesn't mean I wouldn't do another television series. Right now, my standard is that I won't do anything that I'm not proud of," he says. "But the other nice thing about being my age is you realize the importance of living in the moment. I don't have the energy anymore to spend all this time thinking about what things might mean in the big scheme of life. I just want to do good work."


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