Mark-Paul Gosselaar
(© Joseph Marzullo/WENN)
Mark-Paul Gosselaar
(© Joseph Marzullo/WENN)
Few 35-year-olds have headlined as many television series as Mark-Paul Gosselaar. The current star of Steven Bochco's legal drama Raising the Bar has also been a leading man on Commander-in-Chief, NYPD Blue, D.C., and Hyperion Bay. But more than 15 years since the show went off the air, he's still best known as Saved By the Bell's unassailable golden boy, Zach Morris. But it may take a second to make that connection when you see Gosselaar in Theresa Rebeck's new play The Understudy, now at the Roundabout's Laura Pels Theatre, in which he plays a movie star making his Broadway debut in an unknown play by Franz Kafka. TheaterMania recently spoke to Gosselaar about his transition from the small screen to the Off-Broadway stage.

THEATERMANIA: So is this the first time you've been on stage since the rapping Snow White?
MARK-PAUL GOSSELAAR: Is that a Saved by the Bell reference? I have probably watched a total of five shows since we wrapped 16 years ago, so I don't remember a lot of it. I always feel kinda like a dumbass when people reference it. They'll say oh I just saw such-and-such episode this morning and I won't really remember it, but I'll think, "Tell me more. That sounds like a good show." But to get back to your original question, this is the first time I've ever been on stage.

TM: How did this come up? Were you looking to do a play during your hiatus?
MG: I made a switch in agencies recently, and my new agent is really well versed in theater, and Julie White [who co-stars in The Understudy] is another client. So one day we were talking, and my agent asked me if I was opposed to doing theater. And I said, "Why would I be?"

TM: How much basic theatrical training did you need to be able to do this show?
MG: At the audition, I was very upfront with (director) Scott Ellis about my lack of experience. I told him that I didn't know this stuff, I didn't know how an understudy worked; I didn't know about the board or about put-in rehearsals. I didn't know the terminology that's in the play.

Mark-Paul Gosselaar and Justin Kirk in The Understudy
(© Carol Rosegg)
Mark-Paul Gosselaar and Justin Kirk in The Understudy
(© Carol Rosegg)
TM: And what about all the Kafka? Were you a fan of his work?
MG: I said to Scott, "Look, brother, I am not well versed on Kafka -- where do we go with this?" We wound up getting sort of the Kafka powerpoints, and I read some of the books. I started with The Trial. And I have to admit Josephine the Singer was particularly hard to get through. But I've found Kafka is a good sedative for me sometimes when I can't sleep.

TM: In the show, you're both one of the play-within-the-play's stars as well as the understudy for unseen movie star Bruce. Can you relate to the understudy experience in your own career?
MG: I can feel the pain. It's horrible when they say they don't think you can handle a show. That's more how I felt at the beginning of my adult career. I was constantly struggling to get a chance to show them I could carry a project. It wasn't until Stephen Bochco gave me a chance on NYPD Blue that things turned around. That was the first time people started saying: that kid from Saved By the Bell isn't a kid anymore. And the funny thing is, Bochco still says he's never seen an episode.

TM: So I'm not going to make this too much about Saved By the Bell, but does Jimmy Fallon's obsession with the show scare you a little?
MG: Nah. But he's the one driving this whole reunion phenomenon. When he started talking about it, it was my idea to go on the show in character -- but I needed a writer to help me get back into that character! I don't live as Zach. I haven't been Zach since I was 19 years old. I could go on a show right now and improv as my character in this play, or my character on Raising the Bar, but for Zach, I needed a writer. I was more nervous for that appearance on Fallon than for my first preview in this show.