Now, he's earning major acclaim for his current role as Vinny in Jesse Eisenberg's Asuncion, about two unlikely roommates whose world is temporarily shaken up by the arrival of a young woman in their apartment, now being presented by the Rattlestick Theatre Company at the Cherry Lane Theatre. TheaterMania recently spoke to Bartha about the show and his theatrical career.
THEATERMANIA: How long have you been involved with this show?
JUSTIN BARTHA: Jesse began writing this about five years ago, and I've been doing work on it since then. I think the role of Vinny was written for me -- maybe not when Jesse first sat down, but as the process went on. We did the first reading in a friend's apartment, and then we did a reading at Rattlestick.
TM: What are the advantages of having a part written for you by a close friend?
JB: Jesse and I being old friends gave us the benefit of fleshing out these characters beyond what's really needed. We have backstories about their entire families, because we spend all our free time talking about imaginary people. I think that's also because we have no hobbies. And while I won't give away secrets of what parts of my personality ended up in Vinny -- I am not sure I should admit to an addiction to marijuana -- I will say that some of the energy between Vinny and Edgar vaguely mirrors our relationship, even if it's been heightened to extreme effect.
TM: Some audiences may not like Vinny, since he can be a bit abrasive. Do you like him?
JB: Yes, I like every character I play. The guy is a bundle of contradictions in a strange way; he's both an intellectual and a pseudointellectual. But one of the reasons I like Vinny, and one of the main attributes Jesse brought to the character, is his extreme lack of tact, due to his perception of his need to tell the truth. I find that provocative. And I think a lot of people can identify with having an undying search for truth in the world.
JB: Jesse's words are so strong; we knew that the dialogue would get a strong reaction, but what changes from audience to audience is that the laughs keep coming from different places.
TM: In both Asuncion and All New People, your characters enter wearing a bathrobe. Is that in your contract now?
JB: Yes, they're in robes and smoking and barefoot. But it is a coincidence. Actually, when I first read All New People, and I knew my character was supposed to open the play in a noose trying to kill himself, I was going to be in a suit, because I had known people who had done it that way. Anyway, Jesse and I had lunch one day, and he had read the play and said something feels wrong about the suit. So he gave me the idea to wear a robe. But the two robes aren't the same. For All New People, I would pour tequila all over it and made sure it looked and smelled ratty. For Asuncion, it's this African robe that Vinny treasures.
TM: Both of those plays were written by famous actors. How does that affect your experience?
JB: You know there are people coming to see the play because this famous name is attached, and as a performer you may have to overcome that and make sure the audience is having a true emotional experience. I'm happy that both plays are bringing a younger crowd to the theater, maybe even unwittingly. That's what's important.
TM: Why are you so committed to doing plays now when you can be making a lot more money in Hollywood?
JB: It's just more fulfilling to me to do plays. These are characters that are amazingly compelling and challenging, and which I can make a meal out of, and I'm not always afforded the chance to do these kind of characters in movies.
TM: Have you been tempted to write your own play?
JB: I've tinkered around with writing my whole life, but I have a great insecurity when it comes to my writing. There are many things I've started, but not finished. Right now, I'm happy I can just take advantage of the opportunity to act in plays like Asuncion and work with my close friends. But maybe that will change in the future.