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Stark Sands Is Living the American Dream

The Tony-nominated actor returns to Broadway as Tunny in the much-anticipated Green Day musical American Idiot.

Stark Sands
(© Joseph Marzullo/WENN)
Stark Sands has become one of the theater's most in-demand young actors over the past few years, with roles in the Broadway production of Journey's End, for which he received a Tony Award nomination for Best Featured Actor and a Theater World Award; the Shakespeare in the Park star-studded production of Twelfth Night; and most recently, the La Jolla Playhouse's world premiere musical Bonnie & Clyde, in which he portrayed Clyde Barrow. Now, Sands has returned to Broadway as Tunny in the hit musical American Idiot, based on the music of Grammy Award winners Green Day. TheaterMania recently spoke with Sands about the show.

THEATERMANIA: You are the only new principal cast member who joined the show after its run last fall at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, where Matt Caplan played your role? How did you getting the part come about?
STARK SANDS: I had known about the show since October 2008, when they first were doing the casting workshops, and I auditioned back then for a different part than Tunny. I had known Michael Mayer, the director, for a long time, and I am a big Green Day fan. Their CD Dookie was pretty seminal for me. But it just didn't happen. Then, in December 2009, my agent called and said I had another audition -- this time for Tunny. I knew I was right for it on a physical level; in the breakdown, Tunny was described as All-American, and that's me. And I play earnest and innocent really well. Plus, the character does join the army, and I think my history of playing soldiers helped convince them. My first big film role was in Flags of Our Fathers, and then I did Journey's End, so let's say I know how to carry a gun and wear fatigues.

TM: What was it like jumping into rehearsals with a cast that had already done the show?
SS: It was a pretty crazy process. I've never jumped on board a show before that was already moving at full speed. I knew I had a lot to learn, but I was very eager and excited. So I just cleared my schedule and let this show take over my life. There's so much athletic movement in the show while we're singing, that probably the hardest thing was that I had to learn to sing while being out of breath. But it can be done.

Michael Esper, John Gallagher Jr, and Stark Sands
in American Idiot
(© Tristan Fuge)
TM: Has Tunny's character changed at all since Berkeley Rep?
SS: Yes, now he's the angriest guy on stage. I have 10 tattoos on me, and as soon as you see my arms, you can see who this guy is and how different he is than I am. I have no tattoos in real life, and it's weird how I get treated differently -- mostly in a good way. I was in my gym at the weights area one day; I was looking for a 40-lb barbell and I was sort of looking in between the machines that people were on, but it looked like I was looking at them. And people immediately got off the machines and asked if I wanted them. It looks like I'll be living like this for a while, which is cool, but it's just fantasy.

TM: Since the show is sung-through, how does that affect your characterization?
SS: Because there was no real book, I got to really decide who this guy is and what he likes and doesn't like. It's interesting we've taken lyrics that Billy Jo Armstrong has written from back in 2003 and made them work in a different way than they were first intended. We also added some songs from their newest CD, 21st Century Breakdown, and some B-sides people haven't ever heard. There's even a song he wrote when he was just 19.

TM: What is working with Michael Mayer like for you?
SS: What I've observed is that he reacts immediately to what he sees. Michael has strong opinions and he goes with gut, which means he can say no over and over until it hits him the right way. You know you can't take it personally. And the fact is, he has impeccable taste.

Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong, Mike Dirnt, and Tre Cool
(© Tristan Fuge)
TM: What was it like performing on the Grammy Awards with Green Day?
SS: That experience was surreal. I had just jumped into the show a couple of weeks before; it was my first live audience. But it turned out to be a great way for me to assimilate into this group of actors. And I'll never forget that when we exited the stage, Billie, Mike, and Tre were all waiting for us, and Billy hugged and kissed every single one of us. Sometimes you meet your heroes, and you're disappointed because they're egotistical or they're jaded. But Billie Joe isn't. He's really a normal dude.

TM: You've already recorded the original cast CD. What was that experience like?
SS: To sit in a recording studio was weird for me. It's hard for anyone knowing that one of those takes is going to be the finished product for all time, but since we did the CD before we had staged the show for Broadway, I was really nervous about having to give a final performance. And it turned out that what we got was technical singing directions, not character directions. They would say hit this word hard or pull back on this word. And we recorded to scratch tracks, which I didn't know was how you did things.

TM: Are you pleased with how the CD came out?
SS: I haven't heard it yet. During tech, I would walk by Michael and Tom Kitt listening to it; but I had to walk away. I want to wait for the final product and hold the actual CD in my hand. I really want to go buy it in a store, just like it's the new Green Day record.

TM: Now that you're finally in the St. James Theatre, how does that feel?
SS: I stayed close to Boyd Gaines after we finished Journey's End together, so I went to see him do Gypsy at the St. James, and I thought to myself: one day, I'll do a hit musical on Broadway, and know what it's like to be Boyd. And now, not only am I doing that, but I have the same dressing room as Boyd did. But I also know I'm still earning this job.