Don’t Go Gentle‘s David Wilson Barnes talks his Indie-Boy Status and that Lips Together Fiasco

Off-Broadway’s golden boy on his junkie gig, Broadway disasters, and killing Bryan Cranston.

David Wilson Barnes
David Wilson Barnes
(© David Gordon)

David Wilson Barnes wants to kill Bryan Cranston. “His character on Breaking Bad, not him!” he clarifies. “I’m dying to be the guy cast to kill Walter White.” Is he in the running for the job? “No. But I’m waiting for the call anyway.” While waiting Barnes, who turned heads in 2009 with an acerbic star turn in off-Broadway’s Becky Shaw, has been busying himself with another critically acclaimed performance in Stephen Belber’s sharp family drama Don’t Go Gentle, now playing at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. As Ben, prodigal son to Michael Cristofer‘s patriarch, Barnes shows off the casually nuanced, cliche-avoiding acting that is becoming his trademark. It’s the kind of performance that would be welcome on the Broadway stage, and would have been in 2010’s Lips Together, Teeth Apart, had the show not imploded — something Barnes is ready to talk about.

But first: Tina Fey and Angry Birds.

Did I catch you all sweaty next to Tina Fey on a plane in a 30 Rock rerun lat night?

That was one of my sadder moments. I mean, it was happy because getting that show made up for not getting on The Sopranos ever. I was really excited — I had great moments in a great scene. I was waiting for the flood of emails to come from my relatives and friends once the episode aired — I couldn’t watch it myself because I was in London with Becky Shaw. Instead there were maybe three emails from, like, my mom and some other guy. And then my wife wrote, “You had that one killer line.” I was going, “Um, I had seven killer lines, and why the f**k is no one talking about me more right now!?” [laughs] I was so irritated. Turned out they overwrote the episode, so they cut out all the stuff I did.

But you got to hang out with Tina Fey.

Oh no. I was playing Angry Birds the entire time, trying not to talk to Tina Fey! She’s head writer, the star, executive producer. She’s so busy. I just wanted to say my lines and not bug her, because I think she’s amazing. Then she leans over and is like, “Oh, is that the new Angry Birds?” And I’m like, “Yeah! It’s a great game, do you play this game, they have a new one it’s so much fun and — why am I talking about Angry Birds? David, stop taking about Angry Birds, David stop talking now.”

Let’s talk Don’t Go Gentle. You play a son struggling with addiction. What did you do to channel your inner junkie?

I did a lot of drugs.


I have done a lot of drugs in the past, so it wasn’t hard to recall the general effect. I have some close friends who are addicts, and addiction in my family. Not hard drugs, but alcohol. I’ve been around their people. To me what addiction always boils down to is that it’s an escape from yourself. That’s happening with Ben.

We see “complicated family plays” all the time. Why is this one [about a conservative father trying to connect with his disconnected adult children] special?

Michael Cristofer’s character, Lawrence [the father], is from that last real generation of men who built themselves on the idea that a strong man provides for his family, and that’s all he needs to do. But you can’t do that anymore. You actually have to be an open human being to fully function in this society. This play writes about the trap of that older generation really well. When I listen to the audience during the big confrontation scene [between Lawrence and his children] around the table, it’s amazing to hear my generation agree with me while I’m giving my rants, and then Michael’s generation agree with him. You can hear it. They gasp and say things out loud. Which is amazing. A play that moves people to an audible emotional reaction. Being in the theater during that is an intense, remarkable, intimate experience. That’s a rare experience, one I hope more people get to have.

David Wilson Barnes and Michael Cristofer in <i>Don't Go Gentle</i>
David Wilson Barnes and Michael Cristofer in Don’t Go Gentle
(© Joan Marcus)

You’re kind of an indie darling. Off-Broadway plays with rave reviews, bit parts on TV, no major crossover to Broadway. But your work is celebrated, and true theater fans love you.

That’s something I’m really happy about. I’m happy being the indie guy.

Your work has largely been contemporary. Are there classical roles you’d like to tackle?

Absolutely. I’d really like to play Mercutio [in Romeo & Juliet] before I get too old. I’m not sure anyone will cast me, but I have a spin on him that I think is accurate and just want to play.

Which is?

He’s in love with Romeo. I mean, this man is a bit older than the other guys. His Queen Mab speech is overflowing with frustration about women. I think he’s had enough. And his relationship with Romeo runs deep. I think he pokes at Tybalt the way someone with a crush provokes a person disrespecting the one they care about. The scene where he dies–he didn’t need to die. It was all bravado from them both, until Romeo shows up and f**ks it all up! Anyway, I wish someone would ask me to do something classical. It’s been a while.

Can we talk about Lips Together Teeth Apart, the Broadway play that wasn’t yet?

Um…wow. This is complicated. What happened was basically — and I am gonna throw her under the bus, because I do think it was her fault — Megan Mullally. Putting on a play is obviously stressful. She had a lot of stressful things going on in her life at the time. Understandably stressful. She had come off of a few shows that that were not good experiences for her. Her talk show, as I understand it, didn’t do what she wanted it to. It was not an easy time for her. We were going through the normal difficulties in rehearsal. Ultimately she just was like, “I can’t deal with the amount of stress.” So she quit. That’s basically what it was.

Patton Oswalt got the brunt of the bulls**t, with [people saying he was] why she quit, which is complete crap. I want to say for the record that’s ridiculous. He was working his butt off. It was his first play and he did have a learning curve, but he was becoming great. Her leaving was not about him. That guy’s a genius. He’s one of the smartest human beings I’ve ever come across.

Why not just fill her role, rather than cancel?

I think they tried. Megan was ridiculously good. Unbelievable in it. That part was written for her in a retroactive way. She also was the headliner, the big draw, which I think was stressful too for her too. They couldn’t get someone who was good enough to fill her shoes. And Patton during all that was like, “I don’t want to talk about it, because the more I talk about it, the more it’s gonna be talked about.” So he wouldn’t answer questions, he wouldn’t talk to press and it just fizzled out. It’s a play ultimately. It was going to be a great one. But it’s not the Geneva Convention. It doesn’t affect anybody’s life at all. [laughs] Except for mine.

It would have been your first leading, non-replacement role on Broadway.

I was certainly disappointed.

Did that bad experience turn you off to Broadway?

Not at all. A thing with actors that gets us in trouble is that we like to blame the machine. But we’re choosing to ride the machine. At the end of the day the only thing that’s gonna keep you sane is to be honest about what you’re doing. So when that crumbled I was just fascinated watching it crumble. I was actually more disappointed a month ago. I was drunk at some bar or something, and I started thinking about it, and suddenly was like,”Motherf*cker!” But so what? I’m in this great play at MCC. Keep it moving.

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Don’t Go Gentle

Closed: November 4, 2012