Rising star Jeff Juday of the Off-Broadway musical I Sing! on TV sitcoms, Christianity, and red Speedos.
Juday (accent on the second syllable) doesn't grimace when his resemblance to Bateman is mentioned; on the contrary, he's happy to note that the resemblance almost got him a TV job (see below). Among the small screen assignments he did snag were a recurring role on the ABC sitcom Step by Step and guest shots on Lois and Clark, V.I.P., and Dark Skies. You may also remember him as Jon-Benet Ramsey's brother in one of several TV movies based on that tragedy. But the young actor, who trained briefly at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music (CCM), insists that musical theater is his real love. Though I Sing! is his first New York credit, he is no stage neophyte, having appeared prominently in the L.A. production of The Last Session and in leading and featured roles in regional stagings of How to Succeed... (as Finch), Big River (as Huck), and The Secret Garden (as Dickon).
Though I Sing! did not garner reviews equivalent in tone to those of The Producers, its talented, young cast emerged largely unscathed from the drubbing. Juday is an audience favorite not only for his natural stage presence and charisma but because, in the central role of Nicky, he somehow manages to create sympathy for a character who could well be perceived as a whining, immature putz. Over lunch at East of Eighth recently, I spoke with Jeff about the show and his career thus far.
THEATERMANIA: If it's not terrifically annoying to you, Jeff, I thought we might start by discussing the Jason Bateman thing.
JEFF JUDAY: It's not annoying at all. For some reason, I've been told that I look like him even more often since I moved to New York. Just the other day, a guy walked up to me at Boston Market and said, "Man, you were great in Teen Wolf 2!" I said, "Thank you." I was actually up for TV show that Jason did; they needed someone to play his brother. When I walked in to read with him, he looked at me and said, "Oh, my goodness." I said, "I know!" I thought I had that job, because I've been compared to him so often. I thought, "How can I not play his brother?" But I think I ended up not getting the part because I looked too much like him, and they needed different types in the cast.
TM: Tell me about this Step by Step show that you were on.
JEFF: That was a sitcom with Suzanne Somers and Patrick Duffy. It was on ABC for six years as part of their "TGIF" lineup for kids on Friday nights, and then on CBS for the last year. Sasha Mitchell played a character named Cody, and when Sasha got put in jail for beating his wife in real life, I became the goofy new character guy on that show.
TM: Was that your first TV job?
JEFF: Basically. When I was at school at CCM, I got a call from Robert Ulrich, a big casting director who had seen me do Big River at a regional theater in California. He had just happened to see the show while he was visiting his folks. He said, "Jeff, I keep thinking about you for this part I've been trying to cast. I'd love it if you'd come down to L.A. to audition on your winter break." I said, "Sure!" It was for the pilot for a CBS show called Ned Blessing, written by the guy who wrote Lonesome Dove and Legends of the Fall. I ended up staying down there for a while, because I kept getting called back. I had to ride a horse and everything; it was fun! I didn't get the job, but it made me realize that I would like working in TV because I like that very "real" kind of acting. The acting training at CCM is geared more towards musical theater, so it was fun to be in a TV audition where you can actually whisper and get your point across. Robert said, "Jeff, I wouldn't wish this business on anyone. But if you're thinking about doing TV at all, I think you should leave CCM, come to L.A., and do it now, while you're young." So I left at the end of my freshman year.
TM: Apparently, you did very well in L.A.
JEFF: Yes, but it was crazy hard in the beginning. Robert got me in the door to all these agencies, but none of them wanted anything to do with me because I didn't have any credits and I didn't belong to any of the unions. They don't care about Equity, but they definitely want you to be in SAG or AFTRA, and it's very hard to get an agent if you're not.
TM: How did you get around that?
JEFF: I lied. This one agent, Ro Diamond, said to me: "We'll send you out and see how you do." But she never really did. So I opened up Back Stage one day and saw that there was an Equity audition for this musical called Bandido at the Mark Taper Forum. I didn't know I couldn't go to an Equity audition; I was fresh off the boat! So I went down and they said, "Are you in Equity." I said, "No." They said, "Well, do you have an agent?" And I said...."Yes!" I told them that Ro Diamond was my agent, which was not a total lie, because she had said she would send me out. So they let me audition. Ro called me and said, "Jeff? They want to do the show at the Taper. You may want to come in and sign contracts if you'd like me to negotiate this for you." That's how I got my agent in L.A. It's such a Catch-22 situation; you need to find a way in.
TM: Where are you from originally?
JEFF: Ohio. But our family moved around a lot. I went to three different high schools in three different states. For my junior and senior year of high school, I was in Modesto. My family's still out there.
TM: What else kept you busy while you were in L.A.?
JEFF: For a while, I was involved in a singing group called Catch 5--a Backstreet Boys kind of thing. We got a two-album deal with Epic Records, but it fell through. It was horrible. We lost our A&R guy because he got promoted to president of the company. One week it was, "You're fantastic, we can't wait to work with you!" The next week, it was, "Boys, we can't use you." I learned a lot about recording and stuff from that, which was cool. But it took me out of the acting business for a while and I had to kind of start over again. In L.A., you're only as hot as your last job.
TM: You played Buddy, the fundamentalist Christian guy, in the L.A. production of The Last Session.
JEFF: I loved that show. It was interesting for me to play Buddy because, when I was a kid, I thought I was going to grow up to become a minister of music at some Southern Baptist church. I was brought up as a Southern Baptist--sort of like Buddy, but not that freaky. I'm still a Christian. The Last Session really meant a lot to me because it says things that I'd like to say to so many Christians. Sometimes, I feel like I want to slap them in the face for being so judgmental and giving the rest of us a bad name.
TM: How did I Sing! happen for you?
JEFF: In L.A., I was dating a girl named Christine Lincoln for about five years; she was the tomboy on Step by Step, the youngest daughter. We broke up this past October. I never auditioned for any tours or any shows in New York while we were together, because I wasn't about to leave her. Relationships and friends are way more important to me than my career. After the breakup, I went to Chicago to do Big River again for awhile. Then I came back to L.A., excited to start things up again. But all of my friends who saw Big River told me, "Jeff, you should be in New York. You should be doing musical theater." Though TV is very lucrative, musical theater has always been more important to me than anything else. I thought, "Maybe I should go to New York. I don't have anything tying me to L.A. anymore." So I made the move. I had signed with the Peter Strain Agency in L.A., partly because I knew they had a great New York office. I had two auditions in the first week and a half that I was out here. One of them was I Sing! and I booked it.
TM: The show seems to have a big advertising budget.
JEFF: They've got some solid investors. I think it's really amazing what the authors have done at such a young age, and I like singing the show. I didn't actually read any of the reviews, but I had one or two of them read to me over the phone. The cast has tried to laugh about it; nobody's taking it personally. Morale is good. It helps that we all like each other a lot.
TM: Is it a challenge for you to create sympathy for your character, Nicky? I mean, he's this very young, healthy, good-looking investment banker who's not really happy with his life.
JEFF: It's harder now than it was, because they cut a big number of mine during previews. I had a 10-minute song in the first act that didn't progress the plot, but it was a good song for the character. It made the audience understand Nicky's struggle a little bit better. I don't think he's a total jerk. He gets what he deserves at the end of the show, but I hope people realize that he's confused and he's got to figure out his life. What the show is about--which I don't think everybody had gotten--is how we kids in our early 20s try so hard to be these cool adults but, sometimes, we're just spoiled babies. As mature as we think we are, we're the complete opposite of mature in most situations.
TM: How is the show doing at the box-office?
JEFF: I think we're going to run through August, and they're going to see how many tickets they can sell beyond that. We have a new ad campaign that features me in the red Speedo. I've been working hard on my body, because I don't want to look bad in that thing! I think I look much better now than I did when we started, so I wish the pictures were taken now instead of then.
TM: Whenever I see an actor nude or wearing something very revealing in a show, I wonder what kind of negotiations were involved.
JEFF: Well...there were negotiations! The costume guy came to me and said, "Jeff, do you have any objection to wearing a jockstrap on stage?" I said, "You know what? I think my ass should be covered." So he gave me the Speedo and, when I tried it on, it was see-through. You could see everything. I was so embarrassed! I said, "This song is no longer about anything but my penis." He said, "I think it'll be okay, because we want to paint this flame on the crotch, so it won't be transparent." I said, "That's good!"
TM: I Sing! has certainly given you lots of exposure, in every sense of the word. Do you know what your next career move might be?
JEFF: I'm not sure. To be honest, I'm gonna feel like I made it when I'm driving my kids to soccer practice in my truck with a Golden Retriever in the back. Whether I'm still in this business or not, that will make me happy. I feel like I'm ready to be a man, ready for responsibility. In show business, you tend to feel like a kid because you're between jobs so often. Whenever things have been slow for me acting-wise, I've gone back to school. While I was in L.A., I was a public speaking major at Cal State; I love communications, rhetoric, debate, and all that stuff. I'll finish my degree eventually, but the acting has really taken over. Jobs keep pulling me here and there, so I figure I'll just ride it out.
TM: When you do get married and begin a family, do you think you'll leave the business?