On Your Mark
Television star Mark-Paul Gosselaar discusses making his stage debut in Theresa Rebeck's The Understudy.
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.
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.
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.