Aaron Tveit Goes Undercover On “Graceland” — But He’s Not Leaving Broadway Behind

On USA Network’s Graceland, Aaron Tveit has found his first starring role on television, but Broadway audiences have known about him for years from his work in musicals like Next to Normal and Catch Me If You Can. Tveit talks about making the transition from theater to TV, and why he’s not turning his back on Broadway.

On Graceland, Mike (Tveit) is right-hand man to Bello (Gbenga Akinnagbe) while undercover. Bob Mahoney/USA Network

TV audiences are just getting to know Aaron Tveit on Graceland, USA Network’s freshman series about a team of undercover law enforcement officers living together in a beach house. But Tveit’s name recognition has been rising for the past few years, especially among theatergoers who were wowed by his roles as Gabe in Next to Normal and Frank Abagnale, Jr. in Catch Me If You Can. His crossover to film and TV began with guest spots on Gossip Girl and The Good Wife, and last year, he played Enjolas in the big-screen adaptation of Les Misérables.

I spoke to Tveit about making the move from live theater to a TV series, why Graceland spoke to him, and how he’s adjusting to life off the stage.

Mike surveys the scene. Jeff Daly/USA Network

I want to start off with a very basic question, which is, what first drew you to Graceland and the role of Mike?

Aaron Tveit: You know, I’d just finished doing Catch Me If You Can on Broadway, and it was the first time in a few years that I wasn’t attached to another Broadway show. So I knew that I was completely available for the first time, and I didn’t really have a plan that television would be the next thing, but I basically said, whatever I read that I like, I’m just gonna go for that.

I had read the script. The script was sent early, I think in October, so pilot season hadn’t even started yet, but I read it and I absolutely loved it. A lot of the guest star work that I’d done on television before, I kind of had always played some not-so-nice guys. I kind of came in and acted like an asshole and whatever, which was great for what it was, but I really liked how I thought Mike was a nice guy with a really great set of morals and right and wrong. He saw things as black and white. And then knowing what I knew about undercover work, there was a lot of room there for potential conflict later on. Since he had a sound moral structure, that he would definitely be pushed throughout the work, and there was room for him to either change or not based on what was gonna happen in the season. And also, I thought right away all the relationships in the pilot were very clearly defined, which is hard sometimes. And I was a fan of White Collar. I read a lot of stuff that’s not great, so to read something that’s good was really exciting, especially really one of the first things that I’d read.

And also, I was like, listen, if the thing goes to series, it’s gonna shoot by a beach somewhere, so that’s not a bad job to have.

No, that’s a great perk. In terms of doing a weekly series, did you have any reservations about taking on a TV show, which is obviously a different time commitment?

AT: No, I didn’t! I was really excited for it. I mean, I was intrigued and excited for the challenge. When you work on a movie or when you work on a play, you have one script and you do all this work on it and you do it for a long time, but this is like, you get to go through that process every week. Every week you get a new script, you get a new story to tell. And also, I think because of what I was just saying, what I was immediately drawn to about the character, I saw there was room for growth and room for change, and I was excited to hopefully go on that journey with this guy and these people to see how it could change. And, you know, I’m a huge fan of television myself. I watch a lot of TV, so I was excited to be a part of that from the other side; you really get to learn who these people are and how their stories evolve much more on television.

Mike works alongside Briggs (Daniel Sunjata), the fellow agent he’s been assigned to investigate. Jeff Daly/USA Network

Past the script, what conversations did you have with the writers about the character of Mike before you began filming?

AT: That’s the other great thing about this show — and about Jeff Eastin and the other writers — they really encourage collaboration, encourage us to bring our own ideas to these people, which is not always the case. A lot of stuff you go on, they want you to be exactly word perfect on what’s written, and they really encourage us to kind of ad-lib dialogue and really bring ourselves to it.

So we had a lot of conversations about Mike’s backstory for me. I remember Jeff and I had a conversation before we shot the pilot, and I said, I want to talk to you — I wanted to pick his brain about what he thought Mike’s life was before this, where he came from. Because you hear all these things like number-one in your class, but I was doing a lot of research about what that really means to be number- one in your class at the FBI Academy, because nowadays, the people who go to the FBI Academy already have college degrees, already have master’s degrees. These are really, really smart people. So I kind of was trying to build up where Mike came from, and I had this idea that he wasn’t from some upper-crust rich family, that maybe he had to work his whole life to get where he got. So we basically bounced a lot of ideas off of each other, and it was interesting. There was a lot of overlap of what we had thought. Some of that has bled out in the story about where Mike has come from, but I wanted to hold a lot of that back and not tell a lot, so hopefully more will come out later. But he was really super-encouraging about that, and then also, really every script to ask questions and give my ideas about what I thought changes could be. And that’s a really rewarding experience because you feel like you’re being heard and affecting the story, too.

You talked a little bit about being able to show Mike’s development throughout the season. I was curious how you distinguish playing him in his off hours versus playing him when he’s undercover, when he does have to be a lot darker.

AT: I was constantly thinking of ways instead of telling — because they say all these things about how smart Mike is and how good of a potential agent he is, so I was constantly looking for ways for that to come through. And I thought one way would be that basically — it’s really great in the show that I get to have scenes with everyone. I have this really interesting relationship with Juan, who’s kind of my point person at the FBI. The relationship with Bello develops. It’s a really interesting relationship, and a really close relationship. And I have this relationship with Briggs. I basically wanted to have Mike deal with everyone differently. I thought that that would be a way to tell that story, and yeah, it’s interesting. The thing with Briggs is really complicated obviously, but with Bello, it’s like, yeah, I know this guy’s a bad guy, but I really like the guy. I kind of have compromised a lot of my beliefs to stick around and keep the investigation going with him. So, yeah, I tried to just really deal with everyone completely differently, and I thought that would be a way to show how Mike is different in every circumstance that he steps into. That’s kind of the way that I looked at it, or tried to look at it.

As you said, the relationship with Briggs is very complicated. At this point, do you think that Mike’s loyalties have shifted, or is he still doing the job he’s supposed to be doing?

AT: I think it goes back and forth. The most recent episode is when I walked out of Juan’s office and said I’m not gonna do this, when I found out he had these ulterior motives of why he was going after Briggs. And I thought about this while we were shooting — and the next couple episodes, you’ll see this more and more — I don’t think that Mike ever thinks that Briggs is a bad guy. I don’t think that Mike thought [Briggs] was out to hurt anyone. He got caught up in this, and he got thrown into this situation where they made him this drug user, so I think he was painted into a corner and trying to get out. All these things happen and there was collateral damage, but I never thought he was a bad guy. So from that, ultimately I’m trying to help him. That’s how the investigation shifts a little bit. I think once I find out what’s really going on, I’m not trying to nail him to the wall. I’m trying to get the guy help. At least that’s what I told myself. So I think that it kind of changes that I start to then seek out how to help him, how to get him out of the situation, which ultimately may be turning him in but in the guise of him finally getting some help.

With Graceland co-star Vanessa Ferlito at the 2013 Winter TCA Tour. Frederick M. Brown / Getty

OK, as a fan of your musical theater work, I have to ask — have there been any discussions about how to get Mike to do a full musical theater number on Graceland?

AT: [laughs] A lot of people have asked me that, but no, we haven’t talked about it. I think it’s a funny idea. I really don’t know…

Tonally, it might not work.

AT: That’s the thing. It would be funny, but I can’t see how they would fit it in, just with the rest of it.

I mean, do you miss that? Or do you just view Graceland as a different kind of job?

AT: It’s just different, yeah. I definitely miss singing when I’m not singing. But we finished shooting the show in March, and I did six concerts in New York in May, so that was a time where I was like, I miss singing, I’m just gonna do this myself, I have an opportunity, I’m gonna put a show together. That was a tremendous success, and I was so fulfilled by that. I have an album that’s coming out because of that — we made a live album of that. So yeah, I definitely miss it when I’m not doing it, but something like that, I’ve found other ways to do it myself when I’m not.

That’s great. You see so many Broadway actors on TV, and it’s always a mixed blessing, because you want to see more of them but you also want to see them performing on stage.

AT: I definitely miss being on stage. One nice thing about Graceland, too, is — hopefully we run a few years, but it’s a cable schedule, so it’s only half a year. I have half a year feasibly to do other things and be on stage or do a movie or sing. It keeps me able to do a lot of different stuff, which is great for me.

Gabe (Tveit) and Dan (J. Robert Spencer) fight for Diana’s (Alice Ripley) attention in Next to Normal. theater.nytimes.com

Since we’re talking about theater, I have to ask about Next to Normal, which is one of my favorite musicals. I’m sure you get asked about it all the time.

AT: It’s tremendous to look back on it now. We opened on Broadway four years at this time, which is insane to think about, because it doesn’t seem like it was that long ago. It was great, because it was one of those things where we started off-Broadway; the show needed a little work but we all knew there was something there, something really special about it. It was received well off-Broadway, but not exactly in the way we thought it would be received. Then the fact that we all stuck with it and went out of town and then brought it back, and then when it opened on Broadway and people finally embraced it — granted, after we did the work that needed to be done on it — it was amazing. It was such a powerful show. So many people while we were doing it would come up to us and say, “Thank you, I have a family member who has a mental illness.” Mental illness in our country is something that people don’t like to talk about, so it was fascinating to be a part of that and see how many people were touched by that for that reason. And also that it was the first show that I had been in the original cast of and got to really work on that role for a few years beforehand, it was tremendously rewarding.

What I love about the character of Gabe is that different actors have very different approaches to him. Obviously you originated the role, but can you talk about what you were trying to accomplish there?

AT: I guess my main goal was just to get my dad to say hello to me, you know what I mean? I just wanted some kind of acknowledgment from my dad. That’s kind of what I made it about. Because ultimately that’s what happens at the end, so I guess it was a set-up for myself to get there.

But also, when I’m on stage, I end up always constructing five-act plays for myself… like, I had so many silent moments in that show, so many moments where I was just sending energy to Alice [Ripley] across the stage. But also the nature of how I was so physically everywhere on that set, I had created all these things where, in my head, Gabe was basically the puppet master making all these fucked-up things happen to this family. And I kind of just set that up for myself, like when I would literally physically touch a pole or touch the set that something else would happen because of it, almost like the set was like this organism, too, that this whole family was being revolved around and messed with. So I kind of built a lot of stuff like that around it, which just constantly kept me engaged and busy for myself, especially when I had so many moments when I wasn’t busy and just had to be there. So that’s kind of the way that I went for it.

And ultimately, there’s kind of a darkness to him, but I tried to approach it from the point of, I just want — yes, my dad to acknowledge me — but I wanted to be with my mom. I wanted her to not turn her back on me. I wanted to help her, even if that ultimately meant for her to commit suicide and be with me, but I thought that that was helping.

Tveit as Frank Abagnale, Jr. in Catch Me If You Can.

It’s a heavy show! I guess on a lighter note, you did Catch Me If You Can after that. That was a role people knew already, both from the real-life person and the movie. How did you go about making it your own?

AT: Yeah, I think because of the framework that we did that — it starts at the end, the show started at the end of the play — because of Frank [Abagnale] the real person and the character’s imagination, he has this idea. [Director] Jack O’Brien said something that always stuck with me: “It’s as if you were telling someone a story about your life, and you got to a point in the story that was really hard for you or painful, and then you just decided, you know what, I’m not gonna tell that part of the story. I’m gonna change it, or I’m gonna create something that’s not painful.” And that was kind of this image that always stuck in my head. Frank’s about to get caught at the end of the show, and he just says, “You know what, I’m just gonna try this,” and he kind of blows everything open, and then we go on this story but he tells it his way, until finally he can’t run away from his own story anymore, and it catches up to him in the end.

Because ultimately, I was dealing with the fact that it was this broken family and my father was dead, and I didn’t want to believe that my father was dead, so I just didn’t want to deal with it. So I just approached it that way, that I just wanted to try to get everyone to buy into my fantasy. I just wanted to everyone to believe in the story I was creating in my mind, and then ultimately in the end, I couldn’t run away from it anymore.

Obviously, there’s a major difference between going up on stage for three hours six nights a week and working long TV hours five days a week. How has your day-to-day life changed in transitioning from Broadway to Graceland?

AT: It’s interesting, because, yeah, when you’re doing a show on stage, you only work 27 hours a week or 30 hours a week, but it’s so physically and emotionally demanding in a way. And also, because literally, when I’m doing a show, every morning when I wake up I have to check and make sure my voice is there. Especially a show like Next to Normal or Catch Me If You Can, where I was singing the whole show and you kind of have to keep your voice there. Everything is like getting ready for the show and then recovering from the show to get ready for the next day. You only have one day off. Most people get two days off, which is like, one day you do everything you need to do, and then the second day you rest. But when you’re doing a show, you only have one day to do that.

But on the other hand, doing five months of a television shoot where you’re working 12, 14 hours a day — again, it’s five days a week so you do kind of have two days off, which is nice. But I approached it knowing, I knew how to keep my stamina up from doing theater work. So I kind of said, OK. I tried to treat it the same way. This is how I need to keep myself healthy and keep myself physically ready to work every day. It is a little different and working on set is a little easier than working on stage, but still, because I was used to working on stage, I was able to transition to those kind of long hours a little more easily.

Defending the barricade as Enjolras in Les Misérables. Universal Pictures

When you’re acting in Graceland or a film, how do you get what you would otherwise get from a live audience?

AT: Yeah, you can’t. That’s the thing. You really can’t. A television show, you might see it a couple months later. Movie, you see it a year later from when you shot it, and it’s like, “Oh, yeah, I remember when we did that.” But on set, if it’s a funny moment, no one can laugh, because everyone has to be quiet, and things like that. But that’s the thing about stage: It’s something you can’t find anywhere else. It’s a two-and-a-half, three hour experience, and it’s a real relationship. You’re sending out energy from the stage, but the audience is giving you back so much also, so that’s also lifting you and pushing you forward as you’re performing and giving you so much energy. You can’t find it anywhere else, and that’s why people get addicted to being on stage, and when they’re not on stage are kind of looking for that and constantly searching for it.

So you’re not turning your back on Broadway.

AT: Absolutely not. No.

Do you feel like TV and film is a goal for most Broadway actors, or is it just a matter of wanting to try different things?

AT: Yeah, I don’t know. For some people it may be, but it never was — I said before, I didn’t know what was going to be my next thing after Catch Me If You Can. I’ve been really, really fortunate in the last five years or so that I’ve gotten to work on stage, on television, and on film, which I think up until recently, you kind of got pigeonholed into one thing, so I’ve been really grateful that I’ve been able to do all three. And that’s really just my goal. I just wanted to have a career doing this, and I want to be able to just do that for the rest of my career, to go back and forth. I can’t wait to get back on stage. I don’t know what it’s going to be. I’ve said it before, but I’m excited ‘cause I know one day I’m going to walk into the rehearsals room for a new show and have to learn new music and learn the script, and that’s going to be really, really thrilling.

Now that you’re doing Graceland and you did the film adaptation of Les Miz, have you noticed a difference in terms of how often you’re getting recognized?

AT: A little bit, yeah. A little bit. Doing a lot of Broadway shows in New York and living in New York, there’s a lot of fans of Broadway shows, and I’ve had that experience of getting recognized on the street in New York, especially in the theater district. That’s something that has happened before, and now it seems to be in more places than it was before. Before, if I was walking to a show, walking to my show, of course people were going to see shows. But now it’s randomly on the subway or people who might not be theater fans. So it’s a little more frequent but similar to what it was before.

Mike and Bello get trapped in a dangerous situation on Graceland. Bob Mahoney/USA Network

Broadway fans are a special breed. Is there a difference in how they treat you as opposed to TV fans?

AT: No, I mean, everyone’s really great and really gracious. It’s a weird thing to get used to, at first, when people say that, but at the end of the day, it’s people who are just complimenting you on your work and happy with the work you’ve done, so it’s such a flattering thing. It’s really, really nice whenever it happens or has happened. So no, I haven’t noticed a big difference. Everyone’s really nice! [laughs] And I’m very happy for that, that it’s not the alternative.

You’re not on Twitter, though. There must be a reason for that.

AT: I kind of missed it when it started. I used to be on Facebook years and years ago. I was in college when Facebook started, so I had Facebook when it was just my college, and then it became, you can join the New York City network. But it was interesting. The whole thing with Facebook and social media — I started to be friends with directors and casting directors on Facebook that I knew in New York. And I kind of said to myself, wait a minute, I need to audition for these people, and they need to suspend some disbelief to who I am. So I just felt like them knowing anything about me or seeing pictures of me and my friends, well then, how do I walk into a room and convince them I’m someone else if they see me as this?

So that’s kind of why I went off Facebook originally. And then right as I was going off Facebook is when Twitter was starting, and I was like, why would I jump on something else right away? But now it’s like, I’m happy not to be on it. I know it’s great for information, the way that stuff happens there before it’s on CNN — it’s just instant information. But it’s also, I think there is something to still, that I would like to keep certain things private, and that if I’m not in the forefront and people aren’t seeing things about me, that hopefully they’ll be able to believe the work that I do more. I do believe that that’s true. And I think that that’s something that’s worked for me. And also, I’m not a comedian, I’m not a writer. Because of that, I don’t have things to say on a daily basis. It’s just a personal choice for me.

I mean, that’s kind of refreshing. I think a lot of actors feel pressured into doing it, and then they don’t have anything to say.

AT: Yeah, and I haven’t felt that I’ve missed anything by not being on it, so that’s something, too. If I felt that I was, then I probably would think about it again, but no, I don’t think it’s anything like that, so I’m happy not to be on it. And it also distances me, too, from a lot of stuff that’s been beneficial. It allows me to focus on — I became an actor because I love to do this. I wasn’t in this to get some notoriety. It might sound cliché, but I just wanted to work.

Graceland airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. on USA.

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