Tony Winner John Lloyd Young on Bringing a Taste of Jersey to London, Working with Clint Eastwood and More

19/03/2014 by Matt Wolf for

‘I’d rather have more work as an actor than some award on my shelf any day of the week.’

John Lloyd Young needs no introduction as the defining Frankie Valli in Jersey Boys, the international musical smash hit in which he has been starring off and on for almost nine years. He won a 2006 Tony Award for his performance on Broadway, returning to the New York production last year only then to be tapped by the director Clint Eastwood to star in the film version of the musical, due for release June 20. As if that weren’t enough, actor is currently leading the transfer of the Olivier Award-winning West End production from the Prince Edward to the Piccadilly Theatre. Is it possible to have too much of a good thing? Not a chance, as the personable performer explains to two performances into his six-week London engagement.

Your arrival on the West End is being heralded as the “best thing to ever happen to British theater since Shakespeare.”

Well, Shakespeare has evolved then, I guess—though I’ll tell you, there are moments in this show that reach Shakespearean heights.

It must be interesting performing this show in a land where the word “Jersey” has numerous meanings—a sweater or one of the Channel Islands, for starters—that have nothing to do with New Jersey.

And don’t forget the famously milk-producing Jersey cows! I suppose that I have so far felt a little bit with the English audience that there is a learning curve at the beginning of the show where they’re thinking, “What is this going to be?” But by the middle of the first act through to the end, they’re with it all the way.

Tell me about appearing alongside a British cast. Are you ever tempted to correct a rogue accent?

Not at all. I sometimes notice a little bit of a tinge of something here and there but nothing that in any way upsets the apple cart.

How does it feel to return to the show after being away for a bit?

It’s been like jumping back on a bicycle.

Between returning to the Broadway production last year and coming to London, you starred in the Clint Eastwood-directed film version.

That’s right, and I go directly from this London engagement to promoting the movie. The whole thing has been kismet.

What was it like reprising the part on film?

The most amazing thing right at the beginning was that I didn’t have to audition. What happened was that I was back in New York in the show for nine months, when Clint got attached to the project and started seeing the various Jersey Boys companies around the country, so he saw the show on Broadway when I happened to be in it—that was my de facto audition.

Did he say anything to you backstage afterward?

We said hello, but it was all very quick because he keeps things very close to the vest and so do I. I was polite and kept it short and thanked him for being there—and the next time I saw him was on set.

That’s amazing considering how infrequently stage stars are tapped to recreate their roles on film.

Yes, although as you can imagine when the idea of the movie came up, I did some research into Hollywood history to see what the chances were of my getting to do the role, and it appears that the performer who gets passed over most often is the female star whereas often times the male star has gotten to do the role—Rex Harrison with My Fair Lady or Robert Preston with The Music Man, among others.

So you had a sense of what your chances might be?

Let’s just say that some of the qualities that you might think disqualify you from a lot of things can also end up being the key to your career. For example, with Frankie Valli you’ve got to have a very specific Italian look and a high voice that can sing the part and a shorter stature and be slight of build. There’s a certain cocktail of qualities that you have to have and that limits the pool.

Did the movie feel like the stage show simply put up on the screen?

Well, because it’s written by Marshall [Brickman] and Rick [Elice], it’s very close in essence to what you’ve seen and know, but because it’s a film, it goes deeper. For instance, whereas we meet Frankie’s daughter once in the stage show, in the movie, she is played by three different actresses as she grows up.

What was it like being directed by Clint Eastwood?

Fast! We shot in 40 days, and our producer Graham King, who’s a Brit actually and did Argo, told me that he’s used to working with directors who talk fast and shoot slow and Clint was the first one who shoots fast and talks slow.

Some Oscar pundits are already touting you as a possible Best Actor nominee next year.

I haven’t even seen the movie yet, and I may even wait till the premiere, so I don’t have any clue what I’m going to think of it. But I do know what it felt like to be on set, and it felt as if we were getting really good things. Anything beyond that to do with awards is clearly out of my hands. I’d rather have more work as an actor than some award on my shelf any day of the week.

Do you see yourself returning to this role at regular intervals in years to come?

I don’t know. Frankie in our show does start at age 16 and it would be kind of awkward to be 50 and playing a 16-year-old. No disrespect to the Jersey Boys family at all, but I do hope to find some other roles as well.

Still, I bet your association with this role is going to be hard to top.

Perhaps, but I don’t really think of “topping” something in terms of finding a better role. What I do think of constantly is racking up life experience. I have other things in my life that are so fun for me like art and music. It’s about letting the universe present itself to me and taking the best out of what life has to offer.