Q&A: Former Omahan John Lloyd Young on ‘Jersey Boys,’ working with Clint Eastwood

19/06/2014 by By Bob Fischbach for omaha.com

Clint Eastwood, John Lloyd Young, Erich Bergen

Clint Eastwood, from left, Erich Bergen and John Lloyd Young on the set of Warner Bros. Pictures’ musical “Jersey Boys. The big-screen adaptation of the hit Broadway musical “Jersey Boys” is Eastwood’s 12th film as a director since turning 70. (AP Photo/Keith Bernstein)

For John Lloyd Young, the acting bug bit at the Omaha Community Playhouse in the late 1980s, under the tutelage of stage veterans Mary Peckham, Dick Boyd and director Charles Jones. His Air Force dad was stationed at Offutt Air Force Base back then, and he did some acting in commercials as well.

This week, Young stars in director Clint Eastwood’s movie version of “Jersey Boys,” which earned him best-actor Tony, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle and Theatre World Awards in 2006. In both the Broadway musical smash (still running nearly nine years later) and the movie, he was cast as Frankie Valli, lead singer of the 1960s pop group The Four Seasons. Valli’s trademark soaring falsetto helped sell hits such as “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like a Man” and “Rag Doll.” The Broadway album went platinum and won a Grammy.

Young has gone on to a coast-to-coast singing career, including a gig at Carnegie Hall, singing Marius in “Les Misérables” at the Hollywood Bowl and releasing several CDs. In November he was named to the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. He has performed in “Jersey Boys” more than 1,300 times, including in London’s West End and in a limited return engagement on Broadway.

We caught up to him by phone in Toronto, touring to promote the movie, which opens nationwide Friday.

Q. Where do you call home these days, and how’s life?

John Lloyd Young: Life is great. I live in L.A. now, which is great when you need to get out of bed and go to the movie set.

Q. Can you tell me about the casting process for the movie role of Frankie Valli? I know Jon Favreau was attached as director at one time.

JLY: When Clint Eastwood got attached, I had just coincidentally been asked to come back and do “Jersey Boys” on Broadway a second time. I had heard Eastwood was going around the country seeing versions of “Jersey Boys,” getting a sense of the show. I also heard (movie director) Darren Aronofsky was going to interview him at a movie screening at a New York film festival. I snuck into the screening and took a notepad to jot down what Eastwood said. The next day at my matinee, I had a hunch he might be there. Word came back right before we started that the audience was giving him a standing ovation.

John Lloyd Young as Frankie Valli

John Lloyd Young as Frankie Valli in Warner Bros. Pictures’ musical “Jersey Boys”. (AP Photo/Courtesy Keith Bernstein)

Q. That must have been nerve-racking.

JLY: Actually, not. Having done the show, and lived with the legacy of being the original guy (playing Frankie Valli), I felt that no matter what happened, I was so proud to be doing something I knew I was good at for someone I admired so much. I wasn’t nervous at all. It was a very joyful performance. He came up onstage briefly afterward. The next time I saw him, I had been cast and was on the set. I didn’t even have to audition. I just had to do the show for the man directing.

Q. The role of Frankie Valli calls for playing a broad age range. Do you think your age played a factor in your being cast? (He is 38.)

JLY: Not necessarily. I do think the fact that I had aged and experienced more in my life made the later stages of the story easier to access. I had more life experience. Clearly on film, which is a much more intimate medium, it’s much harder to lie. To show that world-weariness — I’ve been through some things in my career, including the duality, the heartache side of it. So I hope it’s more authentic.

Q. I was surprised to see so many unfamiliar faces in key roles in the movie. How did you feel about Eastwood casting a lot of people who have done “Jersey Boys” onstage?

JLY: I felt like it was a really brave and bold choice. Two things going on with this movie, independent of who’s cast: One, it’s been seen by 19 million people. Two, it’s Clint Eastwood’s next movie. People will want to see it. He had the latitude to cast actors not as familiar to audiences.

On the level of believing the characters, it helps to have them be unknowns, not from a franchise movie or a sitcom. And economically he was able to work at his pace and do a musical movie at his pace, which is lightning speed. The shoot was under 40 days. Everybody knew their roles cold. Clint put the camera out front and captured what was honed onstage. I had worked in “Jersey Boys” on Broadway with Erica (Piccininni, who plays Valli’s girlfriend), Norm Waxman (who plays a loan shark) and Mark Lotito as (songwriter-keyboardist) Bob Gaudio’s father.

Q. Eastwood is known as a director of few takes. Was that a concern for you going into the shoot?

JLY: I was a little nervous about that. I figured I might need more because of my inexperience in a studio movie. But I found I was able to bring my performance down pretty quickly. Clint put me at ease immediately. I told myself it was logical feeling Eastwood had confidence in the performance. Why else would he cast me? So I was not nervous.

Q. Any thoughts about how the musical changed as it was adapted for the screen?

JLY: It’s a Clint Eastwood movie through and through, the drama and the grit. But also the exhilaration that stage audiences go nuts for. I know this show very well. It was so interesting to sit and watch it, knowing every line, and yet the experience couldn’t be more different. It’s its own thing, and yet it retains the exciting elements of the show people see onstage.

Q. Film acting is quite different from a large Broadway house. How did you prepare?

JLY: I had been studying film acting between jobs all along. Every stage actor wants to do film. So I had been ready for that for a long time. I had done a comedy with Lainie Kazan a few years before, so I had some movie experience. And Eastwood is a master director. They did “Casablanca” on that soundstage, so it was very heady. But I’d spent 15 years acting, training, consolidating what I was learning in preparation for the opportunity to do the role.

Q. Heading into filming, what did you see as the biggest challenge?

JLY: I anticipated certain stagecraft issues. For example, I know I can have an impact with a live audience — like turning downstage toward them on a line to give it more emotional impact. That worked so well onstage. So the day we shot that scene, I (told Eastwood I) didn’t know how to translate that to film. He had me do the exact same thing. He said your instincts serve you well.

Q. Now that the movie’s done, what are some of your favorite moments in it?

JLY: I really love the aging of the character. The camera’s right there, so it’s much more noticeable than onstage. It’s fun to do as an actor, to gradually age Frankie. And it’s fun to watch for me. I also loved the relationship with these other guys I’d never worked with onstage. And of course the surprise ending.

Q. Do you have a behind-the-scenes story of working with Eastwood?

JLY: We were shooting a scene late in the Four Seasons’ stage career, when Frankie is successful and living in a slinky Fifth Avenue apartment. Between (camera) setups, I was sitting in a chair waiting, and I heard a really familiar theme on the grand piano in the room. After a few bars, I realized it was the theme from “Mystic River” (a movie Eastwood directed). Eastwood was on set by himself. While everyone else was taking a break, he was playing a theme he himself had composed. It was a beautiful moment. But then some yahoo actor got on the piano after him and started playing Joplin’s “The Entertainer” or something. (Laughter.) It completely ruined the moment.

Q. You didn’t grow up in Jersey. What was it like shooting in Frankie Valli’s childhood neighborhood?

JLY: He was right there with us. I felt a great degree of reverence for that moment. There was a moment outside his (former) home in the projects when we sat down on his stoop, and he told me stories — pointing out where his girlfriend lived, the neighbors by name, getting sentimental about his own life. He was literally beside himself, since I was playing him. It was a really wonderful moment. I think it was the most sentimental I’ve seen him.

Q. What are your current projects?

JLY: I just finished a CD of music from the period of the Four Seasons, “My Turn.” It’s on iTunes and will soon be on Amazon. It’s R&B from the ’60s, songs I’ve loved. People ask me for songs from that period when I’ve been singing live all over the country.

I’m also serving on the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities. Within the next few months I’m coming back with (“Harold & Kumar” actor) Kal Penn to work next door to you in Iowa, working with kids in five schools around the Des Moines area. It’s a groundbreaking initiative called Turnaround Arts, taking some of the lower-performing public schools and integrating the arts into their curriculums as a way to improve academic performance and school culture.

Q. Do you ever get back to Omaha?

JLY: I haven’t been back since I lived there. Maybe on a trip to Des Moines I can sneak over there. I still know some folks there. 

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