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David Alan Grier Interview: Tony-Nominated 'Porgy And Bess' Star On Broadway vs Hollywood

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This is one in a series of nominee snapshots in the lead-up to the Tony Awards Sunday night.

"In Living Color" star David Alan Grier could win a Tony Award this Sunday for his role as the seductive pimp Sportin' Life in "The Gershwin's Porgy and Bess." It's a return to form for Grier, a Yale Drama School graduate better known for his comedy than his dramatic pedigree. The sweeping remake of George Gershwin's classic put Grier on stage with an experienced cast and a director willing to anger purists, a mix that paid off with 10 nominations for the show, second only to "Once" (which got 11).

For his part, Grier clearly more than held his own, revealing a surprising pair of pipes, and a sensibility for Sportin' Life's salesman appeal. He sat down with us at a recent Tonys junket to talk about his big return, Broadway versus Hollywood, and the terrible theater he almost did just to get back on stage.

How are you doing?
Wonderful. Isn’t today great? Because you never have to say sorry. There’s never the non-nominees.

No, it’s true. It’s all happy people.
It is, it is.

Well first off, congratulations.
Thank you.

How did you hear the news?
I got up and I put on ESPN because I felt that would be an outlet which would not be invaded by the Tonys, that they wouldn’t be like, ‘Oh my god, breaking news! Ten nominations! And now back to the Lakers.’ So I was watching that and eating breakfast and then I turned my phone on and the first text was one of my good friends Allison Blackwell, who’s in the show with me. She called me and we were just screaming, hollering and crying, and then there was a pause and I said, ‘I think I just blew my voice out.’ So we’re like, ‘Yes, hang up. I’ll see you at the theater.’

Your career has taken you away from the stage and back to it. How has that experience redefined your theater work?
At this point in my career, to come back to Broadway and to be able to do a new play by David Mamet (“Race”) and then to follow it up with this production of “Porgy And Bess” with this creative team, um, I had to do it. I’ll just put it like that. When I heard about the production, I said if there’s any way, I have to be involved. So it’s like icing on the cake to rediscover this aspect of my career at this point in my life. I just love it. I mean, I hear, ‘welcome home,’ ‘welcome back,’ when I come to New York to do plays, which is awesome. You don’t hear that in Hollywood. In Hollywood you hear, ‘What happened?’ ‘Where were you?’ ‘Were you here yesterday?’ ‘Where’s your car parked?’

And they’re both such juicy roles. What was it that worked for you in both of them?
David Mamet [has been] a hero since I was in acting school. I read the play -- it was one of these characters I knew I could play, I just had to get to it.

I was doing a workshop with Philip Boykin and Diane Paulus (Boykin acts in “Porgy and Bess” and Paulus directed it) at the Public, of “Winter’s Tale.” Jeffrey Richards come to the stage reading. He called David Mamet and said, ‘I think I found an actor who can do your play.’

I thought when I auditioned it was my brilliant reading that did it, but there were so many other things which led to me working with Diane on this. The greatest thing that someone said to me yesterday was Jeffrey Richards, our lead producer, goes, ‘I promised you a Tony every time we work together. I delivered.’

You’ve worked in so many different genres of entertainment. Have you ever felt that people tried to pigeonhole you at all?
I’ve tried actively to define myself and redefine myself, and not be pigeonholed. I do what feels right and not really, ‘Oh I shouldn’t do a musical following a musical,’ you know, that kind of stuff.

Do you enjoy one type of acting more than another?
I wanted and tried to get back to Broadway for years, in bad ill-fated productions, cheesy staged readings, always with the promise, ‘It’s going to Broadway! Next week! At the end of the day! We’re signing the contract!’ Luckily none of those things came to fruition. The chips fell the way they did and here I am.

Finally, is there a show you’ve seen this year aside from “The Gershwin's Porgy and Bess” that you’d recommend to our readers?
“Venus In Furs” was kickass. I recommend it to everyone.

Gazelle Emami and Brad Balfour contributed to this piece.

WATCH David Alan Grier sing 'It Aint Necessarily So' In "Porgy And Bess":