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INTERVIEW: John Lloyd Young, Erich Bergen, and Michael Lomenda on Jersey Boys

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For his new film Jersey Boys, legendary director Clint Eastwood translates the blockbuster jukebox musical about the rise and fall (and rise) of singer Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons from the stage (where it's been a global phenomenon since its debut in 2006) to the big screen. When it came time to fill out the cast of his celluloid songsters, Eastwood didn't wander too far from the project's stage roots, selecting veteran players from the many lives of Jersey Boys for three of the leads: Tony-winning John Lloyd Young, who originated the role on Broadway, as Valli, and actors Erich Bergen and Michael Lomenda as singer/writer Bob Gaudio and bassist Nick Massi, respectively. (Boardwalk Empire's Vincent Piazza plays group founder Tommy DeVito).

I had the chance to talk with Young, Bergen, and Lomenda during their swing through the San Francisco Bay Area promoting the film, and one thing that became amply clear with all of them was how surreal it was to be in the middle of a whirlwind that's seen them rocket from relative obscurity to headlining a movie directed by Clint Eastwood. In addition to reminiscing about previous visits to the city, I talked to them about the play's long journey from conception to completion, what it was like to perform a play when you know Clint Eastwood is in the audience watching, and the experience of making the movie after doing it for so long on stage. Read on for the transcript of our conversation:

So, how are you guys doing? How is the tour going?

Erich Bergen: Good. This is it, this is the last stop, today.

I was thinking as I was parking, you guys are living what your characters were living in the film.

Bergen: Better hotel accommodations.

John Lloyd Young: Except, Warner Bros. is paying for our rooms. We're not paying off a million dollars of debt to the mob.

Bergen: Yes, and we are sort of going out and telling this story now, and living that a little bit. And Michael and I were actually on tour with Jersey Boys, the stage version. I opened the tour here and he closed the tour here in San Fran. So, we've all lived versions of the art that we're imitating in various ways.

So, you guys all did the stage tour. You did not do it at the same time.

Michael Lomenda: No. We knew of each other. My first introduction to Jersey Boys was seeing John Lloyd on the Tonys, winning his Tony Award, and seeing their performance on the Tonys.

Young: I never did the tour. I did the Broadway version.

And the last time you did it was five years ago, I believe?

Young: I did the first two years, and then after several years away, I was asked back to do it, and so I did for a few months at the end of 2012, beginning of 2013, and that's when Clint came and saw it. And I just did it again in London after we wrapped the movie. They asked me to do six weeks in London.

When you were doing it the first time, did it even enter onto your radar that you would be starring in the film version?

Young: I say yes, not out of any sort of retroactive presumptuousness or arrogance or anything. I say yes only because when the show was becoming a big hit on Broadway, Hollywood started to really try to compete for the rights to it. So much to an extent that I was a neophyte actor making his Broadway debut, and I was at the opening of a Hollywood film in New York, and one of the major studio heads came up to me at a party and cornered me and said, "You have to convince [one of our writers] Marshall Brickman to give us the film rights." So, yes, right in the beginning, I thought, "Wow, they are all over this movie, and this cast, we could end up in it." But, that didn't happen.

It grew into this international hit over several years. No one really got the movie that early on. Something happened, I think probably Bob Gaudio and Frankie Valli, who are now executive producers, were holding out for some more involvement or something. So, it was several years later that, finally, in 2010, that Graham King, who was our originating producer, won the rights in a bidding war, and then it started to ramp up to the point that, by the time I was back on Broadway and Clint was attached, he was able to see me. So, Michael, who was on tour, and Eric Bergen just has a reputation for being the best Bob Gaudio - according to the real Bob Gaudio. So, when Clint was casting, Clint told me this on set that he asked Bob Gaudio, "Who is the most like you?" and Bob said, "Erich Bergen."

Wow, that's high praise.

Bergen: Yeah, it is. It's also one of those things where, I mean, thank God he said that, because I wasn't seen by Clint and the producers. I was no longer in the show, and if you ask any actor, "Did you ever think...blah blah blah," and they can sit back and say, "Well, you know, I always felt..." But, I think, as actors, we all go through that back-and-forth of yes and no every day, right? We sit there and we go after a job that we want.

When they started auditioning for this movie, I said to my agents, "How do we just make sure that I'm really seen, and how do we campaign for this, and how do we do it?" But, if I hadn't got the job, if it had gone to someone else, they'd be saying the same thing, and I would be sitting back, going, "Well, I'm very happy with my next thing." So, you sort of make light of whatever happens to you.

Young: But, aren't you glad we don't have to see someone else play these roles that we love so much? Someone else do them? I'm so relieved.

Bergen: Correct. By the way, I saw great actors play my role who would have been wonderful. I was picked to do it, but I don't know. I just know that, yes, I wanted it, yes, I thought I really have a shot at this, yes, I think I was the best person for the role, but did I ever think it would actually happen? Like, really actually happen? I don't know. I don't know. I want to say, "Yeah, I always felt." But, I don't know.

Young: Even having won a Tony Award for the original production, and being on the cast album of the original production, presuming that you would get the role, period, feels almost just like you'll jinx yourself. I even thought, "Who am I to decide who the studio is going to choose?" I just hoped that whoever they choose is not really bad, so that I don't have to spend the rest of my life looking at this legacy that I started with an original cast, and say, "God, if only they had let me play it, I could have shown them this or this or this, and instead, they made a mistake." So, I'm happy that I don't have to know what that feels like.

Bergen: Not to be in the position of Carol Channing when they remade Hello, Dolly! into a film with Barbra Streisand...

Young: Or how about the most famous one ever, Julie Andrews with My Fair Lady.

Bergen: Right. And you know what Carol says about Hello, Dolly!? "What do you think about the movie of Hello, Dolly!" and she goes "Is there a movie? I didn't know there was a movie." So, I'm glad we don't have to...

You don't have to get that line out there.

Bergen: No, not so much.

Young: She ended up doing fine for herself, because she got an Oscar nomination for Thoroughly Modern Millie, and Julie Andrews then won an Oscar for Sound of Music. It ended alright for them.

Bergen: And there are people who didn't get these parts that go to the next thing. It's one of those things where, at the end of the day, it is a job, and it's a career-making job, and we love it, but we're all ready to do whatever comes next.

Young: You know what's even more rare? An actor of the thousands, the tens of thousands of actors who are professional actors who hold union cards, so they're professional actors. Of the tens of thousands of actors that are out there, there are only a few dozen of us who get to say that we played lead roles for Clint Eastwood and it doesn't even really matter that it was Jersey Boys. That's its own thing.

That was actually my next question, and it really is for all three of you, but John and Michael, you knew Clint Eastwood was in the audience, watching you. What was the immediate emotion that you feel at that moment?

Lomenda: I refused to believe that that was actually happening. It wasn't until I saw a picture that one of our swing sent that he had taken in the lobby with Mr. Eastwood, that I sort of had to realize it was true. Frankly, the movie was really off my radar. I thought it had already been cast. I thought that he was just there brushing up before he started shooting, and so I met him backstage, obviously, thrilled to meet a legendary icon.

But, I shook hands and I didn't expect to get a call a couple of weeks later to audition. I'm Canadian, with limited-to-no film or TV experience, and so honestly, this is literally just the most crazy thing that's ever happened to me in my entire life. And then, to then get that call saying that I was going to be working with Mr. Eastwood, it was just mindblowing in every way. And, to be honest with you, ever since that call, every single experience with this whole movie has been that way for me. It's just far beyond anything I could have fathomed. So, I'm just grateful for it all.

Young: When Clint got attached, well, through the years, after originating the Broadway production and winning the awards and watching it, over the years, become a hit all across the English-speaking world, hearing of the movie here and there over the years, my emotions would go up and down, because no matter what, first of all, it's a privilege for any actor to become well-associated with a role, or to be starring in a hit show or whatever. When, before, you were just a struggling actor like everybody else, right? Suddenly, you're well-known.

Then, you start to realize you have a legacy in something and it starts to grow all over the world, and it's a strange feeling to see it come together and change in ways, and then to know that you have no control over what happens with the movie and yet, in my case, I wanted to make my legacy permanent somehow and do the role, if I could, but I had to spend a lot of years as the movie was coming up, and then it was going down. It was, "Are people going to make it?" Then, it wasn't going to be made.

After awhile, I became used to the idea that I have no control, and I know that it's gonna be awkward to have to see someone else come, to give the baton to someone else and watch them play this role for posterity. But, I came to a point where I accepted that possibility and I was very calm about it. It took awhile, but I got there. By the time that Clint was attached, I got to that point where I just felt the equanimity. So, when I found out Clint was in the audience, I knew, "Well, this is what's going to either get me the part or not. I have no control over it."

I know I'm good in this role on stage. I've seen audiences react to my performance on-stage, by that point, for about 1,200 times, and I'm just really joyful. I felt just joyful that this guy, who's got dominion in Hollywood and clearly is a leader in his territory, was seeing me in the one thing in my life, so far, where I knew was in my territory, playing Frankie Valli on stage, on Broadway, and I felt, this is great. Whatever happens will happen, but how wonderful to show Clint Eastwood how at-home I am in this role, today, for this two-hour performance.

And, Erich, what's your Clint Eastwood story?

Bergen: Who? (laughs) Every time you say it, it's always like, "Why are you asking me? Oh right." It's still a lot to get used to. I think what I will always take from working with Clint was that he let us be us. I didn't know what to think. I never thought I would be in a Clint Eastwood movie. I always loved Clint Eastwood films.

That's not something most people think.

Bergen: No! I also wasn't one of those actors, like, I remember when I was in college for acting, every guy wanted to be Marlon Brando and every guy wanted to do these gritty, masculine things. I was like, that is just not my speed. I just came from a different world. So, as much as I loved Clint Eastwood films, it wasn't on my bucket list. So, I knew nothing. I truly knew nothing about going to work with him, other than his finished products.

Working with him, I was so thrilled to find out, first of all, how much fun he is, but what I will always take away is the confidence he instilled in me. Because, I walked on that set with the mindset of, "How do I please the director?" What he gave back to us was, "You don't have to worry about pleasing me. We're all making a movie here together." And, the reason why he hired us, specifically the three of us but even including Vincent [Piazza], was what we did either in the audition room or what he saw us do on stage.

That's why we got the job. So, for us to all of a sudden do something different now made no sense, and to instill in us the confidence to just continue doing what we had always done, that's something that I never had any director give me before. I'm so used to being micromanaged.

Young: "You're good enough. That's the thing. You're not only good enough, but you're the best one, and I chose you." Being chosen by Clint Eastwood, when he can have any actor he wants in the world in his films and he chose unknowns, 'cause he liked our performances, how can you not rise to the occasion?

Bergen: Yeah, that's definitely what I will take away. I was talking to Mike Doyle, who plays Bob Crewe in this film, and Mike's one of these guys that you might not know his name but he's been in everything. He's that guy from everything. One day, on set, we were sitting in the back of one of those golf carts on set, and I said to him, "Alright, what is your greatest experience, of all the things you've ever done? What was your best film or show or whatever?" and he said, "This."

I said, "You can't be serious. Really? After all of everything? This, what we're doing right now, is your greatest?" And, he said, because I forget who of us, there were a couple of us in the car, and he said, "You guys don't know what you're doing. You have no clue how important this is. You have no clue how good this is. You are spoiled rotten with this, and it is all downhill from here."

Hopefully not! (Laughs)

Bergen: (Laughs) No, he didn't mean that literally, but in the sense that...

It's a pretty good entrée into everything.

Bergen: If this guy, who has been in everything, is telling me that, just from his experience on this film, that this is the best, most fun experience he's ever had, then I don't know if we'll ever be able to fully take in what we've done until maybe years from now.

Lloyd: I have friends from the South that have an expression that I think is very charming: "We fell into the honey pot."

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Many thanks to John Lloyd Young, Erich Bergen, and Michael Lomenda for their time. Jersey Boys is now playing in a theater near you. For the audio of this conversation, listen to the latest episode of the MovieFilm Podcast at this link or via the embed below: