With a successful film career and a beautiful family, Jerry O’Connell is now taking a big bite out of the Big Apple as a lead character in A Soldier’s Play, currently playing at Roundabout’s American Airlines Theatre. From his iconic character in Jerry Maguire to his scary good part in Scream 2, Jerry is always ready for his next role.
“I typically work in television as an actor, and I don’t usually get to work on socially important projects, so when this play came around, I was like, let’s go. I begged them for this role, and I’m so glad I did. I had seen the movie when it came out 36 years ago. The play was off-Broadway 38 years ago, so I wasn’t familiar with the play. They don’t just give Pulitzers out – I’ve never worked on a Pulitzer Prize-winning anything, so there’s just a foundation there. Our director, Kenny Leon, said this was going to be the most important thing I’d ever work on, and he was right.”
Jerry’s role in A Soldier’s Play, which was originally put up at the Negro Ensemble Company 40 years ago, resonates now more than ever before, and this affable actor is proud to be a part of this show. “The show seems more topical and appropriate for today than it was back then. It goes to show you what a powerful play Mr. Fuller wrote. We all feel like we are performing for giants who have done so much, not only for theatre but for the world. It’s an honor.”
The show might indeed be socially significant, but Jerry also enjoys the “sexier” showstopping part of the show – when co-star Blair Underwood takes his shirt off! “Every night the crowd is jumping and cheering and going wild. I watch from behind the curtain, and I must say that I get into it as well! This play will really unite us all for life because we’ve been through a really emotional experience together.”
With star performers in the play, including David Alan Grier, Jerry was forced to up his own acting ante. “Blair has a long monologue in the beginning of the show – it’s like a ten-minute monologue of just him talking. Usually everyone is off book holding a script and he wasn’t holding a script on the first day. We were all like, oh boy, this is going to be one of those shows, so we all worked twice, maybe thrice as hard. I was told that I was going to be in it a couple months before we stared, so I had eight weeks to prepare. It’s a dialogue-heavy play, so a lot of the work was memorization for me. I live in LA, so I drive a lot and was always reading it in traffic or in line at the DMV.”
The always-jesting Jerry, who sometimes gets pre-show jitters, currently has a show on WGN America called Carter, and said that being on the stage is definitely different than appearing on set. “I have a lot of fun when filming for television. We will do 15 different takes of the same scene and have time to goof around. It’s just loose and fun. The stakes in this show are a little higher. It’s more nerve-wracking. It’s a scary experience, but you’re supposed to do scary things in life. I get jitters the week before open when the critics come. It’s especially important for plays to get well-reviewed. I just want to do a good job. Now that we’re in it and doing it, it’s more about having fun with Blair and David and the rest of the cast.”
This is Jerry’s third time on Broadway – he starred in a long-running show called Seminar with Alan Rickman as well as another play that closed immediately, so while it might be fun, Jerry knows better than anyone the fickleness of Broadway. As he says, “You’re only one bad review away from closing shop. Still, from a professional standpoint, I love coming back to New York and doing Broadway. Looking at your watch at 6pm and knowing that you have a show at 8pm, there’s just no other excitement like it. You’re just sharper as a person. It makes me hyper focused. Even as a successful actor, you are faced with abject unemployment where you sometimes have nothing to do. If I didn’t have kids, I’d stay in bed and watch Wendy Williams all day, but having a structure like this is cool.”
Jerry, who grew up in Manhattan, and started acting at 11 years old, found his true self while on stage. After taking an acting class downtown at HB Studio, Jerry lucked into a country call search and got a callback. And another callback. And another callback, until he finally earned his role in Stand by Me. “Really early on, I felt like my personality was finally comfortable in a setting, and that was on set. In class, I was always told I was hyperactive and to be quiet, but on set, I was encouraged to be energetic and just be me. My mom paid this guy who lived near us to help me during the audition process, and it really helped me when practicing my sides. My dad was like, it’s a small, independent movie; it’s never going to get released, so don’t tell anyone about it, and here we are, over 30 years later. My co-star was River Phoenix, and his mother told my mother I should get an agent and do this legitimately. I got a kids’ agent named Iris Burton and wound up doing a show for Scholastic.”
After graduating from New York University, Jerry wanted to go to the West Coast and try something different. “I just had an ease with auditioning. My agent was like, you should get more into scripted work. I eventually got a television show called Sliders on Fox, which ran for four or five years. When I first moved to LA, the biggest change was having to switch dentists from my uncle! That’s when he knew I was out there for good. He also told me to have a little fun out there and not to get married too soon. I was 33 when I got married, which in LA, was pretty young still. I met my now wife, Rebecca Romijn, at an agency party when she was in a relationship. I met her again when she was single at a party, and I muscled my way into her table, and her friend told me to get her number; we’ve been together ever since.”
Jerry, who juggles his personal and professional life, misses his wife and 11-year-old twin daughters while he’s doing the show, but he goes home almost every weekend. “I go back to see my family and take my kids to school, make sure they’re not vaping. I miss them a lot. My wife really makes me laugh. I think I annoy her the amount of times I call her while I’m here.” It looks like he might soon be a “dadager,” as Jerry explained that both of his kids are in drama at school. “They’re both great, but one is really showing a lot of interest in it and is really quite good. I joke that I want that Olson-twin money, but they have to stay in school. They were in Matilda in school, and it was fun giving them tips and stuff. It’s a family business. My wife is currently working on Star Trek Extremes at CBS All Access. We travel a lot, also with the kids. We did a little trip to Europe. We were just in Madrid and Portugal. Portugal was great; it has a maritime theme, and the food was amazing. It’s like a hidden gem. Our family also includes five dogs. My wife knows all these adoption groups, so we’re always taking something in. We’re super involved in Much Love Animal Rescue in LA and the ASPCA. Hallmark is good about rescuing dogs, and they have a show that my wife hosts. You meet a lot of people in animal rescue, so we always have animals in our house. Not to sound like the grinch, but when my wife brings home a new animal, I’m like no, but then I love it and take care of it and can’t part with it.”
This affable actor, who grew up in the city and was given his first role as a pre-teen, is excited to be back on Broadway, especially since it’s in his hometown. “I stay in the apartment I grew up in in Chelsea. I love being in New York and taking the subway. I love going out to eat here and getting a reservation at Pastis. When you live in LA, you’re in a car all the time. The second you leave your house in New York, you find yourself going out to battle, and I find it inspiring. There’s no time to be tired here. It’s all about the energy. My 11-year-old girls love Broadway – all they want to do when they come to New York is see Mean Girls or Aladdin. It’s such a fun community to be a part of because we all go to this one bar called the Glass House Tavern. If I’m with Mr. Grier, I can get into Bar Centrale, a secret Broadway speakeasy. Life is too easy in Los Angeles; they have these self-driving cars now. I live in Calabasas where the Kardashian’s live. I love them actually; I’m always trying to be on the show. You can probably see me in the background. I think it’s exciting that they’re there. Kris even gave my wife some clothes for our kids in line at the Target X Missoni sale. She’s the best.”
Catch Jerry in A Soldier’s Play during its limited run, which ends March 15th, before he jets off to his next project!
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