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Raúl Esparza is a marquee name on Broadway and one of those rare theater actors whose name non-theater people know. Much of that is because he’s been nominated for four Tony Awards for his work in David Mamet, Stephen Sondheim and Harold Pinter plays, as well as “Taboo,” by Boy George. Last month he staged his first solo concert as part of Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series to two sold-out crowds. And he’s currently in previews for a Broadway revival of Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia,” opening March 17, in which he stars opposite Billy Crudup and Grace Gummer. Esparza, a natural talker, spoke to WWD about Jeremy Piven, his undying love of “Friday Night Lights” and what happens when Shakespeare goes wrong.
WWD: Tell me about your role in “Arcadia.”
Raúl Esparza: One of the central themes of the play is that sex is the attraction that Newton left out of his equations.…The character I play, Valentine, is a mathematician, but Stoppard writes him as a kind of unwilling poet and pulls out of him this amazing glimpse that he has, through all of his scientific learning, at what the reality is around us in the world.
WWD: What’s your dream role?
R.E.: That’s funny. I get asked that a lot and I never have answers.
WWD: I’ll change the question. What are the top three women’s roles you’d like to play, now that Brian Bedford is in drag in “The Importance of Being Earnest”?
R.E.: I think it’d be really great to play Mrs. Lovett in “Sweeney Todd.” I think it would be really cool to play Mama Rose in the “Gypsy” musical. It’s a cool question. Great women’s roles.…Why is it that our brains freeze up? I could probably tell you at home.…I’d like to play the Julia Roberts role in “Pretty Woman.”
WWD: I use that line a lot and you’re the only one who’s ever said “Pretty Woman.”
R.E.: Cinder-f---ing-rella. It’s a good film. A fun film.
WWD: Do you watch a lot of movies and TV?
R.E.: I think television is really in a new golden age.
WWD: What’s your favorite show?
R.E.: Well, “Friday Night Lights” was, I mean, I just worship that show. Connie Britton gave one of the finest performances I’ve ever seen on TV.…Jesus, she’s great.
WWD: Do you enjoy working with actors in theater who have a pretty big career in television or film?
R.E.: I think that becomes incidental on stage. A certain amount of celebrity might get people to buy tickets. But look, the market’s changing a lot for Broadway, so there seem to be more and more people being hired from film and TV to do stage work. But I think, ultimately, you really have to have a good actor to deliver on stage. So what I’m interested in is just a good actor, it doesn’t matter.
WWD: Is that what you think when someone famous is cast, that it’s a ticket sale thing?
R.E.: Not always. Look, Jeremy [Piven] being cast in Mamet is a no-brainer. He’s done a lot of theater and he was really, really, really, really great on “Entourage.” And it was a good fit for him, plus he’s a Chicago guy. So that kind of thing helps, partly because it helps sell tickets.
WWD: That didn’t end very well.
R.E.: That one didn’t go so well. That is also the risk you run. All I can say about that is that, while he was there, he did good work.
WWD: What was the last play you saw?
R.E.: “Hamlet” in London at the National Theatre.
WWD: Have you done a lot of Shakespeare?
R.E.: I haven’t done a lot. I did “Richard II,” and “Twelfth Night” at Shakespeare in the Park. I’d like to do more. It’s a lot of fun to do. Not always that much fun for the audience, but a lot of fun for the actors. But I’ve also seen some seriously bad Shakespeare where you just wanna gouge your eyes out.