Interview By Brian Scott Lipton
Is there anything Norbert Leo Butz can’t do? Or won’t do? In the past year, the two-time Tony Award winner has finished up his Broadway run as Alfred P. Doolittle in My Fair Lady, starred opposite Sherie Rene Scott in the deeply autobiographical cabaret show Twohander at Feinstein’s/54 Below, co-starred on TV’s Fosse/Verdon, filmed some movies – and, most importantly (to him), released a CD of 12 self-penned songs called The Long Haul (currently available via iTunes and Spotify). TheaterPizzazz recently caught up with Butz to talk about all these latest career developments.
TP: What was the process for writing and recording The Long Haul? How long did it take from start to finish?
NLB: Here’s what happened. Writing songs is something I have always done for myself, like journaling, all the way back to college. Then, during the third season I was shooting the TV series Bloodline, I had so much downtime between scenes that by the time I finished the season, I had a bunch of new songs done and finally finished some old songs I started years ago. So I sent them to a musician friend, Jason Loughlin, who helped me engineer the record. We started recording a while ago, but then it was a lot of stop-start as other things came up. And I admit I kept trying to chuck the project. Luckily, he encouraged me and my wife Michelle (Federer) encouraged me to finish it. I had to remember that my whole career was playing characters and hiding behind a mask of sorts, and this record is about taking stock of my own life and dealing with issues that have affected me, like loss and adulthood and the complexities of long-term relationships. So earlier this summer, I decided it was time to put this CD out and not worry about the result. And I am really glad I did. In fact, I am working on another record already!
TP: This is definitely a “rock” record. I hear a lot of Bruce Springsteen on it. Can you tell me about your musical influences?
NLB: You’re not the first person to mention Springsteen. I was 16 when I first heard him and I have been obsessed with him ever since. His album Nebraska changed my life. It was the first time I heard someone whose lyrics sound like prose and I had never heard anything like that. You also hear a lot of gospel and blues sounds on the album, because I was raised in a very church-oriented house in St. Louis. For a lot of time in my house growing up, I could only listen to gospel. In fact, my dad took us to see Patti LaBelle in “Your Arms Too Short to Box with God,” and I think we were the only white people in the audience.
TP: Twohander was a remarkable experience for me, but one I suspect had to be very difficult for you. Are you ultimately glad you did it?
NLB: Yes, because in a way, it was part of the same process as doing the record – helping me find out if there are stories that I can use from my life that people would want to hear. And like with the record, I really had to be encouraged to do it. It’s all been a question of how much can I reveal about myself and still fall asleep at night. Some weeks we would have these great rehearsals, and then on the drive home, I would think “I can’t do this show. I’ll never work again!” In the end, though, it opened up a space where I can feel more comfortable using my own point of view to create work. I now realize I don’t have to wait for other people to say yes to me. But I also realized by the end of our run that I am not a “part” I want to play eight shows a week, which is why we’re not moving it to a theater. That would just be too draining.
TP: You were brilliant playing Paddy Chayefsky in Fosse/Verdon. Did you have any idea while making it the amount of critical acclaim, including 17 Emmy nominations, and cultural conversation it would engender?
NLB: You don’t know any of that ever — you never can — but I knew from the first day I was surrounded by excellent people who do excellent work. I met Sam Rockwell (who played Bob Fosse) years ago doing this movie called Better Living Through Chemistry and we became great friends. So when our director Tommy Kail (Hamilton) called and asked me to do this, I was mostly thrilled to be able to work with Sam again. And of course, Michelle Williams was incredible as Gwen. She really was Gwen!
TP: Were you excited about getting to play Chayefksy?
NLB: The first monologue I ever did — to get into college – was from his teleplay The Bachelor Party. I found it in a book; I never even read the whole play. Then after I got the part, I am doing My Fair Lady and I am reading this biography of Chayefsky called Mad as Hell, and there’s this interview with Diana Rigg, who was our Mrs. Higgins. I hadn’t known she was in his film The Hospital. So I ran down the hall to tell her about all this, and she says, “Darling, we’ll have to talk about him,” and eventually she told me the most wonderful stories about him. Doing Fosse/Verdon was a great experience, even if it could get very intense. During that fifth episode (which was set completely in the house in the Hamptons), we started calling it “August: Fosse County.”
TP: You’ve been working a lot in film lately. I’m particularly interested in this one you just shot called Flag Day. It’s directed by Sean Penn and has a script by Jez Butterworth, who just won the Tony Award for The Ferryman. What can you tell me about it?
NLB: It’s based on this amazing memoir by Jennifer Vogel. It’s essentially a survival story; she was raised by a father who was a felon and lived her entire childhood on the run; but the book is full of wonderful dark humor. I play her abusive stepfather, an unsavory character to be sure. I had worked with Sean before as an actor on some films, and he turned out to be a wonderful director. And, of course, Jez is such a good writer, but what I really admire is his skill as an adaptor. I don’t know how you know what to keep in from a book and what to leave out. I can’t wait for people to see the movie!
TP: Do you miss the eight-show-a-week schedule of Broadway? More importantly, do you plan to come back soon?
NLB: Right now, I don’t miss it; partially, because it hasn’t been that long. And there’s not a part right now I am dying to do; it’s the part that gets me excited, not anything else, not the awards or the money or anything like that. I am also waiting for my youngest daughter, who just started third grade, to get a little older before I commit to a long Broadway run, because it demands everything of you. But, of course, I do miss theater a lot and I’m sure I’ll be back before long!