F Michael Haynie explains why acting is like mental gymnastics

As much as we laud actors for being able to transform themselves, it is sometimes hard to separate the character from the person who plays the role. F has been a munchkin, a hunchback and now Augustus Gloop, a “fat German kid” in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Despite being a great actor, he discussed why it’s still mentally challenging to be typecast in a certain mold and how innocent remarks at the stagedoor can be unintentionally hurtful.

Joy: Would you consider yourself a theater nerd?
F: I am and I am not. I like theater. I love it. It’s been a really great part of me and my career, but I never grew up with Broadway since I am from Georgia. Cats was my first Broadway show – I was in sixth grade when I saw it, and it was the most amazing thing because I didn’t really know anything about theater. I had done a couple of shows with my whole family in it, but I wanted to be a musician.

Did you play an instrument?
I played all the brass instruments and then I started on violin. They didn’t have a strings at the next school that I went to, so I played all the brass instruments and I wanted to be a band. But Broadway was cool. I did the shows and it was a fun way to hang out with my brother, who is an actor as well, and my mom who was my high school theater teacher.

Is it weird to have your mom as a teacher?
You know, it probably took until I booked my first Broadway show that I didn’t feel like everything I had gotten was nepotism. I kind of got to pad my stats being both a guy and from the South and doing musical theater and having your mom be your director – you feel like you are cheating.

I think every performer has to have a moment where – it’s not like cocky, but it’s a moment of confidence. It also can be really challenging when there are things you know you don’t do – and I don’t mean you are not open to them; I mean like there are people who will do X better than me. Or you go, “I am going to go in that room and I know that nobody is going to do this the way that I do.” So that’s more of what I glean from having been guilty the whole time. I didn’t even get into musical theater school so I went to a straight acting program for three years when I got to NYU and it was the best thing that ever happened to me. Having my voice taken away from me because until college I hadn’t thought about acting, other than knowing your lines and not bumping into the furniture.

When did you start doing musicals again?
They don’t let you audition for shows in your first year at NYU. In my second year I did a production of Company. I think most people who have done that show don’t have the life experience to really understand it. I was playing the father of two who sings a song called “Sorry‑Grateful” where you talk about a relationship that you know is not great, and I didn’t understand any of it.

Then I played Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar my junior year of college, which was much more musical theater, but no dialogue because it’s basically an opera. It was great to get to play that role, but I didn’t feel like I was doing a musical until a student production of Into The Woods. I played a part that maybe someone will be brave enough to let me do again – Cinderella’s Prince and the Wolf.

What was your reaction when you heard they were casting adults to play kids in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?
I found out about it when they asked me to audition. I thought my agents were messing with me. I asked my girlfriend if she knew anything about it because she had seen the show in London. She thought it was a bad idea to cast adults because the kids were so great. But I went in, I thought either they will like me or they won’t like me. It was a casting office that I loved (Telsey) and it was a fun group of people, no one I ever worked with before. I did my audition and then had a callback.

Is it hard to be an adult, playing a kid?
Not really. I don’t want to sound like it’s crazy. It’s kind of like a gimmick. Augustus has a very distinct voice. I would say the hardest part of my job is doing that voice. I sing that song in the same key that a child did in London. Basically I am like a rock‑and‑roll tenor the entire show, even when speaking and then I just put a little squeak and a German accent on it. It makes it sound, not like I am rock‑belting, but imagine Guns N’ Roses. It’s literally that kind of vocal technique that I have to use during the show. It’s kind of exhausting.

Did that take a long time to learn?
I kind of did it as a joke in the audition, because they gave me the music and it was written for a child. So I would have had to come in and go “my mother and my father I enjoy,” and I was like I am not going to do that. No one from casting said anything about what to do, so I was like fuck it. I took the whole thing up the octave as a joke. They loved it.

Then I did my sides and I remember at my callback Jack O’Brien looked at me, and I knew I either got the job in this moment or lost the job in this moment. He looked at me and said “F, you are crazy” and I was like “yes, I am.” And then I got it. About a year ago we did the first lab.

What is it like to work with three different actors, switching off in the role of Charlie Bucket?
They are all three really, really unique. They each have different strengths. I can see three performances back to back, it’s going to be very different humans. They all bring something so unique to it that it’s almost – I don’t want to say it’s like an entirely different show, but the show ebbs and flows differently every night when it’s a different guy on.

Do you have to act a little differently based on their performance?
Yes, because a lot of our interactions are unscripted, un-choreographed, undirected. Jack [O’Brien] let us create these humans and then helped us craft them. It was a very freeing experience.

Did you have to learn German for your part?
No, thank God. I learned from listening – I know this sounds dumb. I have done accents my whole life. I love them. Even before I wanted to be an actor, my mom and I would sit in the car and take car trips and just pick an accent. We would lie to people and pretend to be Irish or Scottish or English or whatever the flavor of the day was. I even took voice and speech and a dialect class in college, but I hadn’t really felt like I nailed German. Right before my audition I listened to this really weird German comedian who has a character named Flula, and this dude makes me laugh so hard. He just has this little German accent. You can hear some of the sounds in the way it goes towards his mouth. So listening to that I heard a lot of the changes and that’s a lot of what really conveying an accent is, knowing the changes, and if you can modify enough of the vowels and enough of the consonants, a lot of the other stuff goes through the mix and most people won’t notice it.

Luckily, we have a dialect coach on the show. Kate is unbelievable. I worked with her in Peter Pan Live!. She is as much of an acting coach and director as she is someone who knows sounds. She really helped Kathy [Fitzgerald] (who plays Mrs. Gloop) and I find the mix between English and German.

There are times Mark [Shaiman] and Scott [Wittman] would put in German words just because they thought they sounded funny, but then no one knew what we said. For example, the first thing I sing in the show is “my mother and my father enjoy a healthy meal,” but in the script it says, “mine muter und mine fater.” I am trying to do it as much as I can, but sometimes will say “Father” even though it’s not really in a German accent because you have to communicate the lyric. Again, I got all this permission from our director, the musical director and the writer, we went through everything with a fine‑tooth comb to see what reads and what doesn’t read.

You’re not actually eating sausages, so what are you eating on stage?
The only thing I ingest during the show is a rice cake, but everything else is the magic of me faking it. I told them really early I don’t want to eat everything. I know it seems crazy, but I don’t want to gain weight while I do the show. I don’t want to stuff my face with something unless there was a moment that was really worth it. It just seems frivolous.

You are also wearing a fat suit in the show. Is that uncomfortable?
No. It was brilliantly designed. A company in Jersey City was hired to make a brand‑new suit for the Broadway show, because they had suits for the kids over in London. This company also makes stuff for Victoria’s Secret Runway, so one of the things that was really amazing is that it’s really airy and light. Imagine an old Victorian hoop skirt. Inside there are ribs and stuff and the mesh over the top of it. There are a couple of pads on my butt and my thighs to help taper down to my legs.

After our last bow as the curtain comes down, we sing for a second and dance. As a joke I have started dropping on the floor and doing clapping push‑ups because I think it’s funny. Anybody in the front row on the house left side, they look at me and they are like, “how is that big guy doing those clapping push‑ups?”

What do you do during your down time in the second act?
I have a PS4 and a Nintendo Switch in my dressing room. There are six Nintendo Switches in the building and pretty much everyone is playing Zelda, but usually I will go up and hang out. Ben Crawford comes up to my room a lot and we will play games or we will sit and talk. It’s fun. It’s weird being done with the show so early, but then again, I don’t come on for half an hour of the show either. It’s one of the weirdest jobs I have ever done.

Were you a fan of the Charlie movies?
I really, really loved the Gene Wilder movie. I mean, I was a fan of Gene Wilder before I ever saw that movie. My mom introduced me to him in the original Producers movie. I saw Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein and so many things he was so amazing in, so then when I saw Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I was like oh, this is cool, and then it was just on all the time. His performance in it was transcendent. That’s why they changed the name of the movie to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, because the book is called Charlie.

And then I saw the Johnny Depp movie. I wanted the Tim Burton take on it to be so devastatingly dark that people would hate it, but it wasn’t and so I didn’t like it. I think Tim Burton is an incredible director, and there were lots of elements that were really cool.

Same with this show, with this property, people have their feelings about it. Some people love the Gene Wilder movie so much that they hate anything that even thinks about this show, and they decide that before they ever walk into our theater.

What do you think of Christian Borle’s take on Willy Wonka?
He is incredible and I think he creates a really, really unique portrayal of this character and he is so exciting every single night. Christian also really embraces the live nature of theater and when there is a moment that is a little different each night, he embraces that. Like the audience gives us a different temperature. We have had some really amazing audiences. We have had some literally walking off stage, like is there anybody in that room audiences. It’s crazy. You know, some audiences, they are just listening. We have been sold out pretty much since we started.

Your made your Broadway debut in Wicked, what was that experience like?
It was really cool. I have no complaints about making my debut into the almost 2,000 people who were losing their mind and the entire cast of seasoned people who had been doing it before. No one else’s debut was that night; it was just me. It was a random Tuesday. It was my first time not originating a part or developing a show from the ground up, so it was kind of awkward to all of a sudden have to learn something that a bunch of people had already done.

I played Boq and it was thrilling. I had nine months there. I did 312 shows in a row and never missed one. Wicked is really the craziest thing. It was six months before I did a show with everybody on, without someone being on medical leave or vacation or sabbatical or whatever. There are a lot of people who come and go from that company, and that’s how it survived. It’s been able to thrive by having a really solid community of incredible actors and also giving opportunities – Joe Mantello especially, giving opportunities to new young actors like me.

After that you were in Hunchback as Quasimodo. What was that like?
It was the best experience of my life. I would give up almost every show I have ever done – that’s not true. Maybe. I don’t know. It was one of the most amazing parts of my life. The director, Shaun Kerrison was incredible. He goes on the list with the great ones that I have ever worked with. It was the most challenging physically, mentally.

They tear you down in that show.
Yes. It’s weird. You know, you walk off stage every night and you have to look everybody in the eye. I built a part into the show at the end where I looked every single ensemble member in the eye and said their name out loud. No one could hear me. I said it to each of them as I went around the stage just to say I am a real person, a real place, and I love you guys and you love me and I know that I am not a monster that everybody hates, but it’s hard. You start to feel a little crazy when you play a character who is so hated and called ugly. I have the same struggle in playing Augustus. I walk out the door every day and most people don’t recognize me. A lot of people look at me and go oh, you are the fat guy.

You don’t want to be called that.
It’s weird, but I also go, “I am playing Augustus Gloop, I am playing the fat German.” So it’s a delicate balance. I think people don’t really realize the mental gymnastics that you have to do as an actor, to not let it rule your life.

In Holler If Ya Hear Me you were an understudy. What did you do during that show?
Because we only did thirty-eight shows, I never really got into the swing of it. We had one understudy rehearsal and then we found out we were closing so we didn’t have any more, but I was prepared to go on. I was also the fight captain on the show, so I would run the fights every day and then go and watch. It was such a brief experience, we never really got into a rhythm.

What was it like to do Peter Pan Live!?
It was the most unique experience of my career because it was not film, it was not TV, it was not theater, it was not most of the things that you do. But then all of a sudden, all of them at the same time. The first month felt like getting a Broadway show ready, and the second month felt like being in a weird sound stage and playing dress‑up. It was a very peculiar set of circumstances, one that I still think they are figuring out, but it’s great that the producers and these television networks are investing in musicals and especially in live musicals. And I hope that they continue to develop the craft of it. But know that there is something lost when you try to film live theater.

What was the hardest part about doing a live TV musical?
I think it being over immediately was the hardest part. We ran it a few times in the studio and then had a month in the sound stage, and all of a sudden we did a dress rehearsal run, we did the show, and then we went home. I am still developing things in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and we have already done 30‑something shows. Even in my 312th show at Wicked I was still learning and developing, and so it was weird to have it all distilled in that moment.

It’s a crazy, but funny thing in the theater community, especially on the blogs and message boards– everyone can be really judgmental and negative. The number of people who were so ready to hate something before they knew anything about it. They were all saying Allison William was going to be bad because they saw her in Girls. I am like, “have you seen her in rehearsal?” Because she was one of the most kind, amazing people I worked with to this date, and we still text every now and then. Sometimes the community is very ready to hate something. There are people who were tried and true and seemed like the perfect thing, yet they will be terrible and there is sometimes the people that you don’t expect to be amazing and they are transcendent. I look at that experience and I am glad we had such a great time as a group of friends and group of artists creating. That’s where I met Christian [Borle], and watching him work in that was brilliant. It was a really unique project, and I am glad I was part of it.

You are also a part of a group called the (M)orons. How did that come about?
It’s just me, Alex Brightman, Drew Gasparini and Andrew Kober. We were all friends and some of us referred to it like we were the Entourage, but idiots and someone said, “oh, like the Morontourage,” so we joked about it. That was our team name.

Why do you have it spelled with parentheses?
Oh, because we started writing a script together for a pilot that we ended up filming. Not many people have seen it, but it was very good, I think. Instead of having to use all of our last names when we were writing the script, we would just use (M) to refer to all four of us. So that’s where it came from and then we thought it was cool with the symbol.

Are you guys are a band?
No, we are not a band. We are just four artists – all friends and collaborators and we support each other like an umbrella. We are all independent creators and performers, and every now and then one of us will do a show and some of the other guys will come and be a part of it. We have done one show that was the (M)oron’s Variety Hour, but other than that – people started referring to us as that.

If you could go back in time and see any show that was on Broadway, what would choose?
I would see the original company of Pippin for two reasons. I am working with the original Pippin, John [Rubinstein], and I would love to see his performance, because the only performance of Pippin I had ever seen was with William Katt in the film version of the play. That show was the reason I do theater. I did it with my brother in high school, and it kind of changed my life. I owe my career to that performance, really changing how I looked at theater. If I can go back to see what it was, and to get to see John because he is an amazing person and leader and funny guy. And to get to see that in its original iteration, to see it when no one knew what it was, when it was just this thing on Broadway.

Do you have a favorite show tune?
No. I don’t listen to showtunes much. The show tunes I like – there are so many songs that if I picked a favorite, the second I leave I would immediately go oh, no, I should have said this. There are a lot of really great ones written by a bunch of different writers, and I would be crazy to try to pick one.

What’s the best show you have seen on Broadway?
Peter and The Starcatcher was one of them. Watching Christian’s work in that, that was the first time I had ever seen him do anything. I didn’t know who he was when I saw that show. I mean, I guess I heard of him, that people said there is this guy named Christian Borle, really funny and talented. When I saw that it was amazing. That probably would go way up there on the list. And I will stick with that one just for the moment.

What’s your favorite thing about New York City?
People. It’s the most crazy, diverse, exciting, terrifying, thrilling, challenging place to live. I will hear more accents and languages in a day than most people in my hometown will in a lifetime and that’s thrilling. Everyone has a place and I am so happy when people find that place for themselves. Because 13 years ago I found that place for me and it was here.

Transcribed by Yaffi // Interview has been edited for clarity

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