Are bullies misunderstood? Interview with Mike Faist from Dear Evan Hansen

From carrying the banner to being found, Mike Faist is currently taking a stand on Broadway in the hit show Dear Evan Hansen. We chatted about his experience with Newsies and why he thinks “bully” is a made‑up term.

Joy: What was your first exposure to musical theater, and what made you want to pursue a career in it?
My first exposure to musical theater was watching old MGM films with Gene Kelly. I kind of idolized him and Fred Astaire and I wanted to be exactly like them, so that’s what got me into taking dance classes and children’s theater. I moved to New York and knew that this is what I wanted to do and just kept going and kept at it.

Who were your role models growing up?
Gene Kelly. He was really the biggest one. And they evolved and changed from more musical theater to more actor‑based people such as Dustin Hoffman and Denzel and just wonderful actors.

Newsies was a huge phenomenon. Did you expect that to happen when you were in it and were you a fan of the movie beforehand?
Going into the audition, I suspected that it was going to do well. I felt like I needed to at least try and be a part of it – luckily it worked out in my favor. There was a cult following to that movie growing up and it’s Disney. I am not surprised that it did as well as it did.

What was the biggest challenge about Newsies, and what was the best part of Newsies?
The biggest challenge with a show like Newsies was just staying healthy. Every single one of those guys was either injured or sick all the time and Disney really worked us like crazy. The best part of it though was the guys – some of those guys I am still best friends with today.

And are you excited to see Newsies on the big screen?
Yes, sure. I think that will be fun.

Mike Faist in Dear Evan Hanson
You were with Dear Evan Hansen from the beginning – w
hat was it like creating the role of Connor?
It was a process. Originally Connor was very two‑dimensional and kind of stereotypical, if you want to say, I guess just bad‑boy bully. Over the years they have complicated him and shown the parallels between him and Evan in a lot more ways. I think one of the great things about the show is that the word “bully” gets thrown out. I think the word “bully” is a made‑up term used by adults to undercut and minimize what young people are going through. The reality of what these characters are going through is the challenge of allowing other people to see who they are. So in Connor’s instance, he puts up walls because people put him in a box. For him it’s an opportunity for allowing Evan to see who he is and there is miscommunication and unfortunately, Connor dies and it’s sad because the audience doesn’t actually get to know who he is.

How do you prepare yourself for this emotional show every day?
Luckily everyone is like a stand‑up comedian backstage. So we are actually having a lot of fun and we have rituals of our own as a cast. We have dance parties in the hall and no matter what, right before we go on stage the cast gets in a circle and either hugs each other or hold hands and just talk and kind of get grounded to push any distractions away. So that’s extremely helpful, but this cast has been with it for the most part three years so it’s at the point where you just kind of go and do it and I think Michael Greif has allowed us to do that. Just to go on stage and trust that everything is there and luckily Steven [Levenson] and Benj [Pasek] and Justin [Paul] wrote beautiful and simple and great lyrics and a great book by Steven where you can trust the material and you can go just go on stage and do it. Everything is there. You don’t have to force anything.

Ben Platt in Dear Evan HansonWhen you are not on stage, what’s your favorite part to watch or listen to?
In the second act I like paying attention once Evan’s trajectory starts to take a turn for the worse. My favorite scene is in the second act when the Murphys offer Evan Connor’s college money. That is like a truly uncomfortable, amazing, wonderfully written scene. My favorite song to listen to is Ben in “For Forever.” It’s just a beautiful song about him telling the story about this thing that didn’t happen, but for him it could have been so real.

What’s your favorite part of Dear Evan Hansen that you are in?
I really love the computer lab scene between Evan and I in the first act – I love all of our scenes actually. I think they are a lot of fun and they are different and Connor kind of becomes a totally different person in the second act when he comes back. I guess my favorite number to be a part of would be “Sincerely Me.” Because it’s so dark and twisted and hilarious and it’s a lot of fun.

Did you have any experience with bullying in high school or when you were younger?
Yes, but you know, that’s the thing. This word “bully” gets thrown around and the reality is, that’s not true. The only reason we use the term “bully” is because we are dealing with high school kids in this story. As adults everyone gets bullied every single day and no one calls it that. So the word “bully” actually minimizes what young people are going through. Connor isn’t a bully. He is someone who is misunderstood. If anything, he is someone who is put in a box and everybody goes around and they say “oh, don’t talk to that kid because he is different.” Because he is put in a box, he then puts other people in the same box or he puts up a guard and he pushes people away. If you look at how Jared deals with Evan and how Evan deals with high school and even how Alana tries to survive, how all of these children are trying to survive, it’s truly challenging. With Connor, his way of survival is to put up a fence. Because the minute he allows other people to see who he actually is, I think he loses and I think that’s how everyone goes about throughout the entire show. So to say Connor is a bully I think is really unfair and just not true. In reality, it’s the lack of ability to allow yourself to be seen for who you really are. And miscommunication. And missed opportunities.

What advice would you give to kids who are in that situation?
Well, you have to talk about it to adults, but the problem is – I don’t know if it’s a relationship issue between adults and young adults, or if it’s just a lack of trust that kids have to end up to talking to adults, but I think by using terms like “bullying” and things like that, it minimizes what kids are going through.

I guess if I had any advice to give to an Evan Hansen or a Connor Murphy is to try and realize that this point in your time, wherever you are, is short‑lived and everything comes in seasons and happens in seasons and that’s life. Life isn’t about finding out who you are. It’s about creating who you are and part of that creation is a wall. There is a bad place. But you just got to buckle down in those tough moments and keep going.

Mike Faist and Ben Platt in Dear Evan HansonWhich one is harder to do, a more physical show like Newsies or a more emotional show like Dear Evan Hansen?
As far as staying healthy and staying physically able, Newsies is way more difficult. We were athletes up there just trying to get through the five‑show weekend or whatever. But I think what is great about Dear Evan Hansen and what makes it challenging is that it’s imposing questions on an audience, and that’s the biggest difference between the two shows.

I don’t want to say one is more challenging than the other. If anything, it’s probably more challenging for an audience to understand or wrap their head around Dear Evan Hansen, they have to really be engaged. Whereas if they go see a show like Newsies, the audience gets to sit back and be a passive listener.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to pursue a career on Broadway?
Talent only does so much and it’s really all about your work ethic. You just got to be persistent and you are going to get nos. It’s about failing and failing forward and hopefully you just keep going because it’s a crapshoot, man.

Will Roland [who plays Jared in Dear Evan Hansen] is from New York, he has been around for decades, doing this and trying and now he is making his Broadway debut. The guy is stupid talented and I think for a commercial setting for years, people never looked his way – finally that opportunity that he has – it’s the perfect role for Will. He is amazing in that role and finally people are saying “oh, my God, dude, you are amazing. Why have I not seen you around?” Well, the reality is he has been around, but he was persistent about it and he just kept going. That’s what it’s about.

Do you have any hidden or quirky talents?
I like to rock climb. And then I got my pilot’s license right after I left Newsies. I got to fly little Cessnas. Airplanes. Usually when I go back home to Ohio, I will fly those around.

What’s your favorite musical of all time?
Ben Platt and Will Roland introduced me to Sunday in the Park with George off‑Broadway. I had never heard of it before, so that’s probably my favorite of all time.

What’s your favorite thing about NYC?
Man, I don’t know what I like about New York. It’s expensive. No, I love a lot of things about New York. In New York I guess your priorities are just shifted differently. Here you have a lot of opportunities to go out and experience culture. I am from Ohio so we have a lot of open space and a lot of outdoor activities and here there is more of a nightlife and more going out and meeting new people, so I like the difference. But what I love about New York is if you get a little cramped and you need a little space, upstate New York is gorgeous and it’s a quick train ride away.

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