After six seasons of playing the bioplar wannabe rock star Craig Manning on Degrassi, Jake Epstein “graduated” from the hit Canadian series to attend theater school. He made a few guest appearances — who can forget his surprise coke problem or the gang’s trip to Hollywood? — before landing roles in the national tours of Spring Awakening and American Idiot. And with that, a Broadway baby was born. Epstein currently stars as Gerry Goffin in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, the story of the prolific singer-songwriter and her former husband/writing partner that is much more than a simple reading of their Wikipedia pages set to music. With seven Tony Award nominations, the show is one of the must-see productions of the season, making Epstein one of Degrassi‘s biggest success stories to date. See? It’s not all about Drake.
So how much pressure comes with portraying an accomplished musician who happens to still be alive? VH1 spoke to Epstein about playing the complex and talented man behind many of King’s most famous songs, as well as what comes with tackling tough subject matter on a teen soap. Buckle up, Degrassi superfans. This goes there.
First off, congratulations! The show just received seven Tony nominations, which is really exciting.
Yeah, it’s exciting.
Did you expect that kind of response when you got the gig?
For me it been a dream to originate a Broadway role and then the fact that we can get nominated for a Tony Award, this is all something that I didn’t even sort of consider. It was never on my mind or anyone’s mind, but it’s great. Hopefully it gets people in the seats.
Were you a fan of Carole King before you started working with the show?
Yeah, my dad is a huge folk music fan so growing up there were always records playing in my house. Carole King, James Taylor, Simon and Garfunkel, the Beatles — I grew up with this music and I was aware of how special this music was to a lot of people.
How much did you know about Gerry Goffin? I love Carole King and I love Tapestry but I didn’t know too much about their relationship.
I knew nothing. I read her autobiography and that was how I learned about Gerry Goffin. I had no idea that she had written all of those songs with Gerry before she became a solo writer.
It’s so important. Obviously when you see the show you see how they created the songs and that they were still very true to her style. But when a song is given to The Drifters or its given to The Shirelles…
When you listen to the songs, the melodies are always so joyful and the words are always oddly dark and deep. “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” if you go through the lyrics, is such a haunting melody and the words are, for a pop song, pretty deep and dark. And I think that’s what made them a really special songwriting team. With that juxtaposition of her light melodies and his dark lyrics.
Have you had the opportunity to meet Gerry at all or speak with him?
I met him twice.
Was that intimidating?
Yes. Yes, especially considering the story that they choose to tell. I was always really worried. I really worked hard not to portray Gerry as a villain. He’s complicated and I was really worried that he would be upset or embarrassed or something, and I was really relieved that he was a fan. He was onboard.
I think the way the show progresses and the way they choose to end things with their reunion, so to speak, at Carnegie Hall is really nice.
Which is true. They’re friends to this day.
I saw that Carole King came to one of the shows recently and surprised you all. What was it like to realize that she had been watching you?
We didn’t know that she was there that night. Thank God! I think we all would have been nervous and anxious. It was overwhelming. Everyone was crying and I was laughing. I was like, “This is so ridiculous that Carole walked out on stage after seeing a musical about her life.” Oh my God, what a thrill to meet her and to get a chance to talk to her after the show. And she talked to me about Gerry and she was so warm and loving and open and cool. It was a really special night.
How important is it to know that she approves of what you’re doing?
Well initially she came to one of our rehearsals and said she’s really proud of us and happy that we’re doing this but she’s not going to come see the show because it’s very personal; it’s a very personal story and it was too painful for her. So that is how we went about doing the show, with the expectation that she was supporting it and she absolutely knew what was going on but she just wasn’t going to be a part of it. Then to find out that she saw it and loved it so much was, again, sort of a bonus. For us it makes us feel so good and it’s great for the show. The fact that know she’s seen it and she’s a fan is great.
And you and Jessie Mueller, who plays Carole, have such an intense relationship throughout the course of the show. What did you guys do to kind of get comfortable with each other and to be able to go to those darker places and those more intense moments on stage?
You just kind of dive right in and don’t think about it. I’m such a fan of hers before we even started so I had a lot of respect for her as a performer before we even began. And I think that level of respect was a huge part of us being able to trust each other. To love each other, to hate each other on stage. We go through a whole journey every single night. It’s very intense, so I think you need to trust and respect the person that you’re doing it with. I was just really lucky it was her.
All of your castmates: Jessie, Anika Larsen, Jarrod Spector, they’re all very accomplished and have a bunch of shows under their belts. Have you been able to learn from them?
Absolutely, I’m the youngest of the four even though I play one of the oldest. They’re all such pros. They have that awesome balance and you can see they have so much fun on stage and off. [They’re] absolute professionals the whole way through. It’s totally been a learning experience working with all of them.