Jake Epstein, if there were still any doubt, has officially graduated from Degrassi. Best known to TV audiences in the aughts as bipolar musician Craig Manning in the Canadian teen drama, the Toronto native now stars in the world premiere of Scott Elmegreen and Drew Fornarola’s Straight, which is in previews and opens off-Broadway February 29 at the Acorn Theatre. He plays Ben, a closeted investment banker cheating on his girlfriend with Chris, a younger man played by newcomer Thomas E. Sullivan. Over coffee in Midtown, Epstein explains why the intimate three-person play is just as daunting as his Broadway debut in Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.
By Brandon Voss
Next: I’ve been seeing your face on Straight subway posters all over town.
Jake Epstein: It’s so crazy, right? I’m just waiting for all the mustaches and other graffiti.
You last appeared on the New York stage in Broadway’s Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. What attracted you to Straight?
I’d just worked with the director, Andy Sandberg, and he told me about this great part in a really interesting, provocative play. I’d been looking to do a straight play — no pun intended — after doing a lot of musicals, so I read the script and was totally sucked in by the story, the characters, and the humor. I have a lot of close gay friends, and I think it’s a new, completely unique take on a coming out story.
So your character is not, in fact, straight.
Ben, my character, is a closeted 26-year-old investment banker who doesn’t want to be labeled as gay. Everything about him is tied to quote-unquote straight culture — he genuinely loves sports, beer, and cars — and he doesn’t necessarily identify with quote-unquote gay culture. But he is gay. So the story’s about his relationships with his longtime girlfriend and this charismatic young man he met online. It’s about sexuality and fidelity in our post-acceptance society. I hope the play provokes discussion, because I like theater that makes people think and question their values. And I hope that younger gay people who see it will be able to relate to it.
Can you relate to Ben?
I have a very good friend who had a tough time coming out, and I immediately thought of him when I read the script. But what actually struck me most is how the play explores being gay by definition. Like, why does a gay man necessarily have to tell people he’s gay? A straight man doesn’t tell people he’s straight, right?
He should probably tell his girlfriend.
Well, yeah, the thing that really breaks my heart is that this guy is cheating on his girlfriend, who’s also his best friend. He has a dream of building a life with her, but he finds himself in an emotional Ponzi scheme where he’s in love with this woman while fulfilling his physical needs with someone he’s actually attracted to.
Is Ben one of your more angsty, brooding characters?
[Laughs] Because I tend to brood? Somebody once told me that I also play a lot of characters who’ve knocked up girls — in Degrassi and [the touring productions of] Spring Awakening and American Idiot — but I don’t knock up anyone in this play. Ben’s actually lighter than I am. Part of why I hope people root for this guy is because, despite the fact that he’s carrying around all this shit on his shoulders, he loves everyone so much and has such a good sense of humor. He realizes he’s being a complete doof. I think that helps people forgive him for not being honest with his girlfriend.
You’re not exactly swinging from the rafters here like you did as Peter Parker in Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, but have the play’s intimate scenes been a challenge?
Oh, yeah. This is totally cheesy, but it’s like emotional swinging! We get pretty naked, emotionally and physically. And if that doesn’t sell tickets, I don’t know what will.
Have you been hitting the gym extra hard?
There’s a line in the play about me having a six-pack, so yeah, I’m stressed out about it. And Tom, who plays Chris, has a nice body, so it keeps me in check.
Not that your Spider-Man costume was very forgiving.
Well, that show had me in the best shape of my life. I had six-packs on my ankles. We also had a muscle suit, which I tried to steal, but it’s probably worth more than my life. My Straight workout is basically me rolling around with a guy on a couch.
How did you and Tom build chemistry?
We actually auditioned together. He’s supposed to be drunk in one scene, and he spilled a whole bottle of water on me in the audition! I sort of freaked out on him in the scene, and there was just this physical charge between us immediately. He’s a phenomenal young actor. There’s a tremendous amount of trust and respect there.
You also played gay characters in the series Being Erica and the play Dog Sees God. Do you feel a responsibility to represent the gay community respectfully?
Of course. But, to be honest, Straight is so well written that a lot of that work has already been done for me, thankfully, so I’m not afraid of offending anyone. As provocative as it is, I’m just really excited to tell this story.
Is it true that Craig, your ladies’ man character on Degrassi, was almost gay?
OK, all I know is that when they were auditioning for Marco, the character who came out as gay on the show, I read an audition script that was this very flirty moment between Craig and Marco — there was definitely sexual tension. Then I was told to throw that out, and I never heard about it again. So our characters were friends, but I always wondered if the writers were trying out a romance there and then just scrapped the idea.
You were Degrassi’s resident heartthrob. Did you feel the love from the gay audience?
Not particularly. Adamo Ruggerio, who played Marco, had a huge gay following. He’d get letters all the time. To be honest, I really shied away from any of that attention I got from Degrassi. I actually left the show to go to theater school. I didn’t really want to be seen as a heartthrob.
So you basically left a hit TV show to focus on theater.
What was I thinking, right? It was a really tough decision, but at the time it made complete sense. I’d been on the show for six years, and it was becoming much more of a soap opera. I wanted a break, and the truth is that I’ve never been interested in being a star. I love acting, I love the craft. I knew that if I was going to do this for a living, I wanted to be proud of it.
Do you still hear from a lot of Degrassi fans?
Yeah, I get stopped by people all the time. But it’s usually just to ask if I still know Drake. “Aren’t you the guy from Degrassi?” “Yes.” “How’s Drake?” “Awesome.”
Next, February 2016.