The character actor takes center stage

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New York theater veteran Lou Liberatore talks identity politics, his favorite Chelsea hangouts and what success really means


  • (From left) Lou Liberatore, Ryan Spahn, Matthew Montelongo and Leland Wheeler in “Daniel’s Husband,” now playing at the Westside Theatre. Photo: Carol Rosegg

  • (From left) Ryan Spahn, Matthew Montelongo, Lou Liberatore and Leland Wheeler star in “Daniel’s Husband.” Photo: Carol Rosegg

  • Actor Lou Liberatore. Photo: Ride Hamilton

A longtime Chelsea resident, Lou Liberatore first gained in prominence in 1987, when he was nominated for a Tony Award for his portrayal of “Larry” alongside John Malkovich and Joan Allen in Lanford Wilson’s “Burn This.” For thirty years, Liberatore has worked as an actor and teacher in New York City, and he is currently co-starring in “Daniel’s Husband,” a new play about gay marriage by Michael McKeever, now in a commercial run at the Westside Theatre after successful productions at Penguin Rep Theatre and Primary Stages. Straus News got the chance to catch up with the busy thespian about being a working character actor and how roles by and about gay men have changed over the past 30 years.

Can you talk a little about how you broke into the business?

Well, as my mother says, I came out acting, and so its always been in my blood, I suppose. I don’t know where I got it since there was no one prior to me [in my family] who was an actor/artist that I am really aware of. Growing up in New Jersey, my mother would take me to matinees in New York City, and one of the first plays I saw was Joel Grey in “Cabaret.” I sat there thinking, “I want to do that.” I started at Boston University, and quickly transferred to Fordham University. One of my teachers at Fordham was Rod that time, Rod was a professor and the literary agent at Circle Rep, so I became an intern. I was there doing a lot of grunt work and getting that hands-on experience ... [that was] sort of my grad school, I’d say. And at that time, Circle Rep, and Manhattan Theatre Club, those were the ones you wanted to be around.

Tell me a little bit about “Daniel’s Husband.”

It’s about a gay couple, and the facts are that one [partner in] the gay couple wants to get married and the other one doesn’t ... and what sort of conversations and discussions come from that. It’s about relationships and commitments, and how we to take care of each other and [our] family, and chosen family. My character has a line in the play: there is “a family you are grown into and a family you create.” That [family] is a stronger bond for some people, and especially for gay people. And even if there is more acceptance, it still resonates today. It’s important for people to see this because as gay men, we have been living our entire lives watching heteronormative stories and trying to find our way into those stories ... and so it’s time now certainly for others to see our story and to find their way into ours.

And it’s been successful. And I don’t want to call it a gay play. It’s a great play, touching, heartwarming. After over 100 performances, I can say every person has related to this play. Oh, and this a bastardization of what my co-star Ryan Spahn once said in another interview. So credit him, he’s the good talker in the company. He’s a thinker!

What was your first Broadway role?

At Circle Rep one day, Bill Hoffman saw me in the hall, and said, “I have a new play.” I read a couple of scenes…later it became a play called “As Is,” and we did workshops of it and eventually Circle Rep produced [it in 1985]. As we all know now, it was one of the first plays to deal with [the AIDS crisis] ... it wasn’t even called AIDS back then.

What is it like being in both “As Is” and “Daniel’s Husbands,” two very different gay plays spanning 30 years, one set during the AIDS crisis and one about marriage?

I really feel quite honored and blessed to deal with seminal issues in the profession I’ve chosen. We really hold a mirror up to humanity … during the time of “As Is,” we didn’t know what the impact was going to be, but the script was changing every day. [It] was a living document, ripped from the headlines, you know, at the same time “The Normal Heart” was being written and rehearsed. Ours was a quieter love story ... and it didn’t even have a name. It was GRID, it wasn’t called AIDS at the time.

And flash forward to “Daniels Husband” and the whole gay marriage debate. It changed, for our characters, pre- and post-election, and post-Kavanaugh. That made our approach more serious and immediate and grounded, because we are immediately entrenched in our rights again and we need to fight and resist.

What advice do you have for young actors trying to break into the business?

I teach as well … in this business, know who you are. Meaning, are you a leading man, lady, are you a character actor? You will save yourself a lot of time. Because there are roles that you can do, and roles that you are. Bill Espers, my acting teacher, said we were not all born to be Hamlet. So know who you are. And I know I am a wonderful support, a wonderful character actor. And there were a good fifteen years when I wasn’t on the stage at all since I was too young for college and not old enough for dads, and I worked in retail after being on Broadway, and let me tell you it’s not so bad!

It’s important for young actors to hear that. They think once you make it, that’s it!

I like to say that the Tony nomination did not come with a check or assurances of work. And it’s persistence or naïveté to stay in the business. Also, tell young actors to believe in the project [they] wanna go for, don’t go for the money, just believe in it. Desperation smells horrible.

Any particular companies or off the beaten path venues you would recommend?

Well, certainly Ensemble Studio Theatre — shout out to them. I adore them. And there’s Fiasco Theatre, who did “Into the Woods” a couple years back. Them I like. The One-Minute Play Festival is also quite wonderful. The Brick [Theatre] in Brooklyn I like. And the F*it Club with Allyson Morgan; she does a wonderful job. Page 73 does great work. The Women’s Project is great, too.

What are your favorite New York watering holes?

I love my neighborhood here, between 23rd and 34th Streets. And there are a lot of great restaurants and cafes. Blossom is a great restaurant down here, it’s vegan - I’m not vegan, and it’s nice to go to a healthier place. I’ve been in Chelsea about 10 years. And I love the area around the [Westside] theatre. West Bank Cafe is such a wonderful, wonderful place. And right next to the theatre is Bea; they have been great hosts to us as well. And we love the Westside Theatre, it’s beautiful and we like to say it’s #broadwayadjacent.

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