Scandal. Lust. Mind games. Les Liaisons Dangereuses at The Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre has it all. And so does area actor Nathan Parry. In a TheatreBloom exclusive interview, we take a moment to sit down with Nathan and talk shop about what it’s like to play vile villain Vicomte de Valmont, and find out just what makes it so dangerous.
Thanks for sitting with us! Would you give us the brief introduction and tell us what you’ve done that we might recognize of your work in the area?
Nathan Parry: I’m Nathan Parry, I play Le Vicomte de Valmont for Dangerous Liaisons at Spots. Last year I was in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, also at Spots, as Chief Bromden, a much different character from the Vicomte.
What made you want to come out and audition for this show?
Nathan: So José (area actor José Reyes Teneza), who played Harding in Cuckoo’s Nest, was actually the one who tipped me off to it. I saw that there was going to be dancing, and I’m not a dancer, so I actually said, “José, I really don’t think this is for me…” and he said, “No, no, really go out for it.” Because he pushed me, that’s how I ended up auditioning. It wasn’t on my radar, especially not once I saw there was dancing involved. I figured it was going to be well above my level. I mean, before this I’d maybe watched a couple episodes of So You Think You Can Dance with my wife and that was my dance exposure. So no dance experience whatsoever. But José was adamant, and my wife Jassie, she also pushed for it. She knows how theatre is important to me.
How is this similar or different to other roles you’ve previously taken on?
Nathan: In addition to having to learn how to dance? This role is different because I feel like we really worked to make this character deeper than others I’ve played before. Erin (Director Erin Riley) was really good about that, going back into the character work and trying to find the good in this person who does these really horrible things throughout the show. I would not classify him as a good guy, but there is some good in there. And we tried to find that. So having that depth to his character is really new for me. Chief Bromden, from last year for instance, he had that depth but it was kind of still very shallow just based off the lines he was given. And the way we did that show with our Director Greg Bell, we did his voiceovers as recordings, so I actually had very few things to say on-stage, so there was very little opportunity to get to that depth while on stage. And then previous roles— Cinderella’s Prince for Into the Woods and Earthquake McGoon in Lil Abner— those kind of roles just don’t have much depth to them. Actually, my director for Lil Abner told me “just be you, like a cartoon you.” So that’s what I did, I was just a big cartoon Nathan Parry for Earthquake McGoon, very shallow. Here there was a lot of opportunity for me to change the way I interact with the four different women that I’m involved with during the play.
You do have a lot of interacting happening on multiple levels of passion with these four female characters, what has that experience been like for you?
Nathan: It’s been an adventure. I put this in my bio, I’m very thankful to “Team Dangerous” for trusting me. It is a lot of work. All the scheming with Merteuil, the scheming toward and eventually breaking down barriers with Tourvel, physically assaulting Merteuil and then sexually assaulting Cecile, it’s a lot. The relationship between Emilie and Valmont is the most friendly and honest of all the relationships he has and she’s a courtesan. Having to use her as a desk was entertaining.
Do you and Valmont share any personality similarities or are you two completely different?
Nathan: I’d like to think that there’s a real big difference there. You know, that I’m really different from him based on all of the horrible things he does. But both Jassie and my best friend, Ryan, who after they saw the short description of Valmont, both said “Okay, so when do rehearsals start because this character is perfect for you.” So there are some very basic traits, as I was talking with some of the cast members and Jassie about, that we share. I do enjoy manipulating people. Now I do it in a way that’s very playful and over very miniscule things, not trying to get them into bedrooms or disastrous situations, more so just being a playful tease. I never once have juggled women the way Valmont does? So that was something I had to get used to and learn. I’m not really a Rico Suave kind of guy either. I’m a big dork, to be honest, and that’s usually how I charm my way into relationships.
Is that how you charmed your way into your marriage?
Nathan: Pretty much. She was the boss’ daughter, so I had her off-limits for the longest time, but I would feel free to tease her. She was a cheerleader in college when we met, and she would come in wrapped up from being sore and I would tease her. I would tell her “oh, that’s not a proper way to pick up guys.” And she hated me but loved me because she thought I was attractive.
I believe most people seeing the show would agree.
Nathan: It’s funny that you mention that. One of the reviews actually said I have “movie-star good looks” which the cast continually gives me a good ribbing over. But yeah, there was a lot of teasing with Jassie. It just happened that a friend of mine bailed on me for Michael Bublé tickets the day of the concert. So I needed somebody to go with me. She went, we hit it off, and that was October 10, 2008. We got married three years later— here’s a fun tie-in to how I worked with Valmont and his different lady characters. I worked with them the way that I do things, so I’m not somebody who is quick to love. I define love as something that is very strong definitively. Jassie, she told me she loved me early on in the relationship and my response was “thank you?” We have a saying that stems from that period because she would ask me if I would ever love her and I would say “All we have is hope.” That kind of became a Parry family mantra, and it was about five months after she said she loved me that I realized I loved her. We got engaged about a year and a half into the relationship and a year and a half later we were married. It was a long engagement and a long dating period because for me it was important that if I was going to get married and make that commitment I wanted to make sure that it was the commitment. She understood and she was along for the ride and still is.
And you think Valmont is similar in that way?
Nathan: Well, I based a lot of his interactions off those kind of experiences. He gives a little bit of himself to each of the women that he’s with, but the only one he’s ever loved is Tourvel. I’m taking that from my own beliefs. For me, love is something strong, something legit. He’s such a battered, broken character. And he has such an addiction— and that’s how I classify his relationship with Merteuil— he’s even willing to break off that love to get with Merteuil because of the addiction. It’s not a love for Merteuil. It’s this awful addiction, this want, this need— he can’t possibly resist her. He even says it in the play that he needs and wants and has to have her but it’s not love. And it’s just because she resists him so well that it’s a pull.
We talked about that, Melissa (actress Melissa McGinley, playing La Marquise de Merteuil) and I, that these characters have buttons that they push with each other that just gets them going. For Merteuil and Valmont it’s the fact that she does so well at moving away from him. No one resists Valmont. No one. Sebastian is irresistible. Even Tourvel, she resists for a while, but she’s creeping towards him. Whereas Merteuil is constantly moving away from him and that just drives him insane. It’s fun to play with that.
Can you describe each of the relationships that Valmont has with these four women as a flavor?
Nathan: As a flavor? Like a flavor of ice cream? Wow, that’s a good question. The name alone, Rocky Road might be a good one for Merteuil and Valmont just because of how their relationship is and the backstory that we developed for them. The history that we developed and we talked about for the two of them was that they got together, she thought she was barren but actually ends up getting pregnant by Valmont, has a miscarriage because she can’t have a kid with him— debatable about whether or not it was an intentional miscarriage or not— and of course he doesn’t know any of this, he has no clue. He’s actually delightfully oblivious in a lot of what he does because he’s just so centered on himself. But because he’s oblivious to all this, that’s why she schemes to ruin him, at least according to our backstory. All of that and then he turns around and does it to Cecile, which is certainly the final straw—
Didn’t Merteuil push him to do this to Cecile though?
Nathan: She pushed him to have a relation with her to corrupt her. She didn’t push him to— here come some spoilers— but she didn’t push him to rape her or impregnate her. That was never her intent.
So Rocky Road for Merteuil.
Nathan: Yeah. Rocky Road for Merteuil based on the name. We’ll do French Vanilla for Emilie. That relationship is what I refer to as his most honest. There’s no pretense. She’s a courtesan, he’s a good looking dude with money, and they know what they’re there for. It’s a friendship as much as it is anything else. There’s no scheming, there’s no gaming. It’s just legit “this is who you are, this is who I am, and this is why we’re here.” So I think French Vanilla, because of the ease of it, with a little flavor, is really fitting here.
Alright, French Vanilla for Emilie. What about Cecile?
Nathan: Cecile…let’s see that’s a playful relationship. There’s even a possible daddy-daughter thing going on there based off of his relations with her mom. Yeah, he slept with her mom, so there’s that very real possibility that Cecile could be his daughter. Again, not a good guy, this Valmont. With that relationship, it really is this cat playing with this little toy. He just loves purring up next to it and batting it around. At first it’s very forceful but then she gets into it, so what kind of flavor is that? She’s a strawberry shortcake, let’s go with that. It’s light, fluffy, playful, but there is that tartness to it and that works well with how we get into that.
Nathan: Ah Tourvel, oh goodness. I’m thinking of the words that I use to describe these relationships and intoxication came up. Seeing as I moved off of ice cream flavors with strawberry shortcake, I’m suddenly asking what alcohol would I use to describe Tourvel? Something vexing. Something that you’re drinking that you know you shouldn’t but you just keep going back to. You know you should avoid it but you can’t resist it because it takes you over and incapacitates you. Something with a bitter end would be fitting. I’m trying to think…Butterscotch Schnapps? No. Something…Crown Royale? I can go with that. It’s definitely smooth as it goes down, it has a bite, and it’s intoxicating. Crown Royale works.
There we go, a dessert, a couple ice cream flavors, and some booze. It’s funny because we had a conversation on our group Facebook page about what kind of alcohol or beverage would each of the characters be, and I was teasing Kay (actress Kay-Megan Washington, playing Madame de Volanges) that Volanges would be Boone’s Farm for Valmont. You know, she was fun when he was younger but as he got older he realized there was better to be had.
If Valmont had to have a signature drink, what would it be?
Nathan: I mean he drinks champagne during the show and I think that’s pretty fitting. He’s so full of himself so it’s got to be the highest dollar bottle you can find. He doesn’t need to showboat, he doesn’t need to peacock or anything like that but he does it just because he can. And he can flaunt it just because he does feel that he’s so much better than others. It’s not enough to just know that, he has to show that he’s an asshole.
You did mention that you had virtually no dance experience coming into this project, so what was the challenge with the dancing for you in this show?
Nathan: Kudos to the dance team, Melissa, J, Theresa (Choreographer Melissa McGinley, Dance Captain/Assistant Choreographer J. Purnell Hargrove, Assistant Choreographer Theresa Olson) for being real wonderful with that. I think I can be classified as an actor who can move now. The hardest part really for me was getting out of my head. They kept telling me, “you’re fine, you’re fine” but I wanted so bad for it to be good for it to be sexy that I couldn’t stop thinking about how the move was supposed to be executed or how is it supposed to look. I wanted it to look right. I’m a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to my work. Every time they would say “that’s good” I would say “No, no. I don’t want good, I want perfect.” Them walking me through the steps and trying to get me to realize that it was okay for it to just be ‘good’ while I was still learning it was a process. During our final week of rehearsal J started added little beats into the dances. He said that most people aren’t even going to see me do those little things but it does add a little something extra.
We actually had to cut dances from the show to help with the length. We took some of the elements that we really liked from dances that had to be cut and reworked them into other routines. We were changing choreography days before we opened. They wouldn’t have been able to do that if they hadn’t been confident in me? And I wouldn’t have been confident if it wasn’t for their belief in me. I was a mess. We’re trying to spin and do turns and all this other stuff— it was pretty crazy for a while.
You do a lot of lifts in the show.
Nathan: I told them, “Lifts I’m good with.” I’m a strong individual, they wanted to do lifts? I thought, “Great! I can do those!” Jeffrey (actor Jeffrey L. Springtree Gangwisch, playing Le Chevalier Danceny) he’s a beautiful man. I’m so glad they gave him all the real dancing parts because he does all the real moves the way real dancers do with the feet and the turns and stuff. “You go, Jeffrey, because you’re a beautiful man.” When it comes to dancing, I don’t feel like I’m that. Aside from the lifts. I’m built like an NFL Tight End, which is how Mike (Fight Choreographer Mike Martin) describes me, which means I’m good for lifting. All the ladies are so easy to lift. JQ (actress Jacqueline Chenault, playing Cecile) and Melissa are trained in dancing so I just get to pick them up and let them do their thing. It’s my job to help them look beautiful, they’re the ones doing all the work.
Did you have a favorite dance of all the different ones you do get to do?
Nathan: I have favorite moves within the dances. The one I probably feel is strongest is probably “Codeine” which is the one right after the rape. It’s such a powerful dance. JQ does such a wonderful job. That’s probably one of my favorite moves if not my absolute favorite when she runs by me and I just pluck her out of the air. The one we joke about being my favorite because I don’t have much to do in that one is “It Will Come Back” or what we the cast members refer to as “Valmont’s Wet Dream.” That’s the one with the four women dance all around me and I just lay on the floor? Yeah, that one’s great. But all the dances have different elements to them that are enjoyable.
“Terrified Director” is a move that we took from a number that was cut and have put into “Arsonist’s Lullaby” which is the opening dance number. That’s another favorite move. It’s where I splay my one arm out in front of me and the other out to the side and Melissa jumps on me and turns over. That one took some convincing for Erin to be okay with, hence the name, “Terrified Director.” When we first started rehearsing that move, Melissa was running at me from all the way across the other end of the stage and just plowing into me. It was my job just to stand stalwart and not let her go flying past.
So there are dance moves that I love, but as far as a particular dance as a whole that I look forward to do us doing every night I think I have to say it’s “Codeine” just based on how strong the emotion is in there. I don’t get to do a lot of the emotion there, it’s really all JQ, but that one I feel that the sense of the dance comes off very strong as well. From the moment she starts going through all her torments on the floor and then him entering and he’s not even predatory at that point, he’s returning for round two. It’s not until she scurries away from him and he walks off that he gets into that predatory mode and has this lustful feeling come over him.
I don’t know if you can see what I do in the corner there, I call it “total creep mode.” Erin and the others just shuddered when they saw me do it, but he walks over and he has his hand going up his face, he grabs his chin, and drags his hand back down, he ends up feeling up his crotch. Total creeper right there. But when he comes across the pole, he has this look and feeling of entitlement. He knows this game, he’s played this game before and he knows exactly what’s going to happen. It’s an awful dance. I’m glad I get a break right after that because it’s very emotionally taxing. That’s the part of Valmont that I really, really try to distance from for obvious reasons. JQ is a champ for doing 1;6, “Codeine”, and then immediately going on stage afterwards. Kudos to her for being a huge champ in that. I really like that one.
“Work Song” is a nice change of pace. That’s the one between Tourvel and Valmont. It has a similar vibe to how “Arsonist’s Lullaby” starts out where it’s sweet and it’s loving. Only this one keeps that feeling throughout whereas “Arsonist’s Lullaby” gets to the point where Merteuil and Valmont’s relationship breaks off. So we do have that tension wound in there. It’s nice to have those softer routines, again trying to find that softer side of Valmont. They’re all pretty good, I guess. “To Be Alone” which is the dance right after “War”, that’s toward the end— the passion in that one— it’s just so powerful. I do enjoy that one because of taking all that emotion from the end of 2;7 from the moment she says “War”, to be able to take all of that and have it come across well feels amazing.
Other than the dancing, what would you say has been your biggest challenge with this show?
Nathan: Learning the lines. I’ve never had a problem with learning lines as much as I have with this show. I was trying all these different ways to remember my lines because they were not sticking, so I recorded all of my lines onto my phone so I could just listen to them. If I were to read through it slowly, there’s over an hour’s worth of dialogue. So that might have something to do with the trouble I’ve been having. The way I normally learn lines is just heavy repetition. Don’t leave a scene until you feel good with it. We started doing that towards the end of the rehearsal process to accommodate me, whereas before we were accommodating everybody’s time a bit more naturally, so I’m very grateful they were willing to work with me on that. Everyone was very gracious and understanding as we were pulling into the finish line and I’m still struggling over lines. That was another thing I had to get out of my head, because I knew the lines were there, and I wanted to be perfect as we were starting to go “off-book.” As we were starting that process, I would just sit there on stage and look at whoever was across from me that I was supposed to be delivering lines to, and I knew there were lines there I was supposed to be saying, I could mentally see the script in front of me, but I just couldn’t get the words out. That was probably the roughest part.
The character work with all of the backstory building felt very organic. All the scene movements and everything was really easy to get into. He’s a very genuine character, and actually when I auditioned I thought he was going to be very on the surface. He’s this suave aristocrat who gets what he wants and the way the play is written you could very easily make him that. He’s the bad guy of the play. But I think the way we’ve approached him, it’s just so much more genuine. He is a bad character, he does bad things, but I want people to feel conflicted at the very end. Does he deserve what happens to him? Is he the bad guy? Or is Merteuil the bad person? Who’s really the more awful of the two? I think we do a good job with that.
What’s the moment that defines the show for Valmont? And is it different than the moment that defines the show for you?
Nathan: I think our most powerful scenes that we have— the three most powerful moments— are 1;6, which is the rape of Cecile. Then there’s 2;6, which is “it’s beyond my control” and 2;7, which is “war.” Those are our most powerful scenes from top to bottom. For Valmont, though, his defining moment of this is that time that you truly see him change, which is actually in 2;2. That’s when Tourvel surrenders. That’s where the barrier breaks down. I talked about this a little bit before with the buttons that they have that they push on each other, but the button between Tourvel and Valmont is the kiss on the forehead that she does. We worked hard to try and find something between them because he is such a sexual character, we needed to find something that none of the other women in his life would do and that was it. It was giving him that gentle kiss on the forehead, almost akin to what a mother would do to a kid. That’s what sparks some of his revelation. “Holy crap, this isn’t a game anymore, this is real.” He slowly softens up and his relationship changes.
He’s very much addicted to Merteuil, and he’s all over her, but then you see in 1;7, which is right after the rape scene, you see some of that initial shift. Merteuil is mad at him and he’s like “but why are you mad at me, I did exactly what you wanted me to do.” And then he starts talking about Tourvel. That’s where you start seeing the love, even if he doesn’t quite see it yet. He doesn’t see it or realize it until 2;2. That’s his defining moment. For me, I would say 2;6 and 2;7 combined— as an actor— are the ones that I look at as my strongest moments. Valmont has to be so repetitive with “beyond my control”. With Erin’s direction, I worked so hard with finding a different way to say that each time. Each time he says it, he’s killing himself. As much as he’s tearing down Tourvel with that phrase, he’s really breaking up two people’s lives there. Being able to get that out with the words, and his wanting to do nothing other than run up to her and hold her and explain that it isn’t what he wants to do— to fuel all of that into those four little words “it’s beyond my control” that’s powerful stuff.
And then to carry that over into 2;7 where he has that wonderful line, “on my honor” and you can tell it’s anything but. He is just completely eaten up about it because he has to win in this game over Merteuil. But then when Merteuil ends up laughing and pointing out that she’s won, he gets so furious and that pure rage that comes out over the fact that he knows he’s ruined Tourvel, and he knows that he’s not going to be able to get her back— the only person he’s ever loved that’s gone forever— it’s seriously intense. It was a fun rehearsal moment, actually, because we started with different blocking for that. Valmont was originally physically driving her back but it was very awkward with the way the stage is at Spots to get her there against the post comfortably and safely. So for safety reasons and the overall aesthetic, Erin asked me to come up with something that would make Merteuil be afraid of him. No one knew what was going to come out of me— not even me— up to that point and it was something that just terrified Merteuil when I found it.
What has taking on this role taught you about yourself as an actor and as a person?
Nathan: I’m a much better person than I would have given myself credit for. That goes back to “Team Dangerous” trusting me throughout the process, throughout these harder moments, through physically rough scenes like 1;6. For moments like 2;7 where Melissa can trust me, despite this horrific rage face and violent screaming that it’s still me under there. For Kathy (actress Katharine Vary, playing La Presidente de Tourvel) through her emotional breakdowns as Tourvel, to know that I’m always going to be there. It’s nice to know that I’m a genuinely good person to them.
As far as being an actor, it’s really good being able to play this kind of character that has that depth and really bring out those different elements and not be just one or two flavors of a character. It feels really good to flex those muscles. Because of my busy life, I don’t really get out to do theatre a lot. This will probably be the only show I get out for this year, Cuckoo’s Nest was the only show I did last year, I will probably only go out for one show next year. As much as I love it I have to balance my time as a husband, as a father, as a service member, and as Nathan. I have to balance all of that and this has been a lot of Nathan-time, so for the rest of this year I have to make sure I balance that out, especially with my family because they’re super important to me. But it’s nice to get out here and do something I really love at a place like Spots, which I obviously love and adore because I’ve come back two years in a row. I was actually looking at their next season wondering if they have a show I can do next year.
Why do you want people to come and see Les Liaisons Dangereuses?
Nathan: It’s not your typical look at this kind of show. Erin really did a good job with the production team to come up with something that’s unique. The dance elements play really nicely into fleshing out these characters. They are real characters. This isn’t just a fluff piece. You get to see genuine acting going on and go on this roller coaster. You get to feel love, feel heartbreak, feel some happiness as the characters go through different moments and meet different endings. I think just because it’s so rich, and it’s such a talented cast. This is probably the most talented cast I’ve ever been a part of, to the point of being intimidating at some points. I’ve been trying to step up my game to make sure that I don’t let them down with my performance. I would classify it as “can’t miss” theatre, but I may be a little biased. Overall it’s just a very good show.
Les Liaisons Dangereuses plays through June 19, 2016 at The Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre— 817 St. Paul Street in the historic Mount Vernon neighborhood of Baltimore City in Maryland. For tickets call the box office at (410) 752-1225 or purchase them online.
To read the review of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, click here.